• Houston Astros

    Back Where It Started: Braves, Morton Reunite With One-Year Deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A dozen years is a long, long time. I’m reminded of that every time I look at my kids … or look in the mirror.

    How long is a dozen years? Let’s go back to 2008. Some dude (me) started a lonely little Braves blog called BravesToday.com. He thought it would be fun to write about the ballclub every day. He even opened an account on some weird, new social media site called Twitter to occasionally promote the blog.

    Timing is everything in life, and the timing wasn’t great in this instance. Those Braves lost 90 games, the first time an Atlanta team had dropped that many games since 1990, the year before the worst-to-first Miracle Braves kicked off the franchise’s magical run. The company who hosted the blog went bankrupt. That Twitter account got ignored for a year or two.

    There wasn’t a whole lot to write about in that summer of ‘08. Chipper Jones was hitting .400 in June and ended up winning the NL batting title at .364. Otherwise, it wasn’t much fun. But there were a couple of bright spots.

    One came on a Saturday in Anaheim in June, when one of the Braves projected future aces made his major-league debut by holding the Angels to three runs on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in six strong innings. 24-year-old Charlie Morton, who the club selected in the third round of the 2002 draft, threw 64 of his 104 pitches for strikes that night in besting future Brave legend Ervin Santana and pulling Atlanta within one game of .500 at 34-35.

    The rest of the story: not as fun. Morton gave up five runs or more four times in his other 14 starts, finishing 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA. By the following June, he was gone from the organization. The Braves finished 72-90, 20 games out of first place in the NL East. Their next playoff appearance was two years away.

    Now we hit the fast-forward button to today. The Braves and Morton have reunited, agreeing to a one-year, $15-million deal. It’s the second move in eight days Atlanta has made to add to a starting rotation that endured a death march of injuries and underperformance in 2020, following last week’s one-year, $11-million agreement with Drew Smyly.

    Smyly is a nice piece based on his short body of work down the stretch in 2019 for Philadelphia and seven appearances in 2020 for San Francisco.

    Morton is much, much more impactful.

    Charles in Charge: Charlie Morton won his first three postseason starts in 2020, including striking out six in 5 2/3 shutout innings in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to pitch the Rays to the World Series.

    After being dealt to Pittsburgh in the awful Nate McLouth deal in June 2009, Morton had surgeries on both hips with Tommy John surgery mixed in for good measure across the next five seasons. Once he finally got healthy, he shifted from pitching to contact (6.3 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio from 2008-2015) to relying on velocity.

    Since the start of 2017, Morton has a 10.6 strikeouts-per-nine rate, and owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 97 starts for the Astros and Rays, posting a 1.159 WHIP, 7.4 hits-per-nine innings and a 3.57 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. From his debut through 2016, Morton threw more than 145 innings twice. He’s surpassed that in each of his previous three full seasons (146 2/3 in 2017, 167 in 2018, 194 2/3 in 2019).

    It’s paid off in more ways than one. Morton closed out Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for Houston and in 12 postseason appearances since 2017 has posted a 3.40 ERA with a .644 OPS. He made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019, and signed a two-year, $30-million deal with Tampa Bay after the 2018 season.

    Now, a dozen years after those six innings in Anaheim, Morton returns to where it all began.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Waiting on a Familiar Foe as NLCS Approaches

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – A gray T-shirt caught my eye in the pile of laundry sitting by the washing machine Friday afternoon, one I hadn’t noticed in a while, one my kid wore this week.

    On it is emblazoned the logo of the final season at Turner Field, with the caption, “final game Oct. 2, 2016.” As I loaded the washer, I thought about Freddie Freeman’s words the day before, moments after the Atlanta Braves clinched its first berth in the NL Championship Series in 19 years. Freeman talked about how different things were now, the three-time NL East champion moving on to play for the pennant in its deepest October penetration since 2001.

    It’s been quite the ride the past few years. Indeed, Freddie, how far we’ve come.

    Five wins down and eight to go in this crazy, expanded postseason, capping a season that started with the real worry that we wouldn’t reach the finish line. But here it is, an October where the Braves are playing into the middle of the month, four little wins from the World Series.

    Those four little wins won’t come easy, of course. Make no mistake, the Dodgers are quite the jump in competition from the Reds or Marlins. That’s not to diminish either squad Atlanta vanquished, because they found a way to make the playoffs in this upside-down season.

    All 30 teams played in this environment; 16 of them got at least a taste of playoff baseball (more than I prefer under normal circumstances, but we can discuss this winter). Whichever teams wins this World Series title will have earned it in a way that no champion has before, and we hope with everything we have that no champion ever has to again. I’d say that if the Braves had cleaned out their lockers on Sept. 28. I’ll say that if the Dodgers, Rays or (puke) Astros lift what Rob Manfred affectionally calls, “a piece of metal.”

    The pandemic robbed my hometown of hosting the Final Four this spring, but baseball’s Final Four is set. A few random items to opine about as I watch Georgia pull away from Tennessee on this fine Saturday evening, some 48 hours or so before the Braves and Dodgers meet in Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Ah, The Dreaded Blue Menace: So we meet again, the first team I learned to loathe. In the words of Sophia from the Golden Girls TV show (Google it, kids), “picture it. Atlanta. 1982.” A 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre. A 2-19 stretch in late summer to tighten the old NL West between the upstart Braves and the defending world champions from L.A.

    The race ended on the final day of the season, the Braves losing in San Diego before Joe Morgan’s homer lifted the Giants over the Dodgers at Candlestick Park. That whole season was captured in a great documentary by TBS called, “It’s a Long Way to October,” which I watched during the early weeks of the lockdown. It’s worth your time, especially if early 80s baseball is before your time.

    Party Like It’s 1982: A clip from “It’s a Long Way to October,” from the final day of the 1982 regular season.

    Nine years later, the Braves trailed the Dodgers by 9 ½ games at the All-Star break before catching fire. You know the rest of the story: the Miracle Braves going from worst to first, beating out the Dodgers for the West crown before knocking out Pittsburgh in the NLCS to clinch their first World Series berth since coming to Atlanta. The division race ended with the Braves beating Houston on the final Saturday of the season, then famously gathering on the infield and watching on the big screen at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as the Giants (again!) knocked out the Dodgers to clinch the division title.

    The 1991 team is my favorite sports team of all time. I covered a week of spring training in 2006 for The Brunswick (Ga.) News, and I wrote a story on the 15-year anniversary of the 1991 team. Talking to Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, John Smoltz and Bobby Cox took me back to being an 18-year-old kid who watched every pitch of that pennant race. Of all the stories I wrote during my newspaper career, that’s one of my absolute favorites.

    The Miracle Season: The Atlanta Braves stunned the world by winning the NL pennant and reaching the World Series in 1991.

    Under Pressure: The Braves won their World Series title in 1995, four years after the 1991 team stunned the world. It snapped a 38-year drought for the franchise, or six years longer than the Dodgers current streak without a world title. Every time I see the replay of Kirk Gibson’s famous homer in Game 1 of the 1988 Series, my first thought is, “how have the Dodgers went this long without winning it all?”

    If there’s pressure based on expectations in the NLCS, it’s solely on Los Angeles. The Braves did what they needed to do: they made amends for last fall’s disaster against the Cardinals and won the NLDS, they snapped the playoff series losing streak, they’ve made it as far as they have in nearly two decades.

    The Dodgers? Not so much. World Series losses in 2017 and 2018, followed by a stunning NLDS upset by Washington a year ago. Pandemic and short season notwithstanding, the Dodgers are expected to win the pennant and the world championship. Just something to watch if the Braves win one or two of the first three games (which, not to give away too much, is absolutely critical to Atlanta’s pennant hopes).

    The Right Moves: There are times where Brian Snitker’s tactical decisions drive me crazy – the Patrick Weigel debut followed by Charlie Culberson on the mound this season is one example. With that said, I am a huge fan of the way he handles the clubhouse. There’s no denying his love for the organization, and him getting to manage in the World Series after 4 1/2 decades with the Braves would be amazing.

    There have been plenty of Braves who have enjoyed a fantastic postseason. Snitker’s name belongs right at the top of the list. He’s been aggressive with his bullpen and stuck with a lineup that’s done enough to get Atlanta through two rounds. I’d say if the Braves win the World Series he would retire, but I honestly think Snit enjoys this bunch so much, he’d come back even if he and his team win a ring.

    That Ring, It’s the Thing: Look how that previous sentence ended.

    Win a ring.

    That’s why teams play, to win the World Series. These Braves are eight wins away, the closest they’ve been since 2001.

    Can you believe it? Absolutely.

    Can they take the next step? Stay tuned.

    Coming Sunday: Five keys to the Braves/Dodgers series, who wins and why.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    NLDS Preview: Braves Winning Playoff Series Will Pay Dividends Now and In the Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Marcell Ozuna paused halfway down the first-base line, raised his left arm in the air and clicked his now-famous faux selfie. In the background, his teammates in the Atlanta Braves dugout began celebrating in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 5-0 victory over Cincinnati, as the Braves clinched the best-of-three NL Wild Card series in a two-game sweep.

    By now you’ve seen the picture that signified the moment for many fans that Atlanta safely was on its way into the next round of the NL postseason. And they were right, the Braves shedding the baggage of playoff futility the franchise had lugged around for 19 years with consecutive shutout victories to earn a trip to the NL Division Series against Miami in Houston.

    Strike a Pose: MLB Network breaks down Marcell Ozuna’s selfie in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati.

    A bit of irony in Atlanta’s home for the next week: the last time Atlanta advanced in the postseason was 2001 with a three-game sweep of the NLDS over the Astros (then residents of the NL) – the first two victories coming at what is now known as Minute Maid Park. And while it’s true nobody on this year’s roster played in that clinching game so long ago, there remains plenty of significance in the Braves moving on in the bracket that goes beyond this expanded 2020 playoffs.

    At some point in time, the Braves had to learn how to finish off an opponent in October to reach their ultimate goal of winning the World Series. It sounds like such a common-sense, “well, duh” statement, but it’s true. And beating a team in a three-game series in June and ending someone’s season in the 10th month of the year are two totally different things. The playoffs and regular season are two different beasts altogether. Ask any player who has been to the postseason. Ask any fan who has attended a postseason game, even though this year’s version has been played with no fans in attendance.

    It’s just different.

    They might not admit it publicly, but it’s safe to assume the Braves have thought about the nightmare of last season’s NLDS choke against the Cardinals for nearly a full calendar year. Game 1 of the Marlins series is Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Atlanta’s stunning Game 3 victory at St. Louis that put the Braves up 2-1 in the series. Poised to end the playoff drought at 18 years, the Braves instead squandered tons of opportunities in Game 4 before being flattened by a first-inning freight train in Game 5.

    There certainly have been outliers in this unimaginable season, but push that aside for a minute. The Braves now have taken a necessary next step. Manager Brian Snitker talked postgame Thursday about how his team had “checked a box” by knocking out the Reds, but it’s also true his team checked a box for itself by just winning a series.

    Now it’s on to Houston to face the Marlins (just as we all drew it up in February). A victory in the NLDS will push Atlanta into the NL championship series for the first time since 2001, and move it just four victories from its first World Series berth since 1999. Let’s not jump too far ahead of ourselves. The Marlins did manage to beat the Braves four times in 10 tries this season, and either the vaunted Dodgers or the emergent Padres will await if Atlanta beats its NL East brethren.

    Next Up: Braves reliever Will Smith, manager Brian Snitker, and reliever Josh Tomlin talk about this week’s NL Division Series against Miami in Houston.

    All championship teams experience watershed moments en route to the summit. The Braves crashed the postseason party two autumns ago – earlier than most of us expected – and received their playoff baptism in a series loss to the far-superior Dodgers. Last year’s defeat stung far, far worse, given how it happened. But credit Atlanta for finding a way to punch its ticket at least once this October.

    These Braves now know what it’s like to be the one advancing after a playoff series, and not cleaning out their lockers.

    It’s an experience they hope to replicate this week, and in autumns to come.

    Coming Monday: Five keys to the Braves/Marlins series, who wins and why.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    It Will Be Weird, But Embrace It As Baseball Plans Its Return

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I was awake at midnight on March 11 as my 47th birthday began. Before heading to bed, I tweeted a clip of Tom Glavine in his No. 47 jersey. Twenty-one hours later, sports started shutting down. Not exactly the way I envisioned kicking off my next trip around the sun.

    It’s been 3 ½ months we never will forget, folks, and it hasn’t been easy for any of us. But Tuesday’s news that Major League Baseball plans to start its season July 23 or July 24 seems to have lifted the mood for quite a few people. I mean, I saw Braves lineup debates on social media today. I never thought I’d be so happy to see the Nick Markakis arguments return to my timeline.

    Sixty games, a July 1 spring training opening (“summer training?”), universal DH, no games with the Central or West, no fans in the stands, no tailgate parties, no spitting, no arguing – I can’t wait for Angel Hernandez to do his usual stellar work.

    Is it ideal? Of course not! A 60-game season would be unacceptable if it was a by-product of a lockout or strike. It’s a national emergency that shelved the sport in mid-March, and while we can argue the semantics of what’s happened between the league and players’ union the past four weeks, we’ll leave that topic for another day (because we may be writing about that – a lot – in the months and years to come).

    So cast aside any ill feelings labor-wise, at least for the short term. Buckle up and embrace the madness! After months of so much pain and sadness and despair and grief and hurt and anger, we have at least one bright light to help lift those of us who love baseball.

    Our game is coming back. Let’s go:

    Depth in Numbers: It’s going to be a frantic sprint from first pitch to October like the sport’s never seen. Gone is the marathon mentality. The teams possessing depth, especially pitching, are poised to do well in that setup. The Braves certainly are one of those teams. Starters are not going to be pitching deep into games, at least not initially, and the combination of Atlanta’s depth in starting pitching and a loaded bullpen could launch the Braves to a fast start. Speaking of which …

    Gotta Go Out of the Gate: There is zero room for a slow start for anybody who envisions reaching the postseason. There won’t be Washington going from a 19-31 start to lifting the trophy (not going to lie; that still stings to type). With only 37 percent of a full season being played, a 3-11 start effectively buries you. Conversely, an eight-game winning streak might clinch you a playoff spot. It will be fascinating to see if a playoff contender stumbles. What if somehow a team like the A’s or Astros or Cardinals dropped eight of their first 10?

    Don’t Sweat the Numbers: Chipper Jones hit .419 through the first 60 games of the 2008 season. I was writing for a defunct blog chronicling the season – Chipper literally was the lone reason I didn’t lose my mind writing every night about Atlanta’s first 90-loss team since 1990. If Mike Trout hits .407 through 60 games, that’d be cool. But I don’t think anybody is going to consider it on par with Ted Williams hitting .406 in 1941, even though Trout one day will join Teddy Ballgame in Cooperstown. And if some random journeyman has the 60-game stretch of his life and hits .400? Just embrace it and laugh. Nobody’s going to consider it legit.

    Don’t Sweat the Numbers, Part II: Imagine how many wins will lead the league? With starters likely not going five innings for maybe the first 20 games of the season (33 percent of the season!), if somebody wins six games, does that get it done? What about a vulture reliever who picks off eight wins in relief? Does he win the Cy Young? I know many don’t care about the win statistic for pitchers. That’s not the point. The weirdness of all this is. Speaking of which …

    Don’t Sweat the Awards: Let’s say that aforementioned journeyman does hit .400. Great! Give him the MVP trophy. Somebody with a 4.87 career ERA makes 11 starts and throws up a 1.24 ERA? Give him the Cy Young. See, we all know it’s weird. We all know it’s an outlier. So don’t get too worked up about it. A season like this has never happened before. I pray we never see another one like it. But it’s going to happen, so why not just enjoy the ride?

    The Ring Still is the Thing: So much of what we’re going to see is going to make us laugh, shake our head, maybe irritate us a little bit. Whether the season is 60 games, or around 110 games, or 144 games, it’s an environment of a particular season (games for 2020, 1981, and 1995 in order). But when this unprecedented season ends, the playoff format remains the same: 10 teams, three rounds, two wild-card games, one trophy to win. And whoever wins is a legit champion in my opinion. Can’t win it all if you don’t get there and then play your best in October.

    Baseball in 2020 is going to be weird. It’s going to be choppy at times. It’s going to be quiet with empty stadiums. And yes, we understand it could come to a screeching halt if the virus cannot be handled. That remains the most important thing in all of this, and until we have a vaccine, the virus is in control. But I’ll stay hopeful. And now, we have dates and a plan, so let’s go.

    Welcome back, old friend.

    Play ball.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Keuchel Debut Leaves Strong First Impression

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ROME, Ga. – About 25 minutes before 7 p.m. Monday, Logan Brown walked out of the Rome Braves clubhouse, took the field near the left-field corner at State Mutual Stadium, and spent a few moments crouched along the foul line some 30 feet shy of the warning track. The 22-year-old Single-A catcher certainly goes through this routine on a regular basis, wearing uniform No. 99, collecting his thoughts in the moments before that night’s starting pitcher emerges from the locker room.

    But this was no ordinary night for the 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft. He would be on the receiving end of a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, upon whom the eyes of a championship-starved fanbase would hang upon every pitch, every moment. This was not your typical Monday night in the South Atlantic League.

    Then again, it’s not every day somebody like Dallas Keuchel rolls through this Northwest Georgia town.

    Keuchel, four days removed from inking a one-year, $13-million deal with the Atlanta Braves, emerged a few minutes later, wearing his customary No. 60. As a near-capacity crowd filed in for the series opener against the Charleston River Dogs, one of the free-agent market’s biggest fish made his Braves organization debut on a humid, yet pleasant night. The rains that washed away Keuchel’s scheduled debut Saturday at Triple-A Gwinnett had disappeared, and for the first time since last season’s American League championship series with Houston, the 31-year-old pitched in a competitive contest.

    The results: Predictable, yet impressive.

    Keuchel allowed just one hit across seven strong innings, walking one hitter, striking out nine, and leaving a 0-0 game after throwing 55 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Yes, a veteran of 183 major-league starts with 51 2/3 innings pitched in the postseason figures to fare well against a lineup comprised mostly of players drafted in 2017 and 2018. And the stuff did overwhelm at times.

    But what really stood out to me was just how crisp Keuchel was in his first game action in 237 days.

    Keuchel was efficient. He got 10 ground-ball outs. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter – a seven-pitch walk to Canaan Smith with one out in the seventh. He induced plenty of weak contact. He threw 10 pitches or fewer in each of the first six innings. His rhythm on this night was akin to sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, waving at folks creeping by on the dirt road out front. Nice and relaxed and smooth. Easy, breezy.

    There were plenty of swings and misses, sure. And that was to be expected. But Keuchel dotted both sides of the plate with an impressive frequency given the layoff. The breaking stuff was heavy, low in the zone, hard to square up. He spent plenty of time the past two months throwing simulated games, but nothing simulates taking the field for an actual contest. Would he struggle with command? How would he handle working in and out of situations?

    Keuchel showed it from the onset, getting Brandon Lockridge to roll over a breaking ball and hit a harmless three-hopper in front of the pitcher’s mound on the game’s third pitch. Lockridge stumbled coming out of the batter’s box. It would be clear on this night, there would be no stumbles from Atlanta’s newly minted rotation linchpin.

    In the second, Keuchel gave up a one-out single to Max Burt, which was a good thing in that it gave him a chance to work out of the stretch. He induced a force out on a grounder to second and a three-pitch strikeout. He struck out six over the next four innings, the only ball hit in the air in that span a deep flyout from Anthony Seigler, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft who hails from Cartersville, Ga. – which I drove through en route to Rome.

    Keuchel needed 17 pitches to get through the seventh, rallying from a 2-0 count to strike out Seigler leading off the frame, and after walking Smith, getting a deep fly ball for the second out and a rolled-over grounder to short to end the inning and his night.

    The question now is what’s next? Keuchel’s next turn would come Saturday. There is no need for him to pitch again for Rome. Gwinnett is on the road at Syracuse this weekend; big-league teams want their big-league talent pitching at home when getting tuned up in the minors. Double-A Mississippi is home with Mobile, however. Certainly, a big part of determining the next step is how does Keuchel feel when he wakes up Tuesday, when he wakes up Wednesday.

    Throwing to hitters in a simulated game is one thing. Pitching against an opposing lineup – even in Northwest Georgia on a Monday night in June – is something different. Conventional wisdom dictates Keuchel will get one more start in the minors before making his Atlanta debut. Braves manager Brian Snitker said as much before Monday’s 13-7 victory over Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park.

    But allow me to close with this thought, one that certainly is being mulled over by Braves fans near and far as Monday night approaches Tuesday morning. Kevin Gausman could not escape the third inning in Atlanta’s series opener against the Pirates, making it three awful outings in a row for the right-hander. The Braves will awaken Tuesday morning tied for first place in the NL East, having pulled even with Philadelphia following their 19th victory in the past 28 games and the Phillies’ 13-8 home loss Monday to Arizona.

    Guess who visits the capital city of the Peach State this weekend? The aforementioned Phillies, who dismantled the Braves in the first three games of the season in Eastern Pennsylvania the final weekend of March. Gausman’s next turn in the rotation? Saturday, a 7:20 p.m. first pitch against those Phillies at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75.

    Facing Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins is far different from facing a Sally-League lineup, yes. But you can’t help but think that Braves fans aren’t the only ones at least wondering about a Keuchel debut start for the Braves coming under the Saturday night lights with the NL East race squarely in focus.

    Whether it happens or not, Keuchel will be here soon.

    And after his performance Monday, we can’t wait.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.

    Not the ‘K’ Pitcher Many Wanted, But Keuchel May Be Just What Braves Need

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – With every moment that followed the Craig Kimbrel signing with the Cubs on Wednesday evening, coupled with every pitch Kevin Gausman delivered that was drilled into the Pittsburgh night, the Atlanta Braves fanbase reached critical mass, imploring general manager Alex Anthopoulos to do something.

    Some 24 hours later, after an offseason devoid of a major move to upgrade the pitching staff and the corresponding months of – mostly well deserved – criticism, Braves Country can unclench its teeth.

    You have your brand new arm.

    The Braves reportedly agreed to terms Thursday night with free-agent starter Dallas Keuchel on a one-year, $13 million deal, hours after Atlanta dropped their series final at Pittsburgh to fall two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. Braves beat writer David O’Brien of The Athleticconfirmed the news on Twitter this evening, hours after MLB.com national writer Mark Feinsand categorized the Braves as favorites for the former Houston Astros ace and Cy Young winner.

    This space typically shies away from instant reaction to breaking news, preferring more of the deeper, contextual analysis, storytelling and prose. We’re not where to come for the latest headlines. However, given the depth of the Braves fanbase’s angst over the state of the pitching staff and the obsessive pursuit in many fans’ minds for either Keuchel or Kimbrel – two pitchers united by the first letter of their last name, and the fact they remained unsigned until after this week’s MLB Draft – let’s look at what the Braves hope they are getting and what it means for the defending NL East champs.

    Keuchel, who turned 31 on New Year’s Day, is a two-time All-Star honoree who won the 2015 AL Cy Young, a four-time AL Gold Glove winner and, most importantly to Anthopoulos and Co., has averaged 216 innings pitched per 162 games during his seven-year career. He helped lift Houston to the 2017 World Series championship, going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in 23 starts that season, and in his career is 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 postseason appearances.

    The Astros elected to not resign the left-hander, who they selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of Arkansas. Truth be told, Keuchel wasn’t as dominant in 2018 – giving up a major-league high 211 hits – but he made 34 starts, won 12 games, and posted a solid FIP (3.69), WHIP (1.314) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.64).

    Keuchel’s calling card is his ability to generate ground balls, and while his 2018 rate of 53.7 percent was a drop-off from his ridiculous 66.8 percent ground-ball rate in 2017, that’s the type of pitcher who should thrive pitching in front of a solid infield defense – and Atlanta’s is stellar.

    Still, draft-pick compensation (Houston extended a qualifying offer to Keuchel after last season, which he declined), plus his demands of a large multi-year deal scared off all suitors throughout the offseason and through the first three months of the regular season.

    In a familiar refrain for several Braves pitchers past and present, Keuchel’s first inning often is his shakiest. He posted a 6.88 ERA in the opening frame last season, a number that drops below 2.66 in innings two through four. The fact he made 34 starts a season ago and, according to his agent – the always outspoken Scott Boras – reportedly could be ready to make a major-league start in a week, makes one think the ramp-up time needed to get to the majors will be quick. Reportedly, Keuchel will start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday, one day after a schedule physical in Atlanta.

    Keuchel’s arrival spells the end of Gausman’s tenure in the rotation. Acquired at the trade deadline last summer from Baltimore, the right-hander missed time in spring training with right shoulder soreness and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. He gave up five earned runs in each of his final two starts in April, and his last two outings have been just awful: a combined 15 runs on 20 hits in six innings in losses to the Nationals and Pirates. It became clear after Wednesday’s latest mess that Atlanta no longer could retain a steady state in its rotation.

    Enter Keuchel.

    The deal could prove very beneficial for both sides. Keuchel gets a chance to show what he’s worth on a short-term deal, for a team that’s in contention for a playoff spot. He is reunited with Braves catcher Brian McCann, who has caught 30 of Keuchel’s 183 career starts (3.49 ERA, .240 opponents batting average). The Braves now have a veteran innings eater with playoff experience to guide a young staff, one that has been led by two outstanding yet inexperienced hurlers in Mike Soroka and Max Fried.

    Off the field, it shows the Braves indeed have the ability to add, a horse beaten into oblivion a million times over by fans and the national media. The $13 million price tag isn’t exorbitant by any stretch of the imagination, and Atlanta now has a key addition to its rotation. The focus moving toward the trade deadline can be solely on the bullpen if Atlanta chooses such, with the potential to also pursue an additional starting arm should the right deal with a reliever present itself.

    Seeing Kimbrel sign with the Cubs while Gausman circled the drain once again almost was too much for Braves fans to bear. One fan I chatted with at Atlanta’s Triple-A affiliate’s game Thursday told me she ignored her phone once the Kimbrel news broke, and joked she would take her Braves Kimbrel shirtsey, buy a Cubs Kimbrel one, and stitch them together.

    There is no need to stich together anything for the rotation now. Atlanta landed its starter. It’s up to Keuchel to validate the over-the-top patience he and his camp showed the past eight months, and that the Braves exhibited in waiting to bolster their staff.

    If it pays off, it will be the absolute perfect move. Atlanta has placed its bet on the pitcher whose last name starts with K, and it’s the one who will start games, not finish them.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    Braves Drawing Attention from Near and Far

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    AUSTIN, Texas – There are moments when, in the midst of transitioning from rebuilding to contending, something happens that illustrates the shift in fortunes is grabbing attention.

    For me, it occurred some 965 miles west of SunTrust Park earlier this week.

    On a business trip to Austin, I strolled into the lounge at my hotel Monday night after arriving a few hours earlier. Relieved of deadline and work activities on arrival day, I grabbed a seat at the bar and looked forward to some quiet time while watching the NCAA Super Regionals. I ordered dinner and a beverage, and upon delivering my food, the bartender noticed my Braves shirt and hat.

    “You have one heckuva baseball team there,” he said, which sparked a conversation that lasted more than an hour. In that time, between bites of food and sips of Austin amber brew – which, for the record, really is good – I learned from the bartender and a couple of waiters that while they still are riding the emotional wave of the Astros winning the World Series, they recognize what’s happening in North Georgia.

    The bartender, who appeared to be around my age, kept referencing the big arms that defined the Braves for the better part of two decades – Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Neagle, Millwood. But the difference is those references to yesteryear began to intertwine with comparisons to the present day.

    Foltynewicz. Newcomb. Soroka, Nearly 1,000 miles away from home, these folks rolled those names off the tip of their tongue at every opportunity.

    What to take from that conversation while bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Intercontinental in downtown Austin?

    It shows just how far the Braves already have come.

    In the words of the older bartender – who obviously knows his stuff about ball, from mentioning Jeff Blauser to Charlie Leibrandt to, gasp, Dion James and Damaso Garcia – he’s watched the Braves a few times this season and summarized, “this team is about to burst through and ascend toward the top of the majors.”

    Walking out of SunTrust Park late Sunday afternoon – six days after that conversation – the Braves only had added more validation to this phenomenal surge. Atlanta wrapped up a 5-1 homestand by downing the Padres 4-1, as Julio Teheran returned from the disabled list with six no-hit innings.

    Here are the Braves, 13 games above .500 for the first time in five seasons, leaders of the National League East by 3 ½ games. Sample size bias? Nah, not now. Atlanta has played 71 games, nearly 44 percent of its schedule, and it sits on a 95-win pace with a favorable schedule.

    Back to Austin a few days ago. There were conversation tracks focused on Ozzie Albies, on Freddie Freeman, on Dansby Swanson and on Ronald Acuna. But the talking points kept coming back to pitching. And can you blame them? These folks watched Houston’s dominant rotation pave the way to a world title last fall that brought so much joy to this part of the world.

    To step away from the biased viewpoint of tweets and text messages, to hear folks I never had met before and may never meet again, hit on the same observations, leads me to realize that what the Braves are doing is resonating far beyond the borders of Braves Country. In this part of the world, the Astros endured a miserable rebuild that featured three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses and finishes in the division of 40-plus games out of first.

    Houston’s win total jumped from 51 games in 2013 to 70 games in 2014, to 86 and 84 the following two seasons, then 101 wins and the world championship in 2017. A dynamic pitching staff with young star power aplenty has the Astros poised to compete deep into autumn for years to go.

    But they’re not the only team following such a blueprint. There’s another team, one based in Georgia’s capital city, that is on the rise. And people far from SunTrust Park are starting to take notice.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    A Reality Check, But Not A Wet Blanket After 24 Hours in Boston

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – So the last time the Atlanta Braves graced SunTrust Park, I was unable to see them play in person. One game I had tickets for was washed away by rain, and the other game which I was slated to see in person instead was spent in my Braves room, cheering like crazy for my favorite NHL team in an elimination playoff game.

    Alas, the Winnipeg Jets – perhaps you remember them as the Atlanta Thrashers (and yes, there still are four guys on the active roster who skated in those beautiful baby blue unis at Philips Arena once upon a time; one of them, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, sported a Braves cap during press interviews and hereby has earned a standing invite from me to visit SunTrust Park) – fell short last Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. While the final seconds ticked away on the Jets season and the tears welled up in my eyes, at the same time the Braves were authoring a comeback for the ages, scoring six times in the bottom of the ninth inning to upend the Miami Marlins and put yet another brushstroke on two months of absolute greatness.

    That unfathomable 10-9 victory bolstered Braves County in a way we have not seen in these parts since the 2013 squad rolled to 96 victories, a division title and the last playoff appearance this fan base has experienced. Four miserable seasons followed, with fan favorites traded for kids barely old enough to shave and two different front offices telling us to be patient.

    There is no denying the Braves are baseball’s biggest surprise through the first eight weeks of 2018. At or near the top of the National League East most of the way with equal parts veterans playing well and brash young rookies announcing their presence. The crazy comeback against Miami felt storybook in every sense of the word, and the national media began locked in on this team in advance of this week’s road trip to NL East rival Philadelphia and AL powerhouse Boston.

    So here we sit in the fading hours of Saturday night. There is no hockey until Monday. The Jets have cleaned out their lockers. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Many of us have spent time today grilling out, squeezing what few dry hours remain before Tropical Storm Alberto nails the Southeastern U.S. with tons of rain and wind. The Rockets and Warriors just concluded a NBA playoff game on my big screen.

    And I could not care less, because I sit at my laptop conflicted.

    The Braves dropped two games in Philadelphia, which is OK. After all, Atlanta won the first three series against the Phillies before this week’s meeting. These two teams won’t meet again until Sept. 20, only from that point to play seven times in the season’s final 11 days.

    Geez, unbalanced schedule, thanks for that. Not like we’re in the same division or anything.

    But I digress. After the visit to Philly, the Braves headed to Boston, which is where this franchise’s story began some 142 years ago. Arriving in Beantown, Atlanta found itself squared up with the Red Sox, one of baseball’s gold standard franchises, one of the three American League teams (along with the Astros and Yankees) that many feel will emerge in early November as champions.

    Talk about a measuring stick as we close in on completing the first third of the marathon that is a baseball season. This young and emerging team, against one of the few established powers.

    In a span of 24 hours covering Friday night through Saturday afternoon, the Braves dropped two games. In that timeframe, we saw just how far this franchise has come, and how much further it has to go.

    Look at both games through two different viewpoints, if you will:

    On one hand, Atlanta had ample opportunities to win both games. The Braves left a multitude of runners on base in Friday’s series opener. The starting pitching could not hold the line. The bullpen wasn’t much better. The bullpen management was abysmal.

    You want specifics? How in the world can you have a failed starter just recalled from Triple-A face the frontrunner for AL MVP in a one-run game? That’s on Brian Snitker, folks, plain and simple.

    Let’s go to Saturday, which may be the most agonizing game any of us have watched this season – and yes, I’m including the “weather-n-walk” disaster in Chicago in that discussion. The middle game of this series drug on like a bad early-morning conference call with that one person who keeps butting in mid-sentence to say, “sorry, I was on mute!”

    And yet, Atlanta had multiple chances to seize control of both games. It did not happen, and as of this moment when my fingers are hitting the keyboard late on a Saturday night, the Braves no longer reside in first place in the NL East. That honor belongs to those Phillies, albeit by a scant ½ game.

    There are two talk-tracks that have emerged from the past two games:

    One, is the Braves are not ready for this level of play. They ran up against one of the game’s best teams and they could not handle the pressure, could not handle playing in Fenway – let’s face it, were the Braves to somehow win the pennant and reach the World Series, odds are they would have to deal with a venue like this, be it in Boston, Houston or the Bronx – and could not answer the counter punches from one of the top squads in MLB.

    One, is the Braves needed this. They have rolled through the NL, found success in their division, sport a favorable run differential and have been swashbucklers on the road. They needed to see how the penthouse teams live, how they thrive, how they take every little mistake you make and bury you for it, and this will serve their development well. This is a good teachable moment that will help this bunch moving forward more than any of us right now can grasp.

    Want to know my take?

    Both are true.

    Is Atlanta ready to face a team like Boston in a seven-game series in the 10th month of the season, with the bunting on the railings and all the media and all the cameras and a billion people worldwide watching and that trophy with 30 gold pennants on it? Probably not. And that’s OK. Do I dream about it? Absolutely! I’ve been there. These two aging blue eyes saw the trophy with the pointy pennants brought onto our home field, albeit on the wobbly (read: drunk) head of Ted Turner, and paraded on top of a fire truck through the streets of my hometown.

    Is this weekend a good measuring stick and a good barometer for this team that hasn’t played for anything meaningful the past 55 months, when the bullpen door in Los Angeles remained locked for reasons none of us ever will freaking understand? Yes, certainly. We are 50 games into this season that has engaged us so much. Yes, it is disappointing to lose the first two and be left with resorting to salvaging the finale, but would any of you not sign up for this back in February if you had a crystal ball and realized Atlanta arrived the day before Memorial Day with a 29-21 record?

    There are challenges afoot, for sure, and questions to answer and holes to fill. And yes, the schedule does not get easier, not with a doubleheader at home on Monday with the Mets (if Tropical Storm Alberto allows such festivities to commence) and the always-dangerous Nationals in town after that, followed by the usual west-coast roadtrip that includes three with the defending NL champion Dodgers.

    Many of us longtime fans used to bemoan that early June swing out west, that back in the day would constitute trips to San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I always called it the “June Swoon Trip,” the one that let me know it was time to look forward to Falcons or Hawks or Dawgs season because the Braves would arrive back home buried in the old NL West.

    I certainly don’t see that happening this season. This team figures to be relevant deep into summer. The fits and starts in the Northeast this weekend only help fuel the development of this fun, exciting and intriguing team, as we continue shifting from rebuilder to contender.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.