• Jack Flaherty

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.