• Jake Arrieta

    2018 Rewind: A Season For The Ages

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Proximity often blurs perspective. Something great happens, you celebrate like mad, then as the annuals of time tick by and the years slide off the calendar, you gain a refined look.

    This is an exercise that came about for me while perusing Twitter the other night, as I spoke of memorable moments these older eyes of blue have witnessed across a variety of sports, throughout a variety of decades. The timing certainly was appropriate, given I write this with 25 or so hours before we say bon voyage to 2018 and welcome 2019 with the hopes, dreams, goals and desire each fresh set of 365 days brings.

    Being in the moment – or just barely removed from it – does not offer the same view you obtain via the passage of time. But 2018 was an amazing year for me as a sports fan. I crafted a top 10 list spanning the start of me watching sports in person in the late 1970s through today, and three events from this season actually made the list.

    The Braves were the surprise story of 2018, following another 90-loss campaign with 90 wins and an NL East pennant.

    In March, I drove to Nashville with my best friend since middle school to watch my alma mater (Georgia State) play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Three weeks ago, I wept for joy next to my 16-year-old son inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Atlanta United celebrated winning MLS Cup – the first major pro sports championship in this city since this same old dude watched the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series, in a stadium that now is … a parking lot for said alma mater’s football stadium.

    Sports has a way of connecting the dots, connecting the generations, connecting the masses. It truly is just an awesome experience. Whether I had a ticket in my pocket or a press pass dangling around my neck, the thrill of it all never gets old. This year, I was beyond blessed to attend 35 Braves games, including an opening day thriller, a walk-off bunt, a division clincher and two playoff games.

    I present to you the top 10 moments I witnessed in person this season, a campaign that expired just 84 days ago, but already resonates so deeply with Braves Country that it stands among the most memorable in the long and storied history of this franchise:

    10. Homestand-Closing Win And The Impossible Happened: The Braves began the season with a six-game homestand against two teams many picked to finish ahead of Atlanta – sexy-preseason selection Philadelphia and perennial-division power Washington. April 4 dawned with the Braves at 3-2 but staring at a daunting road trip – a three-city, nine-game, early-April swing through three cities (Denver, Washington, Chicago) that simply is inexcusable for any team to have that time of year. Plus, Max Scherzer toed the rubber for the Nationals while Atlanta sent Mike Foltynewicz to the mound.

    It was a mismatch from the start. A first-inning error on Washington second baseman Wilmer Difo extended the inning, Preston Tucker continued his scalding-hot start with a three-run homer in the inning, and Foltynewicz bested the future Hall of Famer and added the shocker of all shockers: a two-run double by the – shall we say, light-hitting pitcher – over a shallow-playing outfield in the fourth inning as the Braves won 7-1. It marked my nephew’s first visit to SunTrust Park, and my two sons’ first game of this memorable season.

    As an aside, the oldest kid called Tucker’s dinger. As an aside, he hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

    9. Through The Chill, Promise Of Hot Times Ahead: Actually, my oldest son got in a game before the aforementioned victory over Washington and his since never-ending prognostication. Atlanta played an exhibition game against a team of top prospects two days before the season opener. The weather was raw, drizzly and cold, but Mike Soroka started, Kolby Allard pitched, Cristian Pache belted his first two homers as a professional and Austin Riley nearly killed us with a scathing line drive just foul near the left-field pole.

    Oh, and some kid recorded a base hit that registered an exit velocity of 115 mph. Some dude named Acuña.

    8. The Home Debut Of The Phenom: The heralded promotion of 20-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. came after the Braves had dropped the first two games of a four-game set in Cincinnati in late April. After going 1-for-5 in his big-league debut, he slammed an upper-deck tank job the next afternoon.

    Eight days later, in his first home game against the Giants, Acuña went 0-for-4 from the two-spot in the lineup in a 9-4 defeat.

    One of the coolest things of my year happened pregame. With both my sons in attendance, we were able to meet up with Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun. What does that have to do with baseball, one may ask? One, Ken covers the Winnipeg Jets, who once upon a time were the Atlanta Thrashers, and I’ve kept cheering for the boys even after relocation. Two, Ken is a huge baseball guy who loves to visit stadiums. An off day in the Jets/Predators Western Conference semifinals gave him an opportunity to attend the game, and it was absolutely awesome to talk hockey with one of the best scribes covering the NHL.

    7. Charlie Clutch, Part Deux: Charlie Culberson etched his name all over the 2018 story and, in many ways, embodied this team. Born in Rome, raised in Calhoun, nearly an MVP in the previous season’s NLCS for the Dodgers, Culberson was a throw-in piece of the Matt Kemp contract-salary dump deal in December 2017. But after a slow start, Culberson began performing the heroics that have placed his name in Braves lore forever.

    Atlanta opened a homestand on Memorial Day against the Mets with a doubleheader, and Culberson provided a two-run walkoff homer in a 5-4 triumph in the first game. Six days later, Culberson walked to home plate in the ninth inning of the homestand finale against the Nationals, the game tied at 2, and blasted a Tanner Roark pitch into the seats to lift Atlanta to a 4-2 victory.

    I posted a picture on Instagram of Culberson arriving at home plate with the simple caption: “THIS TEAM!!!” That moment was the first time, 59 games into this magically developing season, when I first thought to myself that team just might contend.

    6. Walk It Out … With A Bunt: I often have folks ask how many baseball games I’ve attended in my life. Well, counting 40 years of going to Braves games, a decade-plus covering baseball games from the Braves, the minors, college and high school, and a decade of coaching my kids in baseball, suffice to say the number is quite high.

    There is an old saying that on any given day at a baseball game, you may see something you’ve never witnessed before. I’d never seen a walk-off bunt, not until April 21 against the Mets. Eventual Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom did his typical job of stifling the opposing offense, while the New York batters did their typical job of not providing any run support. That set the stage for a heart-stopping ninth inning, where Inciarte drug a perfect bunt down the first-base line and Johan Camargo raced home with a head-first slide to cap a thrilling 4-3 victory.

    And you know what? Ender’s game-winning bunt wasn’t the only thing that night I’d never witnessed in person. Camargo tied the game in the ninth with a triple that hit on the infield, skated into the right-center field gap and rolled all the way to the wall.

    5. Young Newk; Damn You, Chris Taylor: I could not breathe. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Not necessarily the best scenario since I had been hospitalized late last year with stroke symptoms. But there were no medical issues as I stood in Section 431 on the final Sunday of July, watching one of the Braves future cornerstones chase immortality.

    Sean Newcomb had it all working against the Dodgers that day. As his pitch count climbed, my oldest and I both agreed the powerful lefty had to stay on the bump. Through eight innings, he had no-hit the defending NL champions, and I had chills on top of chills as the crowd roared for Newk as he walked to the dugout just three outs away. I flashed back to early June 2013, when both kids and I stood inside Turner Field and watched Julio Teheran no-hit the Pirates for 7 2/3 innings.

    Newcomb got two outs in the ninth, and up came Taylor, who worked the count to 2-2 and then lined a sharp single through the hole and into left field. I’ll never forget my son holding his phone to record the moment, and I noticed how he couldn’t stand still. Twenty-two years earlier, I sat in the press box at a baseball field in Gainesville, Ga., and watched a kid named Andy Hussion (who would go on to pitch at Georgia) throw a no-hitter in an American Legion playoff game. To this day, it is the only no-hitter I’ve witnessed in person, and it happened on a night where Andy’s dad (longtime Furman announcer Chuck Hussion) was doing PA duties, and where many in the stands had went to bed the night before with no knowledge of the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park until they retrieved their copy of our paper from their driveways that Saturday morning. We slammed the presses shut and redid the front page after the explosion – the only time in my newspaper career where we really “stopped the press.”

    4. A Tone-Setting Comeback For Openers: The home opener is sacred to me. I guess it’s because I always got home opener tickets every year for my birthday (in March), and through 40 years I’ve only missed two of them. I also was fortunate to cover three home openers, including Andres Galarraga’s homer in the 2000 opener after he missed the previous season with lymphoma. The night before was spent preparing around 100 sausage balls, stocking coolers with beverages and recording a 90-minute season-preview podcast.

    March 29 found me heading to SunTrust Park early in the morning. Several hours of tailgating preceded the 4:10 start time, the second opener in the history of the new ballyard. Connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, for all the angst of the previous offseason, a new day dawned for this franchise while delivering quite the harbinger of things to come.

    Down 5-0 in the sixth, Atlanta battled back, setting the stage for Nick Markakis to blast a three-run, ninth-inning walkoff homer into the right-center field seats. The celebration turned wet immediately afterward as a strong thunderstorm blasted the ballpark, but nobody complained. It would be the first of many comeback victories by the Battlin’ Braves of ’18.

    3. Title Time In Tomahawk Town: I walked into a cigar shop off Ga. 400 and bought my first cigar in probably five years (I typically only have one on the golf course, and I haven’t played golf lately). It was around 10 a.m. and I already had four bottles of champagne icing in the back of my SUV. The cashier asked if I was going to the game and, upon telling him yes, he said, “been a long time since I’ve been this excited about the Braves.”

    Brother, I felt ya in that moment. And the Braves delivered like champions, Atlanta jumping all over Jake Arrieta – the experienced playoff veteran Philadelphia acquired to lift it to October – knocking him out after scoring four runs in two innings. Meanwhile, Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the seventh and when Acuña gloved the final out of the game, everybody in Braves Country lost their minds.

    How did this happen so fast? The rebuild ended, the new era fully engaged. Wow, here we are, with championship T-shirts and champagne showers in the locker room and tears of joy and hugs and screams of delight. It marked the seventh title I’ve seen the Braves clinch in person – but other than the Miracle Comeback in the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the World Series clinching victory in Game 6 of 1995, it’s hard to think of any other Braves moment that tops Sept. 22. And while my kids weren’t there, getting to cry with and hug some of my great, dear Braves friends made the moment absolutely awesome.

    2. Acuña Slams The Postseason Stage: I mentioned above three of my top 10 moments witnessed in person across all sports occurred this season. I honestly had little expectations going into the NL Division Series against the big, bad Dodgers. But when the Braves came home for Game 3, I thought they would buck up and find a way to win and draw within 2-1 of the series. I could just feel it.

    But the manner in which it happened took our breaths away. Acuña, the eventual NL rookie of the year, becoming the youngest player in baseball history to belt a postseason grand slam, a second-inning shot into the left-center field seats. What followed was two or three minutes of absolute bedlam, complete and comparable to the early/mid 1990s euphoria. It literally shook SunTrust Park to its foundation.

    Atlanta would capture Game 3 on a Freddie Freeman homer, a Chop House special deep to right field, but the Acuña grand slam represented more than four runs with one swing of the bat. It marked the return to prominence of this franchise, and its fanbase. There may be three or four moments where I’ve experienced the ear-splitting, knee-buckling spontaneous combustion of noise that I felt that night. I’ll carry that feeling to my grave.

    It also landed a buddy of mine with an Acuña tattoo on her wrist, and a prominent spot on the national news.

    1. Sharing This Ride With All Of You: Our world is filled with so many dividing items, and it feels that’s the case now more than ever in my lifetime. Social media can be toxic. News coverage can be depressing. Conversations that go just beneath the surface can break up relationships decades in the making. In times like these, the connection a sports team can provide is not only welcomed, it’s needed.

    I have met and developed relationships with so many people through Braves baseball, from folks who played at the highest level to award-winning writers to so many folks who are just like me, who love this sport and love their team. There is so much passion, so much energy from so many wonderful and talented people throughout Braves Country, whether you’re in Atlanta or around the world.

    It truly is an honor to be in your midst, online and in person.

    I have met some of the best people in my life through my love of the Braves, and 2018 took that to a whole new level. People I have met through following and writing about the Braves have taught me valuable lessons, provided me a shoulder to lean on, prayed for me in sickness, enhanced my ballpark and tailgating experience, and overall cast even more sunshine into my life. For that, I’m thankful. So much love to all.

    That’s the biggest thing I’ll carry from 2018, a year in which the Braves ended the rebuild. The best is yet to come, and I cannot wait to continue this journey with all of you.

    —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 could still target a blockbuster this winter

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – “Focus,” I tell myself, as I gaze across a frozen landscape.

    It is Jan. 19. Almost as much snow has fallen at my house as in Green Bay. I need more than two hands to count the number of mornings in the teens. Baseball teams sit mostly idle as spring training approaches, as more than 120 free agents remain unsigned.

    The Hot Stove is frozen deeper than this coldest Georgia winter in memory. Baseball executives remain in a holding pattern that’s befuddling to experts, frustrating to players without a contract and downright maddening to agents.

    If you are Alex Anthopoulos, you sit at quite the intersection in this bizarre offseason. The franchise he now runs looks to step away from 3 straight 90-loss seasons and a disgraceful controversy that stained the organization to its once-pure core. We already have seen a creative deal that rid the Braves of Matt Kemp’s burdensome salary and even more rigid left field defense, in return for money that basically washes out Kemp’s deal overall but expels the outlay this year, not after 2019.

    That in and of itself is a win, and normally we would be content to let Anthopoulos take time to evaluate the megatons of talent in the Braves system. But while we focus, we see the names on the open market.

    The mind wanders …

    Free agent 3B Mike Moustakas

    Free agent 3B Mike Moustakas

    The Hot Corner: Both Johan Camargo and Rio Ruiz are young and have upside, but combined they have 398 at-bats in the majors. Austin Riley, the No. 6 prospect in the organization according to Baseball America, has the natural light-tower power from the right side that could anchor him in the midst of the Atlanta lineup for a decade. The Braves are not keen to block Riley by signing a free-agent third baseman to a long-term deal.

    But Mike Moustakas was a lock in November to get a six-year deal, yet his 38 homers from a season ago remains unsigned. A team with a third-base opening could do far worse than a guy whose OPS topped .800 each of the past three years, a two-time all-star with a World Series ring entering his age 29 season.

    Would a two-year deal with a third-year option entice Moustakas to sign with Atlanta? Probably not. But it is worth exploring.

    The Rotation: Perhaps the most dangerous path in free agency is signing an aging pitcher to a long-term deal, especially one who will be 32 when he throws his first meaningful pitch in 2018. It felt like somebody would throw five or six years at Jake Arrieta when free agency began, considering he’s averaged 188 innings a season while making a total of 119 starts across the past four years, winning 64 games with a 2.67 ERA.

    Sure, somebody still may throw four or five years at Arrieta. That’s not a place for Atlanta to swim given the amount of pitching talent in the system. But part of the reason sage baseball folks say you never can have too much pitching is there are no guarantees arms will pan out, no matter how eye-popping the minor-league numbers.

    Yes, the Braves have more arms than anybody, and odds are more than a few will be solid major league hurlers. But this franchise needs an ace. A proven veteran at the top would provide an impact measured now, and in the years to come.

    A three-year deal for Arrieta? At this point, in this market, it’s worth asking.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna is likely to join the Atlanta outfield this season.

    Top prospect Ronald Acuna is likely to join the Atlanta outfield this season.

    The Outfield: Ronald Acuna is a prospect of a different ilk. From his throwing arm to his raw power to the way the ball sounds coming off the bat, Acuna is special. He is the best prospect in baseball, and one that will anchor the Braves outfield for years to come. He’s not getting traded.

    There is a better chance the Braves deal H&F Burger and the Chick-fil-A Cow for the Miami Home-Run Monstrosity than Acuna wearing teal (more on that shortly). Atlanta currently has two-time Gold Glove winner Ender Inciarte in center and veteran Nick Markakis, entering the final year of his deal, in right.

    Markakis is owed $11 million and Braves fans are obsessed with arguing either for (38-plus doubles each of the past three years) or against (two seasons with eight or fewer homers and a OPS ticking downward) the 34-year-old. If the Braves make a move for an outfielder, obviously Markakis has to go.

    The Blockbuster: How could one rid themselves of Markakis and at least get value in having to swallow those dollars, while making their lineup and their defense infinitely better? Back to Miami, and focus – there’s that word again – on Christian Yelich.

    Braves social media has drove itself mad this offseason when it comes to the Marlins’ ultra-talented 26-year-old. He is signed for the next four years with a team option for 2022. He is a career .290 hitter who has averaged 14 homers, 34 doubles and 16 stolen bases in his four full major-league season, along with winning a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.

    Yelich in left field is the bold move that puts the Braves on the cusp of contention, and the money owed through 2022 ($51.25 million total) would allow Atlanta to compete on the free-agent market after next season. The price will be steep prospects wise. The Marlins are reportedly demanding Ronald Acuna headline any trade package for Yelich. Again, that’s not going to happen. However, once Miami is firmly convinced that they won’t be able to pry Acuna from Anthopoulos’ mitts, maybe they will be open to an alternative, but still formidible, offer. A safe bet is at least four or five of Atlanta’s top 15 would head south. It’s worth it. Yelich, Inciarte and Acuna would form one of baseball’s most potent outfields, defensively and offensively. And while it is a reach, perhaps Anthopoulos gets the approval needed to sign a Moustakas or Arrieta. The man loves a blockbuster deal.

    This blockbuster, the one that would bring Yelich to Atlanta, would be enough to not only push the Braves to the edge of contention this season, but make SunTrust Park all the more attractive of a destination for the Manny Machados of the world once next winter arrives. We do know that offseason won’t be frozen.

    We just have to focus to get there.

    —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.