• Jason Heyward

    What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 2

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s time for part two of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, looking at baseball’s epic final day of the 2011 regular season that found Atlanta land outside the postseason party after a painful late-season swoon, then taking a stroll through two games in which Braves starters nearly pitched no-hitters (and a nod to the lone no-hitter, at any level of baseball, I’ve witnessed in person across 40 years that also contains an interesting perspective on a tragic night in my hometown’s history).

    As a reminder, you can check out the introductory piece of the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    The Long, Painful Death of a Season: Sept. 28, 2011

    Epic Late-Season Stumble Costs Braves Playoff Berth

    As late August 2011 arrived, it felt like only an act of God could keep the Braves from a second-straight NL playoff appearance. The Phillies were running away with the NL East but the Braves had found their footing, winning 16 times in 21 games to enter the final weekend of the month with the second-best record in the Senior Circuit and a 9 ½ game lead over the Giants for the NL’s lone wild-card spot.

    The Cardinals? Pfft, 10 ½ games behind the 79-53 Braves at 68-63.

    Atlanta flew to New York after taking three of four in Chicago, but Hurricane Irene was heading toward the nation’s largest city, too. The opening game of the Mets series was played in front of less than 23,000 at Citi Field and journeyman Chris Capuano destroyed the Braves, striking out 13 during a two-hit complete-game shutout. The final two games of the series would be cancelled and, with a Monday off day, the Braves suddenly had a three-day break as they were playing their best baseball of the season.

    They never recovered.

    The weirdness of that weekend in the Big Apple began the unraveling. It concluded at Turner Field on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. It would go down as one of the wildest, craziest days in baseball history (the Red Sox simultaneously were giving away the AL wild card), and the Braves entered that Wednesday night matchup with the division-champion Phillies having lost four in a row to fall to 10-19 since flying into New York.

    The Braves and Cardinals were tied at 89-72 as I walked into Turner Field alone for what I hoped would not be the final time that season. My sons were home with the next day being a school day, but downstairs in my filing cabinet were tickets to the first two home NL Division Series games. The sheer thought of those tickets being refunded was ridiculous just four weeks earlier, but as the losses piled up in September my sense of dread grew, and I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a ballpark with so much doom-and-gloom as I headed to my seat in the lower level, midway between first base and the right-field corner.

    For six innings, everything was fine, and I started growing more confident. The Braves took a 3-1 lead on a Dan Uggla homer in the third and Tim Hudson cruised into the seventh inning. But with one out came two hits and an error by Jack Wilson at shortstop to score a run, and I started thinking again about how my heart was going to be shattered. After all, I sat in this stadium nearly a year before and watched the Braves fall apart in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NL Division Series. I remember looking around and seeing people who must’ve been thinking the same thing, the wheels spinning in our heads with that, “here we go again” refrain.

    Was the seventh the start of the train careening off the tracks?

    Perhaps not. Craig Kimbrel made his first All-Star team, led the National League with 46 saves and won NL rookie of the year in 2011. Save No. 47 would at worst send the Braves into a one-game playoff with St. Louis. But Kimbrel proceeded to give up a single, get a strikeout, then walk two hitters before Chase Utley’s game-tying sacrifice fly. And as extra innings began to march on, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities the Braves had squandered over the past month to avoid being in this situation.

    I saw the Braves win the World Series in person in 1995. Three years earlier, I saw the Braves score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the 1992 NL pennant in person. I’m generally an optimistic person. But that night I found myself fighting that feeling of “not again” over and over. It only grew after Chipper Jones flew out to deep left-center with a runner on to end the 10th, and it grew even more when Jason Heyward reached third on a wild pitch before Martin Prado struck out to close the 12th.

    Of course, the Phillies scored in the top of the 13th on Hunter Pence’s single that barely cleared the infield dirt. Of course, the Braves would get a runner on with one out in the bottom half, only to see Freddie Freeman – the runner-up to Kimbrel for rookie of the year – ground into a 3-6-3 double play. We knew the Cardinals already had won some 30 minutes earlier, that 8-0 result glaring on the out-of-town scoreboard in the ballpark, and when Freeman slammed his batting helmet into the ground behind first base as the season died, the deflation nearly was overwhelming.

    Other than Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a ballpark after a loss as long as I did that night. But the worst part didn’t come on Sept. 28. It came the morning after, when I had to wake up two little boys for school and tell them their favorite baseball team’s season was over.

    Oh, So Close, But No No-No: June 5, 2013 and July 29, 2018

    Julio, Newk Flirt with Every Pitcher’s Dream

    In all the baseball games these nearly 47-year-old eyes have watched through the years – from playing to coaching my kids to my sports writing days and countless games as a fan – I’ve witnessed exactly one no-hitter. It came the night after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, in an American Legion playoff game on July 27, 1996, in Gainesville, Ga. Andy Hussion, who would help pitch Gainesville High to a state title the following spring, twirled the gem with his dad, former Furman play-by-play man Chuck Hussion, working the PA at Ivey-Watson Field along the shores of Lake Lanier.

    The bombing was the topic of conversation everywhere, including at the ballpark. I was interning as The Times in Gainesville that Olympic summer. We were owned by The Gannett Corp. (which owned USA Today) at the time, and there were veteran newspaper people with decades of experience onsite. When the bomb went off, the presses actually stopped (just like in the movies, but never in real life). Page 1A was redone and our morning edition had the news, while other newspapers that served our area did not. I lost track of how many people in our circulation area awoke on that fourth Saturday of July 1996 with no idea what had happened downtown until they grabbed our paper from their driveways.

    Why do I share this, something that occurred so long ago? I watched two Braves take no-hit bids beyond the seventh inning in the past 40 years. Both occurred this decade. Both hold significant meaning to me, so I cheated a bit to combine both as one entry.

    June 5, 2013: The Braves had won four in a row entering a Wednesday get-away date with the Pirates at Turner Field. Both my kids were with me, ages 10 and 9 and soaking in the initial days of summer vacation. We sat in the upper deck and watched Julio Teheran dazzle the Pittsburgh lineup. Teheran at the time still sat mid-90s with his fastball, and he had everything working. We got to the top of the eighth, everybody was standing, and I was telling my kids repeatedly not to say what all of us were thinking – fortunately, they both were old enough to understand what was happening.

    Two outs in the inning, four outs away. Brandon Inge came on as a pinch-hitter, worked a 1-1 count, then lined a single to left. Teheran retired Starling Marte to end the eighth, David Carpenter worked a perfect ninth to finish the one-hitter, and my sons and I were stunned as how close we had come to seeing a MLB no-hitter in person.

    Not too long after, something happened that made my life just about completely collapse. In some of those darkest days that followed over the next two to three years, in a season of my life where hope was almost nonexistent, that Wednesday afternoon in the sunshine at Turner Field with my boys was a bright memory and a sign of better days to come.

    It just didn’t result in a no-hitter. And that wasn’t the only close call, either.

    July 29, 2018: By the grace of God, I was in such a better place as that final Sunday of July unfolded. It was the day of Chipper Jones’ induction into the Hall of Fame. My oldest son and I gathered with friends in a hotel suite near SunTrust Park to break bread and catch up, then it was on to the ballpark for the series finale with the defending NL champion Dodgers. The Braves were working to avoid a sweep after being outscored 9-2 in the first two games, as many of our thoughts were some 965 miles northeast in interior New York.

    Sean Newcomb took the mound for his 40th major-league start. He got two runs of support in the first inning and two more in the third, and the Massachusetts lefty took it from there, walking Yasiel Puig in the sixth but allowing nothing else entering the ninth. The ballpark, already an emotional mess as many of us had strained to stream Chipper’s acceptance speech during the third inning, was teeming as Newcomb took the mound to start the ninth.

    I had no doubt Newk was going to do this. Zero. Everybody was standing. I couldn’t breathe. My oldest son was pacing like I’d never seen, and he would admit later he thought it was done, too. After two flyouts. Newcomb was one hitter away. Chris Taylor worked the count to 2-2, including a somewhat questionable pitch he took for a ball, then lined a single to left field as third baseman Johan Camargo dove to his left in vain. The Braves would win 4-1, Newcomb would throw 129 pitches on the day, and the two teams would meet 2 ½ months later in the NL Division Series.

    Oh man, talk about the ultimate “what if.” I chatted with my kid while writing this and he said to this day, he was 100 percent certain Newcomb had it. His stuff was that good. I know there’s been ups and downs with Newcomb at times, but that day in July 2018 shows his potential to dominate a great lineup.

    It also shows that no-hitters are so hard to complete, and seeing one is such a rare treat. And, every day you walk into the ballpark, there’s a chance it happens. Perhaps one sweet day, Andy Hussion will have some company on my list.

    —30—

    On Deck: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    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.

    Top 10 of the 2010s (Part 1): A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 1

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – To say I’ve been blessed to follow baseball across the past 40 years is quite the understatement.

    I love this sport. I’ve watched thousands of games, from my early days playing (poorly) in Little League, to writing about high school, college, minor league and major league teams during my sports writing career, to coaching my sons for more than a decade, to being a fan of the Braves and attending games for four decades. From tagging along with my grandfather, to going with my high school and college buddies, to taking my sons to their first games. From snagging tickets here and there, to owning partial season-tickets packages in three different stadiums.

    Only God knows how many baseball games I’ve watched in nearly 47 years on this planet, some while wearing a media credential, some while holding a ticket, some while sitting on the couch watching on TV or a laptop or smart phone (or listening to via radio or streamed online).

    With the 2010s ending, I wanted to look back at my top 10 memorable Braves moments from the past 10 years. These are not ranked in any particular order, other than to be segmented into groups of two based on a common theme.

    I established three simple rules:

    • I had to see it live at the ballpark. That’s why you won’t see Brooks Conrad’s walk-off grand slam in 2010 or Chipper Jones’ homer off Jonathan Papelbon in 2012. I wasn’t at either game.
    • Final score didn’t matter. This is a list of the most memorable moments I witnessed, and it would be an injustice to only include Braves victories.
    • I wanted this series to be more than me simply regurgitating the results. Baseball Reference has all that. I wanted to tie in what these moments meant to me, what happened that day, and what it meant to myself and those around me.

    So, forgive the personal observations shared in this series. We all know what happened in the 2012 NL Wild-Card Game, and we all know what happened in Game 3 of the 2018 NL Division Series (spoiler alert: both games made the list). This is storytelling, looking through a personal lens at the games, the surroundings, the people, recalling – regardless of result – the top 10 most memorable moments these aging blue eyes witnessed in person watching this decade of Braves baseball.

    Happy Holidays! Thank you for reading, as always. I hope you enjoy.

    BLE.

    Welcome to the Show: April 5, 2010

    The Hometown Kid Says Hello with A Big Bang

    When we moved back to Atlanta in 2006, there were plenty of things I did with my kids (then ages 4 and 3) to introduce them to my hometown. Braves games. Thrashers games. Hawks games. Day trips to the mountains. And, on one spring day in 2007, we took advantage of living south of Atlanta to go check out one of the top high school baseball players in the nation.

    Fast forward to April 5, 2010, a bright spring day in Atlanta and the Braves season opener at Turner Field, the first game of the new decade. That strapping kid from Henry County High my kiddos and I watched for a few innings three years earlier stood poised to make his major-league debut. Perhaps to that point there hadn’t been a more-heralded arrival for a Braves player than one Jason Heyward, who raced through Atlanta’s minor-league system after being selected 14th overall in the 2007 player draft, then went 18-for-59 with five extra-base hits and 10 walks in 22 Grapefruit League games to earn a spot on the 2010 opening-day roster.

    You could feel the buzz pregame walking through the parking lots at Turner Field, a vibe that ratcheted even higher when Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Then the game began and Derek Lowe gave up three first-inning runs, putting the Braves in a hole before taking their first at-bats of the season. But even way up on the top row of the upper deck, high above the Braves bullpen in right field, you sensed something special was brewing.

    Maybe it was because the always combustible Carlos Zambrano took the mound for the Cubs that afternoon. Or maybe we had a feeling about what was coming, because I remember telling my boys that three runs would not beat the Braves on this day. And I was right, because after a walk to (pardon me while I puke as I type his name) Melky Cabrera, a single by Martin Prado, an RBI single by Chipper Jones and a two-run single by Yunel Escobar, the game was tied.

    Heyward walked to the plate, runners on first and second, one out, score even at 3-3. Zambrano missed on his first two offerings. With the sold-out crowd chanting his name, J-Hey unloaded on a 2-0 pitch and launched a Hollywood-esque missile, a screaming, soaring liner deep to right, one-hopping the back wall of the Braves bullpen. The stadium absolutely lost its mind. All the hype, all the hope, all the buildup for a kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, realized with an instant lightning bolt in his first swing as a big-leaguer.

    In the upper deck, we went nuts, everybody screaming and hugging and jumping up and down in a way that’s rare for any game outside of late September or October. It wasn’t until we got home and I watched the replay of the homer did I realize just how far Heyward launched that Zambrano pitch. Sitting at the kitchen table that evening, both of my kids and I couldn’t stop watching the replay of the homer on my laptop.

    I thought probably a hundred times that night, “a star is born.” And in a way that’s what happened, as Heyward earned NL All-Star honors before an injury knocked him out of the game. He finished his MLB debut 2-for-5 with the homer and four RBIs as the Braves ran away with a 16-5 victory.

    You never know where this game, or this life, will take you. Some six years and six months after that blast against the Cubs, Heyward helped lead Chicago to its 108-year jinx-breaking World Series title. But that moment the 20-year-old launched his career and brought down the house in his hometown remains memorable to this day, and was quite the way to kick off the decade.

    Over Before It Even Began: Oct. 9, 2019

    Braves Complete NLDS Choke with Epic Implosion

    My recap of Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS for this platform published, I grabbed a beverage and sat down in the Braves Room. After watching the Braves split the opening two games of the series with St. Louis here in Atlanta, the Braves roared off the deck in the ninth inning for a stunning Game 3 victory, one that sent every person into my house into delirium. Even my mom, approaching her 69th birthday, stood in the living room with a fist clenched, screaming at the TV.

    And that’s how I felt the entire day leading into Game 4, and even after a disheartening extra-inning loss that sent this series to a decisive fifth game – a game that never should’ve been played had the Braves not stumbled all over themselves in Games 1 and 4 of the series – my confidence wasn’t shaken. I had such a calm peace about the whole situation. Even my wife and kids were surprised, given that I will walk through the house clapping my hands in excitement hours before the first pitch of a Friday night game in June against the Phillies or Mets.

    That confidence carried into the day of Game 5. I checked out my oldest son from school. We grabbed barbecue for lunch before hitting the road, chatting about how we felt with Mike Foltynewicz – who we both watched dazzle St. Louis five days prior in Game 2 – on the mound, and how there was no way this Braves offense would spit the bit yet again after wasting so many chances in the fourth game. In fact, the only potential negative was raised by my oldest, who grew up idolizing Brian McCann during his first stint with Atlanta while my kid was learning to catch in Little League.

    “Dad, if the Braves lose, I think B-Mac retires,” he said, then adding, “but we’re not losing.”

    It would be folly to pin what happened on the fact no foam red tomahawks emblazoned with “Relentless,” the 2019 postseason hashtag, greeted fans upon their arrival to the ballpark. But the vibe felt different. Maybe it was the 5 p.m. first pitch. Maybe it was the missed opportunities of Games 1 and 4, conjuring up the ghosts of this franchise’s, and this city’s, past sporting missteps.

    It felt OK when Cardinals leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler foul tipped strike three into McCann’s glove, as I jumped and pumped my fist. Then I noticed the ball on the ground. McCann couldn’t hold onto it, and what transpired over the ensuing 26 minutes is a scenario not even the most scarred Braves fan could think plausible.

    Twenty-six minutes. Ten runs. Season over. And 15,000 people are still trying to get through rush-hour traffic and to their seats.

    There was nothing to say. Nothing. What do you say when you watch an entire season of promise and hope and expectations for the franchise to achieve something it hadn’t done in 18 years, one it should’ve already accomplished two days earlier, evaporate in the autumn sun in about the time it takes to walk from Lot 29 to Murph’s?

    I’m glad my oldest son was with me. He loves baseball like his old man, for better or worse. When Max Fried walked high-school teammate and St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty (who needs to keep his lip zipped on Twitter, by the way) with the bases loaded, my son just started laughing. When a run scored on a strikeout after McCann could not corral a pitch, he laughed again. By the fourth inning, the seats in our section in the upper deck were mostly empty. My kid and I laughed about that, too.

    What else could we do? We were shell-shocked. I kept looking down into the Braves dugout, across the stadium at other fans, and the look was the same. It was like we had watched a train wreck play out in slow motion. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in 40 years of watching baseball. An elimination game, at home, and the better team, the one that should’ve won the series, absolutely getting run off the field in stunning, this-cannot-be-happening fashion.

    In the seventh inning, I said enough. It was time to go home, to spend the 45 minutes in the car trying to think how to put this into words for my recap. But my son said we couldn’t leave. He didn’t want to go. He had school the next day. I had work. I didn’t understand why. This wasn’t funny anymore. He told me:

    “Dad, you know B-Mac’s still in the game. You know JT is getting the ninth. I have to watch them together, one last time.”

    Julio Teheran did make his way from the bullpen to the mound for the top of the ninth. There to hand him the ball was McCann. The two longtime Braves, both of whom made such a profound mark on this decade and on my two little guys’ baseball fandom, walked off the field in the last game of the decade, together as teammates one final time.

    And my son and I walked the steps to the third-base gate, for the final time this decade, fighting back tears.

    —30—

    On Deck: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    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’S GAMEDAY: Embrace This Moment, Braves Country; You’ve Earned It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The oddsmakers have weighed in, the pundits and talking heads and bloggers and the rest of the world have offered their take on the National League Division Series, how one team is loaded with playoff experience – many of it gleaned from reaching the seventh game of the World Series last season – while the other team has shocked so many by just gracing the October stage.

    But baseball has a funny way of evening even the most lopsided playing fields, especially in the most pivotal month of the marathon season that begins amid the palm trees and desert sands in February and ends around Halloween with the crowning of a champion.

    Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave who finds himself on the eve of managing his first major-league postseason game, humorously corrected a reporter’s question during a Wednesday evening press conference at Dodger Stadium after the reporter said the Braves might not have as much playoff experience as the Dodgers, Atlanta’s opponent in Game 1 of the NLDS on Thursday.

    “They don’t have as much; not even might about it,” Snitker said with a humble giggle in discussing his team.

    My, how far this franchise has come.

    The Atlanta Braves are going to play a playoff game in less than 24 hours, an honest-to-goodness, real-life, hot-dang-this-really-is-October-baseball playoff game. It will unfold in the same venue where the Braves played their last postseason contest, but even if we don’t want to think about what transpired that Monday night in October 2013, it doesn’t matter at all.

    Because of what’s transpired since.

    Do you remember the Braves trading so much of their controllable talent, the pain you felt when Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis were shipped away for prospects? What about the evening before the season opener in 2015, when Atlanta found the solution to rid itself of B.J. Upton and his albatross of a contract at the expense of Craig Kimbrel being included in the deal, mere hours before the first pitch of the season?

    How about the awful final two months of 2015 (18-37 before winning three of four to end the season), a stretch in which the Braves gave up 20 runs in a game and employed the lovable Jonny Gomes for an inning of relief in an 11-run defeat that, arguably, may have been the highlight of that season? Those two things happened two days apart! Or, losing the first nine games in 2016 en route to a 9-28 start that sent Fredi Gonzalez, a dead manager walking entering that spring, into unemployment, complete with a Delta flight notification sent to him before he was given the news?

    There are about five zillion other examples that I could cite, but the bottom line is this. When your feet hit the floor Thursday morning, you begin an Atlanta Braves Playoff Gameday. How does that sound, Braves Country? It’s something we took for granted for oh, so long, as the Braves of yesteryear piled up division titles like they were Beanie Babies (remember them?), but a half-decade away wading through the vast underbelly of the National League makes one appreciative when you find the light again.

    The smart money, the experts, those in the know, are going to tell you the Braves have little chance of winning this series. Los Angeles has more talent, more experience, owns the advantage in everything from matchups to home field, and is just better. I’m not going to dispute any of that, because it’s true. The Dodgers are a better team 1-through-25. They can deploy a starting-lineup worthy bench at all times and have a lineup built to face lefties and another one geared toward righties.

    That’s all well and good. It should not diminish your enthusiasm, your hopes, your spirits one iota entering this series. And here’s why.

    Baseball’s postseason history is littered with the burned-out remains of cars destined for ticker tape and champagne, all crashed out by a lesser team that had little-to-no chance at the start of the series, only to trip up the prohibitive favorite. Baseball’s postseason, while not one-and-done after you advance past the wild-card stage, is the closest approximation we have in pro sports to March Madness. Especially in the division series, where with a five-game series the underdog merely has to win once in the opening two road games to have a chance to win the series at home in four games.

    What makes baseball’s postseason so compelling is often, the best team does not win the championship. We haven’t had a repeat world champion since 2000. As mentioned in this space this week, think of all the franchises that have won a World Series since the Dodgers last captured the title in 1988. The drama of October is a stark contrast to the six-month grind that compresses 162 games into 187 days. The finality is sudden and jarring. Success is euphoric and exhilarating. Catching lightning in a bottle isn’t just a trite saying, it’s a true strategy that more than one team has used to fuel a run deep into the year’s 10th month.

    That’s why these Braves aren’t just a nice turn-around story, one where we all should be happy just to be here. Yes, even if Atlanta loses three straight, there is no dulling the shine of what’s transpired in 2018. But don’t be fooled. The Braves are not just happy to be here, and privately there are plenty of people around baseball who will tell you they want no part of this bunch in a series, especially when three wins and not four is the ticket to advance.

    The feeling here is these Braves, with their blend of calming veteran leadership and youthful emotion, will fare just fine in their first foray into the madness of October. They might not win the series, but it won’t be easy for Los Angeles. This will not be a runaway by any stretch of the imagination. Atlanta has the talent and the tools to push the Dodgers to the very brink. If L.A. wins this series, they will have to earn it.

    And there’s no guarantee it won’t be the Braves heading to Milwaukee or Denver for the NL Championship Series. That youthful ignorance, confidence and swagger of a team that defied all the predictions of a 75-to-80 win season to capture 90 victories (20 coming in their final at-bat), win the NL East, earn the NL’s best road record and respond to every stumble or wobble, gives this correspondent every reason to believe we’re about to embark on quite a series.

    It’s a series that has been a long time coming for everybody in Braves Country. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

    You deserve this.

    —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.

    Acuna-Mania in Here at Last, and ‘That’ Swing is the Thing

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    CUMMING, Ga. – Most of us have seen it before, through Periscopes from spring training backfields, over MILB.tv game streams, via video clips on the internet or in person at minor-league ballparks across the South.

    But at 12:51 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, along the banks of the Ohio River in the southwestern tip of Ohio, the baseball world saw it:

    “That” swing.

    “That” amazing, violent, powerful, fascinating, jaw-dropping swing that has helped Ronald Acuna race from the lower depths of the minor leagues to his rightful place in the Atlanta Braves outfield.

    Acuna followed a tantalizing major-league debut Wednesday – in which he nearly went deep on the first swing of his first at-bat, then later singled and scored to jump-start a late-inning rally – with “That” swing in the second inning Thursday.

    A 3-1 pitch, launched high and far into the Cincinnati sky, settling in the hands of a Braves fan standing five rows in the upper deck in left field, some 416 feet from the point where “That” swing we’ve heard so much about the past two years launched Homer Bailey’s slider onto a one-way journey to the cheap seats.

    And the kid only was getting started Thursday, falling a triple short of the cycle, legging out an infield single, then blooping a double to right field to drive in the eventual game-winning run as the Braves moved four games above .500 with a 7-4 victory. The 20-year-old is 4-for-9 through his first 24 hours as a big-leaguer, sporting a .444 batting average and a 1.333 OPS.

    There is no denying it, even this early.

    This is different.

    Different than any prospect I’ve seen come up in a Braves uniform in the past 40 years. Different than the Jones boys (Chipper and Andruw), different than the Atlanta boys (Jason Heyward and Jeff Francoeur), different than the rest.

    That’s because Ronald Acuna is different. The swagger, the speed, the arm, the entire package.

    And certainly, “That” swing.

    Acuna finds himself settled into an Atlanta offense that is giving opponents fits with aggressive baserunning, consistent clutch hitting and a knack for coming from behind late in games. While I get why some folks were upset Acuna started the season in Triple-A, it made sense to sacrifice a few games in April 2018 in order to keep Acuna under club control for an extra season, in 2024.

    After all, that early stretch featured 12 consecutive games against playoff teams from a year ago, including a brutal three-city road trip in which the Braves not only battled postseason teams, but snow, rain, freezing cold and biting wind.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr had 4 hits through his first 2 Major League games for the Braves.

    The Braves didn’t just survive that stretch, they emerged from it above .500. The two most disappointing efforts of the season – save that wind-blown nasty Saturday in Chicago – came in the first two days in Cincinnati, where Atlanta managed to drop two games to baseball’s worst team.

    Then came the text messages, the tweets and the notifications in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The wait was over. Acuna was being promoted. For a fanbase yearning to win, even more so after a taste of unexpected early-season success, would this be a tipping point?

    It’s just two games in a 24-hour span, but it sure feels that way.

    Normally that would be nonsense to say about a 20-year-old kid. But like I said, this is different.

    Atlanta will play three games in Philadelphia and three in New York before coming home to face the Giants a week from Friday. Tickets already are going fast.

    You should get yours. The Braves are playing a fun brand of baseball, one the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite some time in these parts.

    And you want to see “That” swing for yourself. A guy like this doesn’t come along too often, and while there are no guarantees in baseball or life, this feels like as sure of a bet as you will find.

    Because “That” swing, belonging to one Ronald Acuna, is a sight to behold.

    —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 sign Markakis, Johnson

    In a much anticipated move, the Atlanta Braves made a deal for a right fielder today with long-time Oriole Nick Markakis. It was the second move of the day for John Hart and the front office in Atlanta after signing former Oriole closer Jim Johnson. Markakis agreed to a 4-year, $44 million deal while his former Baltimore teammate signed for 1-year, $1.6 million.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today's signing.

    Markakis, a 9-year veteran of the AL, is coming home to Georgia with today’s signing.

    While it was clear after the Braves traded Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins that they would be looking for a replacement for Heyward in right field, it wasn’t clear where they would look to fill that hole. The possibility of moving Justin Upton back to right field while utilizing Evan Gattis in left field was the only in-house scenario available. On the trade market, the free agents available included Markakis, Nori Aoki, Michael Morse, Melky Cabrera and Torii Hunter. With Hunter signing yesterday with the Twins, it was clear the pieces were going to begin falling. Enter the talks with Nick Markakis.

    Markakis, who attended high school and college in Georgia, has spent his entire big league career with the Baltimore Orioles. He has 9 years of service on his stat sheet with a career .290 average, .358 on-base percentage and .435 slugging. He has averaged 152 games per season, notching 155+ games in all but two of those seasons. He is coming off his second Gold Glove season in right field and a season where he batted .276.

    Atlanta has not had the best luck with long-term contracts in recent years, eating significant money on Derek Lowe and Dan Uggla as well as continuing to watch the B.J. Upton disaster play out. The structuring of Markakis’ deal could turn out to be a bargain during an offseason that finds nearly every team needing OF help. The signing of Markakis also leaves many wondering if this was merely setting up the club for a further move that would send Justin Upton elsewhere for pitching help and prospects. If this is to be the case, the Braves’ outfield would presumably be Gattis, the elder Upton and Markakis.

    Prior to the Markakis signing, the Braves announced that they had signed former Orioles and A’s closer Jim Johnson to a 1-year deal. Johnson, also a 9-year veteran of the league, spent 2006-13 with the Orioles before signing a big contract with the Oakland A’s that fizzled. He ended last season with the Detroit Tigers.

    Over his career, Johnson has posted a 3.57 ERA. Though he was unlikely to return to closing duties with any club after losing command of his sinker when he signed with Oakland, his services were needed by the Braves with the departure of Walden. He will likely serve as set-up man for Kimbrel. The hope is that Roger McDowell, who lived and died with an exceptional sinker in his big league career, will be able to straighten out Johnson and get him back on track.

    When his career went off the rails with the A’s, Johnson posted a 7.14 ERA with 2 saves in 38 appearances for the A’s. His time in Detroit, beginning in August, saw him appear in 16 games where he posted a 6.92 ERA. While both of those numbers are elevated, his ERA was inflated by a few games of no command when he was left in. Many baseball commentators contend that 2014 was an anomaly for Johnson.

    The two former Orioles round out several new additions or returning additions to the club and could still be joined by other new faces before the winter is over.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

     

    What the future holds for Braves’ offense

    When the non-tender deadline passes today, teams around baseball will know exactly where their rosters stand. Like the twenty-nine other teams around the league, the Braves have been aware since the season ended what their biggest holes. For Atlanta, as Kent Covington pointed out, the most glaring problems have been with pitching. An ongoing crisis of arms that began with the fall of Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens continues today as the Braves decide which of Kris Medlen or Brandon Beachy to tender. However, the offense is not without its problems and its hole, too.

    Yesterday the Seattle Mariners signed slugger Nelson Cruz to a 4-year deal. The deal itself seems likely to blow up for Seattle somewhere between seasons two and three. Seattle had been one of the teams that seemed the most likely fit for a guy like Justin Upton. Though the Braves contend they haven’t been shopping Upton around, they have been getting plenty of calls about he and fellow slugger Evan Gattis. Prior to the Cruz signing, it would have seemed that Upton and Gattis together could answer all of the Mariners offensive woes (protection for highest-paid player Robinson Cano, backup for everyday catcher Mike Zunino) while giving the Braves what they need most: starting pitching. This didn’t work out and as of this writing the Braves still have both Upton and Gattis.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    Tommy La Stella was sent to the Chicago Cubs in November for former Brave Arodys Vizcaino.

    With the possible trade partner of Seattle, the Braves were all but assured a starting pitcher. Whether that be Taijuan Walker or James Paxton, that would have answered the pitching need that saw the Braves trade away Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for starter Shelby Miller and Tommy La Stella to the Cubs to reacquire Arodys Vizcaino. The Mariners, unlike the Braves, have a flexible and growing budget. It was a better organizational decision to seek out a free agent. The Braves, despite the growth in their budget in the last two years, do not have this luxury.

    Where does this leave Atlanta with possible trades? They have spoken for nearly a year with the Astros about Evan Gattis. Their requirement of Houston seems a bridge too far, though. The Braves would require the Astros to pick up the remainder of the B.J. Upton deal in addition to swapping Gattis for Dexter Fowler. This, of course, wouldn’t answer the question of what to do in rightfield with the departure of Heyward. Fowler could potentially be a lead off man, but not exactly the prototypical lead off man it seems Atlanta has been looking for over the past four to five years.

    A small market for outfielders means the prices will be high for free agents. This would include aging and health-plagued bats like Torii Hunter and Nick Markakis. Other OF options out there are Alex Rios and Matt Kemp. The chances of the Braves taking on the money and potential health risks of Kemp are slim. Rios looks to be more likely to stay in the American League.

    Let’s take a step back for a moment and assume the Braves don’t make a deal to send Justin Upton elsewhere. Upton is due to make $14.5 million in 2015. He will then leave as a FA, assuming he is too expensive for the Braves to hang on to. If they make a qualifying offer after the 2015 season and he chooses to walk, they are assured a draft pick. For a guy who still hit 29 homers and posted 102 RBIs in 2014, that’s not a terrible bat to keep around despite the strikeouts. Unlike his brother, there is a still a huge upside to keeping Upton.

    As far as Evan Gattis, he is more expendable for Atlanta (yes, it breaks my heart to say that). Young and cheap for the team, he isn’t breaking the bank sticking around, but he is a semi-valuable trade chip. If they could come to terms with Houston in a deal that would bring either a hitter like Fowler or even a starting pitcher like Feldman to the club, it would be worth it to the front office to do so. Gattis has the potential to be a very good American League hitter–given the ability to DH regularly–and would still be able to catch either in a starting or backup role. Let’s face it: He’s not a great option in left field for any club.

    While on the topic of backup catchers, let’s discuss our old friend David Ross. Ross left two years ago to go win a World Series with the Boston Red Sox and now his contract is up. Because his battery mate Jon Lester is also looking for a team, the probability that they end up in the same place is good given their chemistry and Lester’s improved numbers with Ross behind the dish. But if Lester were to sign with Atlanta, a club he has talked to, or Ross were to sign away from Lester, Ross would be a great guy to have back with the club in a backup role. The front office has been looking for a veteran guy to fill the backup role behind either Gattis or Bethancourt and Ross fits that bill on top of already having amazing chemistry with the other guys on the roster. A few other options for Atlanta to consider: Retaining Gerald Laird, signing A.J. Pierzynski, approaching John Buck or continuing their offseason trade partnership with the Yankees to get Austin Romine. Of those options none add much to the offense above and beyond what Laird has the last two years. In fact, Laird, despite not having much power, is the better bet at getting on base. But if the Braves are looking for a guy who can lead the staff every few days, you can’t go wrong with John Buck.

    On a final note let’s return to the issue of who will fill the lead off hitter void that Jason Heyward leaves. Heyward was never meant to be a lead off hitter. It just so happened he was the Braves’ best option. Andrelton Simmons isn’t meant to be a lead off hitter and B.J. Upton’s lead off days went the way of the dodo when his strikeout rate went through the roof. With Ramiro Pena and Tommy La Stella gone, the options are few. If the Braves ever give Jose Constanza a true shot in the big leagues he could presumably lead off. And the latest Yankee to join the club, Zoilo Almonte, is too much of a wild card. That leaves the possibility of signing Fowler and asking him to step into that role or doing something else entirely.

    Here’s a thought: Say the Mariners are still interested in Justin Upton or Evan Gattis. They do still need a right fielder and maybe a backup catcher. They have a backlog of outfielders in Triple-A (guys like Julio Morban and Stefen Romero) and players they have been hanging onto despite talks during the trade deadline last year. What about Dustin Ackley? He, too, isn’t a prototypical lead off man. But he brings speed, good base running and exceptional baseball IQ to his game. After wanting to bring up Nick Franklin and then Chris Taylor followed by signing premiere second baseman Robinson Cano, Dustin Ackley was tried in the outfield and turned into a decent left fielder. His speed would be an asset in the large expanse of Turner Field as well as on the base paths. He’s a grinder and one any club would love to have. Are you reading this John Hart? A trade for Ackley, depending on the circumstances, could also bring with him a reliever from one of the best rated and least talked about bullpens in either league.

    Perhaps it’s merely wishful thinking on my part to see the Mariners and Braves become trade partners. Never rule out the wild card in baseball: Billy Beane. It’s said that the A’s also have interest in Gattis, Upton or both. If that’s the case, who knows what will happen.

    With the non-tender deadline today and winter meetings to begin soon, it looks like we’ll have answers soon.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

     

    After near sweep in Pittsburgh, Braves head to Cincy

    This team. This team is frustrating. This team is exciting. This team is agonizing. This team slumps. This team surges. This team dominates.

    Yes, you may have thought these things about the Atlanta Braves throughout the season or even this month alone. You may have even thought these very things in the last week alone. How the Braves are playing now is how the Braves should have played all along had they any consistency on their side. How they play tomorrow and in the final run will come down to exactly that–consistency. They have the pieces. They have the talent. They have the potential, certainly. With a little luck and a heap of consistency, there is no reason this club couldn’t catch the Washington Nationals.

    Upton is hitting .417 on the road trip with 1 homer, 6 RBIs and only 1 strikeout.

    Upton is hitting .417 on the road trip with 1 homer, 6 RBIs and only 1 strikeout.

    One of the most important pieces of the Braves’ offense in the last few series has been Justin Upton. Upton is on one of those torrid streaks that have defined his career. Over his last 12 games, the younger Upton has hit .350/.480/.700 with 4 homers, 2 doubles and 15 RBIs. Despite a miscue in the outfield in the tough loss to the Pirates in the final game of the series, his defense has been steady. He has been as much a reason for the Braves resurgence as any player on the roster.

    The other gold glove caliber outfielder has had a series to remember as well. Jason Heyward hit .462 in Pittsburgh with 6 hits, including a double and a home run, and 5 RBI. He, like Upton, only struck out once at PNC Park. Heyward continues to make highlight reels on a nearly nightly basis with gems that defy physics. As was said last week about Freddie Freeman, if there isn’t a gold glove for Heyward at the end of this season, a Twitter campaign of epic proportions must be launched.

    Let’s talk about pitching for a moment. Despite the terrible loss last night mostly at the hands of Jordan Walden, the Braves have seen improvement in their bullpen in the last few games. While they received tough news that Shae Simmons had been shut down again at Triple-A Gwinnett with shoulder soreness, there have been glimmers of hope for the setup men and all relievers whose name does not end in Kimbrel. Anthony Varvaro and David Hale have recovered from the horrendous roadtrip out west. In fact, since the second game in San Diego, Hale has not allowed a run. That’s 4 innings of work with where he has allowed 3 hits and 0 runs. Luis Avilan seems to have settled down considerably since being sent down as well. If these pieces have something to offer to the 1-2 punch of Walden and Kimbrel, the Braves are in great shape down the stretch.

    While Jordan Walden was part of the stinker served up in the final game against the Pirates, let’s talk about the numbers for Walden overall. Since June 14th (30 games), Walden has a 1.00 ERA with 3 earned runs allowed in those games and 33 strikeouts. He held opponents to a .179 batting average against him. Since the aforementioned horrendous roadtrip, he has pitched with a 1.23 ERA in 7 1/3 innings pitched (1.17 overall in August). His 2.23 ERA on the season is very respectable. If the Braves have any hope of making it to the postseason and beyond, Walden’s health is paramount. His dominance followed by the unhittable Kimbrel limit opposing teams to 7 innings to try to score.

    POWER-HITTING BRAVES ENTER THE BANDBOX…

    Since the Braves are heading into the most notorious bandbox in the National League, let’s talk about slugging numbers among Braves starters.

    While the masher of mashers Evan Gattis is slugging only .516 on the season, he has 2 homers in his last 5 games. He has played only 3 games at Great American Ballpark and hasn’t hit a dinger there. Look for that to change this series.

    Freddie Freeman is slugging .490 in 2014. Since the last roadtrip his slugging percentage is respectable .667. Strangely the consistent Freeman has only hit .235/.316/.294 at Great American.

    Slugging .520 on the season, .700 over his last 12 games, Justin Upton’s power numbers fare the best heading into Cincy. Though his numbers there are similar to Freddie’s, there is no stopping Upton when he gets hot and if he’s smashing balls out of the Ted, Cincy stands no chance against him.

    While Chris Johnson is down nearly .100 in slugging since 2013, CJ has a .268 average when playing in Cincy with a .442 slugging percentage.

    Of course good pitching will always beat good hitting no matter the park, so this weekend’s probables are important. And they are: Teheran (11-9, 3.06) vs. Holmberg (0-0, 15.00) tonight. Friday will see Minor (5-8, 5.16) vs. Latos (4-3, 3.10). Saturday will see Santana (13-6, 3.71) vs. Leake (9-11, 3.65). And Harang (10-7, 3.50) will take the mound against his former team vs. Simon (12-8, 3.35).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves skid through San Diego & Seattle

    If there are two teams in baseball that can truly understand what the Atlanta Braves are going through, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners can.

    The Padres have struggled their way through the 2014 season with terrible hitting. They are dead last in runs scored (363). As a team, they have the lowest batting average in either league (.225). At the trade deadline, the Padres traded away their most useful hitters (Headley and Denorfia) and let veteran closer Huston Street go to a division rival. However, the Padres long-term plan is much different from the plan of the Atlanta Braves. They aren’t looking to contend right now.

    The Mariners, like the Braves, have their eyes set on the postseason. Their hope is to steal the second Wild Card spot in the American League. To do that, there biggest struggle will be giving run support to their strong rotation and dominant bullpen. They are second to last in the American League in runs scored (432). If they hope to make it into October, they will have to show the consistency that both they and their recent opponent lack.

    At the trade deadline, Frank Wren made a great deal with the Chicago Cubs to bring versatile utility man Emilio Bonifacio and left handed reliever James Russell to the team. Those additions were meant to fill holes in the bullpen and on the bench. However, the Braves have a bigger issue: Consistency. After a strong first half, the usually consistent bat of Freddie Freeman has gone cold. The Uptons have been reliable only in their strikeout rate. While Johnson has shown signs of the hitter he was in his breakout 2013 season, he, Simmons and Gattis are under performing at the plate. The bright spot in the lineup has been none other than rookie Tommy La Stella. Their lack of ability to play to their potential has been no more apparent than on their recent 8-game losing skid.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Even the Atlanta Braves at their best would have faced a formidable foe in Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Having taken their struggling offense to Seattle, with one catastrophic defensive miscue, the Braves come away with 2 more losses and a great deal of frustration. They didn’t get much reprieve Wednesday against the resurgent veteran Chris Young who has put together a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber season thus far. It was simply poor luck that Julio Teheran didn’t have his best stuff when facing a team like the Mariners who are as prone to not supporting their starters as the Braves are.

    What the 8-game skid has made clear:

    • B.J. Upton deserves to be platooned in center field. Whether that be with Emilio Bonifacio or someone else, his presence in the lineup is only damaging to a team that struggles to score runs. Moving Upton to 8th in the order simply gives opposing teams the opportunity to get back-to-back strikeouts.
    • Andrelton Simmons is the lynchpin for the Braves. As Terry Pendleton calls him–The Reason. With Simmons’ sprained ankle in Seattle, the Atlanta front office held their breath knowing that Simmons cannot be replaced. Sure, Ramiro Pena, Tommy La Stella, Emilio Bonifacio (and numerous Triple-A players) could stand in for him, but his ability to prevent runs is second to none in baseball.
    • Tommy La Stella remains shaky on defense. While the Braves no longer send someone in as a defensive replacement for La Stella in the late innings, his bat may not continue to prove valuable enough to turn a blind eye to his defense. He’s young. He will improve. But the team is going to hold him responsible for failures like that in Seattle when he dropped a pop-up and likely cost them the game.
    • Jason Heyward can be one of the hottest hitters in baseball. When on a hot streak, there is no scarier player for opposing pitchers than Heyward. In the month of July, Heyward hit .309. In the first week of August he has hit .529 with 9 hits, 2 doubles, 1 triple and 1 RBI. In a week he has only had 4 strikeouts.

    BRAVES HOPE TO SNAP SKID AGAINST RIVALS…

    Getting back home may be just the thing the Braves need. Sometimes long road trips get into the heads of the players and getting home is the reset they need. Whether this pans out or not, we’ll see. There are things that have to happen to get the boys out of this rut.

    First, this constant shuffle of the lineup to make the bats come alive isn’t working. Playing with all of the pieces in motion has proven a disaster for Fredi Gonzalez and has to stop. Not having a DH will take away one option for Fredi. B.J. Upton isn’t going to give the Braves more in the 8-hole than in the 2-hole. With the absence of Simmons, a decision will have to be made about which guys from the bench can be the most beneficial to the offense. Is Pena the best option? If not Pena, where is Bonifacio best used–CF or SS? Those two positions are the two that Fredi should rightfully shuffle. What he can’t do is expect consistency from a team that has a different lineup everyday or are expected to perform different jobs each day. Consistency may need to start with Fredi on down.

    Welcoming the Nats to Turner Field bodes well for the Braves breaking this losing streak. The Braves have dominated the Nationals in head-to-head matchups over the last 2 seasons. But if the Braves can’t get past the Nationals, this weekend could push the Braves down in the standings and give the Nats the space they need to run away with the division.

    The Nationals acquired Matt Thornton for their often chaotic bullpen. Thornton, the holder of a 2.55 ERA, came over from the Yankees and shores up the ‘pen. At the trade deadline, the Nats picked up Asdrubel Cabrera from the Indians for an infield prospect. Cabrera gives the Nats a steady hand in the infield as well as a veteran bat to the lineup. The Nats hope this helps with the shortcomings of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle.

    Atlanta will once again face a Nationals team that is without Ryan Zimmermann who is currently on the DL with a hamstring injury.

    The Nationals will pit Strasburg (8-9, 3.39) vs. Santanta (10-6, 3.59) Friday night. Saturday’s game will feature Roark (11-7, 2.94) vs. Harang (9-6, 3.41). The finale Sunday is Gonzalez (6-8, 4.01) vs. Wood (7-9, 3.20).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    As Braves scuffle, Nats grab first place

    The Atlanta Braves have lost 3 games in the past week when they have a had a lead in the late innings. They’ve lost 2 games where they’ve battled back to make it to the 13th inning only to give up 5 runs and the ballgame. They were swept by the Phillies who, by all indications, are on the verge of trading away some or all of the pieces that once brought them multiple division titles. And they’ve failed their starting pitching offensively time and time again with lack of run support. If the 2014 Atlanta Braves want a spot in the postseason this year, it’s time to get it together.

    When the Braves went out and signed Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons to long-term deals this winter, the consensus among baseball writers about Jason Heyward was that the talent and potential is there, he just hasn’t met it. Many compared he and Freeman to McCann and Francouer when they came up, saying Heyward was the expected superstar and Freeman surpassed him. Many said that Jason’s 2-year extension was a tryout, essentially, for Heyard to prove that he deserves a deal with this club. If that is the case, Heyward is more than proving himself this season. Heyward is now hitting .303/.381/.472 in his past 35 games, all of them in the lead off spot. He has upped his speed on the bases, stealing 9 bags so far. His defense in right field is likely the best in the National League. When compared to other players in either league, defensively Heyward is in the top 5 valuable players, according to Fangraphs, and surpasses teammate Andrelton Simmons.

    The legend of Evan Gattis, former ski lift operator and pizza delivery driver, continues to grow. Gattis takes a 17-game hitting streak and the most homers of any catcher in the big leagues into the series against Washington. Not only has Gattis improved behind the plate defensively and with increased authority calling games, his hitting is more consistent and his power even more dominant. Instead of hitting just fastballs out of baseball parks everywhere, he is hitting offspeed stuff with equal aplomb. Despite taking an off day, Gattis extended his hitting streak to 17 games  yesterday with yet another homer against the Phillies, his 16th on the year. Gattis has now improved his average to .294 with 7 doubles, 16 homers and 38 RBIs on the year. Gattis trails only Tommy La Stella in batting average among his teammates, though has 36 more appearances this season than Tommy. Gattis leads the team in RBI and slugging percentage (.588).

    Coming off his worst career start, Julio Teheran stepped up big time against the visiting Phils. In his last outing against the Reds, Julio surrendered 10 hits and 7 earned runs (a career first) in 6 1/3 innings. He bounced back in a big way against Philly, going 8 strong innings with only 4 hits given up and 1 earned run allowed. He lowered his ERA to 2.31 on the season. Unfortunately, Julio did not get the win due to the ongoing issues in the ‘pen and kept his record at 6-4.

    NATS AND BRAVES SQUARE OFF FOR FIRST PLACE…

    The Braves enter the 4-game series with the Nationals 1 1/2 games behind Washington in the National League East. The Nats enter the series with a 37-33 record and a 2-game winning streak. The Braves sit at 36-35, having lost the last 3 games to the previously mentioned Phillies. The Braves are tied for 2nd in the division with the surprising Miami Marlins who may or may not have what it takes to keep on winning through to September. Though only 5 and 6 games back, respectively, the Phillies and Mets don’t appear to be contenders this year with the pieces they have. The Phillies will likely sell at the deadline–maybe even a fire sale–but, the cash-strapped Mets may hang on to the less expensive pieces they have given their strength in the farm system. Of the two, the Phillies are more likely to be a spoiler alongside the Marlins, assuming Miami can’t keep pace with Washington and Atlanta.

    David Carpenter has had the worst luck on the mound of any reliever this season. His numbers bear that out. With a 4-1 record and a 4.23 ERA in 27 2/3 innings this season, Carpenter has struggled in high pressure situations in the last 2 months. His April ERA was a stellar 2.61. It then ballooned in May to 4.97 before dropping to 4.23 where it is now. His bad luck continued in the Philly series when he was removed from a game with bicep tightness/soreness and was then placed on the 15-day DL. In his place, Pedro Beato was recalled. Beato had a 1-0 record at Gwinnett in 2014 with a 3.49 ERA in 28 1/3 innings. In his 3 games with the club this season he had yet to give up a run in 4 1/3 innings. He had allowed only 3 hits in his appearances and struck out 3. Beato was sent down to Gwinnett Thursday morning and righthander Juan Jaime was called up in his place. In 26 1/3 innings at Gwinnett, Jaime has a 1-0 record with a 2.39 ERA and 13 saves. He has 20 walks to his 40 strikeouts.

    The Carpenter injury is part of larger issue in the bullpen. The consistency of what was once the best bullpen in the league and maybe all of baseball has been a major problem for Atlanta. Avilan has moments where he reminds us of the dominant reliever he was in 2013 when he recorded a 1.52 ERA and went on that ridiculous scoreless streak. But he’s still carrying a 4.70 ERA this season with a 3-1 record in 23 innings pitched and that isn’t helping the embattled ‘pen. Avilan had a 2.53 ERA in May, but his 5.40 ERA in June has risen in key spots when the Braves couldn’t shut down their opponent in late innings. At least his 5.40 ERA in June isn’t as bad as his 7.36 ERA in April? We need the old Avilan back. Fortunately for the Braves, Shae Simmons has been a solid relief option for them. In his 8 1/3 innings, many of them high pressure outings, Simmons has a 1.08 ERA with 8 strikeouts.

    The Braves and Nationals get underway today with Floyd (1-2, 2.98) vs. Zimmerman (5-3, 2.98). Friday will feature Minor (2-4, 4.42) vs. Strasburg (6-5, 3.06). Saturday’s game will pit Teheran (6-4, 2.31) vs. Fister (5-2, 3.08). And the series will wrap on Sunday with Santana (5-4, 4.12) vs. Roark (6-4, 2.85).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Fresh off sweep of Marlins, Braves welcome Mariners

    While nothing seemed to be going right for the Braves in the long split-series with the Boston Red Sox, every break seemed to go their way at Marlins Park. While the defense was shaky in moments, it was unequivocally improved over the Red Sox series. While the bullpen made fans hold their breath when a game sat on the broad shoulders of new addition Shae Simmons, that moment was one of the only moments where the bullpen looked questionable–a great improvement from the Red Sox series when the ‘pen blew leads in late innings in three of the four games.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    Craig Kimbrel secured the 154th save of his young career tying John Smoltz for franchise record.

    The biggest story coming out of the Marlins’ series came in the second game when Craig Kimbrel entered the game for what turned out to be his 154th save as an Atlanta Brave. Kimbrel tied John Smoltz for the franchise record in saves at 154 and will enter the upcoming series against the Mariners with the hope of taking sole ownership of the record while at the Ted in front of Altanta’s fans.

    Kimbrel has been nothing short of dominant since his first save in 2010. Kimbrel has received numerous honors since his big league debut including NL Rookie of the Year in 2011, named to the National League all-star roster in each of his three full seasons (2011, 2012, 2013), has shown well in Cy Young balloting (9th, 5th and 4th in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively) and has appeared on MVP ballots in each of his three full seasons including as high as 8th in 2012. In addition to what will likely be the record for saves in the Atlanta Braves franchise, Kimbrel holds the record for rookie saves with 46.

    A bit of a comparison between Craig Kimbrel and John Smoltz on the numbers alone: Kimbrel has a career 1.42 ERA to go with his 154 saves, including 418 strikeouts and a ridiculous SO/9 ratio of 15.2. Now, bearing in mind that Smoltz was a starter both before and after his time as a closer for some amazing Braves’ teams, the numbers are still interesting. It took Smoltz a bit longer to reach the 154 saves mark–285 1/3 innings to Kimbrel’s 247 2/3 innings. Smoltz put up a 2.65 ERA with 300 strikeouts and a SO/9 ratio of 9.5. Their WHIP when compared is interesting as well. Smoltz posted a 1.106 and Kimbrel? 0.913. There are few stats where Kimbrel doesn’t come out looking better than Smoltz and this in itself is impressive. Sure, they’re different pitchers with different approaches, but when you think about the dominant arms of franchise history, Smoltz is in the top 5. Which begs the question: Just how good will Craig Kimbrel be in his Atlanta career and where will he end up on that list of dominant arms in franchise history? Lucky for Kimbrel and the Braves, we have through the 2017 season, thanks to the 4 yr./$42 million deal signed in the offseason, to find out.

    Kimbrel was not the only story of the series in Miami. Jason Heyward continues to be the best bat in the Braves’ arsenal and one that is reminding folks around baseball just how how the ceiling is on his potential. In Heyward’s past 10 games he has posted a reliable .293 average with 12 hits, 2 homers, 6 RBIs and 6 walks. His .383 on-base percentage has been very important to the Braves.

    Like Heyward, B.J. Upton has been steadily improving upon his on-base percentage. One of the stats that sticks out with the new and improved numbers is how he has struck out in 1 in every 7 plate appearances in his past 13 games. In the first 39 games of the season, B.J. put up a 2.8 PA/K rate. While his batting average in the last 10 games has been a more than respectable .282, it is his reliable on-base percentage of .341 that has proven most impressive.

    It can’t go without noting how Evan Gattis performs against the Marlins. Once again stepping up in a big situation, with the Braves and Marlins tied 2-2 in the finale, Gattis launched the 6th homer of his career in 63 career at-bats against the Fish. He now has a .333 average with those 6 homers and 20 RBI in his career (18 games) against Miami. El Oso Blanco now leads all MLB catchers with 11 homers. Strangely, Gattis has less walks (9) than homers.


    BRAVES WELCOME MARINERS TO TURNER FIELD…

    A 2-game series at home against an American League team isn’t exactly how the Braves would like to take on after the series last week with the Red Sox. However, the Braves are facing a much different team Tuesday and Wednesday. The Mariners come into the series with a 29-28 record, tied with the decimated Rangers for 3rd in the AL West.

    The Braves will luck out and miss Felix Hernandez in the 2-game set against the Mariners as well as injured hurlers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. However, they will have to face Hisashi Iwakuma who is returning to the fine form he showed in 2013. Iwakuma missed the first month of the season after breaking a finger on his pitching hand in spring training.

    Iwakuma had 3 rough outings since rejoining the team in May, giving up 4 or more runs in each. However, he matched those 3 outings with 3 solid performances where he was able to hold opponents to 6 or fewer hits. He has been an innings eater, going 7 or more innings in 4 of his 6 starts.

    Fresh off a late-inning walloping of the Yankees in a makeup game, the Mariners finally have back perennial all-star Robinson Cano who had been held out of 5 games with a bone bruise to his hand. In the absence of Cano, the M’s have found steady offense from the surging Kyle Seager who has improved his batting average from .230 to .253 in the month of May. In his last 12 games, Seager has hit .342 with 2 doubles, 3 triples and 2 homers.

    The Mariners and Braves have been seeing reverse trends in their bullpens in recent weeks. For the Braves, David Carpenter has had a string of terrible luck. He had been one of the most reliable options for Fredi Gonzalez up until recently, but has allowed 7 hits and 4 runs while only being able to retire 2 batters in the last 10 men he has faced. Lloyd McClendon has seen the opposite from one of the arms in his ‘pen. Yoervis Medina has recorded a 1.08 ERA with 11 strikeouts in his last 9 appearances, rapidly improving his season ERA. Medina had been unreliable for McClendon and wild in high pressure situations. Both arms will be interesting to watch as the two teams square off.

    Seattle sends Erasmo Ramirez (1-4, 6.00) against Gavin Floyd (0-2, 2.37). Floyd has been outstanding since joining the club, but has been unlucky in run support. It’s time the boys get Gavin his first win as an Atlanta Brave. The second and final game of the set will pit Hisashi Iwakuma (3-2, 3.09) against Mike Minor (2-3, 3.41).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.