• Los Angeles Dodgers

    2020 Season Preview: With Fingers Crossed, We Arrive at an Opening Day Like No Other

    Editor’s Note: Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis has missed just two Atlanta Braves home openers in the past 40 years. To him, Opening Day and the start of baseball season is when “life begins again.” He shares a very personal, emotional take on the start of this unprecedented 2020 season, the night before the Braves begin their 60-game campaign against the Mets in an empty Citi Field.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I walked outside my house Wednesday evening, needing to clear my head. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the searing temperature lowered somewhat by the torrential rainstorm that had rolled through a half-hour earlier.

    I strolled toward the front of my subdivision, leaving behind four people in my house, the four people I love more than anything on this planet. Three of the four have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. My mother has experienced her two best days since her diagnosis last week after a rough stretch; my two teenage sons have been asymptomatic so far, thankfully.

    A beautiful rainbow, its vibrant colors arching from north to south, stretched across the sky. I took it as a sign that the guilt I’ve felt in recent days and weeks about being excited for the Braves season opener Friday was unnecessary, that in trying to steer myself and my family through a time I never could have imagined, a breather was acceptable. It’s alright to desire something fun, something … normal.

    That it’s OK to feel like I usually do when baseball season approaches.

    I sat down on the curb, and I cried.

    ***

    I’ve attended every Braves home opener the past four decades, save two: 2002 and 2006 (we lived on the Georgia coast at the time; my wife was pregnant in 2002 and had a doctor’s appointment the day of the home opener, and I covered a high school game in 2006). But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve worked a single Opening Day since leaving the newspaper business 13 years ago, even when the Braves start on the road.

    Baseball is in my blood, has been from the time my eyes first gazed the green grass of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sept. 9, 1979, when I joined my grandfather and 2,780 of our closest friends for a 4-1 loss to the Padres, the 87th loss of a 66-94 campaign. The next spring I attended my first home opener in person, a 4-1 defeat to the Reds on April 17 that dropped the Braves to 0-7. Ever since, the start of baseball season has defined my school plans, work plans, social plans.

    When the Braves open on the road, I treat it as its own holiday, an extra date to count down toward through the chilly nights and cloudy days of winter. But as we’ve all learned, the cold of December and January pales in comparison to what we all have experienced in 2020. The coronavirus has killed well more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens and left millions of our neighbors without jobs. For some, the physical strain of surviving the virus and the mental toll of enduring these past five months will resonate for years. We’re also living through a transformative time in our nation, having difficult and long-overdue conversations about social injustice.

    Against that backdrop, it would seem something as frivolous as baseball shouldn’t even be a second thought. Why should we care who the fifth starter is when we have so many more important things to address? I get it, I really do. I quietly have wrestled with that in the past few weeks, and it’s been heavy.

    Then I think about my grandfather, that man who shocked his 6-year-old grandson on that second September Sunday nearly 41 years ago, taking me to my first Braves game. He’s been gone for 21 years, but “Pops” told me plenty of stories about life during World War II, including how important it was for baseball to continue while so many – from Ted Williams to Warren Spahn and both my grandfathers – battled in theaters across the globe.

    I always thought sports were an important part of helping us overcome adversity, but the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 resonated with 28-year-old me like no pass-down story or history lesson ever could. Sports came back after a week away, and when Mike Piazza homered in the first major-league game held in New York City after 9/11, for the Mets against the Braves no less, I cheered. It’s the only moment the Braves have played in my 47 years on this planet when my team lost and I didn’t care.

    New York needed that moment.

    America needed that moment.

    We all needed that moment.

    ***

    As we continue dealing with the virus, as our world spins on what feels like a warped axis, baseball coming back reminds us of a fundamental testament. When things really get bad – and it’s been bad for quite some time in 2020 – we do what we’ve always done. We pause. We weep. We mourn. We bow our heads. We catch our breath.

    And then, we move forward.

    Baseball is like that comfortable pair of jeans (although, after most of us have worked from home for months, those jeans probably don’t fit). It fills eight months of our annual 12-month journey around the sun, from guys showing up early in Florida and Arizona proclaiming they are in “the best shape of their lives,” to the daily cadence of the regular season, to the high drama and heart-stopping moments of October, until somebody lifts the World Series trophy. We follow the offseason news and, before you know it, mid-February arrives again. Players report to camp, the weather warms up soon thereafter, and the countdown toward Opening Day dwindles with each sunrise.

    The season begins and we fall into that regular rhythm like clockwork, turning on the TV or radio or firing up the stream come game time. The broadcasters for our favorite team are the soundtrack of our weekday evenings and weekend afternoons, always present whether we are sitting at home or out at the lake or attending a family reunion, excusing yourself from a conversation with Aunt Alice because it’s second and third with two outs in the eighth and a knock ties the game. It’s always-evolving fodder for your favorite publications, blogs, podcasts and talk shows.

    Baseball is the ultimate people sport. It’s a daily occurrence – 162 games in 187 days leads to a lot of conversations, be it on social media or through message boards or sitting together in the upper deck on a steamy July night. Some of those conversations lead to lifelong relationships; I know several married couples brought together not by blind dates or happenstance encounters or Tinder, but by baseball.

    ***

    It’s going to be different this season, but our world is a different place than it was just a few short months ago. I’ve attended around 80 Braves games the past two seasons, including three games at Wrigley Field, and five postseason games. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met at games, ended up hanging out with, with whom I’ve developed relationships. I’m thankful for each one of you and I miss seeing you in Lot 29, in The Battery, on the concourses and in the stands. Through baseball, I’ve met some of my closest friends in the world. After everything we’ve been through and will have to go through moving forward, I love and cherish every single one of you more than ever.

    In the perfect illustration of how different this season will be, while writing the initial draft of this post – a mere three hours after seeing the rainbow that brought tears to my eyes – my phone buzzed. My photo submission for a cardboard cutout to be placed at Truist Park this season was accepted, and my credit card was charged.

    I couldn’t help but laugh. In a crazy way, it made me feel just a little bit better about starting this season. In the past couple of days, I’ve realized it’s OK to feel heavy about playing a baseball season in a pandemic. It’s OK to question if we should be doing this. It’s OK to worry we won’t make it to the end of the season before something happens that shuts down baseball again.

    And now, after a mentally draining 10 days or so, I realize it’s OK to embrace this. It’s OK to get invested, to take those three hours a night to unplug from the real world and get lost in something that means so much to so many of us. Get upset with a blown lead in the eighth. Jump off your couch when a game-winning hit happens. Respectfully debate bullpen management and lineup construction on social media.

    To do what we always have done: ride the ebb and flow of a baseball season, regardless if it’s 60 games or 162.

    There will be plenty of moments when we will have to embrace the weird because, heck, what else are we going to do? While baseball is timeliness, each season is its own interesting microcosm. Some years, your team wins 72 when it should have won 81. Some years, your team wins 91 when it should have won 82. That’s baseball.

    And it’s back.

    When the 2018 Braves stunningly roared to the NL East title, the team’s marketing folks rolled out a social media hashtag for the NLDS against the Dodgers: #ForEachOther. It fits now more than ever. We wondered if we would get to this point, but here we are: live, regular season Major League Baseball is on my TV, and the Braves play a meaningful game in less than 24 hours.

    I’m ready for life to begin again. It’s Opening Day. After all we’ve been through, there’s just one thing left to say:

    Play ball.

    —30—

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

    A Sobering Fourth, Positive Tests, and Should We Even Try to Do This?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Fourth of July normally is a celebration of all things Americana, complete with summer heat, burgers on the grill, family and friends and, of course, Braves baseball. It’s one of the landmark days on the baseball calendar, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day, when we size up where our team sits and whether it actually is good enough to make it to October.

    But not this year. And we got a stark dose of our current, cold reality splashed right into our faces as the second day of Braves summer camp unfolded Saturday morning at Truist Park.

    I had no inside information, and while some folks mentioned it on social media, I hesitated greatly to speculate on the players I did not see in pictures and videos from the Braves and various onsite media from Friday’s workouts. But I’ve watched this team as close as anybody for years, and not seeing Freddie Freeman’s face pop up in a single image Friday left me wondering if the captain of the Braves indeed had been stricken by the coronavirus.

    Those worries were confirmed by the team Saturday morning, the first baseman and linchpin of the Atlanta lineup testing positive for the virus. He has company, sadly: newly signed closer Will Smith, along with pitcher Touki Toussaint and non-roster infielder Pete Kozma, also testing positive for a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans. According to published reports Saturday, manager Brian Snitker said Freeman has been running a fever and might not be back for quite some time. Freeman’s wife, Chelsea Freeman, commented via her Instagram account that her husband, “literally never gets sick and this virus hit him like a ton of bricks.”

    In normal times, we would discuss what Freeman’s absence would mean to the Braves. Three years ago tonight, we were celebrating his return from a wrist injury (at third base, remember? Ah, the Matt Adams days). These obviously are not normal times. Heck, I should be sitting in Truist Park tonight, celebrating Independence Day with 41,000 of my closest friends, enjoying seeing Mike Trout play in person for the first time, welcoming home former Braves standouts Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran. Instead, I’m here in the Braves Room, streaming a Winnipeg Goldeyes games online (Peg City is up 9-0, by the way) while an IMSA race at Dayton plays on my muted TV.

    Normal? Nope. I don’t even know what IMSA means.

    I spent today the way I spent the previous two afternoons – fishing along the shores of Lake Lanier, burning vacation time for work that would’ve been spent at the home opener and the opening homestand and at Fenway Park two weeks ago. The only chop in my world right now comes from boat traffic lapping against the lake shore. The Braves, according to a New York Post report tonight, are scheduled to open the truncated 60-game season on Friday, July 24, at Citi Field against the Mets.

    It’s fair to wonder tonight: Will it happen?

    More importantly: Should it happen?

    Sure, it’d be great to have Braves baseball on our TVs 60 times across 66 days starting two weeks from Friday. The distraction would be welcomed. Just listening to this Goldeyes radio broadcast tonight (Winnipeg roughed up former Mississippi Braves hurler Tyler Pike for seven runs, in case you’re wondering) has provided a bit of comforting and somewhat familiar background noise on a Fourth of July that otherwise feels like no other July 4 in my memory.

    But at the same time, it feels foolish to spend much time wondering how the Braves cover for Freeman’s likely absence when the season begins at first base and the now-gaping hole in the third spot of the batting order. I mean, with everything going on right now, is investing the energy into whether it should be Austin Riley or Nick Markakis or Yonder Alonso playing first base worthwhile?

    Perhaps it is, and perhaps that’s how we keep on keeping on, right? I often come to you here with blunt opinions about this franchise and this sport, but I’m conflicted tonight. Seeing Snitker speak to the media today was difficult. You could see the pain in his eyes as he discussed not only the four positive test results, but also the fact popular first-base coach Eric Young Sr. has opted out of being onsite this season. Say what you will about Snit, but you can’t deny how much he loves this franchise he’s represented for four decades, and how much that man adores every single person who is a part of it.

    The Fourth of July is here, and this is where we sit. It’s a heavy time, accentuated further by Dodgers pitcher David Price and Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman opting out of playing in 2020, by positive tests for Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola and two teammates, by positive tests that have popped up already inside the NBA and MLS bubbles. And sobering news late Saturday: Felix Hernandez, the longtime Seattle ace who impressed in his initial Braves spring starts before the shutdown, opting to sit out 2020 because of the virus.

    And can you blame him, honestly?

    Trout, the best player on the planet, would be roaming center field for the Angels at Truist Park tonight. Instead, he’s home with his pregnant wife, undoubtedly weighing the heaviness of whether putting on his No. 27 for the Halos is worthwhile in this unprecedented time. I don’t blame him one bit. Honestly, I’ll be surprised if the best player on the planet takes one AB this season.

    I want baseball back, desperately. But deep down, stripping away my Braves fandom and my insane love for this amazing sport, I must admit I’ve wondered if one day I’d reach a point when I’d say, “let’s not do this.”

    This weekend, around the most American date on the calendar and one when our national pastime shines so bright, one typically spent celebrating with family and friends while watching our beautiful game on display, I’m closer to that point than I ever thought I’d be.

    —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.

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We conclude my look back at the top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with a focus on the franchise’s emergence from the painful rebuild with the National League East clincher in 2018, followed by a slamming announcement of arrival in Atlanta’s first playoff game victory in five years in that season’s NLDS.

    Did you miss part of the series? Check out the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    Part 4: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

    I stood in a cigar shop off Ga. 400 north of Cumming on the morning of Sept. 22, 2018. A cooler inside my SUV held two bottles of champagne, chilling on ice and poised for the day. As I picked out a couple of stogies (I reserve a good cigar for special occasions), the guy behind the counter looked at my Braves jersey.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” he said, smiling. “It’s so great the Braves are back.”

    That fourth Saturday in September took me back, way back, to my much younger days when it felt like popping bottles late in the year’s ninth month was a birthright. The Braves began 2018 hoping to make progress out of a four-year rebuild, with an international front-office scandal just five months prior still a gaping wound.

    On this platform, I picked the Braves to improve from 72 wins in 2017 to 80 wins in 2018, and I heard quite a bit about that from some folks.

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

    The Braves thrilled us during a dizzying ride though a 90-win regular season, with walk-off victories and emerging young stars as far as the eye could see, the pieces of the puzzle starting to join together to produce something not even the most ardent, optimistic Braves fan could’ve expected when the season commenced. Even how it started was quite remarkable: Nick Markakis blasting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth as a thunderstorm approached SunTrust Park to cap a five-run rally and lift the Braves past Philadelphia.

    While there were fits and starts, overall, that moment in the season opener seemed to galvanize this team. An early-September weekend in Arizona produced two heart-stopping victories, and I’ve said time and time again the Braves won the East in the desert those two games. But the official moment would come at 3:44 p.m. two weekends later, on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, when Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field.

    Freddie Freeman raised both arms into the air, as if finally freed from the purgatory of rebuilding. Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave, fought back tears while being interviewed on national TV. A few moments earlier, as that fly ball settled in Acuna’s glove, Fox Sports national baseball announced Joe Davis uttered the same words the dude at the cigar shop said to me about six hours earlier: “The Braves are back.”

    And inside the ballpark, it was a party that had been a half-decade in the making, the joyous release of five years of frustration and pain and embarrassment. It hit me at some point during the celebration why I felt just delirious. Sure, I had just witnessed the Braves clinching something (division, wild card, playoff series victory, pennant, World Series title) in person for the seventh time. But it had been more than a hot minute. The last clinch I saw: way back to Game 7 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.

    I sat in Lot 29, finished my preview of Sunday’s game, then fired up that cigar and popped open one bottle of champagne. As I watched so many people walk past me and saw the sheer joy on their faces, it occurred to me that a whole new group of fans was experiencing what I got to enjoy so much in my late teens and throughout my 20s.

    I smiled with each delicious sip of bubbly. The rebuild, at long and blessed last, officially over.

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

    My God! He’s Just a Child: Oct. 7, 2018

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

    Look, let’s face it. The Braves exited the rebuild earlier than any of us expected. We saw an improving team with a lot of questions as the 2018 season dawned, figuring we had another season or two before contention would be realistic. Yeah, right. All the Braves did was squash that preordained timeline by winning 90 games and claiming the National League East for the first time in five seasons. And a big reason why was a 20-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who made his major-league debut in late April, smash a jaw-dropping homer in his second big-league game and never looked back en route to NL rookie of the year honors.

    But what Ronald Acuna Jr. did on the first Sunday in October 2018 just didn’t propel Atlanta to its first postseason victory in 1,829 days. It announced to the rest of the baseball world that the Braves were back and were going to be a problem for opposing teams for years to come.

    The first home playoff game in the history of SunTrust Park was met with sheer exuberance from those of us fortunate enough to be there, along with the millions in Braves Country who dreamed of this through every moment of the rebuild. Acuna, with his million-watt smile and unbridled passion, led the way through the regular season as the Braves buried the old narrative and emerged as a playoff team. Granted, it was hard to see any way past the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, a thought reinforced when Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 9-0 in taking the first two games of the series in Chavez Ravine.

    The series shifted to the South’s capital city and we took full advantage of the moment. The tailgate party in Lot 29 was the best I’ve experienced in years of pre-gaming with Braves fans. There was an aura of, “we’re here, so let’s go” that permeated through everyone amid the smoke from the grills and the flowing of beverages. Perhaps it was five years of pent-up frustration. Perhaps it was the realization that playoff baseball was back in Atlanta after half a decade, in the Braves’ sparkling new palace.

    And while they lost this series in four games, one magical swing in the second inning of Game 3 served notice that the Braves were back on the national stage.

    Acuna found himself in the on-deck circle as starting pitcher Sean Newcomb worked a four-pitch walk against Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler to drive home Atlanta’s first run of the series. With everybody standing and the new ballpark shaking, Acuna stepped to the plate and took three balls from the Los Angeles right-hander.

    The fans in the yard were screaming. My oldest son leaned into my left ear and screamed, “he’s going to walk him. He can’t give up a big hit right here.” I agreed. Buehler responded with a fastball high in the zone, a pitch inexcusably called a strike. The crowd, in full lather and sounding like the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium assemblies in the 1990s, howled its disapproval. At that moment, I was hoping Acuna would settle himself after the blatant missed call, and simply drive the ball somewhere to plate a run or two.

    He did much, much better than that.

    Acuna’s swing at the 3-1 pitch not only made him the youngest player in MLB history to launch a grand slam in a postseason game, not only put the Braves ahead 5-0, it delivered a definitive message to the rest of the majors. This team, one that had lost 89-plus games for four straight seasons, not only was here, it was here to play. I screamed above the din to my son, “My God! He’s just a child!” Again, nobody gave the Braves a chance in the series and understandably so, but in Atlanta’s first playoff game held in its shiny new field of dreams, a small part of the payoff was realized, thanks in large part to Acuna.

    Yes, the Braves won 6-5 in Game 3, surviving a furious rally (the Dodgers were so, so much better, to be honest) as Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead solo blast. And almost as noteworthy, the nation saw the vision behind the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta realized on that Sunday night. We started tailgating before noon, some eight hours before first pitch, and traffic already was stacked around the area. It truly felt like a college football Saturday in Athens, or on the plains of Auburn, or along the river in Knoxville, in the hours leading up to the game. Afterward, the party raged in The Battery.

    It wasn’t just a game. It was an event. The Braves hit a grand slam by securing the land at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285 on the northwestern rim of the city, and this moment was one the franchise surely had in mind in November 2013 when it announced the move from downtown. And for the first time, the genius of that bold move was realized the day of Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, a game won in part by the brightest star of Atlanta’s rebuild stepping into the national spotlight and delivering a grand slam of his own.

    Author’s note: All the moments in this series are special to me, and I hope I’ve articulated why well enough the past five days. But if I had to pick a favorite, Acuna’s grand slam would top the list.

    —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.

    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.

    d’Arnaud Signing Sets Stage for Big Winter Moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Yasmani Grandal signed a four-year deal Thursday with the White Sox, it removed the one game-changing free agent catcher from the market. Nonetheless, as he’s done all offseason, Alex Anthopoulos wasted no time in getting what the Braves needed, even if in this instance it wasn’t perhaps what the Braves really wanted.

    Sunday’s signing of Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year, $16-million deal does not necessarily move the needle on its own standing. We’re talking about a player who played all of four major-league games in 2018. But d’Arnaud put together a solid season while taking quite a circuitous route through 2019, from 10 games with the Mets to one lone at-bat with the Dodgers before landing in Tampa Bay, where the 30-year-old hit 16 homers with 16 doubles, 67 RBIs, slashed .263/.323/.459 for a .782 OPS in helping the Rays reach the American League Division Series.

    Now he’ll help try to push the Braves through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2001 next season. And while adding d’Arnaud on its own isn’t going to make anybody do backflips, I’m of the opinion it’s necessary to look at Anthopoulos’ latest move through two different prisms:

    Locking in Value in a Lackluster Market

    There have been plenty of names bandied about regarding the catcher market, but only one really stood out: Grandal. With him now on Chicago’s southside and $73 million richer (a fair deal in terms of years and money), the rest of the market features quite a few options – from Jason Castro to Alex Avila, from Robinson Chirinos to Martin Maldonado – that weren’t going to make people to buy season tickets or jerseys.

    And that’s OK. The Braves saw that, without landing a real difference maker, the move was to strike quick and get what they felt to be a viable platoon option to team with Tyler Flowers. We all know Flowers has regressed both offensively and defensively, but remains one of the better pitch-framers in the game. He ranked fifth in 2019 according to Baseball Savant in getting strikes in what the website defines as the “shadow zone,” or the edges of the strike zone, among catchers who caught six called pitches in those shadows per team game played.

    d’Arnaud ranked fifth among this winter’s free agent catchers last season, getting shadow strikes called at a 48.7 percent rate (Flowers, by comparison, got strike calls on 52.8 percent of said pitches). The Braves long have valued pitch-framing and ability to guide a young staff, the second box checked by d’Arnaud given his work with young Mets pitchers en route to the 2015 World Series and with Tampa Bay this past season.

    d’Arnaud gave up six passed balls in 578 2/3 innings in 2019 (one every 96.44 innings, while Flowers allowed one every 42.43 innings in 2019) and threw out 28 percent of would-be base stealers. Offensively, d’Arnaud recorded a 20.6 percent line-drive rate (his best since 2015) and overall posted a .745 OPS (again, best since 2015) while matching a career high in homers and setting a new high mark in RBIs.

    To strike quick and cross catcher off the to-do list, it’s hard to criticize this move. At the same time, how effective this looks depends in part on what happens next.

    The Next Shoe to Drop

    The Braves seem destined to soar past their largest opening day payroll this century ($122.60 million in 2017, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts). The d’Arnaud signing pushes the projected Atlanta opening day payroll to $112.42 million with 21 locks at this point for the opening day roster (the caveats offered in recent pieces still apply, with Sean Newcomb moving to the starting rotation and Nick Markakis teaming up with Adam Duvall to platoon in left field, for now).

    One spot remains on the bench and two remain in the bullpen. As opined previously, we’ll give two MLB-minimum salary guys (say Jacob Webb and A.J. Minter) those final bullpen spots, taking the opening day payroll to $113.56 million with three spots remaining – a bench bat, a third baseman, and a starting pitcher. If you assume Atlanta spends $2.5 million on that bench bat (Matt Joyce, come on back, bro), that pushes the payroll to $116.06 million.

    If we think the opening day payroll is going to $150 million – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about the Atlanta Braves, but from where I sit, I actually think that’s plausible – the Braves have $33.94 million left to fill third base and a rotation spot. Going the pure free agent route, the most logical choices are to bring back Josh Donaldson at somewhere near $25 million per season and find a value starter for around $9 million a season.

    I expect the Braves, when all is said and done, to either re-sign Donaldson or, if the bidding gets too high, to pivot quickly to Mike Moustakas at somewhere around a $14 million AAV.

    But I don’t think the Braves are settling for value in the rotation considering the starting staff today consists of two players with just one year each of full-time MLB rotation experience (Mike Soroka, Max Fried), one experienced starter who spent six weeks at Triple-A last season (Mike Foltynewicz), and a starter who ended up becoming an effective reliever in 2019 and only has been guaranteed a chance to nail down a rotation position (Newcomb).

    Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they sign a veteran at a discount like Tanner Roark or Wade Miley. Maybe they reunite with former UGA lefty Alex Wood. Maybe they can’t completely rid themselves of Julio Teheran and bring the longtime right-hander back on a reduced deal to eat innings.

    I just don’t see it.

    Anthopoulos has stated ad nauseum that trades are an effective – if not preferable – method to build a team. He’s filled in plenty of gaps via free agency in the infant days of this offseason, from the best available closer to multiple veteran relievers to a catcher representing value in an otherwise indistinguishable market. He’s spent plenty of money ($30.25 million of the 2020 payroll, to be exact) via free agency, a number that rises even more if Donaldson or Moustakas are signed.

    Regardless, a trade is coming. The feeling is we’re rapidly approaching the moment where the currency of choice shifts from dollars and cents to prospect capital. Anthopoulos has been on the job for 24 months. He knows the system inside and out. He has his opinions on who on the farm will help the Braves win the World Series, and who needs to go to acquire the pieces that will bring Atlanta a championship.

    The Winter Meetings begin in two weeks in San Diego. The week of Thanksgiving typically is quiet, but the pace again will accelerate with urgency after the turkey is finished. It could be a transformative period for a franchise that continues to emerge as a powerhouse, one with back-to-back division titles on its resume, a painful playoff series loss on its soul, and now in a position to take that leap.

    Work remains to be done, and even the timing of the d’Arnaud signing illustrates how that work really never ceases. Anthopoulos, who was born in Montreal and grew up cheering for the Expos, signed d’Arnaud on Grey Cup Sunday, the news released about two hours before kickoff in Soroka’s hometown of Calgary. As my adopted second sports home of Winnipeg prepared to chase its first Canadian Football League championship since 1990, Anthopoulos made his next move.

    “Wipe away the wing sauce, hold off on the adult beverages and get to writing,” I mumbled to myself (along with a few choice adjectives) as construction of this piece began, as construction of the 2020 Braves continued with no regard to the Canadian sports calendar.

    Safe to say, the building will continue as November fades into December. As the Bombers and Tiger-Cats played to end their decades-long championship droughts, the good Canadian kid continued his work to help his baseball franchise end a title drought of its own.

    —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.

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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.

    WINNERS, AND STILL CHAMPIONS!! BRAVES SILENCE DOUBTERS WITH BACK-TO-BACK DIVISION TITLES

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens. It doesn’t matter if it comes out of left field or becomes an annual occurrence. It never, ever, EVER gets old.

    But had you bought into the national pundits and the long-since-beaten-to-oblivion storyline in spring, you would think the Atlanta Braves would hold tight to the memories of winning the 2018 National League East championship as if it were a summertime fling with that girl who visited her grandparents in your neighborhood for six weeks, because there would be no chance at reliving that moment from Sept. 22, 2018.

    Welcome to Sept. 20, 2019.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    Welcome to the home of the NL East champions.

    Again.

    The Braves officially answered the national media and the naysayers in the best way possible at 9:42 p.m. Friday, when Alex Dickerson’s fly ball to short center landed in the glove of Ronald Acuna Jr. Some 363 days after Acuna gloved the final out to clinch the Braves 2018 NL East crown, Atlanta again ascended the mountain, completing the first step of a journey that feels – unlike last season’s surprising surge to the playoffs – like it only has reached an initial benchmark, and not a final destination.

    The Braves of 2018 surprised so many, a newness for a franchise coming out of a painful four-year rebuild. This year’s edition, despite being overlooked by so many, shook off an 18-20 start and put the hammer down with a torrid four-month stretch that blew the doors off the revamped NL East. The Nationals, Phillies and Mets made plenty of headlines in the cold, windy days of winter.

    Amid the heat of summer, the Braves shined brightest. Now they get the chance to turn autumn upside down.

    From the moment the sun came up Friday, there was a sense of finality around the series opener with the Giants, the beginning of the final home series of the season. A chance to lock up the division title in front of a huge crowd, on a weekend, much like the Braves experienced last season on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon against the Phillies.

    But the path to bottles being popped in the home clubhouse was a bit different this time around. The Braves stumbled out of the gate, and in early May were two games under .500 after being swept by the Dodgers and losing on a walk-off homer the next night in Arizona. The bullpen was a mess, scuttled by injuries and underperformance. The offense wasn’t clicking. The rotation was inconsistent.

    You know what happened next.

    Let’s fast forward to tonight. There were redemption stories as far as the eye could see.

    Start with the front office. Yes, the front office. Financial flexibility be darned, Alex Anthopoulos knew what he was doing from the jump. He pulled the trigger for Dallas Keuchel and not Craig Kimbrel. He rolled the dice on Josh Donaldson. He took a bit of a chance in bringing Brian McCann back to his hometown. He hedged his bet on Nick Markakis, hoping the second-half regression we saw last summer wouldn’t repeat itself.

    Despite non-stop criticism from the national media and from large segments of the fanbase, Anthopoulos never caved. He remade the bullpen at the trade deadline. He supplemented the roster by coming up aces with every August move off the waiver wire.

    And his biggest splash of the winter? Suffice to say it’s worked out perfectly.

    Donaldson, who looked a shell of his former self due to injuries in 2017-18, stayed healthy all season. He’s been one of the top third baseman in the game since finding his rhythm in early June. Moving to the cleanup spot has provided the protection Freddie Freeman has lacked in his big-league career. Watching Donaldson celebrate with his teammates makes one feel he would be happy to return to Atlanta for 2020 and beyond, provided the length of contract and money involved is right.

    But the biggest story on this third Friday in September was focused on the mound. Throughout the winter, so much was made of question marks about Atlanta’s rotation. Mike Soroka and Max Fried went a long way toward answering those questions with breakthrough seasons. The addition of Keuchel provided a sorely needed veteran boost, a previous World Series champion who swam through Chattahoochee Falls during the postgame party with the joy of a child on the first day of summer vacation.

    Mike Foltynewicz pitched the clinching game for the division title a season ago, a crowning moment of a 13-win, All-Star season. But things went south after a bone spur in his elbow short-circuited his spring training, and a disastrous two-month stint send the right-hander to the minors to find himself.

    That demotion paid dividends in more ways that one. Beyond the numbers Foltynewicz has compiled since returning to Atlanta’s rotation in early August, it’s the manner with which he has owned the mound that should give Braves fans a ton of confidence. Eight shutout innings Friday on just 95 pitches (65 for strikes), complete dominance extending a streak of impressive starts to six for the 27-year-old. Once an afterthought for the postseason roster, Foltynewicz very well may be Atlanta’s most important arm in the playoffs.

    And when it was over Friday night and the team assembled on the field, Brian Snitker stood in the middle of the diamond with tears welling in his eyes. As the big screen showed the skipper, SunTrust Park roared its approval, and the emotional, stoic leader of this emerging powerhouse raised his left arm in the air.

    The lifelong Brave, in his 43rd year in the organization, walked toward the dugout with arms raised. He, and his team, destroyed the national storyline. Now, these Braves of 2019 have a chance to write their own script in October, a script for the ages.

    —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.

    With East All but Secure, Braves Turn Attention to Greater Goals

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Once upon a time, back in the early days of spring when the prognosticators were offering their forecast for the 2019 season, there was little national regard paid to a defending division champion. A 90-game winner the previous season. A team awash with young talent, with more on the way. A team with money to spend.

    And yet, everywhere from MLB Network Radio to armchair experts on Twitter, the view was pessimistic surrounding the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Yes, the defending National League East champion, the team in the division (we exclude the Miami Marlins from this conversation because, well, they’re the Marlins) that did the least in the offseason. The term “financial flexibility” was deadpanned from coast to coast, and a season-opening sweep at the hands of the buffed-up Phillies did nothing but fan the flames of discontent.

    Fast forward to Sunday morning. Walking into SunTrust Park for the finale of a series we all circled months ago, and there was a strange feeling. One of finality. One of arrival. One of … dare we say, calm?

    The Atlanta Braves lost Sunday to the Washington Nationals, the 9-4 final score not indictive of the type of day it was for the home team. Max Scherzer pitched like an ace, Yan Gomes homered twice, Braves pitchers gave up 17 hits. And yet …

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

    Certainly, a victory Sunday would have made for the perfect bow on top of the perfect package, but the real story was what the Braves did in the three games leading into Sunday, the nine games leading into Sunday and, in a sense, the four months leading into Sunday.

    Imagine the preseason pundits now, pulling up the MLB app on their phone and gazing at the NL East standings. The Braves, trashed and torched far and wide throughout the winter and spring, sitting nine games clear of the Nationals with 18 games to go, a magic number of 11, a breakneck pace that looks unstoppable on its way to another Choptober.

    Those vaunted Phillies and Mets? Not even worth the keystrokes to mention how far back that pair of preseason darlings sit from first place.

    What the Braves did this weekend was deliver the loudest of statements. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since May 10, when in the midst of a four-game losing streak featuring an overwhelming sweep by the Dodgers and a walk-off loss in Arizona, manager Brian Snitker shook up the lineup. He re-deployed Ronald Acuna Jr. to the leadoff spot, moved newly acquired Josh Donaldson to cleanup, slotted Ozzie Albies lower in the lineup and elevated Dansby Swanson to the two-hole.

    Since that moment the Braves are 71-35, a .669 winning percentage that over the course of a full season equates to a 108-win season. It’s featured a 20-win June, a 19-win August, victories in six of their first seven games in September, series victories over the Twins and Dodgers, a split at Wrigley Field, and wins in nine of their past 13 meetings with the Nationals.

    Those last three triumphs most likely buried Washington’s shot of contending for the division title with two weeks left in the season. It started, as always, with pitching, and Atlanta starters Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran combined to allow one run in 19 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. It ended with solid work from the bullpen, two games closed by Mark Melancon and one by Shane Greene. It featured the lethal top of the Braves lineup unleashing its deadly duo of speed and power, from Acuna’s assault on 40/40 to Albies homering in consecutive games to the steady Freddie Freeman to Donaldson bringing rain and dancing with an umbrella in the dugout.

    These Braves have morphed into something very few of us saw coming this soon. Yes, there was a prevailing feeling in spring this team could be really good, but I doubt many of us saw them being a 100-win squad. But here we are, a new era dawning right before our eyes.

    Last year’s Braves took the baseball world by surprise. From listening to the national media this spring, you would think those 90 wins and a division crown were a fluke, a feel-good story that wasn’t sustainable. That line of thinking, while popular, was foolish … even more so in retrospect.

    What we have here is an elite team, one that has seen its goals shift. It’s been 18 years since the Braves won a playoff series. It’s been two decades since they won a pennant. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since they won it all.

    This team is capable of accomplishing all of that. It doesn’t fit the national storyline. Even to this day, there still remains the “yeah, but they didn’t do much in the offseason” narrative. And that’s fine. It’s worked out, from the lineup changes to the midseason acquisitions to the fact that, to a man, this baseball team has played like champions.

    They soon will be champions of the East, yet again, pundits be darned. And they have a better chance than anybody outside of Braves Country will give them of being champions of far, far more.

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.