• Luis Castillo

    POSTSEASON PARADISE! Braves End 19-Year Playoff Drought with Sweep of Reds

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nineteen years. Six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-nine days. Two hundred and twenty-seven months, plus 20 days for good measure.

    Finally, it’s over.

    Finally, Lucy didn’t pull the football away from Charlie Brown.

    Finally, at long and blessed last, the nearly two-decade postseason drought for the Atlanta Braves – a stretch that has defined their recent history – is just that:

    History.

    The Braves have won a postseason series for the first time since 2001, finishing a two-game sweep of Cincinnati on Thursday in the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. Time to head west to Houston for the NL bubble and a date with either the Cubs or the Marlins in the best-of-five NL Division Series. The winner plays for the pennant and a trip to the World Series.

    “I told them we’ve just checked a box off of what we want to get done,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, adding that the mood in the clubhouse was, “controlled chaos.”

    There was plenty of emotion and elation oozing from all corners of Braves Country, and it certainly was understandable … and overdue. Consider that social media did not exist when the Braves capped a three-game NLDS sweep of Houston on Oct. 12, 2001. To put it another way: the last time this franchise won a playoff series was 341 days before I became a father and 701 days before my second child was born.

    My kids are now in their senior and junior years of high school, and for the first time in their lives have experienced the Braves winning a postseason series. So excuse us if we celebrate this with the fervor of a pennant and World Series trip.

    It’s been a minute.

    Streak Buster: Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall homered in the eighth inning Thursday as the Braves finished a two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series, the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001.

    Atlanta won this series in a far, far different manner than most people expected leading into the start of the expanded 16-team playoffs. The Braves cranked out runs at a staggering pace all season, leading the majors in OBP and finishing second in runs and homers. One figured that prolific offense would have to lead the way. Had you told someone Monday the Braves would score a whopping two runs in the first 20 innings of the series, odds are they would think the season – and not the postseason futility streak – would be ending.

    In front of Braves family members and a few thousand cardboard cutouts in an otherwise empty Truist Park, Atlanta hitters spent plenty of time taking right turns and heading back to the first-base dugout after striking out. One day after fanning 21 times in Game 1, the Braves struck out 14 times in the second game.

    Certainly, there is credit due to Cincinnati’s pitching. Remember, the Reds featured arguably the best rotation among all postseason qualifiers, fronted by Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo in the first two games. That pitching was more than enough to sway many national prognosticators to pick seventh-seeded Cincinnati in the opening round.

    Somebody forgot to tell Max Fried and Ian Anderson they were supposed to play second fiddle, though. One day after Fried spun seven shutout innings to set the tone in Atlanta’s 1-0, 13-inning triumph, it was the 22-year-old Anderson who grabbed control Thursday. The Braves first-round pick in 2016 displayed poise and composure during his first six major-league starts, then took it to another level in his playoff debut.

    Anderson wiggled out of a mess in a 34-pitch second inning – prolonged by Ozzie Albies’ inability to cleanly turn a double play and several questionable ball/strike calls by home plate umpire Marty Foster. Otherwise he was unflappable, finishing with nine strikeouts and just two hits allowed across six innings.

    “This whole time coming up and making an impact, throwing the ball well,” Anderson told Fox Sports Southeast postgame. “It’s been a blast.”

    For the Reds, it was anything but. Much was made of Cincinnati’s pedestrian offense entering the series, but nobody foresaw Cincinnati’s futility in the batter’s box: zero runs in 22 innings. The Braves bullpen shined brightly, dodging disaster in extra innings Wednesday before three quiet innings in the clincher. Fried and Anderson, who each made their first career postseason starts in the series, combined to surrender eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

    Unlike Fried, Anderson left the game with the lead.

    Ronald Acuna Jr., one of few Atlanta offensive bright spots in last season’s NLDS defeat to St. Louis, collected one of six Braves hits in Game 1. His two-out double to left-center in the fifth off Castillo chased home Austin Riley with Game 2’s first run, Acuna finishing as the first Braves player to collect three hits with a stolen base in a playoff game since Andruw Jones in 2004.

    Moving On: Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the media after Atlanta’s two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series Thursday.

    The Braves offense was too good to lay dormant for too long. They broke through with four big insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, getting a pair of two-run homers from Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. Both sluggers struggled in the series, but provided the breathing room the Braves and their fans desperately craved after the drama and tension of the series to that point.

    Ozuna – who led the NL with 18 homers in the regular season – told his teammates he had a celebration in mind if he launched one in the series. As his blast traveled toward the left-field seats in the eighth, he paused briefly for a selfie with an imaginary camera halfway down the first-base line. Ozuna repeated the move in the dugout as his teammates surrounded him.

    “We all celebrate as one,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    And it’s an occasion worth celebrating. Because for the first time since the early days of this century, a Braves playoff run isn’t one-and-done.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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 at the Deadline: The Ring is The Thing, and The Time is Now to Go for It

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA — Imagine for a moment it’s the night before Thanksgiving, and you are in the car, off in search of that one last item to make the holiday meal absolutely perfect.

    The highways are as congested as the Downtown Connector on a Friday afternoon. Finding what you need is as easy as securing that last gallon of milk in the hours before a Southern snowstorm. And when you finally do return home with the missing piece, the one element you hope makes this family gathering the moment they rave about for decades to come, you also shutter at the price you paid.

    Sounds fun, right?

    Welcome to the next two weeks of Alex Anthopoulos’ life.

    When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this November, how we view the Atlanta Braves 2019 season likely will be shaped by what their general manager accomplishes between now and the July 31 trade deadline. That’s not to minimize what these Braves have accomplished to this point, sitting in first place in the National League East as the Washington Nationals head to town for a key four-game series starting Thursday at SunTrust Park. But make no mistake about it: while the results through the first 97 games of this season may not have altered the overall master plan, it should flip the short-term narrative.

    These Braves are very good. These Braves are close to being great. These Braves are on the verge of being something incredibly special.

    These Braves need to go for it.

    Now.

    (Let’s take a step back for a little perspective – because the masses that read this likely will want to stop here and grab their pitchforks, convinced I’m advocating trading everything not nailed down in Lawrenceville and Pearl and Kissimmee for one swing at the summit.)

    No more than I would advise somebody blowing the January mortgage in order to buy the greatest Christmas present ever, I do not think Atlanta should take dynamite to its carefully calculated, painfully executed plan for returning to long-term prominence in exchange for one lone shot at October glory. Even with no moves at this year’s deadline, the Braves are as well situated as any team in the majors to contend year-in, year-out, for the foreseeable future.

    But that doesn’t preclude you from realizing the metamorphosis of this team the past two months, the dynamics of this year’s roster and the sum of its parts, measured against what you think is possible with an addition or two. That must be weighed against the current and future cost, of course, and the impact such moves would deliver to the current roster.

    None of this is anything new for Anthopoulos. He developed a gun-slinging reputation as general manager in Toronto, dealing prospects by the boatload in pursuit of a title. And while the Blue Jays never reached the World Series under his watch, they did play for the pennant twice. Ironically, the two most painful players lost in the bevy of deals Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on north of the border may be on the move at this year’s deadline: Detroit starter Matthew Boyd and Mets star Noah Syndergaard.

    The thought that a player with Syndergaard’s talent and pedigree could be available (I personally do not think he will be traded) speaks volumes to the fascinating, and – for a team wanting to buy, like Atlanta – frustrating landscape in which teams find themselves with two weeks left before deals must be done by 4 p.m. ET on the final day of the month. The sense of urgency is heightened because of a rule change that dictates no waiver trades are allowed in August, plus a glut of teams that reached mid-July with at least a puncher’s chance to stay relevant over the season’s final two months.

    Consider this: Entering play Wednesday, there were seven teams in the National League within four games of the second and final wild-card spot. In the American League, two teams sat tied for the final wild card, with three teams within 4 ½ games of that position. Twenty-two of the 30 teams in the majors began play Wednesday within five games of a playoff spot, adding to the urgency to play well in the final days of the month.

    Certainly, some of those teams will struggle leading up toward the deadline and will elect to sell. Others caught in the mired mess of the wild-card pack will realize their franchise benefits more from selling than trying to leapfrog the pile for the guarantee of one game – especially in the NL, where the winner of the wild-card game likely draws the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It’s a seller’s market, indeed, and many of the top teams like the Braves find themselves seeking the same two commodities: a starting pitcher for one of the top spots in the rotation, and a dependable closer. Pitching at the deadline does not come cheap, especially this year, with so few sellers and plenty of buyers seeking the same thing.

    Under normal circumstances, it might be plausible for the Braves to shoot lower, avoid the most crowded, expense parts of the store. But these are not normal times. The Braves have blossomed, going 40-19 since early May and establishing themselves as the second-best team in the National League. Were the playoffs to start today, they would be favored to beat the Cubs or Brewers or Cardinals in the NLDS, and clearly are more of a threat to the Dodgers in a playoff series than last season, when the emerging Baby Braves of ’18 battled gamely but were vastly overmatched in a four-game NLDS defeat.

    Anthopoulos knows this. Joking with a member of the Braves Radio Network while standing outside the press box at Wrigley Field pregame last month, I laughed as we discussed the constant drumbeat on social media for the Braves GM to “do something!” I get it, though. Since coming to Atlanta, Anthopoulos has followed a more measured approach than in his ultra-aggressive Toronto days. Perhaps a byproduct of the lessons learned after leaving Toronto and spending time in the Dodgers front office. Perhaps a byproduct of learning the Braves loaded minor-league system and not wanting to make the wrong move, while still getting up to speed on the value of all the assets at his disposal.

    And yes, perhaps a byproduct of nondisclosed constraints applied to the team by Liberty Media’s corporate ownership. The “shop in any aisle” and “financial flexibility” comments have been deadpanned to death by Braves fans, and with good reason. But this team has soared in the past nine weeks, and signing free-agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel in early June provided a positive jolt throughout the locker room and the fanbase.

    If that was a jolt, it’s time for a thunderbolt, one that vaults the Braves shoulder-to-shoulder with Los Angeles at the top of the Senior Circuit. Yes, it will be costly. Yes, it will hurt. Yes, there will be criticism, and it will be harsh. But step back a second and consider this: Atlanta has five prospects in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. Several of the prospects ranked 6-to-15 in the Braves Top 30 would sit in the top five of many other organizations. If Atlanta has to part with two or three of its top five to land the pieces needed to make it a honest-to-goodness World Series championship contender in 2019, the time has arrived to do so.

    It must be the right deal, and for the right asset. For example: I’m not dealing Cristian Pache for two months of Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith – truth be told, I’m not dealing Pache for anybody. But if a controllable elite closer (Felipe Vazquez and Brad Hand, for example) or a starter with at least one more season of control after 2019 (Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Mike Minor and Boyd are names that jump out) becomes available, pieces that would push the Braves into the short group of elite MLB teams, nobody outside of Pache should be off limits.

    Because while we all love prospects, face it: The Braves can absorb those types of moves as well, if not better, than any team in the sport. Nobody wants to see Ian Anderson pitching for another organization. Or Kyle Wright, or Kyle Muller, or Joey Wentz, or Bryse Wilson. Nobody wants to see Drew Waters wear a major-league uniform missing a tomahawk across the chest. The list goes on and on. Many teams could not recover from dealing just one of those guys. Honestly, the Braves could deal multiple members of that group and still be OK.

    For all the criticism of Anthopoulos’ conservative approach in his first 20 months on the job, the fact remains the Atlanta farm system is stocked with tremendous talent, and a lot of it is not too far away from knocking at the major-league door. There simply isn’t room for all of them. It’s time to cash out on some of the exceptional young talent the Braves have spent the past half-decade aggregating.

    Sometimes, it takes just an extra sprinkle of spice to make a blue-ribbon recipe. On Aug. 25, 1995, the Braves pulled off a mostly unnoticed waiver-wire deal, acquiring outfielder Mike Devereaux from the White Sox. All the veteran did was play in 13 postseason games, hit .308 in the NLCS en route to MVP honors, and provide the missing piece to the only World Series champion this city has known.

    This time around, the missing piece or pieces require a far, far heavier investment. But the Braves have the payroll flexibility beyond this season and a pantry full of high-end prospects to make the right deal before this month ends. It would not cripple the future, and could result in this year’s team ending October in a place none of us dreamed it could reach even a few short months ago:

    Standing alongside its 1995 counterparts, as World Series champions.

    It’s worth the shot to try and get there.

    Now.

    —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.