• Marcell Ozuna

    Reaching for the Ring: Braves 2021 Season Preview

    It’s Opening Day! The Window is Open and The Time is Now

    Play Ball!: The Atlanta Braves open the 2021 season Thursday at Philadelphia, kicking off a campaign the Braves hope will end with the franchise’s first World Series title since 1995.

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I close my eyes, and I can feel the chill of that circular ballpark on that last Saturday night in October. I can hear the swell of anticipation in 51,000 voices, nervous and frantic and frightened simultaneously. I can see Marquis Grissom gliding to his right, a baseball off Carlos Baerga’s bat tumbling toward his glove, a season in its final breathless moment and a dream becoming reality.

    Winning the World Series. It’s the ultimate moment. Nothing beats it. Nothing tops it. Nothing compares to it. And you can hope and dream and envision and imagine what it is like, but nothing compares to that moment when it happens.

    It’s been 9,286 days since I sat in the upper deck of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, a 1-0 victory on Oct. 28, 1995. Not a day has passed since when I haven’t thought about the next title, the next celebration, the next parade, the next moment this franchise will stand again in the hall of champions.

    The Glory Never Fades: The newspapers may be yellowed from time, but the feeling of winning the World Series never goes away.

    The Braves of 2021 arrive at Thursday’s first pitch in Philadelphia carrying the pain of falling five victories shy last season of becoming the fourth team in franchise history to win the World Series. That 3-1 lead in the NLCS to Los Angeles stings, a lesson learned in painful fashion, but oftentimes an apprenticeship of sorts must be served before the grandest reward is realized.

    Entering the offseason, Alex Anthopoulos had two absolute, must-dos on his list: improve the starting rotation, and re-sign Marcell Ozuna. Teams this close to a championship can’t play the “hope some of the kids figure it out” card, and teams certainly can’t let a guy like Ozuna – the perfect fit behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman in the lineup and in the clubhouse – get away.

    Back in the Mix: Marcell Ozuna flirted with the Triple Crown in 2020, and returns to the Braves on a four-year deal.

    To Anthopoulos’ credit, he accomplished both. Drew Smyly is a curious gamble that could pay big dividends at the back end of the rotation. Charlie Morton made sense on every level – his postseason pedigree the biggest lure of all. They join ace-in-the-making Max Fried, ace-on-the-mend Mike Soroka, and the wunderkid Ian Anderson – one of the young arms who at 22 years old appears to have figured it out – to form one of baseball’s best starting quintets.

    Ozuna contended for the Triple Crown in his first season with Atlanta, making more than enough of a case for the Braves to swallow hard while he plays left field in 2021 (he’s not looked bad in camp; with that said, hurry back, designated hitter). With Ozuna mixing it up and back in the fold, the top six in Brian Snitker’s batting order is as good as any in the sport. Certainly, there figures to be some regression from the output across a 60-game season, and while Atlanta won’t have to average 5.8 runs per game to win 90-plus games, this offense will generate plenty of support. Given the bolstered rotation – further boosted by Soroka’s possible return from a torn Achilles by the end of April – the Braves look every bit like a World Series championship contender.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. showed up at camp looking leaner than a season ago, when a wrist injury hampered his otherwise otherworldly skill set. Acuna looks like he’s on the verge of a breakout season, a laughable statement considering he hit 41 homers with 37 steals in 2019. He’s one of the sport’s brightest stars at 23 years old, a generational talent who figures to push heavily for his first MVP award in 2021.

    He’ll try to wrestle that trophy away from Freddie Freeman, the lifelong Brave who finally is getting his flowers nationally following a spectacular 2020. One of the great joys of last season was seeing the laurels cast upon the face of the Braves (sorry, Johan Camargo), the one pillar who endured through the rebuild. Freeman shined in the NLCS and looks poised to have another fantastic year, and the Braves will need it.

    Chasing the Ring: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman comes into 2021 after winning the NL MVP award, and takes aim at the one thing missing from his resume: a World Series title.

    There are a few chinks in all this shiny armor, and they provide enough reason to at least pause. Can Austin Riley find his footing offensively? It’s the biggest X-factor for me entering the season, and it’s the one place where I could see the Braves pivoting by the trade deadline. Can the bullpen overcome the losses of three veteran right-handers? I’m pretty bullish here. Will Smith looks like the Will Smith we saw slamming the door for the Giants in 2018-19, and all Chris Martin does is throw strikes. Can A.J. Minter and Tyler Matzek come close to their stellar – and surprising – 60-game campaigns of last season? Jacob Webb will play a big role, after starting the season at the alternate site because he has options.

    Webb has been brilliant the past two seasons, but health has been an issue. Health indeed is critical for this team; it is for every team, but it’s amplified for the Braves because of a bench that looks underwhelming at the moment, to put it nicely. It may seem a small quibble for a team so good, but the difference between winning a World Series and losing the first week of October is razor thin. The bench will evolve; it always does. But the thought of Pablo Sandoval or Ehire Adrianza (both who earned their roster spots with amazing springs) playing every day due to a significant injury is not pleasant.

    They say strength up the middle of the diamond is foundational to building a good team. For the brilliance of Acuna and the steadiness of Freeman and the potential of Riley, I keep coming back to that saying. Travis d’Arnaud was amazing in the shortened season, the catcher arguably becoming one of the steals of the previous free-agent market. Cristian Pache and his jaw-dropping defense take over in center field. He doesn’t have to hit for this team to win, albeit his at-bats in the NLCS were impressive. He will win games with an elite glove and a cannon of an arm, helping offset some of Ozuna’s limited defensive capabilities in left.

    Ready, Aim, Fire: Cristian Pache and his outstanding defensive skills take over in center field.

    Up the middle, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson begin their fourth full season together. Albies was banged up for the first two months of 2020, missing 31 games, but hit .338 with a .953 OPS upon returning in September and shined in the NLCS, batting .333 with two homers and five runs scored. Swanson enjoyed his best full season, posting a .274/.345/.464 slash line (all career highs, along with a career-best .809 OPS). The kid from Marietta finally was healthy, playing in all 60 games and leading the NL with 237 at-bats.

    Roll it all together, and you’ve got something. I’ve watched this franchise for more than 40 years. It means I’m old. It also means these aging blue eyes have seen a lot of Braves squads, good and bad, roll out of spring training. This is one of the best ones on my watch, and while there’s nits to pick, this team is good.

    Dang good.

    Good enough to win the World Series?

    In my opinion, absolutely.

    Getting out of the National League won’t be easy, even for a team as talented as the Braves. The Dodgers have seemingly unlimited resources and are baseball’s best squad. The Padres were the most active team this winter. The NL East has been billed as baseball’s best division, and it will be as tough as advertised.

    The Marlins aren’t that far away and would be a .500 team if they were in three of the other five divisions. Is this the year the Phillies put it together, with a bullpen that has to be better and a lineup featuring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto? Philadelphia will find a way to stumble at some point, landing around .500 or a shade above.

    The other three teams will jockey for first place all summer. Washington’s hopes hinge on if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg stay healthy. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber join a lineup that includes the tremendous Juan Soto and the pesky (meant as a compliment) Trea Turner.

    The Mets made noise throughout the offseason, landing the brilliant Francisco Lindor and bolstering a bullpen that, if healthy, is going to be really good. Jacob deGrom is baseball’s best pitcher, but can that rotation survive a first half without Noah Syndergaard and Carlos Carrasco? And then there’s the “Mets” factor. They always seem to find a way to turn wine into water.

    Make no mistake: the Mets should be really, really good. But it won’t be enough to overtake the Braves. Not this year. In what will be a thrilling race not decided until the final week of the season, Atlanta captures its fourth consecutive division crown with 93 wins, four ahead of New York and six clear of the Nationals.

    As difficult as it will be, the East is just the appetizer. The main event comes in October. Yes, getting there is a big part of the battle, and the Braves will get that done. From there, it will be quite the gauntlet, especially considering the two behemoths out West. And the playoffs are the ultimate roll of the dice, a short sprint based on matchups and health and luck and weird bounces as much as sheer talent. That’s what makes winning the World Series – that glorious moment now more than 25 years ago – so difficult.

    But for the Braves of 2021, that’s the solitary objective:

    Win the World Series.

    For this team, this season, winning the ring is the only thing.

    —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.

    OZUNA-PALOOZA: Braves make statement, sign Ozuna to four-year deal

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Braves winter of great discontent ended on the first Friday evening in February, giving the fanbase reason to Marcellebrate and dream of October.

    After a quiet two-month period in which option after option to fill the gaping hole in the Braves lineup landed elsewhere, Alex Anthopoulos finally checked off the most important box of his tenure as Atlanta’s general manager, re-signing Marcell Ozuna to a reported four-year deal Friday with a fifth-year option. It was worth the wait, as the $64 million deal comes out to an average annual value of $16 million, and features a $16 million club option (with a $1 million buyout) for 2025. Early reports hinted Ozuna’s salary for 2021 would be $12 million.

    For Ozuna, it returns him to the team where he flirted with the Triple Crown during the truncated 2020 season. He led the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while hitting .338 (third) with a 1.067 OPS. Ozuna, who turned 30 in November, struggled defensively in left field –  while that’s a concern considering at this moment there is no DH in the NL in 2021, the Braves are banking his offense will more than make up for any shortcomings in the field.

    It’s absolutely worth that defensive risk, as I wrote two months ago today in this space. Ozuna helped the Braves get within one win of the World Series last fall. He returns to slot into the third spot in the batting order behind NL MVP Freddie Freeman, lengthening a lineup that desperately needed another impact bat on Brian Snitker’s lineup card. The top three of Ronald Acuna Jr., Freeman and Ozuna is as good as any in baseball. There simply was no way the Braves could go into 2021 without adding a bat, be it Ozuna or someone else.

    And make no mistake: from the final out of Game 7 of the NL Championship Series loss to the Dodgers, there wasn’t a better realistic option available to the Braves than Ozuna. His right-handed bat behind Freeman in the lineup helped unlock a phenomenal season for the longtime Atlanta first baseman. Ozuna looked more like the hitter who broke out for a big year with Miami in 2017 before two decent, if not spectacular, seasons in St. Louis in 2018-19. He certainly fit in well, his signature faux selfies during the playoffs energizing the team and fanbase.

    The Braves struck early in free agency this offseason, inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton to one-year deals in November. Then came two months of silence, driven in part by the indecision by MLB on whether to bring back the DH to the NL, in part by questions around whether the 2021 season would start on time due to the pandemic, and in part by whether the Braves had the flexibility to commit the dollars and length of years needed to secure Ozuna coming off a career season.

    Credit to Anthopoulos here, who absolutely was ripped across social media daily for the past eight weeks. Let’s face it – it didn’t matter whether Atlanta signed Ozuna on Dec. 5, Jan. 5, or Feb. 5. The early reports of the deal structure show that, despite the outcry from a whole bunch of Twitter GMs, patience paid off in a massive way for the Braves and their GM.

    This is the type of commitment a World Series champion has to make at some point in time. It was fair to wonder if the Braves actually would do it. Honestly, they had to push in at some point.

    It might not have come as quickly this winter as some wanted but, in the end, Anthopoulos and the Braves got their man. Ozuna got his contract. And while the NL will be as rugged as ever, starting with a ridiculously stacked NL East, the Braves are right there among the favorites to get to where they haven’t been since 1999, and do what they haven’t done since 1995.

    Reason enough on a winter Friday night to Marcellebrate.

    —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 o

    Anthopoulos, Braves Enter Winter Meetings With Holes To Fill

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    WOODY GAP, Ga. — A brisk December afternoon finds winter’s chill riding the northwest breeze across the North Georgia mountains. A scattering of bundled-up hikers cross Ga. 60 at the Union County/Lumpkin County line, navigating the rocky trails at a site where snow fell for most of the afternoon just five days earlier.

    This place sits 88 miles from my upper-deck seats at Truist Park. As with so many things in 2020, that slice of normalcy feels a million miles away.

    Today’s view, a stop on this Saturday’s winding journey around and over the hilly terrain of my home state, is perfect for pause and perspective. The Winter Meetings — often a point of both decision and pivot for baseball’s offseason — kick off Sunday. Much like everything else in this year unlike any other, it will be different. Virtual. No meeting in suites. No hallway conversations. No ideas bandied about while sharing a drink or a meal.

    Looking Ahead: A brief pause before the Winter Meetings begin.

    Like the hikers determining which path to take after crossing the highway, the Atlanta Braves sit pondering choices of direction at a couple of key checkpoints in filling out the 2021 roster. You can cross the starting rotation off Alex Anthopoulos’ shopping list, the Braves general manager inking Drew Smyly and Charlie Morton last month to a pair of one-year pacts for $26 million.

    That last part stands out to me. The naysayers who lean on the worn-out narrative that the Braves don’t spend money conveniently forget the spending spree of last offseason, when Atlanta bolstered its roster to the point it would’ve hit opening day with a payroll of around $155 million.

    Atlanta has 11 players under guaranteed contracts for approximately $95.05 million in 2021 (including Smyly and Morton), with an estimated potential (per FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors) of $13 million more to four players in arbitration. Add in the up to $4.16 million if the contracts tendered to Luke Jackson, Johan Camargo and Grant Dayton become full, and that’s a 2021 number so far of approximately $112.21 million.

    Spending $26 million of that on the Smyly/Morton duo leads me to think even with pandemic-impacted finances, the Braves still have significant money to spend. They certainly have needs to add to a core that came within one win of the NL pennant.

    Pause and perspective; two words that at times are hard for fans to grasp. A few thoughts as I gaze at the mountains in the distance and think about a franchise aiming to reach the summit.

    We Should Marcellebrate: I know Anthopoulos doesn’t like long-term deals. I know the organization is loath to pay top dollar over a lengthy timeframe. I know the ongoing — and ridiculous — fact MLB and the Players Association have yet to determine if the DH remains in the NL for 2021 plays a factor not just for the Braves, but for every Senior Circuit club.

    I also know what I saw from Marcell Ozuna in a Braves uniform. No, I do not expect a Triple Crown-contending campaign to be the baseline. No, I admit his defensive shortcomings in left field give me pause.

    I also know the impact of having that type of right-handed bat behind reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman (if I may briefly digress: how awesome it was to type that). It’s why I advocated re-signing Josh Donaldson last winter, a player almost five years older and one with a longer injury history.

    I don’t anticipate something happening with Ozuna until the DH is decided. It’s immaterial to me. Sure, it’s not my money, but I’d pony up a four-year deal at $88 million ($22 million average annual value, or AAV). I think that’s what it will take to sign him. I’d live with the defense in left field for one season to know the biggest hole in the lineup is filled through 2024.

    It’s a Marcellebration: Braves slugger Marcell Ozuna’s selfies became a symbol of the 2020 postseason.

    Anthopoulos likes to jump the market. I’d love to see him do it with Ozuna. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, no. I expect the Braves to fill the lineup hole via trade, perhaps a one-year “rental” of former MVP Kris Bryant to play third base and/or left field, citing one oft-mentioned example that doesn’t excite me like it did last winter or the winter before.

    Either way he goes, Anthopoulos has no choice but to nail this move. It’s his biggest to date in his tenure. The bat acquired has to be impactful. And while it shouldn’t have to be said, just for the record, piecing together a solution in-house is unacceptable. All the more reason in my opinion to be aggressive and maybe a bit uncomfortable here, and stretch to give Braves Country a reason to Marcellebrate.

    Gold Glove Bullpen Piece: One of the more memorable (and enjoyable) images from the NLCS was closer Mark Melancon gloving not one, but two Ozzie Albies homers belted into the Braves bullpen.

    No Bull, This Glove’s Legit: Braves closer Mark Melancon caught two Ozzie Albies homers in the bullpen during the NLCS.

    Melancon, a free agent expected to net somewhere between $4 million and $8 million, has spent the offseason cracking up the masses on social media. From my perspective, he should spend next season cracking down on opposing hitters in the ninth inning for the Braves.

    I’ve heard multiple people I trust say they expect the 35-year-old (he turns 36 in late March) to re-sign with Atlanta. Melancon’s return would provide the Braves one more impactful arm needed to go with Will Smith and Chris Martin — plus lefties Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter — to form another formidable bullpen.

    I’d think $6 million-$7 million gets it done, but be patient. The reliever market is flooded, even more so now after the non-tender deadline. It might be mid-January, but unless someone blows him away with an offer, I expect Melancon back in 2021.

    One More Bloom: Atlanta needs a backup catcher, but for multiple reasons there is zero reason to spend significant money here.

    Travis d’Arnaud figures to catch a majority of the time — Braves catchers typically split duties in part to the toll of the Atlanta summer heat, but d’Arnaud could be in line for 130 starts after his breakout 2020. Atlanta has two highly regarded catching prospects in William Contreras and Shea Langeliers, but the loss of minor-league ball in 2020 dictates both need to catch every day somewhere in 2021 and not ride the bench in Atlanta.

    Alex Jackson could handle the staff fine for 35 starts at the major-league minimum salary. But I know how highly the organization regards Tyler Flowers. With roots in Atlanta and likely limited opportunities elsewhere if he wanted to try and catch on with another organization, I could see the Braves bringing Flowers back for cheap (say, $1.5 million, or roughly $1 million more than Jackson’s salary).

    California Dreamin’: There was a little buzz when the Angels tabbed Braves exec Perry Minasian as their GM, in particular given a certain Braves star and newly minted MVP who has California roots and an expiring deal.

    Dream on. I don’t see any scenario in which Freeman leaves the Braves. My feeling all along has been a contract extension will be done before the season begins. Doing so avoids Freeman’s status being a talking point all season, and gives the Braves cost certainty at the position for the foreseeable future.

    M-V-Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final year of his contract after winning NL MVP honors.

    Until I see otherwise, I think Atlanta will do right for Freeman and the two sides will settle somewhere around $185 million for seven years ($26.4 million AAV). And no, the first baseman should not take a “hometown discount,” and fans have no right to expect that he should.

    Doting on Duvvy: Closing out today with a hat tip to Adam Duvall, whose pinch-hit homer off Jack Flaherty in Game 2 of the 2019 NLDS was such a cool moment to experience. Cool beyond how the crowd shifted from annoyance with Brian Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Mike Foltynewicz to euphoria when Duvall deposited a 3-2 offering over the wall in center, but because of the ease that comes with rooting for a guy like Duvall and the significance of him delivering in that moment.

    Duvall’s story — his living with Type 1 diabetes, his work at Triple-A after not breaking camp with the team in 2019, his prolific 10-game span this season in which he belted nine homers (including two three-homer games) — is well known. He made quite an impression on this fanbase. To this day, I have not met one person who does not like Duvall.

    I was surprised he got non-tendered, but I hope he lands a starting gig and a good payday somewhere. He’s certainly deserving.

    —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.

    ONE LAST SHOT: Braves Take Final Swing at NL Pennant, World Series Berth as Dodgers Force Game 7

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two teams. One game. One pennant. One World Series berth. One season extender. One season ender.

    Zero margin for error.

    The Atlanta Braves have whiffed on two chances to end this National League Championship Series. They’re down to their last shot Sunday night. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who just two nights ago were down 3-1 in the series, used a 3-1 victory Saturday in Game 6 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas to square the NLCS at three games apiece and push this NL title bout to a decisive seventh game.

    The Braves have come a long way since the start of 2018, but after being unable to close out the proud and more experienced Dodgers, we’ve arrived at the ultimate intersection of sports heaven and hell:

    Game 7.

    They’re the two greatest words in sports … unless you find yourself in one. Then it is a torture chamber of emotions exhilarating and exhausting, dauting and devastating, sheer ecstasy and unconstrained pressure, all rolled into one frothing passion play that ends not just the series for the unfortunate loser and its fanbase, but its season.

    Win a Game 7, and you’ll smile at the memory for decades. Lose a Game 7, and you’ll spend a lifetime wondering what if.

    “Shoot, we’ll go out there and let ’er fly,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame – suffice to say he’d not checked social media, where plenty of Braves fans already were cliff-diving into the pool of doom and gloom. “It’s baseball.”

    Win or Winter: Braves manager Brian Snitker discusses Atlanta’s loss to the Dodgers in Game 6 of the NLCS.

    Perhaps that dread coming from Braves Country stems from their most recent experience in the winner-take-all aisle, the forsaken Game 5 of last season’s NL Division Series. Perhaps that experience, whatever one can take from that rotten late afternoon, will serve the Braves of 2020 well Sunday in what will be the franchise’s biggest game in at least two decades.

    The Dodgers know what this Game 7 business is all about, considering 11 members of their current 28-man roster were part of Los Angeles pennant-clinching victory over Milwaukee in Game 7 two seasons ago. It’s part of the reason so many national pundits picked Los Angeles to beat the Braves and reach its third World Series in the past four autumns.

    The final win of any series is the hardest to get, particularly against a squad ladened with playoff experience. Give plenty of credit to the Dodgers for forcing this engagement to its limit. Direct plenty of blame to the Braves for not closing out this series when they had the chance.

    While the missteps were not as egregious as in Friday’s 7-3 defeat in Game 5, the Braves couldn’t come through in a couple of key moments in Game 6.

    Things teetered on the brink early after Max Fried allowed back-to-back homers to Corey Seager and Justin Turner – followed by a walk and two singles – in a three-run first. Fried, the 27-year-old lefty who grabbed the reins as staff ace after Atlanta’s rotation imploded in the season’s first month, found his footing and kept the Braves in the game with a gutty effort.

    Fried didn’t another run and got the Braves into the seventh inning before succumbing after a career-high 109 pitches. Snitker lauded him for giving Atlanta a chance, but while Fried was posting zeros, his teammates were unable to get much going against four Dodgers pitchers.

    Going the Distance: The Braves fell 3-1 to Los Angeles in Game 6 of the NLCS on Saturday, forcing the series to a decisive seventh game Sunday night.

    The biggest moment to flip this game’s script came immediately after Fried doused the initial inferno. The Braves loaded the bases with no outs in the second, but Walker Buehler carved up the bottom of the Atlanta batting order. Austin Riley struck out on three pitches, Nick Markakis watched a called third strike, and rookie Cristian Pache grounded out.

    Singles from Travis d’Arnaud and Dansby Swanson gave the Braves two baserunners in the fourth, but Riley lined a 109-mph bullet to Cody Bellinger in center and Markakis ended the inning on a comebacker to the mound. Freddie Freeman singled in the fifth with two outs, but Mookie Betts robbed Marcell Ozuna of an RBI double with a leaping catch at the wall in right.

    Ozuna’s ball left the bat at 100.6 mph; the Braves hit 11 balls on this day 95 mph or harder. They finally broke through in the seventh on two balls that weren’t exactly scalded: Markakis greeting Blake Treinin with a triple to right (86.4 mph) and Ronald Acuna Jr. scoring him on a double to right (89.6 mph).

    That’s just one example of the fickleness that can decide any individual baseball game.

    In a Game 7, that type of thing can decide who plays on and who goes home.

    Plenty of pressure remains on the Dodgers. The only thing worse for Los Angeles than losing this series in five or six games would be losing Game 7. The Braves now have serious pressure on them for the first time in the series. With the pennant within its grasp the past two games, Atlanta went 3-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 13 runners on base.

    For Atlanta, Sunday will serve as invaluable experience regardless of the outcome. The Braves hand the ball to 22-year-old right-hander Ian Anderson, 52 months removed from Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, N.Y., for his 10th major-league start. Four players age 23 or younger will join him in the starting lineup; another starter (Swanson) is 26.

    They’ll play the biggest game of their young lives, to decide a series joined at three games apiece.

    There are no more excuses for either side, and there is no tomorrow. Look how the week has unfolded. The Braves won two in a row. The two teams swapped one victory apiece. The Dodgers won two in a row. One could argue the Braves should be preparing for the World Series by now. One could say the same about the Dodgers.

    Somebody’s going to make it. One game to go, with the pennant and a shot at the ring hanging in the balance.

    —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.

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —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.

    ON THE BRINK: Braves Bash Dodgers in Game 4, Sit One Victory from the World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves were pounded into submission in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday, and while they held a 2-1 advantage in the series even after allowing 11 runs in the first inning, you wouldn’t know it from listening to the national prognosticators who spent Thursday shoveling dirt on the Braves grave.

    This just in: those reports of the Braves demise were greatly exaggerated.

    And now, they’re one victory away from the World Series.

    Atlanta responded to that blowout loss with a breakout performance of its own, moving one step away from its first NL pennant and World Series trip in 21 years with a 10-2 rout of the mighty Dodgers in Game 4 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    Catch your breath, folks. The Atlanta Braves, who 30 months ago were coming off four straight seasons of 89-plus losses, are THIS CLOSE to the Fall Classic. The sport’s grandest stage. A stage the franchise has graced just nine times since the NL and AL champs begin squaring off in 1903.

    They have three shots to punch their ticket, starting Friday night in Game 5. A fully rested Max Fried and Ian Anderson are lined up to start Games 6 and 7, if needed.

    Atlanta – and its championship-starved franchise – hope that’s not necessary. If Marcell Ozuna hits Friday like he did Thursday, you might as well print the T-shirts, snap some fake selfies and clear your calendar for next week. Ozuna helped fuel the Braves run to a third-consecutive NL East championship while putting up MVP-type numbers through the 60-game season, but has been relatively quiet in these playoffs.

    He entered Thursday hitting .200 in the postseason with a .565 OPS and 14 strikeouts in 35 at-bats. But the NL leader in homers and RBIs in the regular season was in the middle of things throughout Game 4, helping Atlanta deliver a definitive statement in a game that began with every member of the Fox Sports pregame crew (and honestly, probably 95 percent of the country) picking the Dodgers to even the series. David Ortiz lobbed the ultimate insult, picking Los Angeles to win 14-3.

    Yeah, about that, Big Papi.

    Ozuna became the first Braves player to homer twice in a postseason contest since Chipper Jones in the 2003 NLDS, and set a franchise record for most total bases in a playoff game with 11. He finished 4-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBIs, mixing it up and taking selfies the whole way.

    The first of his two homers on this night banged off the second deck in left field in the fourth inning, tying the game at 1. More importantly, it broke the seal against future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw. The big Los Angeles lefty was supposed to start Game 2, only to be scratched with back spasms, and Atlanta made him work Thursday.

    Lined up to face the three-time NL Cy Young award winner in Game 4 was Bryse Wilson, owner of seven career big-league starts who had not pitched in a competitive game since Sept. 27. Nobody gave the 22-year-old righty any chance of holding his own in such a pivotal game, one the Braves needed to keep the Dodgers from evening the series at two games apiece.

    All Wilson did in his playoff debut was baffle Los Angeles through six sparkling innings, surrendering only an Edwin Rios homer on a fastball over the middle of the plate in the third. Wilson used a fantastic breaking ball and a plus changeup with great control of his fastball to limit the powerful Dodgers lineup to just that one hit in six stellar innings, throwing 50 of his 74 pitches for strikes and pitching the game of his life.

    Owning the Moment: Bryse Wilson shined in his postseason debut, holding the Dodgers to one run on one hit in six innings in Game 4 of the NLCS.

    He didn’t allow the Rios blast to rattle him, retiring nine of the final 10 hitters he faced. He punctuated his outing with back-to-back 12-pitch innings in the fifth and sixth innings. On a day spent wondering how long he could go and could he keep the game close, Wilson didn’t just deliver.

    He dominated.

    “Wow,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, summing up the mood everybody had in watching Wilson dazzle. “How he’d handle that situation, he answered that question.”

    And the Braves offense issued its own answer during a relentless six-run sixth, a 35-minute half-inning that turned a stomach-churning 1-all matchup into a margin with plenty of wiggle room. After Ronald Acuna singled and got second on a throwing error, it was likely NL MVP and team captain Freddie Freeman delivering the go-ahead double to right.

    The Braves were just getting started. Ozuna doubled home Freeman to send Kershaw to the showers, the veteran allowing four runs on seven hits in five-plus innings. After a Travis d’Arnaud lineout, the Braves seized control: an Ozzie Albies blooper, a Dansby Swanson double, an Austin Riley single, a Johan Camargo walk and a Cristian Pache single blowing things open.

    A Sweet Sixth: The Braves took control of Game 4 of the NLCS on Thursday with a six-run sixth.

    The Braves did what the Dodgers do so well: work counts and ambush mistakes and roll up runs with a deep lineup. Atlanta went 6-for-9 with runners in scoring position in the inning, delivering the biggest blows in the pivotal moments in the biggest game the franchise has played in forever.

    Friday night’s game is even bigger. And if the Braves can win just one more time, they’ll go play in the biggest games of them all.

    —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.

    JUST ENOUGH: Braves Hold On At The Finish, Take 2-0 NLCS Lead

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Supposedly, the Atlanta Braves owned the second-best lineup entering this National League Championship Series. Supposedly, their hitters could not work counts, lay off close pitches and string together quality at-bats like the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    And even though things got hairy in the bottom of the ninth, that offense had built just enough of a cushion to down the favorites from the west coast for a second consecutive day.

    It goes in the books as an 8-7 victory over the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS on Tuesday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. All seven Los Angeles runs came from the seventh inning on, and while it was a white-knuckle finish and certainly wasn’t pretty, the Braves avoided what would’ve been a disheartening collapse.

    Now they hold a 2-0 series lead. The Braves are halfway to the pennant, halfway to punching their ticket to the World Series. And even after a four-run ninth by Los Angeles, kept alive by an error from Ozzie Albies, this fact is indisputable:

    If the Dodgers are going to keep the Braves from winning the pennant, they must win four of the next five games.

    There was drama at the finish, and there was drama several hours before first pitch. The Dodgers scratched Clayton Kershaw due to back spasms. Los Angeles turned to Tony Gonsolin, a prized pitching prospect known for pounding the strike zone. All the right-handed did was mow through the first nine Braves in 28 no-stress pitches, while Atlanta rookie Ian Anderson struggled with command but kept the Dodgers off the scoreboard.

    Gonsolin’s dominance didn’t last long.

    Freddie Freeman followed Ronald Acuna Jr.’s leadoff walk in the fourth with his second homer in two games, staking Atlanta to a 2-0 lead. Gonsolin would need 33 pitches to close the frame and began the fifth at 61 pitches, delivering the first pitch of the inning to Austin Riley at 7:38 p.m. ET.

    The Dodgers recorded the third out 35 minutes later. In between, nine hitters came to the plate, four walked, four scored, the Los Angeles bullpen door opened twice, and the Braves tripled their lead. It was a doctorate-level class in how to grind down and chew up an opposing pitching staff, taught by the team many thought would be the students before the series started.

    Nick Markakis, who has struggled to catch up to velocity in the postseason, battled through a 10-pitch at-bat before drawing a walk off Gonsolin. Cristian Pache – the 21-year-old with four regular-season at-bats who started for Adam Duvall (season-ending oblique injury) – yanked a 3-2 pitch inside the third-base bag for a double to score Markakis and extend the lead to 3-0. Acuna followed with a five-pitch walk, and Gonsolin gave way to Pedro Baez.

    Freeman flicked his third pitch into center to score Pache, Acuna racing to third on the play. Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud drew back-to-back walks to force home another run, and an Albies sacrifice fly to center made it 6-0. Dylan Floro struck out Dansby Swanson to end the inning, but not before Los Angeles needed 53 pitches to get three outs.

    But the postseason isn’t easy, and the Braves bullpen cracked for the first time this October. Darren O’Day gave up two hits and A.J. Minter surrendered a three-run homer to Corey Seager in the seventh to cut Atlanta’s lead to 7-3. In the ninth, Josh Tomlin gave up three runs, Max Muncy’s two-run shot pulling Los Angeles within 8-6.

    Melancon – who a few minutes earlier caught an Albies ninth-inning homer in the left-field bullpen for the second straight night – came on and saw his home-run tag-team partner boot Will Smith’s grounder that would’ve ended the game. Cody Bellinger tripled to the right-field corner to cut the lead to one, but Melancon got a groundout to end the madness.

    Some fans will hyper-focus on the harrowing final moments, but the Braves are in good shape. Minter had allowed a homer to exactly one of 88 hitters he faced before Tuesday. Tomlin’s not going to pitch the ninth inning unless there is plenty of margin for error. Albies makes that play 49 times out of 50.

    In October, there are no style points. It’s simple: find a way to win.

    The Braves have done it twice in two games.

    Do it two more times, and they’ll play in the World Series.

    —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.




    FINE IN NINE: Late Power Show Vaults Braves in NLCS Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It started as Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to home plate for the first at-bat of the first game of the National League Championship Series on Monday. It echoed through Globe Life Field after a ninth-inning explosion washed away eight innings full of stranded runners, unexpected substitutions and for many fans, an impending feeling of doom.

    The chop and the chant, loud and proud and rolling through the stands in Arlington, Texas. If you listened closely enough, you probably heard it from every single part of Braves Country.

    Dead in the water offensively for eight innings against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers – who the entire Fox Sports pregame crew anointed with the NL pennant before Acuna stepped into the batter’s box – it was the Braves serving notice they are here to play with a four-run ninth in a 5-1 victory and a 1-0 series lead.

    It’s a statement victory for a team playing on this stage for the first time in nearly two decades. It’s a shot across the bow that the Braves indeed feel this matchup between the two best teams in the Senior Circuit is much closer than many pundits spent Monday opining.

    It’s the type of moment that can vault a team to greater heights than even it dares to dream.

    The Braves stumbled and scuffled their way into and out of scoring opportunities all night, stranding 10 runners on base and finishing 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Brian Snitker, who managed brilliantly through Atlanta’s sweeps of Cincinnati and Miami to get to this point, pushed every button imaginable in the eighth inning to try and break the offensive stalemate.

    It didn’t work. Pablo Sandoval and Charlie Culberson came to the plate as pinch hitters – they combined for 11 plate appearances in the regular season. Sandoval hit for Cristian Pache, after the organization’s top prospect (who had four regular-season at-bats) was pressed into duty when Adam Duvall left with an oblique injury.

    It didn’t work. Sandoval was hit with a pitch. Culberson struck out. Bases left loaded. On to the bottom of the eighth, where the Braves deployed Sandoval at third base, moved Austin Riley to left, and stuck Culberson in right.

    In a 1-1 game.

    In Game 1 of the NLCS.

    And the Braves won, conventional thinking and wisdom and sense be damned.

    They did so because, as they often do, they found a way to mix up some late-inning magic. And this was the most delicious rally we’ve seen from this bunch since they exited the rebuild, because this was the biggest game they’ve played in years.

    Riley, swinging over the top of slider after slider in the ninth spot on Snitker’s lineup card, smashed a Blake Treinen pitch 448 feet into the left-field seats to snap that 1-all tie leading off the ninth. It opened a waterfall that saw Acuna double, Freddie Freeman launch a sacrifice fly 405 feet to dead center, Marcell Ozuna work a tremendous at-bat to serve a single to right for another run, and Ozzie Albies homer into the Braves bullpen.

    By the time the dust settled, the Dodgers were the ones looking up at a series deficit. And probably in a bit of shock, to be honest, even if the perennial NL powerhouse says the right things publicly. Treinen, Dave Roberts’ likely closer if Kenley Jansen can’t rediscover his velocity, gave up three runs on three hits while retiring one hitter.

    The Dodgers were lucky this didn’t end up as Atlanta’s fifth shutout in six postseason contents. Max Fried made one mistake, a hanging curveball to Enrique Hernandez in the fifth that was deposited into the seats to tie the game, but gave up just three other hits across six sparkling innings with two walks (both in the first inning) and nine strikeouts.

    Then the Braves bullpen took over. For all the chatter nationally about the depth of L.A.’s firemen, there is no doubt: Atlanta owns the best bullpen in baseball, and it shined in the NLCS opener. Chris Martin, Will Smith (the left-handed reliever, not the Dodgers catcher) and Mark Melancon teamed up for three scoreless innings of relief, Melancon pausing between warm-up pitches in the bullpen to catch Albies homer.

    It was that type of night for the Braves, who sit three victories from a World Series trip.

    There’s work to do before thinking about that, although you can be excused to dream a bit bigger. A seven-game series is not secured in Game 1, but it can send quite the message.

    Message delivered, along with a chop and a chant for good measure.

    —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.

    NLCS Preview: Braves Look the Part, but Do They Have Enough to Topple Favored Dodgers?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    user282416407 · BravesWire NLCS Preview 2020

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They came home from the west coast having been outscored 9-0 in two games, walking into that new ballpark at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Oct. 7, 2018, hoping to just win one game against the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The Atlanta Braves did so that night, riding Ronald Acuna Jr.’s famous grand slam and a tiebreaking homer from Freddie Freeman to beat the Dodgers 6-5 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Less than 24 hours later the series and season were over, but the Braves status as a contender only was beginning.

    Here they are now, winners of not one but two postseason series to bury the 19-year series drought narrative, in the NL Championship Series for the first time since 2001. So it’s only fitting the final obstacle between the franchise and its first World Series appearance in 21 years is the Dodgers, the measuring stick for every other major league team.

    Those Braves of 2018 were fresh faced, bright eyed, young and maybe a bit awestruck in those first two losses at Dodger Stadium. As manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday, “I thought when we faced them the last time, and I said afterward, we weren’t as strong as they were. We’ve made a lot of progress in that regard.

    “We’re a stronger team than we were two years ago.”

    We’re about to see just how strong starting Monday, as the Braves and Dodgers lift the lid on the NLCS with Game 1. It’s 2020, so naturally the road to the World Series technically runs not through Chavez Ravine, but Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

    The Dodgers are the favorites in this series, as they should be. They’ve been here, done that. At some point, we all reasoned the Braves would have to go through the Dodgers to get to the World Series.

    Now, Atlanta gets that chance.

    Two Teams, One Pennant: MLB Network discusses the Braves/Dodgers matchup in the NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Can They Do It Again?: Snitker joked Saturday he didn’t have any choice but to feel comfortable with Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright taking the ball for Games 2 and 3, respectively. He then talked about how the young hurlers, who had combined for 18 major-league starts before the postseason began, have handled the playoff pressure.

    Yeah, you could say it’s going pretty well. Anderson and Wright have teamed up to allow five hits with 24 strikeouts and five walks across 17 2/3 shutout innings in three starts (two by Anderson, one by Wright). The Braves first-round draft picks in 2016 and 2017, Anderson and Wright have helped the Braves author four shutouts in five games in these playoffs.

    It would be foolish to expect Atlanta to continue posting zeros at that historic rate – opponents have scored in just three of 49 innings. But the confidence of Anderson and Wright, plus Game 1 starter Max Fried, is soaring at just the right time. Through two rounds, the Braves rotation has morphed from the shakiest part of the team to a difference-making strength.

    Snit Speaks: Atlanta manager Brian Snitker addresses the media before the NLCS.

    Who Can Be More Offensive: Take a look at the top of the team offensive stats from the regular season, and you’ll see a common theme: these two teams. Homers: Dodgers first in the majors, Braves second. Runs scored: Dodgers first, Braves second. OPS: Braves first, Dodgers second. OBP: Braves first, Dodgers second. Slugging percentage: Braves and Dodgers, tied for first.

    You get the idea. Both teams can hit. Good pitching stops good hitting in the postseason, as we heard plenty leading into the Reds series. And while one can argue Atlanta has faced better pitching overall on its path here, the Dodgers lead playoff teams in hard-hit rate (95 mph and higher) at 48 percent. Who’s second? Of course it’s the Braves (47.4 percent).

    Both offenses will face better pitching in this round than in the previous five games. And while the Dodgers have hit just two homers in five playoff games (Atlanta has seven), they still are averaging six runs a game. Former MVP Cody Bellinger is 6-for-19 with five RBIs this October after going 14-for-99 with nine RBIs in his previous five postseason series. He typically hits sixth in a L.A. lineup that is the deepest in the sport.

    Walk This Way: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announces Walker Buehler will start Monday’s Game 1 of the NLCS.

    Buehler … Buehler: Walker Buehler takes the ball for L.A. in Game 1, and while the right-hander has pitched only four innings in each of his first two postseason starts due to blister issues, he’s struck out eight in each outing while surrendering a total of three runs and five hits. It will be the ninth career playoff start for the 26-year-old out of Vanderbilt; perhaps you remember his first?

    After giving up 10 runs across his first three career postseason efforts, Buehler has allowed four runs in his past five appearances with 38 strikeouts and 12 walks in 20 2/3 innings. Four of those walks came in the NLDS opener against San Diego.

    The Dodgers have watched lefty Clayton Kershaw turn back the clock this month – 19 strikeouts and one walk with a .180 opponents batting average in 14 innings. If Buehler pitches well in Game 1 and (presumably) Game 6, the uphill climb for the Braves get steeper.

    Braves Top Trio Must Be Heroes: No team had a better top three in its lineup this season than the Braves, as Acuna, Freeman and Marcell Ozuna all put together campaigns that will likely see each finish in the top 10 of MVP voting. And while all three have enjoyed moments so far this postseason, the overall production has not been what the Braves must have to beat the Dodgers.

    Acuna began the NLDS with an emphatic leadoff homer against Miami, but has struck out in 50 percent of his 22 playoff at-bats with just one homer and two walks. Freeman’s lone RBI came on his walkoff 13th-inning single in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati. Ozuna delivered two key hits in Game 1 against the Marlins, but has just three other hits with 10 strikeouts and no walks in 22 ABs.

    Freeman and Ozuna each collected two hits in Atlanta’s series-closing Game 3 victory Thursday. Acuna has shined in October during his young career, slashing .304/.400/.607 with a 1.007 OPS, six doubles, one triple and three homers in 65 postseason plate appearances. While Travis d’Arnaud has been the Braves best hitter in the playoffs, the three hitters ahead of him in the lineup must have big series for the Braves to advance.

    Moving On: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman talks about beating Miami in the NL Division Series and advancing to the NLCS for the first time in his career.

    Win Early to Keep Playing: With potentially seven games in seven days, each pitching staff will bear more weight the longer the NLCS goes. That weight only gets heavier for the team that falls behind in the series, which is why the Braves need to win at least two of the first three games to have a realistic shot to capture the pennant.

    The good news is the Atlanta bullpen is as deep as any in baseball, putting up zeros in the postseason at a historic level. Tyler Matzek has become a revelation whose comeback story will get well-deserved national play this week. A.J. Minter has reinvigorated his career with a change-up. Now that Will Smith has found his stride after COVID-19 delayed his debut, he looks like the weapon the Braves handsomely paid for last winter.

    The Dodgers bullpen is very good – their relievers posted a 2.74 ERA and 1.044 WHIP in the regular season – but questions abound around Kenley Jansen’s hold on the closer’s role. L.A. does have options to close, namely veteran Blake Treinen. One name to watch: Brusdar Graterol, a hard-throwing right-hander who features 100 mph velocity and wicked movement.

    The X-Factors: Who Are You?

    This series is chock full of star power on both sides, but sometimes it’s an under-the-radar name who seizes the moment. Mike Devereaux and Eddie Perez come to mind from Braves NLCS appearances of yesteryear. For Atlanta, it’s hard not to lean toward Dansby Swanson and his knack for hitting in the clutch (two homers in the NLDS after a rough Wild Card series). If somebody in the bottom half of the Braves order can have a big series (such as Adam Duvall), it amplifies Atlanta’s chances to play beyond Sunday.

    For the Dodgers, infielder/outfielder Chris Taylor (co-NLCS MVP in 2017) is a lifetime .338 hitter against the Braves with a .944 OPS and eight extra-base hits in 65 career at-bats. Most Braves fans will remember him not for a gapper or homer, but a single through the left side with two outs in the ninth inning to break up Sean Newcomb’s 2018 no-hit bid. Taylor, who homered against Atlanta in the NLDS that fall, went 1-for-11 against San Diego in this year’s division series.

    The Difference

    The Braves lineup is as deep as it’s been in years. The Dodgers lineup is a bit deeper. The Braves options for Game 4 are Bryse Wilson, Huascar Yona or Josh Tomlin. The Dodgers options for Game 4 are Dustin May, Julio Urias or Tony Gonsolin. In a matchup of the NL’s top two teams, with a slender margin of error for both sides, these details are not insignificant.

    This is baseball’s stratosphere, and there are those in the game who will tell you winning the pennant is harder than winning the World Series. Even with limited fans at a neutral site, the pressure will be amplified on both teams – the Braves being at this point for the first time in forever; the Dodgers being at this point again with the expectations of World Series title or bust.

    I watched the Braves play that role for years, carrying the burden of trying to fulfill the prophecy of the fanbase and the rest of the sport. It’s not a light lift. Just ask the Dodgers, who followed up World Series losses in 2017-18 with a stunning home loss in Game 5 of the NLDS to the Nationals last fall. Can another NL East squad deny L.A. a World Series date for the second straight October?

    If the Braves win two of the first three games, they will win the series. If they get to a seventh game, they will win the series. It won’t be easy, but the Braves have come so far the past three years, from rebuilding franchise to playoff newcomer to legitimate contender.

    Now comes the next step: National League champions and a trip to the World Series.

    The Pick

    Braves in 7

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLCS game, starting Monday night.

    —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.

    CAPTURE THE FLAG! BRAVES SWEEP, HEAD TO NLCS FOR FIRST TIME SINCE 2001

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They didn’t know if there even would be a season. Their best player missed most of summer camp with COVID-19. Their starting pitching rotation fell apart.

    None of it stopped the Atlanta Braves.

    The Braves put the Miami Marlins out of their misery and ended a sweep of the NL Division Series emphatically and mercilessly, winning 7-0 in Game 3 on Thursday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For the first time since 2001, the Braves are heading to the NL Championship Series, beginning Monday against either the Dodgers or Padres in Arlington, Texas.

    Say it out loud. Go ahead, Braves Country, you’ve certainly earned the right to shout it from the mountaintop after all the heartache, the close calls, the near misses across the past two decades.

    The Braves are four wins from the pennant!

    The Braves are four wins from the World Series!

    “Coming from where we were five years ago to where we are at now, it’s a complete 180,” first baseman Freddie Freeman – the only holdover from all four years of Atlanta’s rebuild from 2014-17, and who was stricken with the coronavirus in early July – told Fox Sports 1 postgame. “For us to be in this situation is absolutely incredible.

    “We finally got past the NLDS.”

    The Ride Continues: The Braves head to the NLCS for the first time in 19 years after Thursday’s 7-0 victory over Miami to cap a NLDS sweep.

    There would be no other shoe to drop this time, no agonizing end to this magical 2020 season that will roll on for at least four more games. Two seasons after crashing the playoff party and 12 months after giving away the NLDS, Atlanta has won two playoff series in an eight-day span – after not winning one for 19 years.

    And who’s to say it stops there? Sure, Los Angeles or San Diego will present a tougher challenge than the Reds or Marlins. But the Braves look every bit ready for this moment, and the backdrop of the environment in which his team reached this point wasn’t lost on manager Brian Snitker postgame.

    “This has been a tough time for all of us, in our sport, our world, our city, our fanbase,” Snitker said during media availability. “I love the fact we can give those people something to look forward to and watch.”

    Not many expected to still be watching the Braves a week into October. The chorus near and far rang loud throughout the 60-game sprint to this postseason: the Braves just didn’t have the starting pitching to go far. And that was fair, given how the projected rotation outside of Max Fried disappeared due to injuries and underperformance.

    But the cursed manner of Braves starters turned into a huge blessing in disguise, because Ian Anderson (twice) and Kyle Wright (once) have owned the biggest moments of their young careers.

    Thursday was Wright’s turn. It didn’t start out well for the 25-year-old right-hander, but he bore down and found a way to wiggle out of trouble before the Braves slammed down the accelerator. In the first, Wright allowed back-to-back one-out singles before stranding both runners. The second started with Wright walking rookie Jazz Chisholm in his first postseason plate appearance, but two groundouts and a strikeout ended the inning.

    That was huge considering what happened in the top half of the frame. The Braves loaded the bases off Sixto Sanchez on a Travis d’Arnaud single and walks to Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson. Following an Adam Duvall strikeout, Nick Markakis’ sinking liner to left was snagged by Corey Dickerson and d’Arnaud didn’t try to score.

    The inning ended with Sanchez inducing an Austin Riley grounder to short. A missed opportunity, one that could have changed the game had Wright not stifled Miami after the Chisholm walk. A missed opportunity, one the Braves would regret if they didn’t get another chance.

    They did in the third and, as they’ve done all season, seized the moment.

    Marcell Ozuna singled home the game’s first run, followed by d’Arnaud – who finished 6-for-10 with two homers and tied a franchise record with seven RBIs in a postseason series – just missing his third homer in three days, a double off the wall in right-center chasing home Freeman and Ozuna for a 3-0 advantage. Albies then moved d’Arnaud to third and Swanson chased him home to make it 4-0.

    The Knockout Blow: The Braves scored four runs in the third inning to power a 7-0 victory and sweep of the NLDS.

    Wright made sure it stuck after the first two Marlins reached in the third, retiring 12 of the final 13 hitters he faced. Combined, the trio of Fried, Anderson and Wright held Miami to four runs on 12 hits (all the runs and half the hits surrendered by Fried, the staff ace) with three walks and 19 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings.

    After so many October disappointments, the Braves have smashed that narrative with a command performance through five games. Atlanta not only has yet to lose this postseason, it’s allowed runs in just three of 49 innings. Anderson and Wright are the first teammates in MLB history to pitch at least six shutout innings in their playoff debuts in the same postseason.

    Oh, and about the Marlins trying to get under the Braves skin by plunking Ronald Acuna in Game 1? It backfired, bigtime. From that moment – remember, Miami led the opener at that point 4-1 – Atlanta outscored the Marlins 17-1.

    Acuna took to Twitter postgame to send the Marlins a message, and the franchise he plays for added another couple of notches to this 2020 postseason vengeance tour. The Marlins upended the Braves in the 1997 NLCS, and Atlanta was eliminated from the 2005 NLDS at Minute Maid Park in an excruciating 18-inning defeat.

    All of that is history. This current band of Braves continues to make its own. Starting Monday, they will do something the franchise hasn’t done in nearly two decades:

    Play for the pennant and a trip to the Fall Classic.

    —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.