• Mike Foltynewicz

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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 Fight Back with Redeeming Game 2 Victory, Evens NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – At some point during a summer spent trying to find his mechanics and find himself, Mike Foltynewicz had to wonder if this opportunity would ever return. At some point during a summer spent smashing baseballs all over the International League, Adam Duvall had to wonder if this opportunity would ever come.

    Their moments arrived simultaneously Friday afternoon when the Atlanta Braves needed them most, and both delivered under baseball’s brightest lights.

    Foltynewicz fired seven shutout innings and Duvall smashed a two-run pinch-hit homer in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, lifting the Braves to a 3-0 victory over St. Louis to square the best-of-five series at one game apiece. Not even 24 hours after Atlanta’s special season seemed spiraling toward the abyss after a disheartening 7-6 loss in the series opener, the Braves now sit just two victories shy of their first playoff series triumph in 18 years.

    The journeys both Foltynewicz and Duvall took to reach Friday had to felt longer than that.

    Pegged as the Braves ace when spring training started, Foltynewicz experienced elbow issues and didn’t pitch in the majors until late April. It went south quickly, leading to Atlanta’s Game 1 starter in last year’s NLDS being banished to the minors for six weeks.

    Duvall struggled miserably after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline from Cincinnati, so much so he was left off the playoff roster. With no room for him in Atlanta at the end of spring training, Duvall was sent to Triple-A and stayed there until being recalled in late July.

    Foltynewicz earned the nod in Game 2 based on the work he did since rejoining the big-league rotation Aug. 6, posting a 2.65 ERA and .211 opponents batting average in 10 starts. He struck out two hitters in the first, second and fifth innings, finishing with seven punchouts. He did not walk a batter. Only one St. Louis hitter reached second base against him. Poised and calm throughout, Foltynewicz spun a gem in perhaps the biggest game of his young career.

    The 42,911 inside SunTrust Park did not want to see his day end, and they let Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker know it when Duvall strolled to the plate to pinch-hit for Foltynewicz with two outs in the seventh and Brian McCann on first. Duvall turned those boos to cheers by hammering a 96-mph fastball over the fence in center to push the lead to three.

    One night after a muddled mess of an opener for both teams, Atlanta and St. Louis played a much cleaner, crisper affair, completed in 2 hours, 46 minutes (81 minutes quicker than Thursday’s slog). The Braves awoke Friday needing a spark to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole that likely would have ended their season, and the task at hand upon arriving at the ballpark was daunting.

    Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 15 starts since the All-Star break with 124 strikeouts and five homers allowed in 99 1/3 innings. But the right-hander gave up an opening-inning single to Ozzie Albies, who advanced on Flaherty’s wild pitch to second, moved to third on a Freddie Freeman groundout and scored on Josh Donaldson’s single to left to provide Atlanta a 1-0 lead after one inning for the second consecutive game.

    Foltynewicz made it stick from there, firing 58 of his 81 pitches for strikes by inducing swings and misses on his slider and freezing St. Louis hitters with his fastball. The growth in Foltynewicz was on full display for all the nation to see on this night, one year to the day he gave up four runs in two innings of a Game 1 loss at Log Angeles.

    Duval hit just .171 in spring training and was sent to Gwinnett at the end of camp. To his credit – much as Foltynewicz would do with the Triple-A affiliate three months later – Duvall went to work. He hit 32 homers with 90 RBIs in 101 games with the Stripers and gave the Braves a big boost after Nick Markakis broke his wrist on a hit-by-pitch in late July, homering in his major-league season debut and slugging four homers in his first five games.

    While rookie Austin Riley scuffled badly down the stretch, Duvall took advantage of the Braves early clinch of the NL East and the extra playing time that came with it, ending the regular season on a seven-game hitting streak to earn a roster spot. A 30-homer hitter in back-to-back seasons with the Reds in 2016-17, his final homer in a Cincinnati uniform came on July 25, 2018.

    It came off Flaherty.

    Suffice to say, both Duvall and Foltynewicz never will forget Friday. And their team, all but buried just one evening earlier, now flies to St. Louis needing just two more victories to earn a shot at the pennant.

    —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.

    5 Burning Questions with Braves & Cards Ready to Rumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We have the opposition. We have some of the game times. We even have the umpiring crew (and lord have mercy, if you could’ve seen my face when I opened that press release Monday afternoon and saw Sam Holbrook’s name).

    Welcome to Choptober, Braves Country. The National League Division Series kicks off Thursday at SunTrust Park and, depending on who wins Tuesday’s NL wild card matchup, the first pitch will cross home plate around either 5:02 p.m. ET or 6:02 p.m. ET. Holbrook, infamous in Atlanta sports history for making the wretched, still-jaw-dropping-seven-years-later infield fly rule call in the wild card game (against the Cardinals, of course) in 2012, will take the field as crew chief.

    Certainly, the 42,000 or so who jam into SunTrust on what may be the hottest October day ever in Atlanta temperature-wise (forecast high is 94 degrees) certainly will greet Holbrook warmly. Memories of that disastrous call and the ensuing storm of beer bottles and other debris that littered the field still make Braves fans cringe, as the ruling squelched a late rally and subsequently not only ended the Braves season, but the Hall of Fame career of third baseman Chipper Jones.

    There will be ad nauseum references to Holbrook and his moment of infamy in the days ahead. Still shaking my head at the level of tone deafness exhibited by Major League Baseball, we move on from that talking point and focus instead on the matchup between the champions of the NL East and NL Central. The Cardinals had to battle until Sunday’s regular-season finale, holding off the hard-charging Brewers to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

    Here’s my five questions to consider as the hours tick toward first pitch:

    The Braves “malaise” … not a big deal or matter of concern?

    Much has been made of the way Atlanta finished the season, losing five of its final six games and dropping eight of its last 12 games while falling three wins short of 100. But at some point, this team had to cool off a little bit, considering before those final dozen contests they went 75-37 since May 10. That’s a .669 winning percentage, which is a 108-win pace. The 4-8 mark to close the season? That’s a 54-win pace.

    The Braves are far closer to playing .600 ball than .400 ball, the difference between winning and losing a best-of-five series. Once the Braves took care of Washington in early September, the air came out of the balloon, especially after clinching. It almost looked to me like a classroom with a week to go before summer vacation and all the course work completed. Yes, you can’t just “flip a switch” and turn it on again, but also remember the Cardinals have three days off entering Game 1, too. I don’t think it’s a big deal.

    How healthy are Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.?

    I won’t lie: seeing Acuna limp toward the fence in the right-center field gap at Kansas City on Tuesday froze me in my tracks. Yes, it derailed his quest to reach 40-40, and that stings. But more important to me was the correct decision to shut down the 21-year-old for the final four games of the regular season. Acuna took batting practice with no issues in New York and will ramp up his running in the days leading to Game 1. But until I see him race full speed Thursday, I’ll have a bit of hesitation.

    Freeman – whose right elbow bone spur should have its own Twitter feed, as much as it’s been discussed – played in all three games in New York, leaving after two at-bats in the finale. It’s been an ongoing issue nobody knew about publicly until it started barking two weeks ago. It’s not going to get any worse by playing. A couple of his swings this weekend looked painful, but most of his hacks looked fine to me (including the base hit in his final AB of the season Sunday). If I’m marginally concerned about Acuna, I’m only slightly worried about Freeman.

    Should Mike Soroka start one of the first two games in Atlanta?

    Conventional wisdom says you start your best two pitchers in the first two games of a series, especially at home. Conventional wisdom says you do not start a 22-year-old rookie pitcher on the road in his first postseason contest, especially in a place like St. Louis where the fans will be loud from first pitch to final out.

    But The Kid from Calgary has long since bucked conventional wisdom. Soroka has been the best pitcher in baseball on the road this season. Even with allowing three earned runs yesterday in New York, he wrapped the regular season 7-1 in 16 away starts with a 1.55 ERA, five homers (one Sunday) allowed in 98 2/3 innings and a 0.96 WHIP. He allowed two runs (one earned) on five hits with one walk and five strikeouts at St. Louis on May 25. Most of the time, he would get the ball for me on Thursday or Friday. This time? I like the call of him going Sunday.

    How beneficial is it that the Cardinals do not have a left-hander in their rotation?

    Since the Braves are deploying both Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce in the outfield, it is helpful that neither will have to deal with left-handers for most of the series (the Cardinals have Andrew Miller and Tyler Webb as lefties in the bullpen; Miller has struggled at times this season). Markakis is hitting .298 with a .816 OPS against right-handers (compared to .245 and .653 against southpaws). Joyce also is batting .298 against righties with a .871 OPS (compared to .273 and .748 against lefties).

    There are places where not having more left-handed bats due to injuries to Ender Inciarte and the switch-hitting Johan Camargo will sting against a right-handed-heavy St. Louis staff. Dansby Swanson has a .734 OPS against right-handers while posting a .803 OPS against left-handers, for example. But consider Tyler Flowers, who crushed left-handers at a .348 clip last season. In 2019, Flowers is hitting just .155 with an anemic .574 OPS against southpaws, but a respectful .262 with a pretty good .817 OPS against right-handers – one season after hitting just .184 vs. righties.

    How critical is Dallas Keuchel’s start in Game 1?

    Game 1 in a five-game series is massive, especially at home. Lose that game, and you must win three out of four to advance. For the final-two-months brilliance of Mike Foltynewicz, for the outstanding rookie campaign by Soroka, Dallas Keuchel is exactly what Atlanta needs in the opener. He pitched the 2015 AL wild card game, Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS and Game 1 of the 2017 World Series.

    In those three games, Keuchel went 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA, giving up three runs on 13 hits in 19 2/3 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. Keuchel has allowed two earned runs or fewer six times in his nine career playoff starts while surrendering five hits of fewer in each of those six outings. He gave up two homers in two of his final three starts, but that came during the team’s mini-slump down the stretch. In his six previous starts, Keuchel posted a 0.97 ERA while going 5-0.

    Now if Holbrook can avoid screwing up fundamental interpretation of the rulebook, we should have a great series (sorry, couldn’t resist one more shot).

    —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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Welcome to Sept. 20, 2019.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    Welcome to the home of the NL East champions.

    Again.

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

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

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

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

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

    You know what happened next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

    But the real story is how they did so.

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

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

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —30—

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

    Red-Hot Braves Soar to Chicago After Another Wild, Winning Weekend

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The avenues by which the Atlanta Braves find victory lane continue to pile up in a manner that leaves so many of us scratching our heads on an almost nightly basis, we find ourselves repeating the same word over and over again:

    “How?”

    How did that happen?

    How did they find a way?

    How in the world are they where they’re at, given some of the things that have – and have not – transpired?

    Consider the view this evening as the Braves fly toward Chicago and a four-game mid-summer set with the Cubs. The National League East lead, a sizable 6 ½ games as the charter flight wings its way toward the Windy City, sits safely tucked in the overhead bin. The rest of the division has melted down with the grace of a 7-year-old denied a second cookie at the Publix bakery, from Philadelphia’s stunning nose-dive toward .500 to the Mets physically and verbally threatening a media member.

    And in Washington? The Nationals welcomed Atlanta into town this weekend having won 17 of their previous 24 games to nudge within two games of .500 for the first time in two months. There was the thought a series victory could propel Washington into another favorable stretch of their schedule with a real shot to nudge within striking distance of the Braves by the time the two teams meet in Atlanta in mid-July.

    Yeah, about that.

    It figured the Braves would lose the one game in the series that drew the hottest glare of the spotlight, that being Friday’s series opener, when Dallas Keuchel’s Atlanta debut was marred by a pair of glitches by the otherwise-sparkling Braves infield defense. That was followed by another jarringly disappointing start by Mike Foltynewicz in Saturday’s middle game. In the city where he pitched in the All-Star game 13 months ago, Foltynewicz gave up eight runs in four-plus innings, thereby earning a ticket to Lawrenceville and the International League.

    And yet, somehow, the Braves won a game they had no business winning. Stop me if you’re heard that before. They trailed twice by four runs – a 5-1 deficit after three innings; an 8-4 gap entering the seventh – and pulled away for a 13-9 triumph, the fourth time in 2019 Atlanta has won a game in which it trailed by four or more runs. Entering Sunday’s series finale, there had been 79 instances this season in which a team trailed entering the eighth inning and prevailed. More than 10 percent of those victories – eight – are by the boys from Atlanta.

    Sunday brought another wild twist, albeit a scary one when young ace Mike Soroka was hit in the right forearm while batting in the third inning. The baby-faced Soroka grew up playing hockey in Canada, and The Kid from Calgary bore the look of a guy wanting to drop the gloves as he trudged to first base. His day over for precautionary reasons (absolutely the right call) left the much-maligned Braves bullpen, which despite solid work of late remains stoned nightly in the village square of public opinion, forced to cover seven innings.

    As it turned out, eight innings were required, and eight was enough. Josh Tomlin cruised through four of those innings on 43 pitches, but had not covered that many frames since May 7. The Braves saw Washington tie the game in the seventh, but their forgotten man impacted the game for a second-consecutive night. Johan Camargo, relegated to bench bat duty instead of super-utility, start-three-or-four-days-a-week status courtesy of mismanagement by Brian Snitker in the season’s first three months, blasted a two-run pinch-hit homer in the 10th. It came one night after a pinch-hit double tied Saturday’s contest at 9-all, setting the stage for Dansby Swanson’s go-ahead blast that put the Braves ahead to stay.

    The 800-pound gorilla in the room remains the final three outs, and far be it from me to criticize the job Luke Jackson has done in evolving in one year from three-time DFA to de facto closer. But a closer he’s not, even if he found a way on this day to get the final outs of a 4-3 victory that earned Atlanta yet another critical series triumph and certainly put a halt to the rising momentum Washington brought into the weekend. It is clear Alex Anthopoulos must address the back end of the bullpen, something he wasn’t able to do in the offseason.

    The feeling here is he will get it done leading up to the trade deadline.

    He has no choice. This team’s grit and resiliency demands it.

    Forty-eight hours of summertime, division-battling baseball. The Braves won two of three. They very easy could have swept. They also very easy could have been swept. Such is the narrow ledge teams walk as the weather heats up, the games get tight, and the lens on the standings comes with an increasing sharpness as the days fly off the calendar.

    The Braves could not have picked a better time to catch fire. Since Ronald Acuna Jr. and Swanson ascended to the 1-2 spots in Snitker’s lineup, Atlanta is 28-12. Since the morning of May 15, the date of Austin Riley’s big-league debut, the Braves have made up a staggering 10 games in the standings on Philadelphia, which has lost seven in a row and are 2-11 in its past 13 games after being swept at home by the Marlins.

    Stupid money never looked so dumb.

    In 40 years of watching Braves baseball, I’ve seen quite a bit, good and bad. What this team has done in the past 40 games ranks right up there. And the manner with which it’s winning games is so compelling. Some nights, it’s exhilarating. Some nights, it’s suffocating. Some nights, it’s exhausting. Regardless of the route, the nightly journey most often ends with another tick in the W column.

    So, it’s off to Chicago, where the Braves will meet the Cubs nearly three months after sweeping the north-siders in a three-game series at SunTrust Park. The Cubs have righted the ship since and enter the series holding a ½-game lead over Milwaukee in the NL Central. Were the playoffs to begin now, the two teams would match up in the NLDS, thereby avoiding the monsters from Los Angeles in the opening-round five-game set.

    Chicago’s hold on that spot is far more tenuous than Atlanta’s. The Cubs split a weekend series with the Mets, but own the second-best home record in the NL (only trailing the aforementioned Dodgers). Wrigley Field not only is a tough place for visiting teams to extract victories, it also is a hallowed hall of ball that sits on every baseball fan’s bucket list.

    I get to place that checkmark this week, attending my first regular-season Braves games outside of Atlanta. I’ll join the boys and plenty of good denizens of Braves Country in Chicago come Tuesday afternoon. It’s a personal footnote to what otherwise is the next chapter of what feels like a special season.

    The calendar tells us it’s far too early to start contemplating autumn, that the East is far from secured. But with each passing day, and each varying path to the latest victory, this team tells us otherwise.

    —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 Rule the Stage in Latest Act of NL East Saga

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The battle for division supremacy unfolds during a six-month passion play that carries teams from coast to coast, from the warmest enclaves in the heat of summer to far-flung ports of call amid the brisk winds of late winter or early fall. Though the drama presents itself in 162 neatly packaged portions across 187 days of the calendar, some acts carry more weight than others.

    Such was the case as the lid lifted on the 2019 season, an opening chapter that saw the Atlanta Braves play second-fiddle to the Philadelphia Phillies – a three-game sweep in eastern Pennsylvania during which the Phillies showed off all their shiny new toys, many acquired with “stupid money,” with the goal of wrestling the National League East title out of the grasp of the we-arrived-a-bit-earlier-than-expected-in-2018 Braves.

    Eleven weeks have elapsed since the Braves left the cradle of our democracy in the dying hours of March, wearing an 0-3 record around their necks as the cries of the Philly faithful rang in their ears. Three games doth not make a season, especially before the dawn of April, but any Braves fan who watched those 27 innings couldn’t help but wonder if Philadelphia’s massive measures of addition would result in a summer spent chasing them for the East’s catbird seat.

    Look who’s chasing who now.

    The Braves spent much of the past 2 ½ months trying to sort out and properly stack a group of misfit, unknown and forgotten parts comprising their bullpen, hoping veteran starters in their rotation could match the early accomplishments of their shining young arms, and waiting for an offense that looked better on paper to translate that improvement from the stat sheet to the batter’s box. And after their first meeting since that opening series in Philly, a weekend set in Atlanta that saw the Braves capture two of three games – the finale a 15-1 thumping on a warm Sunday afternoon at SunTrust Park that extended Atlanta’s cushion in the East to 2 ½ games – we have our response:

    Game. On.

    Sunday was devoid of any sorts of drama after a pair of passionate, stomach-twisting paths to resolution in the opening two meetings of the series in front of jammed-packed crowds at the meeting point of Interstates 285 and 75 along the northwestern rim of the capital city. Friday night, Atlanta authored a comeback for the ages, a 9-8 victory on Brian McCann’s ninth-inning walkoff that brought many fans to tears. One night later, the Braves carried a lead into the ninth, only to see Luke Jackson stumble as the Phillies even the series, activating the “doom-and-gloom” button of Braves fandom even though that 6-5 defeat ended an eight-game winning streak.

    On the scale of edge-of-your-seat emotion, Sunday would’ve been canceled shortly after Josh Donaldson continued his torrid week with a two-run homer in the third to push the Atlanta advantage to 5-0. The former MVP, who has hinted at going off on a huge run only to be humbled by a steady diet of breaking balls and liners smoked right at defenders, recorded his second straight three-hit game to raise his average to .370 with four homers and eight RBIs since a Joe Musgrove pitch ticked his jersey Monday, leading to a benches-clearing, hold-me-back-bro session that resulted in the Braves third baseman receiving an ejection and a one-game suspension.

    Good thing he’s appealing that mandated day off to MLB’s high court, because Donaldson is riding quite the wave at the moment. And his teammates are along for the ride, while adding plenty of logs to the roaring offensive fire. Ronald Acuna Jr. extended his hitting streak to eight games Sunday with a 4-for-4 performance, and in 16 games dating to May 31, the 21-year-old center fielder is batting .375 with 14 runs scored, five doubles, five homers – including an opposite-field laser into the Braves bullpen amid a five-run seventh on Sunday – and 16 RBIs.

    That production is a far cry from that opening series, when Atlanta mustered just 11 runs in the three games while allowing 23 to the Phillies and being totally dominated in every facet of the game. The finale of that series, played on a raw, cold night and broadcasted for the nation to see on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, saw Acuna hit cleanup, Donaldson penciled into his preferred two-spot in the order, and shortstop Dansby Swanson slotted in the eight hole. Rookie hurler Kyle Wright struggled to find his grip on a night where the wind chill slid into the 30s, walking five in 4 2/3 innings, and reliever Shane Carle walked two en route to allowing two runs in one inning of relief.

    Acuna – who hyper-jumped the Braves to last season’s NL East title once he moved to the leadoff spot after the All-Star break – slid back to the top of the lineup on May 10 at Arizona. Swanson bumped up to second that night. Leading into that game, Atlanta had averaged 4.8 runs on 8.8 hits through its first 38 games, owning an 18-20 mark and riding a four-game losing streak into that Friday night contest in the desert. The Braves responded by winning seven of their next eight, and in 34 games since Acuna and Swanson set up anchor in the 1-2 spots, Atlanta is averaging 5.9 runs on 9.6 hits.

    The Phillies had no business losing Friday’s game. The Braves had no business losing Saturday’s game. That raised the stakes coming in Sunday, a contest that figured to favor the Braves slightly only because Philadelphia opted to go with Vince Velasquez – a starter banished to the bullpen – as an opener. Atlanta countered with Mike Foltynewicz, who struggled mightily after missing a month with an elbow injury, but had provided flickers of hope that the hard-throwing, All-Star right-hander may have found something. And on this day, the advantage stayed with Foltynewicz throughout, thanks in part to ample support from his offense.

    By the time the Phillies cracked Foltynewicz, the Braves led by a touchdown. They would add another trip to the end zone and two-point conversion by the time the seventh inning closed. The day concluded with Philadelphia deploying former Braves utility infielder Sean Rodriguez to the hill for the eighth inning – S-Rod throwing seven of his nine pitches for strikes in a perfect frame – and Atlanta giving Huascar Ynoa his big-league debut, the flame-throwing 21-year-old who started 2019 at High-A Florida giving up a hit in two innings, but striking out two while consistently spotting three pitches for strikes.

    As dire as those moments after their first meeting felt for Braves fans late on the final day in March, the fading hours of Father’s Day bore just as much hope. There won’t be anywhere near the wait for the next act in this battle, as the Phillies return to Atlanta on July 2 for a three-game series concluding on the Fourth of July.

    Summer is here, and the race is on. The fireworks that will light up the North Georgia sky on the first Thursday night in July won’t be the only salvos fired, as these two newly renewed NL East rivals play out the next act in the race to October.

    —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.

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The first full month of the season sits in the rear-view mirror, 31 games are in the books and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a position they did not reach at any one point during their glorious run to the 2018 NL East championship.

    Under .500.

    The Braves have befuddled many of us through the first five weeks of 2019, looking at times like a World Series contender and at other times like an also-ran – sometimes within an inning or two of each other – as they now begin their first extended road trip. A 10-day, 10-game, three-city journey begins Friday night in Miami, where old friend Jose Urena awaits his assured retribution for his gutless plunking of Ronald Acuna Jr. last season. From there, Atlanta flies west for three games against the pennant-winning Dodgers and four at Arizona, against the same Diamondbacks squad that swept a three-game series two weeks ago at SunTrust Park.

    Often, the first weeks of the season begin answering the questions we all have about a team throughout the offseason and spring training. In some respects, I think we can begin drawing early conclusions on some topics. For others, I have no better clue now than I did in late March, before attending 11 games in person and watching/listening to every pitch of the season to this point.

    Atlanta leaves town for a while, but questions remain. Such as …

    Is this team where you’d thought it would be at this point of the season?

    In a word, no. I didn’t expect the Braves to be below .500 through 19.1 percent of the season. Granted, they’re one game under. It’s not like their buried in the East. But I thought if there was a month early in the season that might challenge them, it would be the month we’re in now, and not the one that preceded it. That concerns me a bit, to be honest.

    What’s the most disappointing part of Atlanta’s start?

    Duh! It’s the pit of misery … eh, the bullpen. Look, many of us – myself included – thought the Braves needed to upgrade their relief corps and were disappointed Alex Anthopoulos could not secure at least one upgrade for the bullpen. But did I think that group would be this bad? No, and I don’t believe they’re as bad as they’ve shown.

    But they’re not great, either, and they’ve already cost the Braves games they can ill-afford to blow in a tightly contested division. A.J. Minter has shown rust and inconsistency after missing most of spring training. Darren O’Day remains missing in action. Jesse Biddle hit a funk you wouldn’t wish on anybody. Others have taken their turns struggling to throw strikes.

    There have been signs, albeit small ones, that a correction is coming. Minter looked good in Wednesday’s save. Jacob Webb earned a win and a save on back-to-back days. Josh Tomlin has become a revelation once he started getting work. And what else to say of Luke Jackson, who has gone from fanbase whipping post to downright lovable? Action Jackson is the most unexpected singular aspect of this season.

    Is what we’ve seen from Max Fried and Mike Soroka real?

    In my opinion, yes. That’s not to say Soroka will pitch to a sub-2 ERA all season and Fried will win 22 games and the Cy Young. But both young hurlers have filthy stuff, which we’ve seen in flashes.

    But now, we’re seeing it every fifth day. Fried isn’t getting yanked between the rotation, the bullpen, and Gwinnett. Soroka is healthy. Both are pitching with a ton of confidence, and guided by veteran catchers Brian McCann and Tyler Flowers, each is showing the ability to trust their stuff, pound the strike zone, shake off the inevitable mistake, and keep on rolling.

    Fried reminds me so much of a young Steve Avery, it’s scary. Soroka has the poise and makeup of a young Tom Glavine. High praise, yes, but these two kids are good. Really good. Legit, rotation-anchoring good.

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

    A little bit, but only because he’s made just two big-league starts and we’re roughly 1/5th of the way through the season. Folty’s fastball velocity is down a tick from last year, and today his slider was flat against San Diego. Coupled with some shaky defense (including a bad throw of his own doing), and it’s easy to see how today came off the rails.

    But he was locked in for much of his first start against Colorado. If Folty has five, six starts under his belt and he’s still sitting 94 mph, then I’d be more concerned. Hard to read too much into two starts, for a guy who won 13 games and made the All-Star team a season ago, then spent four weeks in Triple-A going through his spring training. Give it time and let him get into a rhythm.

    Is the offense better than you thought?

    Absolutely, and it’s not just because of Josh Donaldson (who is so much better defensively than I realized) or Freddie Freeman or Acuna, even though the superkid has struggled the past two weeks. It’s because Ozzie Albies has solidified himself at the top of the lineup – and credit Brian Snitker for recognizing the second baseman needed to hit leadoff regardless of that night’s starter – Nick Markakis has regained his early-2018 form, and the strides Dansby Swanson has made offensively.

    Add in the production out of the veteran catchers, and the Braves 1-through-7 in the order have been every bit as tough as any lineup in the game. There has to be a bit of regression somewhere, at some point, but even if Markakis and the catchers cool off their opening-month pace, this still is a very good offensive team that can help carry it through some bumpy nights pitching-wise.

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

    I’ve preached patience with Swanson since his struggles in 2017. Last year he was hindered (more so than we realized at the time) by a wrist injury. He’s healthy now, and he’s blistering line drives all over the field. His power has expanded, he’s hitting the ball just as hard to right-center as left-center, and he’s still playing outstanding defense.

    It’s 31 games, so let’s see it continue to play out. But I think it’s real. And if Swanson continues to hit like this – and you have to expect some of those liners right at folks are going to find grass at some point – you suddenly have an elite shortstop to add to the linchpins of this lineup. The Braves already have locked up Acuna and Albies. A continuation of this type of play for Swanson the rest of the season certainly makes his next-man-up to sign on the dotted line long term.

    There’s one hitter not mentioned yet … why does Ender keep getting playing time?

    Oh, I don’t know … maybe because he’s won three straight Gold Gloves in center field and he’s historically a poor offensive performer in April? There are plenty of people who have cried for Cristian Pache or Drew Waters to be promoted to the majors after their hot starts at Double-A Mississippi. That would be a mistake, plain and simple.

    Inciarte infuriates the fan base with grounders to second and swinging at the first pitch. He also collected 200 hits two seasons ago and does his best offensive work once school lets out. Some of the patience asked for with Swanson the past two years can be applied here. You have a good idea what you’re going to get out of Inciarte. You just have to … wait for it.

    If Ender still is struggling in six weeks, maybe you have a conversation. For now, the pseudo-platoon of putting Acuna in center and sitting Inciarte against some lefties is doable. Credit Snitker for putting Inciarte lower in the order, and we’ve started to see some signs of life with the bat and a few more balls hit to left and left-center.

    What else has stood out to you in the first five weeks?

    Sean Newcomb had to go back to Triple-A to try and find his rhythm, and he’s turned it around with back-to-back outings with zero walks. … Matt Joyce, signed late in camp, actually has been a nice asset off the bench from the left side. … I’ve been pleased that Snitker has given Johan Camargo starts all over the field, and the two hits today hopefully signifies he’s getting right at the plate. … Julio Teheran hasn’t been that bad, actually, but cannot afford outings like his doubleheader debacle in Cleveland. … The Gwinnett shuttle has worked out for the most part, although I remain befuddled and upset Bryse Wilson didn’t get a longer look in the major-league bullpen before being demoted last weekend. … I hope Wes Parsons gets back and continues to excel. … Charlie Culberson is my favorite position-player pitcher of all time, and his work off the bench – despite too few at-bats – has been impressive.

    What needs to happen this month?

    The other three contenders in the East have flaws just as damning as the Braves, so I don’t expect anybody to have an 18-8 month and pull away. Given Atlanta makes two separate trips to the coast, plays six games against St. Louis and three with Milwaukee, I wouldn’t be upset with .500. That means you don’t stub your toe against Miami or San Francisco, get some payback at Arizona, and hold your own against the Dodgers.

    That keeps you well within striking distance once June begins, and that’s where it’s going to get interesting. I think teams falling out of the race are going to look to move guys earlier. The Giants already are listening on several bullpen pieces. Does the Corey Kluber injury shift the balance of power in the AL Central? Will Baltimore cave in on dealing Mychal Givens? And with the draft in early June, does that finally push somebody to sign Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel?

    Those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Braves have plenty of questions of their own as they fly toward South Beach, and the sprint to October ramps toward full speed.

    —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.