• National League East

    Familiar October Stumble in Game 1 Puts Braves in Tough Position

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It happened again, across 247 minutes on the hottest October day ever recorded in the capital city. Another knife in the back with plenty of painful twists for Atlanta Braves fans. Another one of those games that go into a memory bank chock full of too many, “how did we lose” contests.

    Another deflating October stumble.

    It was supposed to be different this time, as these Braves embarked on the National League Division Series opener against St. Louis at SunTrust Park on a 98-degree Thursday afternoon. The 2018 Braves surprisingly won the NL East and entered the postseason playing with house money.

    The Braves of 2019 are expected to earn far more than a participatory certificate. Instead, they’re starting at a one-way exit ticket if Thursday is any indication.

    The Braves dropped the NLDS opener 7-6 on a miserable afternoon in front of 42,631 who baked in the blazing sunshine. By the time it ended at 9:09 p.m. ET, some 4 hours and 7 minutes after first pitch, Atlanta fans were left with that all-too-familiar feeling of opportunities missed in a close postseason defeat.

    And there were many. Too many to win in October, if we’re being honest. The missteps, the chances fumbled, occurred early and often.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to lead off the first inning. Acuna had the green light to steal but was thrown out by Yadier Molina. Considering the Braves had St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas and his 5.40 road ERA on the ropes after the first four hitters reached base, that hurt. They scored just once, leaving two runners stranded.

    In the second inning, starter Dallas Keuchel tried to bunt the slower-than-slow Brian McCann to third. His bunt went right to Mikolas on the third-base side, who easily gunned down the Braves catcher – who got the start with Keuchel on the bump despite Tyler Flowers’ recent good work with the lefty. A bunt toward first likely gets McCann to third.

    Speaking of Keuchel, he needed just 19 pitches to cruise through the first two innings. But the traffic built in the next three frames, double plays started by Josh Donaldson bailing him out twice. There was no escape in the fifth for the veteran making his 10th career postseason start, lasting just 4 2/3 innings while allowing five hits and three walks. Yes, he gave up only one run, but especially after his first two innings, Keuchel’s finished body of work was nowhere near what an otherwise young rotation needed in a series opener, and his short outing cranked up the fire on the Braves relief corps.

    The bullpen did its part, initially. Darren O’Day (if you had him being the first Atlanta reliever deployed in the postseason in August, you’re lying, because nobody did), Shane Greene, and Max Fried kept the Cardinals at bay. Fried struck out two while needing only 14 pitches to navigate a perfect seventh; even with Paul Goldschmidt scheduled to lead off the eighth, Fried should’ve started the frame. He didn’t. That’s on Brian Snitker, and it’s a decision that backfired bigtime (although to be fair, his plan for the final two innings changed before a pitch was thrown in the eighth).

    In the bottom of the seventh Acuna – who had a splendid day by going 3-for-4 with two RBIs, a run scored, and a monster homer in the ninth – committed the cardinal sin that to this point in his career has been the one stain on his record. A high drive off the bricks in deep right field went for just a single because the 21-year-old did not hustle out of the box. While it’s impossible to say with certainty how the inning would’ve played out, this much is clear: that cannot happen in the regular season, and it sure as heck can’t happen in October.

    In the top of the eighth, the Braves had it set up exactly as Snitker wanted. Leading 3-1 and six outs away from their first Game 1 victory since the 2001 NLDS (also the last postseason series Atlanta won), Snitker planned to hand the ball to Chris Martin. But the right-hander suffered a left oblique strain while coming in from the bullpen and threw nary a warmup offering before heading off the field.

    Only Atlanta in October, right?

    That forced Luke Jackson into the game (and all of those who said “Luke Jackson never will pitch late innings in the postseason” after the Braves made their flurry of deadline deals winced in unison). Jackson surrendered two runs on three hits – the last run coming on a Matt Carpenter single that tied the game off Mark Melancon, who came on for a potential four-out save.

    Melancon, who for the most part has been solid as closer, imploded in the ninth in alarming, Braves postseason-esque fashion. He gave up a pair of two-run doubles that extended the deficit to 7-3. One was down the third-base line. One was down the first-base line. Both were barely fair. They were fair just the same.

    While the Braves battled back in the ninth on homers by Acuna and Freddie Freeman, in between Ozzie Albies nearly beat out a ground ball to third. Replay showed Goldschmidt’s toe came ever-so-slightly off the bag, but the Braves challenge was unsuccessful. Of course it was.

    It was, to be blunt, a disastrous beginning to what very well may be a short playoff run. That’s not knee-jerk reaction. That’s reality when looking at losing a Game 1, at home, in a five-game series. The Cardinals played shaky defense, entered the eighth with one run, and in nine innings gave up six runs.

    And they headed back to the hotel with the series lead. Of course they did.

    That says nothing of what comes Friday in Game 2, when St. Louis trots out red-hot right-hander Jack Flaherty. He’s been the best pitcher in the National League in the second half of the season. If the Braves don’t win, their special season moves to the brink before this series moves outside of Cobb County.

    They’ve been resilient all season. They better be in a few short hours. The Braves had a myriad of opportunities to win Game 1. They stubbed their toe in ways that would make many of their postseason predecessors cringe with head-nodding agony. A victory in Game 2 levels things and recalibrates the series in a good way heading to St. Louis. And let’s be fair: this loss does not end the series. Consider the Braves starter Friday: Mike Foltynewicz has been very good since returning from the minors, and has his own measure of redemption to gain after his struggles in last year’s NLDS.

    But if the Braves don’t play better Friday and leave Georgia trailing 2-0, winter will begin far sooner than anybody expected.

    Unfortunately, that feeling is familiar, too.

    —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.

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

    But the real story is how they did so.

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

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

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Braves at the Deadline: AA Says Enough ‘Bull,’ Positions Braves for Deep October Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Since taking the reins of the Atlanta Braves as general manager in November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos has followed a measured approach, one that belied his aggressive reputation and track record from his days leading the Toronto front office.

    Fans rubbed their hands together in frustration, screamed from every social media mountaintop, and vented to any and all who would listen as last year’s trade deadline and a full offseason passed with a few notable moves, and many more opportunities – perceived or real – missed.

    But there would be no such consternation Wednesday as the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline passed, almost simultaneous with the Braves concluding a 4-2 road trip with a hair-raising victory at National League East rival Washington. The finale saw Atlanta follow a script recited far too often during 2019, the Braves bullpen coughing up a late lead before its offense saved the day to ensure a lead in the division standings of no less than six games.

    Now, that team will be better when it takes the field Thursday at SunTrust Park for the first of four games with Cincinnati.

    Much, much better.

    At the very moments Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb were trying to tip-toe through the eighth and ninth innings, Anthopoulos was putting the finishing touches on two deals that immediately transforms Atlanta’s biggest vulnerability into one of its strengths. The Braves authored two trades for proven veterans with closing experience, acquiring All-Star closer Shane Greene from Detroit and moments later landing former All-Star Mark Melancon from San Francisco.

    Add the Tuesday night trade that netted Texas setup man Chris Martin, and the Braves suddenly have a trio of high-quality, impactful relievers at the back end. How impactful? Jackson – the default closer who admirably has given his all in the role while walking the tightrope for large portions of the season – now slides to at least fourth on the big-league depth chart. His stuff will play outstanding in a setup role. He’s not a closer.

    The deadline’s aftermath was a stark contrast from what Braves fans are accustomed to, as the praise rang in from the national media talking heads that never hesitate to bash Anthopoulos and the franchise at every turn. Several reporters traveling with the team reported cheering in the locker room when news of the Greene and Melancon deals broke. Even Braves fans on social media universally treated the news like someone stumbling across a water fountain in the desert.

    In some respects, who can blame them? A very good team, one that many pleaded with to be aggressive at the deadline, did just that. The Braves now have a bullpen as capable of mixing and matching in the middle of games as anybody, a strategy that plays in October when starters don’t go as deep and quality arms in the middle innings can swing the balance of playoff series.

    With no waiver-wire trade deadline in August, teams entered the dying days of July knowing they had one shot to get it right. It brought about some weirdness, such as the Mets dealing for Marcus Stroman and the Reds (the Reds!) trading for Trevor Bauer, who incidentally will make his Reds debut in Atlanta this weekend. Some of the names speculated about the most, such as Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, and Rangers hurler (and former Brave) Mike Minor, stayed put. Some of the deals pulled off Wednesday would have been executed in August if the waiver-wire deadline still existed, the Braves acquiring catching depth by trading for Arizona backstop John Ryan Murphy as an example.

    In the final 72 hours before the deadline, experts repeatedly talked about teams trying to “thread the needle” and balance cost effectiveness with acquisition impact on this season and, for some teams, next season. Anthopoulos pulled it off flawlessly, striking the right balance of addressing the team’s most glaring need while not sacrificing its future:

    • Martin (3.08 ERA, four saves, 43 strikeouts, four walks – no, that’s not a typo – in 38 innings) was acquired for Kolby Allard, the Braves No. 10 prospect according to MLB Pipeline who had been leapfrogged by one group of arms and was close to getting passed by another batch.
    • Melancon (3.50 ERA in 43 games, 183 career saves) cost Tristan Beck, ranked No. 17 and one member of a deep core of Atlanta pitchers, and reliever Dan Winkler, who battled inconsistency this season while toggling between the majors and Triple-A.
    • Greene (1.18 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 22 saves) was secured for promising lefty Joey Wentz (No. 7 prospect) and Travis Demeritte, an infielder-turned-outfielder who was acquired from Texas for Lucas Harrell during the depths of the Braves rebuild and did not have a clear path to the majors at any position.

    While some fans may be shocked Anthopoulos did something to this scale, the real stunner is the cost – or rather, the lack thereof – to Atlanta’s vaunted farm system. The Braves have horded prospects like canned goods to the point where their minor-league pantry is overflowing. Some of that depth needed to be thinned out, and the time was now to do it.

    Mission accomplished. The crown jewels of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters remain in the system. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, William Contreras and Kyle Muller are still here, too. Only 10 percent of the Braves Top 30 was sacrificed to add three arms that could take the ball in the ninth inning for a playoff team.

    Landing a starting pitcher would have put the cherry on top of this day, but Anthopoulos told reporters late Wednesday it was pretty clear there wasn’t a match as the deadline approached. He pivoted quickly, ensuring the bullpen was fixed with a double-barrel approach that addressed the source of so much frustration not just for this year, but moving forward as both Greene and Melancon are signed through 2020.

    There is delicious symmetry in the fact these moves occurred in tandem with what could have been the two most devastating losses of the season. Atlanta sprinted to a 9-0 lead Tuesday and all was well when the Martin news broke, but the Braves bullpen leaked for six runs with three walks and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 11-8 triumph, a game in which Jackson had to be summoned to throw 27 pitches and survived despite giving up three hits and a walk in the ninth.

    Then came Wednesday when Jackson – inexplicably brought on by Brian Snitker to start the ninth with a two-run lead – surrendered two tough-luck hits to begin the frame. Enter Newcomb, who has shined as a reliever this season but gave up a hit and a walk in allowing the two inherited runners to score. A nod here to the big lefty, who got out of the inning with the winning run on third, an escape that allowed Josh Donaldson – one of the few big moves Anthopoulos has made since arriving in town – to launch a 10th-inning homer for the winning margin.

    It came down to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year veteran pitching in his 220th career game, surviving a hit and a walk to earn his second save of the season – and of his career. It capped a scary roller-coaster ride that could have ended with the Braves lead whittled to 2 ½ games in the East.

    Suffice to say Tomlin, or Jackson, won’t be closing games for this team moving forward.

    Anthopoulos has taken his share of criticism, in some respects warranted. But at this moment, he deserves kudos. He’s given Snitker multiple viable options in the late innings, and in turn a team poised to reach October again has a much better chance to do serious damage once it gets there.

    —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 (opens in a new tab)">@bud006.

    Braves at the Break: Standout Performances Have Atlanta on Top in the East

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The All-Star game is in the rear-view mirror, a few quiet hours remain until baseball’s second half kicks off, and the Atlanta Braves find themselves in a very, very good spot.

    The defending National League East champions shook off getting run over in that season-opening series at Philadelphia, kicked the offense into high gear in late May, and arrived at MLB’s four-day summer pause six games clear of Washington in the division race. Those Phillies? Nestled in third place, 6 ½ games in arrears.

    As we look toward the second half, let’s first pause and grade the roster, coaching staff and front office through the first 91 games of this remarkable season.

    Braves 2019 All-Star Break Report Card

    The Roster

    Freddie Freeman (A+): What else to say about the Braves captain, who is authoring an MVP-worthy season while setting the tone offensively and defensively. Perhaps the most underrated player in the game today, one who doesn’t turn 30 until September and looks locked-in to lead his team into the NLCS for the first time.

    Mike Soroka (A+): The Kid from Calgary has established himself as one of the top young pitchers in baseball. In a playoff series, he gets the ball in one of the first two games. Unflappable, poised beyond his years, he is unquestioned a legit ace sooner rather than later.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. (A): A few hiccups with manning center field aside, it is hard to fathom a better first full season in the majors for the 21-year-old. A transcendent, generational star whose talent only is exceeded by his love for the game and his teammates. The most impactful leadoff hitter in the sport.

    Dansby Swanson (A): We wondered what would happen if the Cobb County native was healthy and grew into the game offensively. We have our answer: a foundational piece who has blossomed into a critical offensive cog while batting second and playing great defense.

    Charlie Culberson (A): One of the top pinch-hitters in the game, with versatility to play all over the diamond – his ninth-inning throw to home from left field Sunday was arguably the most exciting play of the first half – and, yes, a fastball in the 90s. Charlie Clutch leads one of the best benches in all of baseball.

    Brian McCann (A-): Hollywood-esque storybook return home for the North Georgia native who has guided a young pitching staff while reaping the benefits of a healthy knee to excel offensively. Simply could not have authored a better first half.

    Josh Donaldson (A-): He got off to a slow start, but as his body has agreed to playing every day the Bringer of Rain has turned on the waterworks at the plate while providing outstanding defense. Moving him to the cleanup spot has paid tremendous dividends, and his leadership has sparked the team in the right way.

    Luke Jackson (A-): The unlikeliest story of the first half. It sometimes isn’t easy and often isn’t clean, but a guy DFA’s more times than I care to remember is pitching in – and often, succeeding in – the most difficult inning for a pennant contender.

    Anthony Swarzak (A-): Unheralded upon arriving from Seattle via trade, but found his groove and has been arguably the best bullpen piece on the team. Veteran guy who has rediscovered his outstanding slider. Watch the shoulder inflammation that sent him to the IL before the break. Braves need him healthy.

    Austin Riley (B+): Forget the power surge and the offensive jolt for a minute. His defense in left field has been pretty good. Add in the immense, powerful impact at the plate, and you have a guy who is here a bit early but is winning games for a first-place team. Wise beyond his years and here to stay.

    Ozzie Albies (B+): His May struggles against right-handers notwithstanding, he was a hands-down All-Star. Has owned the eighth spot in the lineup since moving there on a regular basis in mid-May, with great defense, game-changing speed, immense power, and a spirit that defines this team.

    Jacob Webb (B+): Has been consistent pounding the strike zone with a fearlessness the Braves desperately need in the late innings. The next man up internally to close. Has to keep attacking the zone.

    Matt Joyce (B+): Under-the-radar acquisition that has helped solidify the bench. Provides power from the left side. Valuable veteran piece that will serve this team well in a pennant race and postseason.

    Dallas Keuchel (B): Signed in early June and has improved with every start, capped by a dominant performance Sunday. Former World Series champion and Cy Young winner whose ability to pitch deep into games will pay huge dividends in the second half and October.

    Max Fried (B): An All-Star candidate after the first month, we’ve seen the ups and downs as he’s struggled with command. When all three pitches are on, he’s an upper-echelon starter. When he’s not, he has to find a way to grind through lineups.

    Josh Tomlin (B): Steady veteran bullpen piece who throws strikes and fills any role from mid-innings length to high-leverage outs. His experience cannot be overstated with young arms sprinkled in the bullpen.

    Sean Newcomb (B-): Banished to the minors and moved to the bullpen, all he’s done is throw strikes and attack the strike zone upon being recalled. A starter long-term, his spot right now is in a set-up role, where he has excelled.

    Julio Teheran (B-): His eight-start stretch from early May to mid June was one of the best of his career. There were enough struggles before and after to cast doubts. Which Julio shows us for the second half?

    Nick Markakis (B-): The regression monster is real with the 35-year old, but there are worse things than a guy who has reached 1,000 career RBIs and is approaching 500 career doubles. Seems to have lost a step in the outfield. Have to watch his production closely in the second half, but finished the first half with a strong two weeks.

    Jerry Blevins (C): Has struggled with command at times, but gives Atlanta a veteran lefty in the bullpen. If the Braves add to the relief corps, he’s likely the first to go.

    Johan Camargo (C): Not entirely all his fault, as his lack of playing time early scuttled most of his first half. The bat has come along lately as his playing time has increased. Has to spell guys more in the second half.

    Touki Toussaint (C): Has saved the Braves with a couple of outstanding long-relief performances. Command remains an issue. If he throws strikes, he’s fantastic. Could be a huge factor in the bullpen in the second half.

    A.J. Minter (C): Questionably high grade, but I give him the benefit of the doubt for time lost in spring training. He was awful at the start of the season, and while the walk rate remains higher than I’d like, his recent outings have been good.

    Chad Sobotka (C-): Control remains an issue with a guy who has closer’s stuff, but his recent work since being called back to Atlanta has been encouraging. Watch him as the second half begins; could be an impactful part of the Braves bullpen, or could end up back in Gwinnett.

    Bryse Wilson (C-): Positive progressions in starts against the Cubs and Phillies before the break. For now, has earned a turn after the break at Milwaukee, and another opportunity for him to stake claim to a rotation start. Another key young player who could impact the second half in a big way.

    Ender Inciarte (D): Harsh considering the three-time Gold Glove winning center fielder has missed most of the past two months with a back injury. But he was a liability in the lineup and a notch below his stellar defensive self before the injury. Fourth outfielder upon his return.

    Tyler Flowers (D): Taken a clear step back defensively and has struggled offensively following a hot start. Hopefully the break gives him a chance to recharge for the second half, as McCann can’t play every day.

    Kevin Gausman (D-): One of the unquestioned biggest disappointments of the first half. Final three starts before going on the injured list were awful. May be a bullpen piece or spot starter once he returns, but leash will be very, very short.

    Mike Foltynewicz (F): A first half to forget for the now-demoted to Triple-A former All-Star. Disturbing regression with managing pitch-to-pitch emotion. Can he overcome that? The stuff is there. A return to form would be massive in the second half, but no guarantees.

    Grant Dayton (INC): Has pitched well in limited duty. Deserves more innings in the second half.

    Kyle Wright (INC): Did not impress in three major-league starts, but future still looks bright for the former Vanderbilt standout. Will it be with Atlanta?

    Wes Parsons (INC): Like Dayton, pitched well when called upon early in the season. Could get another shot in the bullpen at some point.

    Alex Jackson (INC): Brief cup of coffee when McCann was sidelined for 10 days in April. Did not record a hit, but managed the pitching staff well.

    The Staff

    The Manager (B+): The only knock on Brian Snitker here – other than some of the tactical in-game decisions that sometimes make us shake our head – is the mismanagement of Camargo’s super-utility role, especially in the first two and a half months. But he’s the right man to run this team, and last year’s NL Manager of the Year just might win it again this season.

    The Coaching Staff (A): The addition of pitching coach Rick Kranitz has been a boost to an already excellent staff.

    The Front Office (A-): For all the whining about lack of activity last winter, it’s hard to fault Alex Anthopoulos so far. The Donaldson, McCann and Markakis signings have worked to this point. Trading two unusable assets (Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle) for Swarzak looks like a steal. Bolstered the team by signing Joyce and Tomlin. Landing Keuchel was huge and showed everybody the Braves aim to play deep into October. Now, it’s up to him to get the right deal done between now and month’s end.

    —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.

    Freeman’s Patience Paying Off as October Nears

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Imagine for a moment the mindset of Frederick Charles Freeman on this Wednesday evening, hours after wrapping up Game No. 1,178 of his stellar major-league career. Consider what the Atlanta Braves first baseman, team captain and face of the franchise – one who has grown from baby-faced slugging rookie to becoming the latest Braves “first-namer,” joining the likes of Hank, Murph, Chipper – must feel on this third Wednesday in September.

    You can add another title to Freddie Freeman, one he shares with Julio Teheran: Rebuild Survivor.

    The Braves welcome the Philadelphia Phillies to town starting Thursday, a four-game series that has Braves Country dreaming of champagne wishes and championship dreams. Atlanta begins its final homestand of this spell-binding 2018 season needing three wins this weekend to clinch its first National League East title since 2013, a team that found Teheran in the rotation and Freeman manning first base.

    The two lone holders from the last Atlanta team to play October baseball, a 96-win squad that fell in four games to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Teheran was bombed in a Game 3 start at Los Angeles while Freeman hit .313 in the series with four runs scored. My how long ago that seems, considering everything that has happened since.

    Through it all – a four-season stretch featuring 361 losses, a change in manager, a change in general manager, a change in home ballpark – Freeman hit .294 with a .911 OPS, 98 homers and 258 extra-base hits, despite having precious little protection around him in the lineup, two seasons short-circuited by injury, and the general pall of seeing almost every other teammate of value shipped elsewhere for kids barely old enough to shave … or drive.

    Think of how jarring that must have been for a player who grabbed 20 at-bats down the stretch in 2010, Bobby Cox’s final season as manager, one that found the Braves reaching the postseason. His 21 homers in 2011 dampened immeasurably by Atlanta’s September collapse, ending with Freeman grounding into a double play to end Game No. 162 – and the season.

    Sure, there was the 2012 wild-card berth clinched by a Freeman walk-off homer, Hall of Famer Chipper Jones standing at third base with one arm raised in an iconic image, only we all know how that playoff appearance ended. Then 2013, a first All-Star appearance in July followed by another visit to October. It was the end of an era, the dawn of what could be best described as a baseball nuclear winter.

    Now look at Freddie Freeman as 2018 began, a husband, a father, recovering from a wrist injury that cost him 45 games the season before, the veteran linchpin amid the emerging wave of young, yet unpredictable talent. He had hit above .300 each of the past two seasons, honing his craft as his prime years arrived amongst the darkness of a difficult rebuild that saw 2017 conclude with 90 losses, and an offseason that began with a front-office scandal.

    Just 5 ½ innings into the new season, the Braves trailed Philadelphia 5-0, the second season opening at new SunTrust Park looking so much like so many moments he endured through the past four years. But he slammed a 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats, a two-run shot accounting for the first two runs of the season and jump-starting an epic 8-5 come-from-behind victory. Philadelphia intentionally walked him in the ninth inning to get to Nick Markakis, who belted a three-run walkoff bomb just minutes before a thunderstorm unleashed a torrent of rain upon the delirious Braves fans leaving the ballpark.

    The Braves – and their captain – haven’t looked back.

    There is a myriad of reasons why a team reaches the playoffs, claims a division title, gives its fanbase the chance to dream of a pennant or a world title, a ticker-tape parade and memories to pass down for generations to come. These Braves have plenty of authors in this storybook surge to the brink of the postseason, all of whom we’ve waxed poetic about in the weeks and months leading up to this moment, all of whom we’ll tell our children and grandchildren about as we recall 2018 – perhaps in the way the previous generation revers 1991.

    But as it arrives, as Atlanta takes the field for its final 10 games of the regular season – a campaign that seems destined to continue behind Sept. 30 – take a minute to think about the first baseman who rode the descent, slogged through the valley, then helped his franchise rise anew with steady leadership on and off the field.

    For all who deserve credit for how the East will be won, when the moment comes, take a minute to think about Freddie Freeman. There he was Wednesday, with his team riding a four-game losing streak and a fanbase paralyzed by multiple faux pas in multiple sports in this city reaching for the panic button, preaching calm before delivering three hits and three RBIs in a much-needed victory over St. Louis that pushed the Braves ever closer to October.

    And when they get there, nobody will have earned the moment more than him.

    —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.