• New York Yankees

    On Another Wild, Weird Day, Braves Capture Home Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if I needed another reminder of just how different this 2020 season is, I got it late Tuesday night as the Braves wrapped up a 2-3, two-city road swing through New York and Tampa Bay to kick off the truncated 60-game season. I realized that, in normal times, I’d be planning for a before-dawn alarm to cook for our home-opening tailgate. There would be beverages already iced down. There would be a giddiness that normally accompanies Christmas Eve.

    Then I realized it’s late July, this Wednesday would be just a normal workday, and my only presence inside Truist Park as the Braves played their first home game of the season would be my cardboard cutout situated nine rows behind home plate. If my partial season-ticket plan had those seats, I could afford to attend maybe four games a season, not the 27 games that are included in my package for seats in the upper deck.

    It’s such a different vibe. I must admit, with the Miami Marlins outbreak and subsequent halting of their season for the rest of this first full week of baseball 2020 (and impacts on the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles), it’s zapped just a bit of my enthusiasm. Not trying to be a killjoy here, but last weekend felt kinda-sorta normal. Then, the news broke of the Miami outbreak and the residual impacts and, well, it again made me think, “why we are doing this?”

    Let’s hope this not only is the lone outbreak within a team that we will experience, but that it serves as a wake-up call to anybody in baseball who thinks this is much ado about nothing.

    Wednesday brought the weirdness of a home opener with no fans, the good news of catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers returning to the active roster, and then shortly after 3 p.m. ET, 2020 decided to act the fool for the countless time: outfielder Nick Markakis, who elected not to play in early July, reversed course and rejoined the Braves. A change in MLB policy allows for players who elected not to play to change their minds and apply for reinstatement by Aug. 1, a provision even lost on some national scribes until Markakis showed up on a pregame Zoom chat with the media.

    A lightning rod on social media – which is hilarious because, seriously, it’s Nick Markakis; you think he’s thumbing through Twitter during idle moments in his day? – he has value against right-handed pitching. Used in the right role (emphasize: the right role, against right-handed pitching, and not hitting fifth every day without fail), Markakis can help this ballclub.

    We’ll wonder about the impending roster crunch of position players once the Woodstock native and Young Harris College product gets in playing shape (the 36-year-old worked out at the alternative camp site in Gwinnett earlier Wednesday; my guess is the ramp time won’t be long). The active roster is slated to drop from 30 players to 28 late next week, but even that may not be the case. Heck, does anybody know anything anymore?

    I do know this team has played six games … it’s also 10 percent of the season. I know. Embrace the weird. A few other thoughts to this point after six games, capped by Freddie Freeman’s four hits in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Rays.

    Who’s Gonna Jive at 3-4-5: Let’s get it out there: the middle and back end of the Atlanta rotation was bad in their first turn through the rotation. No, we’re not going to freak out over three games over the course of 162 … oh, wait. It’s a 60-game season. So, it’s panic time, right?

    It’s concerning, no doubt, but catch your breath for just a bit. The numbers are ugly: an 11.57 ERA, a 2.142 WHIP, 12 runs on 11 hits with nine walks in a combined 9 1/3 innings from Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. The 9 1/3 innings is a problem even in a shortened ramp-up to the season, and that can’t remain the norm, or else the Braves bullpen depth will get torched.

    The Braves do have options to fill that fourth spot now vacated by the organization giving up on Foltynewicz, designating the right-hander for assignment after he gave up six runs in Monday’s start at Tampa Bay. Jhoulys Chacin doesn’t spark a ton of confidence in me, but he is a veteran who did impress following Newcomb in Sunday’s victory. Wright was untouchable for two innings Tuesday, before the control yips hit him again. To Wright’s credit, he offered no excuses, and I’d tell him right now he’s getting the ball Sunday against the Mets.

    I’d also say the same thing to Newcomb; the ball is yours Friday. Yes, he struggled to throw strikes in his first start Sunday with a big lead, but I’m willing to hold tight on both Newcomb and Wright for the moment. Both have the talent to be solid starters in 2020, but check back with me in two weeks.

    If things aren’t better then? That’s trouble. The signing of Cole Hamels looks worse with each passing day.

    Farewell, Folty: I completely expected an announcement after Monday’s game, or on Tuesday morning, that Foltynewicz was heading to the injured list. He just didn’t look right to me while his fastball velocity averaged under 90 mph with not much movement against the Rays. To see the DFA announcement, and to hear that the Braves broke that news to him before the game ended, was a shock.

    I think back to last October. On my 20th wedding anniversary, my oldest son and I sat in Truist Park and watched a sellout crowd lose its mind – in a bad way – when Adam Duvall walked to home plate to hit for Folty in the seventh inning. Foltynewicz was that good on that scalding hot October afternoon, authoring one of the best postseason games I’ve watched pitched in person (and yes, I watched Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux at their postseason best in person a generation ago).

    I know Foltynewicz engendered a lot of frustration for many, many folks in Braves Country. That’s fair. I’ve felt it at times, too. He’s a guy whose highest of highs touched the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and his lowest of lows were difficult to take. Maybe it’s my previous career of covering sports, but I know these guys are human beings first and foremost and, contrary to some folks on social media who think otherwise, here’s a news flash: they don’t really want to suck. They want to be great, they want to excel, they want to win.

    Wishing Mike and his family all the best. I hope he gets things figured out. Regardless, I hope he finds peace, no matter if he’s traded, claimed, or (unlikely in my opinion) remains with the organization and is outrighted to the alternative camp. I’m not sure he ever will find it if he remains a member of the Braves after Game 5 of the NLDS and, honestly, that’s sad. But that’s the business, as people say.

    Whiffs ’R Us: It’s not a totally surprise to me the Braves offense has looked pedestrian through the first part of the season. I wrote and spoke earlier this month of my concerns about the pitching Atlanta would face in this daunting 20-games-in-20-days to start the season. And while I’m a bit concerned about the sheer number of strikeouts piled up by the Braves lineup through six games – 74 punchouts in the first 55 innings of 2020 – I cannot say I’m completely surprised.

    I get it. That’s 24 2/3 innings of not putting the ball in play, and that can’t continue. But even in a 60-game season, I’m electing to breathe just a bit. Pitchers always are going to be ahead of hitters early in a season, especially when the ramp-up for those bats to opening day is only three weeks and not six weeks.

    Atlanta at-bats have been better than the strikeout numbers would indicate through the first six games. We saw that on display Wednesday. Odds are this will even itself out soon, even with the difficult pitching that’s still to come during the next two weeks.

    All Even, Folks: I wrote in my season preview that I would not be worried if the Braves were 8-12 after the first 20 games. So while 3-3 may feel like a bit of a disappointment so far, it’s OK. The back end of the rotation has questions, absolutely, and the strikeouts have come in bunches. Yet, Atlanta finds itself at .500 as we are 30 percent through what I think is the absolute roughest portion of the schedule.

    Again, most importantly, we have baseball. In these crazy times, I’ll take it.

    The home opener is in the books, and I’m sitting at home and not leaving Lot 29. And that’s totally OK. We’ve made it to this moment, the Braves are at .500, and the next eight games are at home. My cutout is 1-0 all-time. Let’s see if that cardboard likeness of myself can stay perfect come Thursday.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: Braves are Built Not Just to Survive, but Thrive, Entering Unprecedented Campaign

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nobody could have predicted what we have been through the past few months. Nobody could imagine the impact the coronavirus would have on every single aspect of our everyday lives, on things far more serious than the doings of a baseball franchise seeking its first World Series title in a quarter-century.

    Yet, in some weird way, Alex Anthopoulos built an Atlanta Braves team that seems poised to handle baseball’s 60-game sprint quite well. It certainly wasn’t foresight into what this 2020 baseball season would look like – one that will be as unprecedented as any baseball campaign in the history of the sport – but rather, by how the Braves general manager viewed his team after back-to-back National League East championships.

    Anthopoulos felt the Braves needed depth in their bullpen. He first addressed it with three moves at last season’s trade deadline, and further bolstered it by signing Will Smith in early November. There is the seemingly never-ending supply of pitching prospects gurgling in the upper levels of the minor leagues, including some arms the Braves hope are ready for prime-time duty under the bright lights of the majors.

    The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League automatically lengthened Atlanta’s lineup, a lineup that saw a logjam at third base with Austin Riley and Johan Camargo, plus a logjam in the outfield. Certainly, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna will be in the lineup almost every day, and even with Nick Markakis electing not to play, the Braves still have Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall (plus Cristian Pache waiting in the wings).

    Adding the designated hitter also can help these Braves address a deficiency that could be an Achilles heel – bats that mash right-handed pitching. Often those guys are left-handed hitters, and the Braves brought Matt Adams back this week hoping to see the type of power he displayed here three seasons ago. The reported and rumored signing of Yasiel Puig would have addressed that, too (the erstwhile Dodgers slugger bats right-handed, but features reverse splits). But once again, COVID-19 and 2020 reared its ugly head, Puig testing positive for the virus and announcing the news via social media just minutes after the Braves captain – Freddie Freeman – joyously trotted onto the field Friday at Truist Park, following his harrowing journey through having the virus.

    Freddie Freeman has finished in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times, but the four-time All-Star found himself sick from COVID-19 in early July.

    Freeman embarks on his 10th season in the majors; how has it been that long? Without question this is his team, much as Terry Pendleton led the early 90s Braves, much as Chipper Jones carried that torch for more than a decade. Thankfully, Freeman looks healthy and his swing looks great. A week ago, we all wondered what a Freeman-less Braves would look like embarking on a truncated schedule that begins with 20 games in 20 days, against plenty of great pitching.

    Consider who the Braves may see in those opening 20 games: Jacob deGrom (twice) and Steven Matz of the Mets, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton of the Rays, Hyun Jin-Ryu of the Blue Jays, Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler of the Phillies, and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees. That’s nine of your first 20 games against a group of pitchers who are on many people’s short list of All-Star hurlers.

    It’s all going to be different. This isn’t going to be your father’s baseball season. The methodical marathon that frames our spring and summer evenings? Not this year, folks. This is a 400-yard dash for a sport accustomed to logging 26.2 miles. Teams that start quickly are going to be positioned to potentially steal playoff spots. But before crying doom and gloom if the Braves arrive at their first off day on Aug. 13 at 8-12, consider two schedule quirks across the final 40 games that might prove more important than having to start 14-6.

    The middle 20 games: Atlanta faces Philadelphia and Washington 12 times. Six of the other eight are against Miami and Boston (this Red Sox team certainly is not of the ilk of the 2018 champs). Even if the Braves stumble a bit out of the gate, not only do they have an opportunity to catch up against two subpar teams in the middle part of the schedule, they also play 60 percent of their games in that stretch against the two teams I feel will challenge them for the NL East title.

    The final 20 games: The Braves play 13 against the Marlins, Orioles and Red Sox. Atlanta ends the season with a seven-game homestand against Miami and Boston. The Yankees and the Rays are likely to rule the AL East, and Boston’s pitching is quite suspect. Miami will be better; its young pitching is maturing, and the Marlins have a few guys who are developing into good players (they’re a couple of years away from being a real problem for the NL East). If you’re going to wrap up the season with a week at home, other than Baltimore, there are no two teams in the combined East you want to face than the Marlins and Red Sox.

    What will it take to get to that point, 53 games in the books, one week to go, with a shot at October? The more I look at it, the more I think the Braves are built for this.

    Atlanta’s youthful exuberance, a hallmark of the Braves resurgence the past two seasons, remains (minus the hugs and high-fives). Acuna remains an emerging megastar. Ozzie Albies is developing into a star in his own right. The rotation is fronted by two of the better young arms in the game: Mike Soroka, the youngest pitcher in modern Braves history to earn an opening-day starting assignment, and Max Fried, who could develop into a sneaky Cy Young candidate if his change-up continues developing.

    22-year-old Mike Soroka finished second in NL rookie-of-the-year voting in 2019 and sixth in Cy Young voting, providing a cool presence at the top of Atlanta’s rotation entering his second full big-league season.

    There are question marks. Can Cole Hamels get healthy? Can Dansby Swanson replicate his 2019 first half and postseason while staying healthy? Can Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz settle the middle of the rotation? Will Ender Inciarte start the season hitting like it’s April or July? Can Smith, who is out with the virus but asymptomatic, test negative twice and get back on the mound?

    We are forced to acknowledge the 50,000-pound weight hanging over all this. What happens after three weeks of play, of flying into different cities and staying in hotels then returning home, if positive tests spike and a team (be it the Braves or another team) finds itself with an outbreak? Nobody knows, and that’s part of the trepidation I feel in offering a projection of where this Braves team lands when this season like no other reaches its conclusion on Sept. 27.

    But we’re going to hope and pray things go well – for every team in the majors – and we’ll forge ahead with a best guess. And it’s just that: a guess. We have no clue what’s going to happen. There is no playbook, no guideposts. This is the strangest season preview I’ve ever authored, fitting for the strangest year of my life.

    This incredibly unpredictable sprint rests on simple math. Each singular game is worth 2.7 times one regular game in a 162-game season (subscription required). If you win 37 games, that’s a .616 win percentage (a 99-win pace over a full season). Win 27 games? That’s a .450 win percentage (a 74-win pace).

    I don’t see these Braves reaching either that peak or that valley. Even with an 8-12 start, I think they’re good enough – based on their depth, Freeman being ready from the jump, the young talent on the roster, and motivation after choking away what should have been the franchise’s first postseason series victory in 18 years – to finish 34-26.

    That’s a 91-win pace over 162, and I think that’s just enough to land the Braves one game ahead of Washington and two games ahead of Philadelphia. That would put Atlanta into the postseason party, and in a world where everything seems to have changed, the overarching goal has not:

    Win 11 games in October and capture the World Series title. There is no telling who will do it, or what will happen along the way, but it’s time to start the journey.

    After all we’ve been through, how sweet that sounds.

    —30—

    On deck as we preview the 2020 Atlanta Braves season: A Braves Opening Day like no other.

    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.

    Restarting Baseball Won’t Be Easy, But There’s a Way to Get There

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The weekly Zoom call with some of my tailgate buddies is finished. I am watching a replay of a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game on ESPN2. The Kia Tigers are playing, and Preston Tucker is in the lineup – remember when he hit a homer off Max Scherzer to cap the season-opening homestand in 2018, a homer my oldest son actually called from our seats in Section 431 on a Wednesday get-away day in early April?

    OK, quit lying. You do not remember it. Tucker would be replaced in a few weeks in left field by some hot-shot prospect. Think his name was Acuna? I don’t know. But my kid will not let me forget the moment he told me, “Tuck’s going yard here.”

    We so wish random memories from a game a couple of years ago could dominate our thoughts right now. That’s not the case, obviously. I admit, we are reaching here as we dive into the ninth week of the Coronavirus shutdown that has shuttered North American sports. And yet there are signs – as we hopefully are reopening to get folks back to work while keeping the curve flattened – that some leagues are ramping up. NASCAR, which embraced online technology brilliantly with its iRacing series, plans to run a real race next weekend. NBA training facilities are staring to open, gradually. Same with MLS.

    And Major League Baseball apparently has a plan. It’s a plan that makes sense, given this different time in which we’re living, and given that the decision makers for not just sports leagues, but corporations and local municipalities and state governments and up to the federal level, have no baseline by which to measure the decisions they’re making. I have my opinions, but let me say this: this ain’t easy for any of them. In this time, kindness and grace carries the day, the way I see it, regardless of anything else. And they’re trying, folks.

    As far as firing up MLB again, I know it also is not easy. But there is a plan that was reported by The Athletic (subscription required) on Saturday that feels like it just might work. In summation, MLB is going to present the bones of the plan to the owners on Monday and, provided it gets owners approval, could be presented to the players association as early as Tuesday.

    Of course, there are far more questions than answers. I get that. And those questions are fair. The owners and players could halt this movement if they do not agree to some sort of revenue-sharing agreement, with the likelihood no fans will be in the stands. I do think neither side wants to come across as greedy in this moment. Actually, collaboration between the owners and players association could lay groundwork toward a collective bargaining agreement, considering the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

    In summation, the plan would produce a shortened season – and without fans to start, obviously. Let’s hope we can get fans back in the stands at some point. The number of games thrown around, dictated by basic math, is 78 games (81 games is ½ of a normal MLB season). Teams would be limited to play only their division opponents, plus the teams who make up their corresponding division in the other league. The Braves play in the National League East, so that means your schedule is comprised of the other four teams in the NL East, plus the five teams in the American League East.

    You play four three-game series against your division opponents, and two three-game series against each team in the other corresponding division. So, 48 games within division, and 30 games against the other division. I would like to see if we could expand that schedule to include a few series with Central division opponents. You’d love to see the Braves play three games against the Cubs at Wrigley, or host three games against the Cardinals. But if 78 games is the limit, we will take it.

    And sure, the “AL and NL East” division would be a tough sled for anybody. Look at last year’s standings. Yes, you have the Marlins and Orioles (two rebuilding franchises) in there, but you also have the Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Mets and Phillies. The Jays have tons of young talent. For the Braves, it would be a tough slog, but they also are among the really good teams.

    And honestly, do you care if the teams in your division are better than the other divisions right now?

    There have been rumors MLB told teams to tell their players to start ramping up, and I noticed evidence of that on social media. Late this week, I watched an Instagram story from Ronald Acuna Jr. in which he shared a pic he took outside Truist Park. Over the next two days, there were IG stories of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo hitting together.

    Camargo had stayed in Tampa – where he worked this offseason to shed weight and get ready for spring training – and Acuna had traveled to the Miami area after the shutdown. Albies had returned to the Atlanta area after camp was halted. The three of them hitting together was the first sign to me that things might be about to fire up again.

    The conventional wisdom is spring training would start in early-to-mid June, with games beginning in early July. The thought is teams would play in their home stadiums, unless the COVID-19 virus spikes in a particular venue – sadly, New York City comes to mind – and the people involved (players, coaches, umpires, trainers, doctors, PR staff, bat boys, etc.) would get tested frequently.

    Here in Georgia, the governor has told us that anybody who wants a test now can be tested. There was open testing at the park today where I coached my kids in youth baseball for a decade, for example. The City of Orlando has told the NBA’s Orlando Magic to go ahead and test their people freely, as the city now has enough testing for frontline workers to allow for testing for something as frivolous as a basketball team’s personnel.

    We must shift our perspective from what we have experienced previously. It truly is an unprecedented time in our nation’s and our world’s history. Baseball in this moment will not be the same. Let’s embrace that first and foremost. Provided it can happen, this season will be like no other. That statement applies to life in general in these strange days and nights. And there are plenty of salient questions that require answers before an umpire shouts, “play ball!” What happens if a player tests positive? What if a city – be it New York City or Phoenix or Minneapolis or Atlanta – experiences a sudden surge in cases, as more and more locales ease lockdown restrictions? What happens if a baserunner slides hard into second base, gets tangled up with the second baseman, and one of them tests positive the next day?

    I’m not looking for answers right now because, honestly, none of us have those answers. What we do know is this; our sport is going to be different. That’s fine. Lean in here, and get creative. Nodding to the NHL daily roster model, I would love for MLB to have an active roster (thinking 30 guys) plus an inactive list (an extra four players) for each game, with the ability to interchange guys from one day to the next. I also wonder how we handle the minor leagues, which very well may not happen in 2020. If you’re the Braves, do you have Cristian Pache, Drew Waters, Ian Anderson, and the rest of the prospects playing intrasquad games at North Port, ready to be called up to the MLB inactive list or the 30-man roster if a need arises?

    Starting pitchers, even with a three-week spring training, only will be able to go three, maybe four innings at the onset of the season. One of my centric baseball concerns in this time is starters trying to go deeper than they should and blowing out, and getting lost for most of 2020 and 2021. I think you have to let starters piggy-back each other. The Braves depth helps here. So, Mike Soroka starts a game in early July? He goes three frames, then give the ball to Sean Newcomb or Felix Hernandez (or Josh Tomlin) to try and get you through six, then turn it over to arguably the deepest bullpen in the NL.

    In a truncated schedule, starting quickly is going to be critical. And I think the Braves are well positioned here. They have plenty of depth pitching wise – remember the arms that really stood out before camp shut down? Newcomb. Hernandez. Kyle Wright. Touki Toussaint. Then think about the bullpen. If you use Will Smith, Mark Melancon and Chris Martin on one day, you can come back the next day with Shane Greene, Darren O’Day and Luke Jackson. Each has experience closing games in the majors.

    Alex Anthopoulos never could have have envisioned this environment – heck, who could have? – but the Braves arms are positioned well as anybody for the remarkable, memorable, strange season that we all hope is about to unfold. And, if the season unfolds like we think it might, the Braves might be as positioned as well as any team.

    Hope everyone is safe. Hope everyone is well. Hopefully, we are covering ball here soon. Thank you for reading. Thank you for reaching out via social media. Take care, and hopefully we get to write about baseball soon.

    —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.

    Keuchel Debut Leaves Strong First Impression

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ROME, Ga. – About 25 minutes before 7 p.m. Monday, Logan Brown walked out of the Rome Braves clubhouse, took the field near the left-field corner at State Mutual Stadium, and spent a few moments crouched along the foul line some 30 feet shy of the warning track. The 22-year-old Single-A catcher certainly goes through this routine on a regular basis, wearing uniform No. 99, collecting his thoughts in the moments before that night’s starting pitcher emerges from the locker room.

    But this was no ordinary night for the 35th-round pick in the 2018 draft. He would be on the receiving end of a former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champion, upon whom the eyes of a championship-starved fanbase would hang upon every pitch, every moment. This was not your typical Monday night in the South Atlantic League.

    Then again, it’s not every day somebody like Dallas Keuchel rolls through this Northwest Georgia town.

    Keuchel, four days removed from inking a one-year, $13-million deal with the Atlanta Braves, emerged a few minutes later, wearing his customary No. 60. As a near-capacity crowd filed in for the series opener against the Charleston River Dogs, one of the free-agent market’s biggest fish made his Braves organization debut on a humid, yet pleasant night. The rains that washed away Keuchel’s scheduled debut Saturday at Triple-A Gwinnett had disappeared, and for the first time since last season’s American League championship series with Houston, the 31-year-old pitched in a competitive contest.

    The results: Predictable, yet impressive.

    Keuchel allowed just one hit across seven strong innings, walking one hitter, striking out nine, and leaving a 0-0 game after throwing 55 of his 77 pitches for strikes. Yes, a veteran of 183 major-league starts with 51 2/3 innings pitched in the postseason figures to fare well against a lineup comprised mostly of players drafted in 2017 and 2018. And the stuff did overwhelm at times.

    But what really stood out to me was just how crisp Keuchel was in his first game action in 237 days.

    Keuchel was efficient. He got 10 ground-ball outs. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter – a seven-pitch walk to Canaan Smith with one out in the seventh. He induced plenty of weak contact. He threw 10 pitches or fewer in each of the first six innings. His rhythm on this night was akin to sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, waving at folks creeping by on the dirt road out front. Nice and relaxed and smooth. Easy, breezy.

    There were plenty of swings and misses, sure. And that was to be expected. But Keuchel dotted both sides of the plate with an impressive frequency given the layoff. The breaking stuff was heavy, low in the zone, hard to square up. He spent plenty of time the past two months throwing simulated games, but nothing simulates taking the field for an actual contest. Would he struggle with command? How would he handle working in and out of situations?

    Keuchel showed it from the onset, getting Brandon Lockridge to roll over a breaking ball and hit a harmless three-hopper in front of the pitcher’s mound on the game’s third pitch. Lockridge stumbled coming out of the batter’s box. It would be clear on this night, there would be no stumbles from Atlanta’s newly minted rotation linchpin.

    In the second, Keuchel gave up a one-out single to Max Burt, which was a good thing in that it gave him a chance to work out of the stretch. He induced a force out on a grounder to second and a three-pitch strikeout. He struck out six over the next four innings, the only ball hit in the air in that span a deep flyout from Anthony Seigler, the Yankees’ top pick in last year’s draft who hails from Cartersville, Ga. – which I drove through en route to Rome.

    Keuchel needed 17 pitches to get through the seventh, rallying from a 2-0 count to strike out Seigler leading off the frame, and after walking Smith, getting a deep fly ball for the second out and a rolled-over grounder to short to end the inning and his night.

    The question now is what’s next? Keuchel’s next turn would come Saturday. There is no need for him to pitch again for Rome. Gwinnett is on the road at Syracuse this weekend; big-league teams want their big-league talent pitching at home when getting tuned up in the minors. Double-A Mississippi is home with Mobile, however. Certainly, a big part of determining the next step is how does Keuchel feel when he wakes up Tuesday, when he wakes up Wednesday.

    Throwing to hitters in a simulated game is one thing. Pitching against an opposing lineup – even in Northwest Georgia on a Monday night in June – is something different. Conventional wisdom dictates Keuchel will get one more start in the minors before making his Atlanta debut. Braves manager Brian Snitker said as much before Monday’s 13-7 victory over Pittsburgh at SunTrust Park.

    But allow me to close with this thought, one that certainly is being mulled over by Braves fans near and far as Monday night approaches Tuesday morning. Kevin Gausman could not escape the third inning in Atlanta’s series opener against the Pirates, making it three awful outings in a row for the right-hander. The Braves will awaken Tuesday morning tied for first place in the NL East, having pulled even with Philadelphia following their 19th victory in the past 28 games and the Phillies’ 13-8 home loss Monday to Arizona.

    Guess who visits the capital city of the Peach State this weekend? The aforementioned Phillies, who dismantled the Braves in the first three games of the season in Eastern Pennsylvania the final weekend of March. Gausman’s next turn in the rotation? Saturday, a 7:20 p.m. first pitch against those Phillies at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75.

    Facing Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins is far different from facing a Sally-League lineup, yes. But you can’t help but think that Braves fans aren’t the only ones at least wondering about a Keuchel debut start for the Braves coming under the Saturday night lights with the NL East race squarely in focus.

    Whether it happens or not, Keuchel will be here soon.

    And after his performance Monday, we can’t wait.

    —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 Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —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.

    After Discouraging Homestand, Braves (and Their Fans) Need to Catch Their Breath

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A 48-hour span without a game in the midst of the long slough that is a baseball season is pretty rare, a time to step back from the blur of the day-to-day spent dissecting a team and a campaign and the nearly nightly doings under the microscope of increasing pressure and expectations.

    It should be a time of quiet reflection, a quick respite to catch one’s breath, to look around – maybe introduce yourself to the people with whom you share a house – and perhaps even go to sleep at a decent hour.

    If you seek that calming pause in the midst of this surprisingly successful 2018 campaign for the Atlanta Braves, may I share a piece of advice:

    Shut off your phone/laptop/tablet. Now.

    (Well, not right now. Finish reading this first. Then shut off your device, unplug it, disconnect your internet connection and run to the closest place where wi-fi doesn’t exist.)

    There, my friend, you will find peace. Otherwise, prepare yourself for the wrath that currently consumes Braves Country.

    Atlanta flew home from Toronto last Wednesday staring at a gift from the schedule makers: back-to-back home series against a pair of last-place teams, Baltimore and Cincinnati, a golden opportunity to build onto its National League East lead before a difficult 10-game road trip that will carry the team with a week of the All-Star break.

    (Insert narrator voice: “It did not go well.”)

    The Braves dropped both series, needing an Ozzie Albies extra-inning homer in the middle of the night to avoid being swept by the Reds.

    In the process, Atlanta saw both Albies and Ender Inciarte injured – albeit reports indicate neither is serious – lost Anibal Sanchez to a cramp in the middle of a desperately needed quality start – left enough baserunners to start a small city and, most notably, watched its bullpen crumple into a heap of exhausted arms as closer Arodys Vizcaino landed on the disabled list and the revolving bullpen shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett shifted into overdrive.

    How much so? Longtime Braves minor-leaguer Wes Parsons found himself signing a major-league contract Wednesday morning. He was packing his locker six hours later, bound for Gwinnett after serving as an emergency relief arm that was not used.

    Perhaps he should’ve pitched. He couldn’t have fared any worse than the relievers deployed in Wednesday’s come-from-ahead 6-5 loss to the Reds.

    The maddening thing is Parsons isn’t the only Atlanta reliever who experienced the same major-league “debut” during this cursed six-day span, the promising Evan Phillips getting the call Sunday only to sit, then return to Triple-A without throwing a pitch.

    Roll all this together, and you have a fanbase that completely and utterly has lost its collective mind on social media. Braves Twitter has its moments on a good day, but even by longtime observer and participant standards, this week has been one for the books. Or one for the panic button, which it seems the good folks in Braves Country have pushed en masse.

    There is credence to the “sky is falling” argument because, heck, it sure feels that way. The Braves bullpen is gassed, plain and simple. No group in the history of baseball needs Thursday’s day off in advance of a night game Friday in St. Louis more than Atlanta’s relievers. Manager Brian Snitker’s heavy reliance on his bullpen, in part a byproduct of the rotation failing more often than not to pitch deep into games, already is starting to catch up to this team, and we’re still in June.

    It doesn’t help that the offense, while scoring enough runs to win and getting plenty of runners on base, struggled mightily the past week in driving home runners from second and third base. Even getting a fly ball to the outfield with one out and a runner at third base has proven problematic for an offense that has spent most of the first half of the season taking advantage of nearly every opportunity to pounce on opposing pitchers.

    We quickly are approaching the time where Atlanta has to decide whether to ride out the good vibes of arriving a season earlier than many expected, or to commit to trying and crash the postseason party come October. No, nobody is saying empty the farm for a rental. Doing so would be foolish.

    But what will Alex Anthopoulos do as the trade deadline approaches in four weeks? Six games do not make a season, but it is clear the Braves need bullpen help. Premium relievers carry a heavy price tag (prospect capital as much as dollars).

    How much of the bullpen management (mismanagement?) falls at the feet of Snitker, who does not have a contract for 2019 and was not hired by Anthopoulos, but clearly is the player’s choice to lead this team?

    To be fair, these questions were going to be asked at some point, regardless. But given the events of the past week, the spotlight shines brighter now on the go-forward plan for this team for the remainder of 2018. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, who wouldn’t have signed up for this in March, that the Braves would own the East penthouse for the better part of two months, playing at a 90-plus win pace through 79 games?

    And while it feels the sky is falling, it’s important to remember for all the fits and starts of the past six days, the Braves at worst are going to lose only one game in the standings pending Philadelphia’s game late Wednesday. A decent final few days of June will give Atlanta its third-consecutive winning month. Phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., feared lost for the season after a nasty injury at the end of May, likely returns to the lineup this weekend. Vizcaino could be back by the end of the weekend.

    There are 83 games remaining in the season, and the next 10 won’t be easy: three in St. Louis, three in Yankee Stadium, four in Milwaukee. Nary an off day to be found in that stretch. The wild roller coaster of this season resumes before you know it.

    The Braves – and their fans – best take advantage of the next few hours to rest, to recover and to refocus.

    —30—

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

    A Reality Check, But Not A Wet Blanket After 24 Hours in Boston

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – So the last time the Atlanta Braves graced SunTrust Park, I was unable to see them play in person. One game I had tickets for was washed away by rain, and the other game which I was slated to see in person instead was spent in my Braves room, cheering like crazy for my favorite NHL team in an elimination playoff game.

    Alas, the Winnipeg Jets – perhaps you remember them as the Atlanta Thrashers (and yes, there still are four guys on the active roster who skated in those beautiful baby blue unis at Philips Arena once upon a time; one of them, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, sported a Braves cap during press interviews and hereby has earned a standing invite from me to visit SunTrust Park) – fell short last Sunday in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals. While the final seconds ticked away on the Jets season and the tears welled up in my eyes, at the same time the Braves were authoring a comeback for the ages, scoring six times in the bottom of the ninth inning to upend the Miami Marlins and put yet another brushstroke on two months of absolute greatness.

    That unfathomable 10-9 victory bolstered Braves County in a way we have not seen in these parts since the 2013 squad rolled to 96 victories, a division title and the last playoff appearance this fan base has experienced. Four miserable seasons followed, with fan favorites traded for kids barely old enough to shave and two different front offices telling us to be patient.

    There is no denying the Braves are baseball’s biggest surprise through the first eight weeks of 2018. At or near the top of the National League East most of the way with equal parts veterans playing well and brash young rookies announcing their presence. The crazy comeback against Miami felt storybook in every sense of the word, and the national media began locked in on this team in advance of this week’s road trip to NL East rival Philadelphia and AL powerhouse Boston.

    So here we sit in the fading hours of Saturday night. There is no hockey until Monday. The Jets have cleaned out their lockers. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Many of us have spent time today grilling out, squeezing what few dry hours remain before Tropical Storm Alberto nails the Southeastern U.S. with tons of rain and wind. The Rockets and Warriors just concluded a NBA playoff game on my big screen.

    And I could not care less, because I sit at my laptop conflicted.

    The Braves dropped two games in Philadelphia, which is OK. After all, Atlanta won the first three series against the Phillies before this week’s meeting. These two teams won’t meet again until Sept. 20, only from that point to play seven times in the season’s final 11 days.

    Geez, unbalanced schedule, thanks for that. Not like we’re in the same division or anything.

    But I digress. After the visit to Philly, the Braves headed to Boston, which is where this franchise’s story began some 142 years ago. Arriving in Beantown, Atlanta found itself squared up with the Red Sox, one of baseball’s gold standard franchises, one of the three American League teams (along with the Astros and Yankees) that many feel will emerge in early November as champions.

    Talk about a measuring stick as we close in on completing the first third of the marathon that is a baseball season. This young and emerging team, against one of the few established powers.

    In a span of 24 hours covering Friday night through Saturday afternoon, the Braves dropped two games. In that timeframe, we saw just how far this franchise has come, and how much further it has to go.

    Look at both games through two different viewpoints, if you will:

    On one hand, Atlanta had ample opportunities to win both games. The Braves left a multitude of runners on base in Friday’s series opener. The starting pitching could not hold the line. The bullpen wasn’t much better. The bullpen management was abysmal.

    You want specifics? How in the world can you have a failed starter just recalled from Triple-A face the frontrunner for AL MVP in a one-run game? That’s on Brian Snitker, folks, plain and simple.

    Let’s go to Saturday, which may be the most agonizing game any of us have watched this season – and yes, I’m including the “weather-n-walk” disaster in Chicago in that discussion. The middle game of this series drug on like a bad early-morning conference call with that one person who keeps butting in mid-sentence to say, “sorry, I was on mute!”

    And yet, Atlanta had multiple chances to seize control of both games. It did not happen, and as of this moment when my fingers are hitting the keyboard late on a Saturday night, the Braves no longer reside in first place in the NL East. That honor belongs to those Phillies, albeit by a scant ½ game.

    There are two talk-tracks that have emerged from the past two games:

    One, is the Braves are not ready for this level of play. They ran up against one of the game’s best teams and they could not handle the pressure, could not handle playing in Fenway – let’s face it, were the Braves to somehow win the pennant and reach the World Series, odds are they would have to deal with a venue like this, be it in Boston, Houston or the Bronx – and could not answer the counter punches from one of the top squads in MLB.

    One, is the Braves needed this. They have rolled through the NL, found success in their division, sport a favorable run differential and have been swashbucklers on the road. They needed to see how the penthouse teams live, how they thrive, how they take every little mistake you make and bury you for it, and this will serve their development well. This is a good teachable moment that will help this bunch moving forward more than any of us right now can grasp.

    Want to know my take?

    Both are true.

    Is Atlanta ready to face a team like Boston in a seven-game series in the 10th month of the season, with the bunting on the railings and all the media and all the cameras and a billion people worldwide watching and that trophy with 30 gold pennants on it? Probably not. And that’s OK. Do I dream about it? Absolutely! I’ve been there. These two aging blue eyes saw the trophy with the pointy pennants brought onto our home field, albeit on the wobbly (read: drunk) head of Ted Turner, and paraded on top of a fire truck through the streets of my hometown.

    Is this weekend a good measuring stick and a good barometer for this team that hasn’t played for anything meaningful the past 55 months, when the bullpen door in Los Angeles remained locked for reasons none of us ever will freaking understand? Yes, certainly. We are 50 games into this season that has engaged us so much. Yes, it is disappointing to lose the first two and be left with resorting to salvaging the finale, but would any of you not sign up for this back in February if you had a crystal ball and realized Atlanta arrived the day before Memorial Day with a 29-21 record?

    There are challenges afoot, for sure, and questions to answer and holes to fill. And yes, the schedule does not get easier, not with a doubleheader at home on Monday with the Mets (if Tropical Storm Alberto allows such festivities to commence) and the always-dangerous Nationals in town after that, followed by the usual west-coast roadtrip that includes three with the defending NL champion Dodgers.

    Many of us longtime fans used to bemoan that early June swing out west, that back in the day would constitute trips to San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I always called it the “June Swoon Trip,” the one that let me know it was time to look forward to Falcons or Hawks or Dawgs season because the Braves would arrive back home buried in the old NL West.

    I certainly don’t see that happening this season. This team figures to be relevant deep into summer. The fits and starts in the Northeast this weekend only help fuel the development of this fun, exciting and intriguing team, as we continue shifting from rebuilder to contender.

    —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 lose to Orioles, prepare for rematch with Yanks

    The Braves were unable to cash in on a sensational start from Randall Delgado Sunday

    The Atlanta Braves are 3-6 during interleague play this season, a record that hardly tells the full tale of their recent struggles. In the space of one week, the Braves were swept by the New York Yankees, lost young star Brandon Beachy to an elbow injury, and were 1-hit by the Baltimore Orioles. Will leaving the Ted for the Bronx and Fenway be conducive to turning around this interleague turmoil?

    Let’s start with the highlights of the 3-game series with the Baltimore Orioles. The Braves were able to end their 5-game losing streak by coming out of the gate and beating Baltimore in game one. Rookie Andrelton Simmons showed why his offense is thought highly of in game one and then flashed the leather in game three to remind us that his defense is a step up from his predecessor as well. Craig Kimbrel continues to remind us why he was the 2011 Rookie of the Year. In game one, he notched his NL-leading 19th save of the season. In that same game, Kris Medlen returned to the ‘pen from his boondoggle in Triple-A and pitched 2 innings of scoreless ball. Chad Durbin also pitched well–something he has done consistently in recent weeks. And though Randall Delgado took the loss in the final game of the set, he was remarkable in his 8 innings of 2-run ball.

    Unfortunately, the highlights for the Braves were far fewer than the low points.

    The worst moment of the series came when Brandon Beachy left game two with an elbow injury. Beachy, who was pitching on extra rest due to soreness in that elbow, threw two breaking balls in the dirt and was immediately lifted in the 4th inning. Beachy will undergo an MRI today.

    Jason Hammel took a no-hitter into the 8th inning against the Braves, but lost that bid when the Braves only hit of the game came off the bat of Jason Heyward. The no-hitter erased, Hammel was still able to throw a complete game shutout.

    The entire homestand was full of roster moves, the final 3-games being no exception. To begin the series, Kris Medlen was called up from Gwinnett and veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez was designated for assignment. Following the injury to Beachy, he was placed to the disabled list and in his spot Todd Redmond was called up from Gwinnett. Redmond, a starter in Triple-A for three years, has been added to the big league bullpen. Fredi Gonzalez announced yesterday that Jair Jurrjens will be called up from Gwinnett on Friday to start. Whether that will be a spot start or more long term remains to be seen. This, presumably, has something to do with Julio Teheran only pitching 4 innings in his most recent start at Gwinnett. Kris Medlen will remain in the ‘pen for now, but could do a spot start or more in the rotation if needed without having to go back down to Gwinnett now that he is stretched out.

    HEADING TO THE BRONX…

    Monday: Minor (3-4, 6.01) vs. Sabathia (8-3, 3.70)

    Tuesday: Hudson (4-3, 3.90) vs. Kuroda (6-6, 3.43)

    Wednesday: Hanson (7-4, 3.32) vs. Hughes (7-5, 4.50)

    The Braves hope to put an end to the Yankees’ surge in their own house over the next three games. They have their work cut out for them.

    Mike Minor took the loss in his last outing against the Yankees at Turner Field, though he pitched 7 1/3 innings of 1-run baseball. He hopes to continue his success against the Bronx Bombers in today’s start. The keys for Minor’s success will be similar to previous outings. Keeping runners off bases with the Yankees is important, especially with the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium. This New York lineup can do damage from every up and down it, so Minor’s job will be to keep his walks down and his pitches in the strike zone. Continuing his recent trend of not giving up homers, especially multiple homers will be important as well. Given how badly the Yankees beat up the Braves’ bullpen in their visit to Turner Field, going deep into the game would be especially helpful from the young rookie.

    Hiroki Kuroda has been exceptional in his last several outings. He has also pitched better at home than on the road. However, Tim Hudson may be due to finally get a win at Yankee Stadium where he holds an 0-2 record in 6 starts. On the road this season, Hudson has held his opponents to a .196 batting average. This, strangely enough with two veterans on the mound, may be the pitching matchup to watch.

    Behind Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson has been the most consistent and reliable starter for the Braves. A solid outing from Tommy is desperately needed by his team right now. He faces a tough opponent in Phil Hughes who seems to have found himself and righted the ship, as they say. Hughes has looked like the 2009 Phil Hughes once again and has been helping his team immensely.

    Perhaps the biggest key to the Braves’ visit to the Bronx this week will be offense. The offense has been struggling mightily without Freddie Freeman’s presence in the lineup. He recently had two cortisone injections into the knuckle of the injured finger that was nailed by a throw as he was sliding into second base and was finally able to bend the knuckle. Getting his bat back in the lineup is very important for a team that has shown throughout the season how instrumental his bat is to their overall offense.

    Brian McCann may be heating up, a good sign for the catcher whose production is down so far this season. Jason Heyward got the only hit against Jason Hammel and seems to be getting key hits. More consistent production will continue to be a need the Braves have with J-Hey. This entire season could hinge on what they can get from Jason Heyward. At the beginning of the season many would have said that Braves’ offense would hinge on Heyward, but also Martin Prado. Martin Prado has stepped up in a big way and is showing every day how valuable he is to this team. Not only has his bat been huge for this struggling offense, his versatility has been a god send as the Braves deal with injuries. Prado even stepped in to play a little first base in the absence of Freddie Freeman and started an outstanding double play while there.

    The Braves and Yankees get underway tonight in the Bronx at 7:05 (EST). Tonight’s game is the featured game on ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.

    Braves swept while ‘pen struggles, welcome 2nd place O’s

    Anytime the New York Yankees are in town, you want to win. That was the feeling in the Braves’ clubhouse throughout the 3-game set in Atlanta, but things did not go as anyone would have liked. The Yankees swept the Braves and saw firsthand the glaring holes in the Braves bullpen right now.

    The tone at Turner Field this week is unlike anything fans have seen this season. The Bronx Bombers brought out a huge contingent of their own fans. When Yankees fans would cheer for their players, Braves fans would boo them–the Yankees fans, just as much as the players. While many were making comparisons to these two teams matching up in the postseasons of 1996 and 1999, the Braves didn’t play like either of those teams. Though starting pitching was, for the most part, solid, the bullpen was a mess and the offense struggled once again with runners in scoring position.

    Delgado pitched 5 innings, allowing only 3 runs. The bullpen was solid with newly recalled Cory Gearrin, Durbin and Venters, but the offense just couldn’t make anything happen. Only one runner made it into scoring position and four runners were left on base.

    The second game of the series was a real heartbreaker. Mike Minor really stepped up, something he has done in his last two starts and maybe in response to all the talk that he would be sent down. Minor pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing 5 hits, 1 earned run and only 1 walk. In the top of the 8th, Derek Jeter got on base and Fredi Gonzalez immediately pulled Minor and sent in Jonny Venters. A single by Curtis Granderson and a walk to Mark Teixeira loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod hit a grand slam off Venters, his 23rd career grand slam, tying him with the great Lou Gehrig for the most grand slams in baseball history. Venters and Gearrin went on to allow 2 more runs in the top of the 8th. The Braves were unable to make up the 2-run deficit and lost the game 6-4.

    Tim Hudson made the start in game 3 after missing a start due to ankle soreness attributed to bone chips. Huddy pitched 6 innings, allowing 6 hits and 3 earned runs. Hudson struck out 8 batters. Minus a missing his spot on a pitch to Granderson that just barely made it over the right field fence and scored 2 runs, Hudson looked as good as he has all season. The ‘pen, in a nice rebound from the night before, didn’t allow a run. The Braves couldn’t capitalize in the final innings and lost by one run.

    The Braves continue interleague play 3rd in the National League East, 5 games behind the 1st place Washington Nationals with a record of 34-29.

    INTERLEAGUE CONTINUES WITH THE SURGING ORIOLES…

    Friday: Brian Matusz (5-6, 4.82) vs. Tommy Hanson (7-4, 3.55)

    Saturday: Jason Hammel (6-2, 3.22) vs. Brandon Beachy (5-4, 1.98)

    Sunday: Wei-Yin Chen (6-2, 3.68) vs. Randall Delgado (4-6, 4.34)

    The Baltimore Orioles come into town as one of the hottest teams in baseball, not to mention one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 season. The Orioles are in 2nd place in the American League East, 1 game behind the equally tough New York Yankees. The Orioles have a record of 36-26. Orioles’ pitching has been strong,

    While it is hard to ignore the struggles of the Braves’ offense, especially with runners in scoring position (they finished the New York series 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position), the glaring downfall of the team right now is the bullpen. As the Yankees series hinged on the ‘pen, so could the series with the Orioles.

    Jonny Venters was lights out last season. In 2011, Venters made 85 appearances for the Atlanta Braves. His line: 6-2 record,  88 IP, with a 1.84 ERA. He only allowed 53 hits, 19 runs, 2 home runs, and only hit 5 batters the entire season. This season? His line so far in 2012: 3-3 record, 24 1/3 IP, with a 4.44 ERA. He has allowed 33 hits, 14 runs, 4 home runs and has hit 4 batters. The team is saying publicly that Venters is healthy, but his performance is saying otherwise.

    Eric O’Flaherty, who combined with Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters to be the most effective ‘pen trio in baseball last year, has struggled this season as well. O’Flaherty has not been available for Fredi Gonzalez since Tuesday when he woke with a sore pitching elbow. Fredi said he would give him a few more days of rest. In 2011, O’Flaherty had an incredible run. His line: 2-4 record, 73 2/3 IP, with a 0.98 ERA. He allowed 59 hits, 9 runs and 2 home runs. This season, O’Flaherty has struggled. His 2012 line so far: 1-0 record, 22 2/3 IP, with a 3.97 ERA. He has already allowed 24 hits, 12 runs and 3 home runs.

    As the starting rotation solidifies, the bullpen needs to shut down games. That’s the bottom line and the bullpen has failed repeatedly at this of late. While Venters and O’Flaherty are not the only problem, long man Livan Hernandez has struggled in his last few outings, they’re struggles have left the bullpen depleted and added to its inconsistency.

    The biggest question mark right now is Kris Medlen. Medlen was providing consistency and the ability to pitch in a variety of situations out of the ‘pen. When Mike Minor and Randall Delgado were both struggling in the rotation, Medlen was sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to stretch out in preparation to join the starting rotation. While Medlen has been in the minors, Delgado has settled in nicely, Julio Teheran made a spot start and Minor has had 2 back-to-back quality starts. The need for Medlen in the ‘pen seems obvious. Unless the Braves plan to trade for bullpen depth or rush pitchers currently at Triple-A, they need to work with the pieces they have and for now that means utilizing the versatile Medlen where he is needed most.

    The Orioles series gets underway at Turner Field tomorrow at 7:35 (EST).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.

    Braves beat Jays, welcome Bronx Bombers

    Dan Ugga's on-base % stands at .388 (top-10 in NL). On June 11, 2011, it was .245.

    One word to describe the Braves in 2012 is streaky. For good and bad, so far the Braves seem to be grouping their wins and their losses. Heading into a 3-game series with the Blue Jays, the Braves had won 4 straight. They added to that streak by taking the first 2 from the Jays, but ended their 6-game winning streak with Sunday’s loss.

    Several roster moves occured as the Braves returned to Atlanta to take on the Blue Jays. After one rehab outing at Rome, Chipper Jones returned to the big league club. Jose Constanza went back to Triple-A to make room for Chipper. Tim Hudson was nursing a sore ankle and missed his start, thus Julio Teheran was called up for a spot start. Hudson anticipates making his next start on Wednesday. J.C. Boscan, who you’ll remember was called up when David Ross suffered a minor groin injury, was sent down to make way for Teheran. After the 10-inning game to open the series, Gonzalez was hoping to avoid using O’Flaherty and Venters out of the ‘pen, so young Randall Delgado was sent to the ‘pen in the event of an emergency. Fortunately, Tommy Hanson pitched an impressive 8 inning gem and Craig Kimbrel recorded the save. It’s unclear who will go down when Kris Medlen is ready to return, but this weekend’s bullpen adventures may require that two go down so Medlen and a reliever can come up.

    About those bullpen adventures… For whatever reason, Fredi Gonzalez stuck with his long man, Livan Hernandez last night and the result was disastrous. Julio Teheran pitched 4 beautiful innings before the wheels fell off. Instead of bringing in a reliever to get out of the jam and then use his long man, Gonzalez went with Hernandez immediately and Livan allowed 3 of the runs attributed to Teheran to score as well as proceeded to allow 5 earned runs on 7 hits. After the Livan trainwreck, Cristhian Martinez came out of the ‘pen and allowed 6 hits and 3 earned runs in a longer outing than long-man Livan’s. The least damage occurred on the watch of Chad Durbin who worked a scoreless inning.

    The Braves offense may be heating up again and the rotation may fall into piece in the coming weeks, but the bullpen needs help. That Craig Kimbrel has been lights out of late is one of the few highlights of the ‘pen. With no solid timetable for Peter Moylan’s return and Kris Medlen moving to the rotation, a decision will have to be made soon about who comes up from Triple-A and what the Braves do with Livan Hernandez who had allowed 10 hits, 2 runs in 14 1/3 innings pitched over 11 appearances between 4/28-5/25 and has now allowed 13 hits, 9 runs, and 3 homers in 4 2/3 innings pitched in 2 appearances since 5/25.

    While Martin Prado continues to be the most consistent hitter on the team and Michael Bourn keeps proving why he was an excellent pick-up for the Braves at last year’s trade deadline, the Braves can also celebrate the production of Dan Uggla (both in hits and an ungodly number of walks) and glimpses of the old Jason Heyward who scored the walk-off run on a throwing error in the 10th inning of game one of the series.

    PLAYING HOST TO THE BRONX BOMBERS…

    The Braves welcome the New York Yankees for a 3-game set at Turner Field. The series begins, of course, on a dreaded Monday. The Braves remains winless on Mondays this season, an inexplicable 0-8 record. This stat has to be in their head by now. It’s time for the team to get over their bad case of the Mondays.

    Monday: Nova (7-2, 5.09) vs. Delgado (4-5, 4.26)

    Tuesday: Sabathia (7-3, 3.69) vs. Minor (3-4, 6.57)

    Wednesday: Kuroda (5-6, 3.46) vs. Hudson (4-2, 3.83)

    There was one major change to the pitching schedule in the Toronto series that happened late: Tim Hudson was scratched and Julio Teheran was plugged in for a spot start. That change pushes Huddy back to Wednesday and Beachy will then be pushed back a day or two for the next series. There’s been no word on whether or not Minor will in fact make the start against Sabathia Tuesday, but for now he remains on the schedule.

    With one of the most feared lineups in baseball, the Yankees will prove daunting for young Randall Delgado. He will need to continue to have success with all three of his pitches as he has in his last two starts. Mike Minor will have two major challenges: Keeping runners off the bases via the walk and not giving up the long ball. Minor has struggled all season with the long ball and the Bronx Bombers will make him pay. Keeping the bases clear in the event he does give him a jack will be crucial. The key for Tim Hudson will be his sinker. As long as he can keep the ball on the ground, the veteran can be successful again the Yanks. Another bonus for Huddy is the new shortstop Andrelton Simmons who is proving to be incredibly valuable with his glove. Where Hudson has requested Jack Wilson at shortstop in his past starts, Simmons is an excellent upgrade at the position and will very likely be the starter behind Huddy.

    Weather may delay tonight’s game. It is currently scheduled to start at 7:10 (EST).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.