• Nick Markakis

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

    Under .500.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

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

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

    Is the offense better than you thought?

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

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

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What needs to happen this month?

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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.

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —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.

    2018 Rewind: A Season For The Ages

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Proximity often blurs perspective. Something great happens, you celebrate like mad, then as the annuals of time tick by and the years slide off the calendar, you gain a refined look.

    This is an exercise that came about for me while perusing Twitter the other night, as I spoke of memorable moments these older eyes of blue have witnessed across a variety of sports, throughout a variety of decades. The timing certainly was appropriate, given I write this with 25 or so hours before we say bon voyage to 2018 and welcome 2019 with the hopes, dreams, goals and desire each fresh set of 365 days brings.

    Being in the moment – or just barely removed from it – does not offer the same view you obtain via the passage of time. But 2018 was an amazing year for me as a sports fan. I crafted a top 10 list spanning the start of me watching sports in person in the late 1970s through today, and three events from this season actually made the list.

    The Braves were the surprise story of 2018, following another 90-loss campaign with 90 wins and an NL East pennant.

    In March, I drove to Nashville with my best friend since middle school to watch my alma mater (Georgia State) play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Three weeks ago, I wept for joy next to my 16-year-old son inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Atlanta United celebrated winning MLS Cup – the first major pro sports championship in this city since this same old dude watched the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series, in a stadium that now is … a parking lot for said alma mater’s football stadium.

    Sports has a way of connecting the dots, connecting the generations, connecting the masses. It truly is just an awesome experience. Whether I had a ticket in my pocket or a press pass dangling around my neck, the thrill of it all never gets old. This year, I was beyond blessed to attend 35 Braves games, including an opening day thriller, a walk-off bunt, a division clincher and two playoff games.

    I present to you the top 10 moments I witnessed in person this season, a campaign that expired just 84 days ago, but already resonates so deeply with Braves Country that it stands among the most memorable in the long and storied history of this franchise:

    10. Homestand-Closing Win And The Impossible Happened: The Braves began the season with a six-game homestand against two teams many picked to finish ahead of Atlanta – sexy-preseason selection Philadelphia and perennial-division power Washington. April 4 dawned with the Braves at 3-2 but staring at a daunting road trip – a three-city, nine-game, early-April swing through three cities (Denver, Washington, Chicago) that simply is inexcusable for any team to have that time of year. Plus, Max Scherzer toed the rubber for the Nationals while Atlanta sent Mike Foltynewicz to the mound.

    It was a mismatch from the start. A first-inning error on Washington second baseman Wilmer Difo extended the inning, Preston Tucker continued his scalding-hot start with a three-run homer in the inning, and Foltynewicz bested the future Hall of Famer and added the shocker of all shockers: a two-run double by the – shall we say, light-hitting pitcher – over a shallow-playing outfield in the fourth inning as the Braves won 7-1. It marked my nephew’s first visit to SunTrust Park, and my two sons’ first game of this memorable season.

    As an aside, the oldest kid called Tucker’s dinger. As an aside, he hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

    9. Through The Chill, Promise Of Hot Times Ahead: Actually, my oldest son got in a game before the aforementioned victory over Washington and his since never-ending prognostication. Atlanta played an exhibition game against a team of top prospects two days before the season opener. The weather was raw, drizzly and cold, but Mike Soroka started, Kolby Allard pitched, Cristian Pache belted his first two homers as a professional and Austin Riley nearly killed us with a scathing line drive just foul near the left-field pole.

    Oh, and some kid recorded a base hit that registered an exit velocity of 115 mph. Some dude named Acuña.

    8. The Home Debut Of The Phenom: The heralded promotion of 20-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. came after the Braves had dropped the first two games of a four-game set in Cincinnati in late April. After going 1-for-5 in his big-league debut, he slammed an upper-deck tank job the next afternoon.

    Eight days later, in his first home game against the Giants, Acuña went 0-for-4 from the two-spot in the lineup in a 9-4 defeat.

    One of the coolest things of my year happened pregame. With both my sons in attendance, we were able to meet up with Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun. What does that have to do with baseball, one may ask? One, Ken covers the Winnipeg Jets, who once upon a time were the Atlanta Thrashers, and I’ve kept cheering for the boys even after relocation. Two, Ken is a huge baseball guy who loves to visit stadiums. An off day in the Jets/Predators Western Conference semifinals gave him an opportunity to attend the game, and it was absolutely awesome to talk hockey with one of the best scribes covering the NHL.

    7. Charlie Clutch, Part Deux: Charlie Culberson etched his name all over the 2018 story and, in many ways, embodied this team. Born in Rome, raised in Calhoun, nearly an MVP in the previous season’s NLCS for the Dodgers, Culberson was a throw-in piece of the Matt Kemp contract-salary dump deal in December 2017. But after a slow start, Culberson began performing the heroics that have placed his name in Braves lore forever.

    Atlanta opened a homestand on Memorial Day against the Mets with a doubleheader, and Culberson provided a two-run walkoff homer in a 5-4 triumph in the first game. Six days later, Culberson walked to home plate in the ninth inning of the homestand finale against the Nationals, the game tied at 2, and blasted a Tanner Roark pitch into the seats to lift Atlanta to a 4-2 victory.

    I posted a picture on Instagram of Culberson arriving at home plate with the simple caption: “THIS TEAM!!!” That moment was the first time, 59 games into this magically developing season, when I first thought to myself that team just might contend.

    6. Walk It Out … With A Bunt: I often have folks ask how many baseball games I’ve attended in my life. Well, counting 40 years of going to Braves games, a decade-plus covering baseball games from the Braves, the minors, college and high school, and a decade of coaching my kids in baseball, suffice to say the number is quite high.

    There is an old saying that on any given day at a baseball game, you may see something you’ve never witnessed before. I’d never seen a walk-off bunt, not until April 21 against the Mets. Eventual Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom did his typical job of stifling the opposing offense, while the New York batters did their typical job of not providing any run support. That set the stage for a heart-stopping ninth inning, where Inciarte drug a perfect bunt down the first-base line and Johan Camargo raced home with a head-first slide to cap a thrilling 4-3 victory.

    And you know what? Ender’s game-winning bunt wasn’t the only thing that night I’d never witnessed in person. Camargo tied the game in the ninth with a triple that hit on the infield, skated into the right-center field gap and rolled all the way to the wall.

    5. Young Newk; Damn You, Chris Taylor: I could not breathe. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Not necessarily the best scenario since I had been hospitalized late last year with stroke symptoms. But there were no medical issues as I stood in Section 431 on the final Sunday of July, watching one of the Braves future cornerstones chase immortality.

    Sean Newcomb had it all working against the Dodgers that day. As his pitch count climbed, my oldest and I both agreed the powerful lefty had to stay on the bump. Through eight innings, he had no-hit the defending NL champions, and I had chills on top of chills as the crowd roared for Newk as he walked to the dugout just three outs away. I flashed back to early June 2013, when both kids and I stood inside Turner Field and watched Julio Teheran no-hit the Pirates for 7 2/3 innings.

    Newcomb got two outs in the ninth, and up came Taylor, who worked the count to 2-2 and then lined a sharp single through the hole and into left field. I’ll never forget my son holding his phone to record the moment, and I noticed how he couldn’t stand still. Twenty-two years earlier, I sat in the press box at a baseball field in Gainesville, Ga., and watched a kid named Andy Hussion (who would go on to pitch at Georgia) throw a no-hitter in an American Legion playoff game. To this day, it is the only no-hitter I’ve witnessed in person, and it happened on a night where Andy’s dad (longtime Furman announcer Chuck Hussion) was doing PA duties, and where many in the stands had went to bed the night before with no knowledge of the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park until they retrieved their copy of our paper from their driveways that Saturday morning. We slammed the presses shut and redid the front page after the explosion – the only time in my newspaper career where we really “stopped the press.”

    4. A Tone-Setting Comeback For Openers: The home opener is sacred to me. I guess it’s because I always got home opener tickets every year for my birthday (in March), and through 40 years I’ve only missed two of them. I also was fortunate to cover three home openers, including Andres Galarraga’s homer in the 2000 opener after he missed the previous season with lymphoma. The night before was spent preparing around 100 sausage balls, stocking coolers with beverages and recording a 90-minute season-preview podcast.

    March 29 found me heading to SunTrust Park early in the morning. Several hours of tailgating preceded the 4:10 start time, the second opener in the history of the new ballyard. Connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, for all the angst of the previous offseason, a new day dawned for this franchise while delivering quite the harbinger of things to come.

    Down 5-0 in the sixth, Atlanta battled back, setting the stage for Nick Markakis to blast a three-run, ninth-inning walkoff homer into the right-center field seats. The celebration turned wet immediately afterward as a strong thunderstorm blasted the ballpark, but nobody complained. It would be the first of many comeback victories by the Battlin’ Braves of ’18.

    3. Title Time In Tomahawk Town: I walked into a cigar shop off Ga. 400 and bought my first cigar in probably five years (I typically only have one on the golf course, and I haven’t played golf lately). It was around 10 a.m. and I already had four bottles of champagne icing in the back of my SUV. The cashier asked if I was going to the game and, upon telling him yes, he said, “been a long time since I’ve been this excited about the Braves.”

    Brother, I felt ya in that moment. And the Braves delivered like champions, Atlanta jumping all over Jake Arrieta – the experienced playoff veteran Philadelphia acquired to lift it to October – knocking him out after scoring four runs in two innings. Meanwhile, Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the seventh and when Acuña gloved the final out of the game, everybody in Braves Country lost their minds.

    How did this happen so fast? The rebuild ended, the new era fully engaged. Wow, here we are, with championship T-shirts and champagne showers in the locker room and tears of joy and hugs and screams of delight. It marked the seventh title I’ve seen the Braves clinch in person – but other than the Miracle Comeback in the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the World Series clinching victory in Game 6 of 1995, it’s hard to think of any other Braves moment that tops Sept. 22. And while my kids weren’t there, getting to cry with and hug some of my great, dear Braves friends made the moment absolutely awesome.

    2. Acuña Slams The Postseason Stage: I mentioned above three of my top 10 moments witnessed in person across all sports occurred this season. I honestly had little expectations going into the NL Division Series against the big, bad Dodgers. But when the Braves came home for Game 3, I thought they would buck up and find a way to win and draw within 2-1 of the series. I could just feel it.

    But the manner in which it happened took our breaths away. Acuña, the eventual NL rookie of the year, becoming the youngest player in baseball history to belt a postseason grand slam, a second-inning shot into the left-center field seats. What followed was two or three minutes of absolute bedlam, complete and comparable to the early/mid 1990s euphoria. It literally shook SunTrust Park to its foundation.

    Atlanta would capture Game 3 on a Freddie Freeman homer, a Chop House special deep to right field, but the Acuña grand slam represented more than four runs with one swing of the bat. It marked the return to prominence of this franchise, and its fanbase. There may be three or four moments where I’ve experienced the ear-splitting, knee-buckling spontaneous combustion of noise that I felt that night. I’ll carry that feeling to my grave.

    It also landed a buddy of mine with an Acuña tattoo on her wrist, and a prominent spot on the national news.

    1. Sharing This Ride With All Of You: Our world is filled with so many dividing items, and it feels that’s the case now more than ever in my lifetime. Social media can be toxic. News coverage can be depressing. Conversations that go just beneath the surface can break up relationships decades in the making. In times like these, the connection a sports team can provide is not only welcomed, it’s needed.

    I have met and developed relationships with so many people through Braves baseball, from folks who played at the highest level to award-winning writers to so many folks who are just like me, who love this sport and love their team. There is so much passion, so much energy from so many wonderful and talented people throughout Braves Country, whether you’re in Atlanta or around the world.

    It truly is an honor to be in your midst, online and in person.

    I have met some of the best people in my life through my love of the Braves, and 2018 took that to a whole new level. People I have met through following and writing about the Braves have taught me valuable lessons, provided me a shoulder to lean on, prayed for me in sickness, enhanced my ballpark and tailgating experience, and overall cast even more sunshine into my life. For that, I’m thankful. So much love to all.

    That’s the biggest thing I’ll carry from 2018, a year in which the Braves ended the rebuild. The best is yet to come, and I cannot wait to continue this journey with all of you.

    —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.

    Snitker the Brave Receives Well-Deserved Extension

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was a moment that otherwise would be forgotten amid the wreckage of a lost season, the 72nd game of a campaign in which the Atlanta Braves would win but 68 times, would finish 26 ½ games out of first place, would promote an organizational lifer to the manager’s seat after a 9-28 start merely to steer the listless ship toward October and incoming certain change at the helm.

    The Braves hosted the New York Mets on June 23, 2016, at Turner Field, Brian Snitker filling out the lineup card as a major-league manager for the 35th time since replacing the fired Fredi Gonzalez six weeks earlier, 39 years after debuting as a minor-league catcher for Atlanta’s rookie-league affiliate in Kingsport, Tenn., 34 years after starting his first season as a manager for Atlanta’s Single-A affiliate in Anderson, S.C. The Braves were hosed out of the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, a blown call that (surprise!) replay upheld.

    Mets announcers, not surprisingly, were pleased with the call …

    But Snitker promptly strolled onto the field for an explanation from umpire Mike Everitt, who promptly ejected the interim skipper.

    Then, we saw it. Yes, it’s been there since 1977 and those days squatting behind the plate in the Appalachian League, but here on a major-league diamond was Snitker, stomping behind Everitt, arms flailing violently, Braves cap in his left hand, screaming at the top of his lungs, fighting for the team that brought him up only to keep a seat warm in the dugout, a demonstrative outpouring of passion and loyalty to the lone franchise he’s known, an outburst that made the 22,324 in the ballpark that night sound like 40,000.

    It truly feels like a fairy tale, this 2018 season that culminated in a National League East championship, a trip to the NL Division Series, the confluence of veteran leadership with young blooming talent. And in the midst of it all stood Snitker, who long shed the interim label, who Monday sat proudly in a red shirt and a blossoming offseason beard (mustache, too!) as the Braves announced a two-year contract extension with a third-year option for 2021.

    When Snitker was summoned from Triple-A Gwinnett to take the helm after Gonzalez was relieved of his duties, I joked on Twitter that he should bring Ozzie Albies with him. No way did I ever think this stint would last beyond the final game of 2016, but lo and behold, we saw something else that muggy June night in the ballpark that now is the home of Georgia State football.

    We saw the Braves rally. Adonis Garcia belted a two-run homer an inning after Snitker was sent to the showers, the come-from-behind 4-3 victory serving as foreshadowing for how Atlanta would become the battling Braves in years to come. Atlanta has won 57 games in its last at-bat since Snitker became manager, including 20 this season as the Braves raced past expectations and past the rest of the NL East, fashioning one of the most memorable campaigns in these parts since the franchise relocated from Milwaukee in 1966.

    For context, that was 11 years before Snitker joined the Atlanta organization.

    He deserves a ton of credit, and it started during those dark days of 2016. The Braves were an embarrassment in the final two months of 2015 and it continued through the early weeks of the next season, Atlanta going 34-76 in Gonzalez’s final 110 games as manager. Certainly, it wasn’t all his fault, with a stripped-down roster as the organization dove head-long into rebuild mode. Snitker managed 52 games before the All-Star break, the Braves going 22-30, then put together a 37-35 second half and knocked Detroit from the playoff race in the final game before home plate at Turner Field was dug up and transported via police escort to the dirt pile that would become SunTrust Park.

    Snitker found himself at the helm for 2017, an evaluation year that certainly would end with bumbling executives John Coppolella (trying to circumvent MLB rules) and John Hart (trying to lower his handicap) seeking a new manager for 2018, the man who would lead the Braves out of the darkness. Holes remained in the roster, of course, but Snitker helped squeeze a 45-45 start before Atlanta finally ran out of gas, and by late summer there was every indication the lifelong organization man would be in a different role come 2018. We’ve heard the stories by now, how right fielder Nick Markakis stood up for Snitker after Hart screamed at the manager following a loss in August, how Coppolella’s lack of people skills pushed Snitker to the point of telling a clubhouse attendant to pack his stuff while the Braves were finishing the season on the road, the affable lifelong Brave so disgusted, he had no desire to even return to his home ballpark.

    We all know how the story played out from there. Snitker, the beacon of steadiness, one beloved by players and staff alike, was the perfect person to guide the Braves one more season while new GM Alex Anthopoulos assessed the reeling organization top-to-bottom in 2018. Loyal to the brand to the very end, Snitker embraced the new regime’s reliance on analytics, formed tight bonds with several new members of the coaching staff brought into the dugout in the offseason, and continued to hold the steering wheel with a steady, firm hand as the trickle of young, promising talent reaching the majors grew into a wave.

    And his confidence grew, too. Two years on the job, more comfortable with the media, more relaxed. Brian Snitker had a chance – a real, fair chance – to manage for his job in 2018. He seized it. He benched Ender Inciarte, one of Snitker’s more vocal proponents, for failing to run out a ground ball. It didn’t change the center fielder’s feeling for his manager, but helped spark him to a strong second half. Snitker tried to single-handedly tear through the Miami Marlins roster to get at Jose Urena after Ronald Acuna Jr. was nailed on purpose with a pitch, his emotional postgame comments in which he described the Braves boy wonder as “my kid … I’m going to protect him,” resonating throughout baseball.

    And of course, the crowning moment, fighting back tears on the infield at SunTrust Park moments after the Braves won the East, saying simply, “I’m a Brave.” It’s a moment I’m not ashamed to say has made my eyes water every time I’ve watched it.

    He’s a Brave, indeed, and the gig is his. There are times where the tactical decision-making leads me to shake my head. I guess you could say that about any manager, coach, boss, person in power. But there is no denying this: I coached my kids in baseball for more than a decade. I would be honored for them to play for this man.

    Brian Snitker, the good company man, finally has his just reward. It’s not a retirement party or a gold watch or a farewell pat on the back. It’s this opportunity, one that made all those long bus rides and rain delays and time spent away from family across four decades worth the sacrifice.

    It’s a chance to manage a team that very soon figures to be a World Series contender. It’s a chance richly earned and well deserved.

    —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.

    The 2018 Run is Done, but for Inspiring Braves It’s Only the Beginning

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The cadence of a baseball season is unique in that it starts with the sleepy slumber of late winter, the nearly seven-month marathon that builds to a crescendo, then concludes with a frantic sprint to a championship by 10 teams. One squad lifts the big trophy, and the other nine see their dreams end with the subtleness of running head-first into a concrete wall.

    Regardless of final result, for all teams the season’s conclusion does signify an end. But there are teams that the end only hints of a grander beginning, an earmark of better things to come. The 2018 Atlanta Braves embarked on their season March 29 at SunTrust Park against the Philadelphia Phillies, looking to avoid a fifth consecutive losing season. Some 193 days later, their season closed with a 6-2 defeat Monday to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.

    There will be plenty of time in the weeks to come to discuss what this franchise’s accelerated progression from rebuilding squad to NL East champion means in the grand scheme of building a World Series champion, what moves will be made, what vulnerabilities were exposed. Now is not that time, not when the bandage has been ripped from the wound, when the standing ovation the home crowd gave the Braves as they walked off the field one last time still echoes in our ears, while many of us still are smiling with pride while tears trickled down our cheeks.

    No, this is a time to sit back, to breathe, to go ahead and laugh about how far the Braves have come in just six months and nine days, and yes, to cry a little bit. Because whoever said there is no crying in baseball never has lived and died with a baseball team for years, then to experience a season sprinkled with so much pixie dust, you find yourself looking at your friends or spouse or children or parents and repeatedly asking, “how is this happening?”

    Like many of the great pure joys of life, you just let it ride. And boy, what a ride these Braves took their beleaguered fanbase on in 2018. A .500 record? Yeah, right. How about 90 victories, a division championship, and a respectable battle put up against a team that played for the World Series title last fall? All the walk-off victories. The emergence of so much young talent, names we heard mentioned during the dark days of the rebuild, names typed on prospect lists, names we saw at Rome or Mississippi or Gwinnett, and wondered how they might fare amid the grind of a big-league schedule.

    You know the names by now, from the generational star-in-the-making Ronald Acuna to the All-Star Ozzie Albies, from the emerging Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb to the next wave of great arms fronted by Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kolby Allard. Guys like Johan Camargo, who finally did enough to get the third-base job for keeps and never looked back. Guys like Chad Sobotka, who started the season at High-A Florida and ended it pitching in the NLDS. Don’t forget Dansby Swanson, lost for the playoffs with a hand injury but one of the NL’s best clutch hitters and defensive shortstops in just his second full major-league campaign. Or Ender Inciarte, acquired with Swanson in the now-famous heist of a trade with Arizona, anchoring Atlanta’s defense in center field while delivering his typical strong offensive second half. Or Charlie Culberson, who authored several of the season’s most signature moments.

    These Braves took all that youth and blended it with the veteran leadership provided by Nick Markakis, who made the All-Star team for the first time at age 34, the tandem of Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers behind the plate, the resurgent Anibal Sanchez – plucked from the free-agent scrap heap in March, but who pitched so effectively he earned a NLDS start while mentoring the young arms along the way – and a nod to one of this team’s lightning rods of criticism in recent years, the veteran Julio Teheran, who didn’t get a start in the NLDS but proudly came out of the bullpen in Game 4 and held the Dodgers at bay.

    And then, there is the constant.

    In Sunday’s Game 3, the first postseason game in the two-season existence of SunTrust Park, Acuna nearly brought down the house with a grand slam that staked the Braves to a 5-0 lead. The Kid gave Atlanta a cushion that the dogged Dodgers chipped away at until drawing even, and that fear of the run ending with a postseason sweep certainly creeped into the minds of even the most optimistic Braves fan.

    But that’s where The Captain came in. Freddie Freeman watched the Braves tear down the organization to the nubs in the years following Atlanta’s last postseason appearance in 2013. He never wavered, never complained, set the tone, led by example, excelled even as his prime years began with the Braves seemingly no closer to contending. All he did this season was lead the NL in hits and played Gold Glove-level defense while serving as the steady face of a team on the rise.

    Freeman slammed a long leadoff homer into The Chop House leading off the sixth inning of Game 3, turning SunTrust Park upside down in a moment that had you closed your eyes, you would swear you were standing inside long-gone Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in the early 1990s. That homer proved to be the difference in the Braves lone victory in this series, but served symbolic in that the franchise foundational cornerstone had delivered the knockout blow on the national stage.

    So, of course it was Freeman striding to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 4, Atlanta’s remarkable season hanging by the slimmest of threads. Freeman struck out to end the game, the series and the season, but not before the packed house serenaded him with chants of “Fred-die! Fred-die! Fred-die!”

    When the season ended – when the journey collided with that concrete wall of finality – at 8:16 p.m., the disappointment quickly faded into the aforementioned ovation. A few minutes later, Freeman told the media that for how proud he is of how far the Braves have come, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series. He emphasized and repeated the point.

    At the end of previous seasons, that type of comment would’ve be met with laughter. Nobody’s laughing now. Yes, the hearts ache and the tears fall, if for nothing else this team and its players have left an indelible impression on us all. The hashtag #ForEachOther rang true all season long, as players and fans truly felt they were in this together.

    Yes, 2018 has reached its end. But in every way imaginable, this also feels like 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.

    CHOPTOBER BOUND! Braves Pull Together, Reclaim NL East Throne

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The manager spoke with tears welling in his eyes, his voice quivering with the emotion of 40-plus years spent with one organization. The veteran first baseman and team captain referenced losing 90-plus games each of the past three years. The front-runner for rookie of the year leaped into the air as he approached the human mosh pit.

    And all around SunTrust Park, baseball’s newest stadium that didn’t even have turf laid on its field 19 months ago, Braves Country lost its collective minds in a symphony of cheers, tears, hugs and certainly more than a few beers.

    The Braves completed their remarkable ascent from the depth of rebuilding to the top of the National League East. Atlanta officially slammed the door shut on the nearly five-year painful trudge through the rebuilding of the organization, clinching its first division championship and playoff berth in five seasons at 3:44 p.m. Saturday when Ronald Acuna glided to his left and gloved the final out of a 5-3 triumph over second-place Philadelphia.

    Many thought these Braves would be winners eventually, but certainly not this fast. History provides two significant breakthroughs since this franchise uprooted from Milwaukee and brought pro sports to the South in 1966. The 1982 Braves rode the momentum of a 13-0 start and a national fanbase cultivated by TBS on nationwide cable, America’s Team shocking the world by winning the NL West and reaching the postseason for the first time since 1969. Nine years later, following six awful years of baseball the 1991 Braves went from worst-to-first in the NL West, chasing down the Dodgers before stunning the Pirates in the NLCS and pushing the Twins to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series.

    Take the stage, 2018 Braves. You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your 1982 and 1991 counterparts.

    That’s how remarkable this campaign has been, and unlike those two squads – who did not clinch until the final weekend of the season – these Braves finished their business with a week to spare. The 2018 NL East champs now have the luxury of resting starters, as we saw in Sunday’s 2-1 victory, of lining up their playoff rotation, of determining who makes the NL Division Series roster.

    How did we get here? So many have their fingerprints all over this championship, critical ingredients into the mix that results in Atlanta gracing the postseason stage starting Oct. 4.

    Leadership, Not Dictatorship: The rookies and young players filling out so many spots on the roster get plenty of attention, but the veteran leadership in the room has been a steadying influence since spring training. One thing guys like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis did was show the way to do the job while not squelching the enthusiasm the young 20-somethings brought to the ballpark. On the field, Freeman and Markakis anchored the 3-and-4 spots in the lineup on a daily basis, and both have been among the top 15 players in the NL all season.

    The Children Shall Lead Them: Certainly, the Braves needed several of their young and talented players to step up for this to happen so soon. Boy, did they ever. Mike Foltynewicz developed into a front-line starter. Sean Newcomb was sensational at times. Ozzie Albies earned an All-Star berth while burning up basepaths and playing stellar defense. Dansby Swanson continued evolving into one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and his hitting late in games was nothing short of remarkable. Then there is Acuna, who slammed homers at a breathtaking pace, played outstanding defense, jump-started Atlanta’s sprint to October once he moved into the leadoff spot, and his being plunked by Miami’s Jose Urena seemed to galvanize the team and the fanbase.

    Seize the Day: There were opportunities for both veterans and newcomers to shine, and it seemed like the Braves came up golden at every turn. Ryan Flaherty and Preston Tucker helped carry the offense in the first three weeks of the season. Rookie starters Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson each won their major-league debuts. Brandon McCarthy won four games against the Phillies in the season’s early weeks. Even Jose Bautista hit a homer during a failed experiment at third base. Speaking of which …

    The Goat and Charlie Clutch: One of the biggest questions entering the season was how would Johan Camargo perform with a full season of at-bats. Slowed initially by an oblique injury, Camargo grabbed third base in late May after Bautista was released and hasn’t looked back, providing clutch hitting time and time again (he scored two runs in the first two innings of Saturday’s clincher) while providing jaw-dropping defense. When Camargo wasn’t at third base, it was Charlie Culberson, the throw-in piece in the Matt Kemp trade who developed into a cult hero. Born in Rome and raised in Calhoun, Culberson bookended an early-summer homestand with walkoff homers, played seven positions (including a stellar scoreless inning on the mound that featured a 94 mph heater) and epitomized the Braves mantra of doing whatever it takes to win.

    The Unsung Savior: Most any other season this would be Culberson hands down, but the nod here goes to a guy who didn’t join the team until the final week of spring training. Anibal Sanchez, who admitted he thought about retiring at the end of last season, was signed after being released in March to provide veteran leadership. All he did was help solidify a rotation spot after returning from a hamstring injury in April, taking young pitchers under his wing with the peer-to-peer guidance every successful team needs. He is a viable candidate for comeback player of the year and certainly will get one of the Braves first three starts in the NLDS.

    Filling In the Gaps: Give it to Alex Anthopoulos, who walked into a mess 10 months ago with a franchise reeling from not just three-straight losing seasons, but a nasty front-office scandal. All he did was preach patience, no rash moves, serving originally as one who evaluates, looking to see what he had before really diving into getting the team ready to contend in 2019. But Anthopoulos recognized this bunch had something special, so he supplemented the bullpen and the rotation at the trade deadline, did not hesitate to promote young players who proved they were ready to play in the majors, and brought a much-needed breath of fresh air that permeated from top to bottom throughout the organization.

    A Country United: Braves fans get a bad rap at times, but there is no denying this team unified its fanbase like no Braves team has in a generation. Atlanta averaged more than 31,000 fans per home game at SunTrust Park, and as the season unfolded, the players seemed to pick up on the fans’ emotion and vice versa. Rebuilding takes time and the aforementioned scandal left a scar, no doubt, But after four long and miserable years, the fans responded and were rewarded with a magical season, one that will carry into October.

    Steady at the Helm: Say what you may about Brian Snitker and his in-game tactical decision making. The players on this team absolutely love him. Many felt Anthopoulos would seek to bring in his own manager after 2018, but after this storybook ride to October, there is no doubt Snitker will get an extension. And it’s richly deserved. He kept the Braves from spinning out of control at several key junctures this season, his ability to relate to players old and young one of the many reasons cited over and over again as one of the common foundational threads of this championship. It helped keep the team from getting too high or too low, bore out in the number of comeback victories that propelled the Braves to the top.

    And as he stood on the field Saturday afternoon, his players embracing him one-by-one, Snitker reflected on his four decades in the organization. The tears built in his eyes as he tried to encapsulate for the media what this title means. After a long pause with emotion clearly bubbling to the surface, he told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and The Athletic, “I’m a Brave.”

    He, and his team and the organization he truly loves and the adoring residents of Braves County near and far, awoke Sunday morning wearing another label:

    Champions.

    —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.

    Braves Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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.

    Can Emerging Braves Finish What They’ve Started?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When I covered sports on the Southeast Georgia coast, I would travel to Atlanta to cover events or see family. Upon departing, I always looked forward to reaching Macon and hitting Interstate 16.

    It’s one of the most desolate stretches of highway I’ve ever traveled. It’s long, it’s boring and there’s not much to grab your interest as you traverse from central Georgia to I-95 and the final leg home to the beach. I learned quickly to divide I-16 into thirds, so on the way home the mental objectives were to reach Dublin, reach Metter and then reach I-95.

    Exactly two-thirds of this baseball season now reside in the rear-view mirror, 108 games to be precise. We’ve made it to Metter, to use the exercise above. There are 54 games remaining, and by the time we steer the car off I-16 on Sept. 30, we will know if the Atlanta Braves will continue their 2018 joyride into the National League playoffs or pull into the garage.

    Suffice to say, if the Braves reach October, they will have earned it.

    Atlanta used Monday’s off day in Washington to refresh and refuel before beginning one of the most challenging schedules in recent memory. Twenty-two games in 20 days, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday against the Nationals (another double-dip looms Monday at home against Miami). Following an Aug. 27 off day, the Braves play 16 consecutive days through Sept. 12. An off day then is followed with 16 games in 17 days.

    That in and of itself provides a tremendous challenge for any team, let alone one experiencing a pennant race for the first time in a half-decade and with only two holdovers (Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran) from that 2013 division-winning squad. And that says nothing of the competition Atlanta will face between now and October.

    Consider: Thirty-eight of the Braves final 54 games come against teams that woke up Monday within five games of a playoff spot. Fifteen are against division leaders (four with Arizona, three with Boston, seven against Philadelphia – all coming in the final 10 games of the season – and a makeup game with the Cubs). That’s 70.3 percent of the remaining schedule against contenders, 27.8 percent of those contests against division leaders.

    That speaks in part to the parity in the NL, where 11 teams reside above .500 (including the Giants, who were 5 ½ back of the second wild-card spot the Braves occupy starting Monday; Atlanta faces three in San Francisco in September after playing four in Arizona, two locales where the Braves typically do not play well).

    We have not seen these Braves nosedive at any point this season, save a 5-13 stretch over the bulk of July that dropped Atlanta from 3 ½ games up in the East to 2 ½ back. To their credit, the Braves have responded by winning six of its next seven – albeit six of those games came against the Mets and Marlins – to slice one game off the Philadelphia advantage.

    But the margin for error shrinks as the days disappear from the calendar, in particular when the games come fast and furious and the competition is tough. It will be the stiffest test of all for a team that has raced past expectations and exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of spring. But now the rubber begins to hit the road in earnest, and these Baby Braves will be challenged like never before in 2018.

    How will they respond? Will the outstanding seasons of Freeman and Nick Markakis, the emergence of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the impact of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, a revamped bullpen and a bolstered bench, be enough to carry the Braves to their first postseason berth since 2013? Can a rotation that at some point during the next few weeks will see the resurgent Anibal Sanchez, the young Max Fried, the maddeningly inconsistent Teheran, the spot-starting 20-year-old Kolby Allard (who acquitted himself well enough in his debut despite horrible pitching conditions), and perhaps the enigmatic Luiz Gohara and the promising Touki Toussaint, make starts in the pressure cooker of a pennant race hold up?

    If nothing else, there are key components of Atlanta’s future core that are going to get baptism by fire in the heat of a playoff push. That in and of itself is a win, regardless of how successful or how ugly the results may be. The Braves window has cracked open sooner than expected. There is a bonus opportunity here. There is a feeling to run with this house money and see if the Braves can trump the dealer and slide into the festivities of October, which considering where this franchise sat last October would be cause for immense celebration.

    But for every fairy-tale ending, there are countless others that careened off the road. The schedule is stacked with nary a breather to be found. This is where the pragmatic approach takes root. Logic may dictate at some point, there’s a 2-7 stretch coming that sends the Braves just far enough back to dash those October dreams. But even if that were to happen, did anybody expect these Braves to arrive a full week into August holding onto a playoff spot?

    Monday served as a breathing point, a last chance to pull off the exit at Metter, top off the gas tank, grab a cup of coffee and some snacks. Tuesday brings a doubleheader in the nation’s capital, the first step toward what the Braves and their victory-starved fans hope will result in a victory lap and a chance to race under the bright October lights.

    —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.