• NL East

    Braves Rule the Stage in Latest Act of NL East Saga

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

    Look who’s chasing who now.

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

    Game. On.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    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.

    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.

    Baby Braves Ready for October Baptism

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Together, they will stand along the first-base line at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, adorned in road uniforms and no doubt will feel the full volume of disdain from 56,000 fans in Chavez Ravine to watch what most feel will be the first step in the home team’s return to the World Series.

    One by one, every member of the Atlanta Braves has applied a brushstroke of some sort onto this portrait of stunning arrival, the Braves surging from rebuilding also-ran to division champion in a breathtaking six months. They will grace the postseason stage, amid the increased glare of baseball’s most intense spotlight, as they will face the defending National League pennant winners in Thursday’s opening game of the NL Division Series.

    The talk tracks surrounding this team quickly converge into one irrefutable conclusion: Without the performance of several of Atlanta’s much-ballyhooed younger players, the squadron of young talent Atlanta built while spending four years buried in the standings, it’s unlikely Braves Country would be watching their team play a postseason game for the first time in five years Thursday. And while the headlines have focused on the spell-binding Ronald Acuna, the All-Star Ozzie Albies, the fiery (yet injured and unlikely to play in this series) Dansby Swanson, the emerging Johan Camargo, the ace-in-the-making Mike Foltynewicz and the promising Sean Newcomb, this goes way beyond those marquee names.

    Think about how different the fortunes of this team would have been without four rookies – Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Kolby Allard and Bryse Wilson – winning their big-league debuts. Where would Atlanta be without A.J. Minter grabbing hold of the closer’s gig in mid-summer, or without the 60 appearances from Jesse Biddle?

    This young core is vastly talented, and now has logged time at the highest level. But those names together have exactly zero innings of major-league postseason experience, a daunting fact considering the Dodgers reached Game 7 of the World Series last fall and have won six consecutive NL West titles.

    The Braves have defied the odds all season long, and if this magical run is to continue beyond the next seven days, they will need to continue to buck conventional wisdom. At every turn, be it when Albies stopped hitting homers or Acuna landed on the disabled list or Swanson fell into one of his offensive funks, or Minter and Biddle struggled to find the strike zone, there were other guys who picked up their pace at precisely the right time.

    Consider this: Did anybody four weeks ago think Chad Sobotka (yep, another rookie) would not only make the postseason roster – it will be announced at some point Wednesday or even early Thursday – but that the tall right-hander likely is going to throw very important innings, in close games, in October? This is what has made this Braves journey so special, so improbable. Many felt the talent was there, but how would it react to the pressures of a major-league season, a half-year grind of travel and no days off and late-night flights and competing against 29 other teams comprised of the best players on the planet?

    As the Braves worked out at SunTrust Park on Tuesday afternoon before flying to the west coast, Brian Snitker spoke to the assemblage of reporters about the need to keep things simple, to not try and change the style of play, to keep doing what delivered a 90-win season and the NL East championship. And while the postseason is a different animal altogether, with brighter lights and higher consequences and enhanced pressure, there is validity in Snitker’s words.

    The Braves of ’18 already have made an indelible mark on the hearts of their city and their fanbase. Nothing that happens in this series changes any of that. But these Braves are good. They may not have the postseason pedigree of their opponent. They may have a bunch of playoff newcomers getting their first taste of October baseball. They may not have the odds in their favor.

    But all season, the kids on this team have found a way, a testament backed up by all the one-run wins, the late-inning comebacks, the outstanding road record, the general feeling that yes, it may seem improbable, but sometimes being young enough to not know better is a blessing and not a curse.

    If these Braves are going to reach the NLCS, the kids are going to have to step up yet again. If the past 162 games have shown us anything at all, it’s that they have the ability, the swagger and the confidence to make it happen.

    And now, they get the chance to put it all on display, for all the world to see.

    —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.

    It’s Tomahawk Town vs. Tinseltown: Of Course, Resilient Young Braves Face Dodgers in NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When you get right down to it, of course this was going to happen. It happened the last time the Atlanta Braves reached the playoffs in 2013, a last gasp at glory before a wretched four seasons in the wilderness. It happened in 1991 and 1983 and 1982 and heck, even back in 1959, when the Milwaukee Braves lost a postseason tiebreaker that ended their quest to reach a third-consecutive World Series.

    The histories of the Braves and Dodgers franchises are intertwined at multiple points, from Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer in 1974 to the last great pennant race in 1993 ending with the Dodgers boat-racing the Giants while the Braves won their 104th game to capture the division title by one scant game. And here we go again, starting Thursday night at Chavez Ravine as the Braves make their glorious and long-awaited return to the postseason stage against, of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

    You know it was going to happen, right?

    Perhaps the Colorado Rockies would have been a better matchup. Perhaps having home-field advantage would have proven advantageous. Those are bygones at this point, not worth the time to consider. Not with the first pitch of the postseason coming at some time Thursday (we’re waiting on you, MLB). Time to focus on the fact the Braves, losers of 90 games three seasons running, stunned the baseball world by winning the NL East and finishing with 90 victories. The have swash-buckled and grinded and rallied all season to slam shut the door on the rebuild far sooner than most of us dared to dream.

    Their reward: The six-time defending NL West champion, just 11 months removed from Game 7 of the World Series.

    Go get em, boys.

    Seriously, the task appears somewhat tall on first glance, and that’s understandable. The Dodgers have one goal and one goal only: to snap a 30-year world championship drought, which is massively mind-blowing when you consider the Braves, Reds, Angels, White Sox, Astros, Marlins (twice!) and Giants (three times!!) all have captured the brass ring since Kirk Gibson’s famous homer sparked L.A. to a stunning four-game sweep of Oakland.

    Clayton Kershaw, balky back and all, still anchors the rotation. Walker Buehler is one of the top young pitchers in baseball. Kenley Jansen, recovering from a heart scare two months ago, is one of the game’s top closers. The lineup is young, deep and powerful, with plenty of firepower from Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and the dude who came out of nowhere, Max Muncy. And did we mention Manny Machado, the July acquisition looking to show out under the national spotlight before embarking on free agency and a contract that will be worth more than some third-world nation’s GNP, roams shortstop and solidifies the batting order?

    This series will be fascinating to watch for a variety of reasons:

    Too Young To Know Better: Every time we felt these Braves might begin sliding as this special season unfolded, they kept the train on the tracks. Yes, the playoffs are different. No, I don’t think the Braves and their squadron of youngsters will be fazed by the bright lights and heightened stakes. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz and Johan Camargo have combined to play zero postseason games, but they and the rest of the young key components of this Braves New World have a tremendous chance far earlier than expected to gain some critical playoff experience. They haven’t blinked to this point. The feeling here is they won’t now.

    Give Dansby a Hand (No, Seriously, Somebody Give Him a Hand): One huge key for the Braves is their passionate hometown heart-and-soul shortstop, who provides outstanding defense at a critical position while proving to be one of the best clutch hitters in the NL. A partially torn ligament in his left hand ended his regular season five days early, and there is concern he won’t be available for the NLDS. If that’s the case, the former Dodger and current Braves Country cult hero Charlie Culberson will fill in admirably, but the Calhoun High graduate being in the starting eight significantly weakens the Atlanta bench.

    Buehler? Buehler?: Anybody who watched Monday’s tie-breaking win over Colorado saw what the fuss is all about with the Vanderbilt product. Buehler may be the best pitcher in the Dodgers’ rotation right now, but because L.A. had to deploy him in Game No. 163, he only can pitch once in this series. Kershaw has the ability to lock down any lineup on any given night, but we saw the Giants get to him Saturday (he owns an un-Kershaw like 3.89 ERA in his past six starts) and has far less tread on the tires than when he faced the Braves twice in the NLDS five years ago.

    Pressure! Under Pressure: Just as almost nobody expected Atlanta to be here, most everybody used indelible ink to put the Dodgers deep into October. The pressure of expectations sits heavy on L.A., which trailed the West by nine games on May 8, sat 10 games under .500 on May 16, and ended the season 9 ½ games in arrears of its Pythagorean win-loss record (92-71 vs. 101-61). Add in the sometimes-shaky manner in which the Dodgers bullpen has gotten the ball to Jansen, and the fact that manager Dave Roberts does not have a contract for next season, and we will see how the Dodgers handle the pressure-cooker of October.

    House Money: The Braves and their fans will hate seeing that phrase, but it’s true. This feels like an awakening of a franchise where everything was stripped down and built back up carefully, in pain-staking, patience-testing fashion. The view from 30,000 feet is the Braves already are winners, getting to the playoffs so soon, the breakout seasons of Acuna, Albies, Foltynewicz, et al, and accomplishing anything beyond this point is gravy. Yes, that’s true. But honestly, the Braves should play with absolutely no pressure. The vast majority is going to pick the Dodgers in this series, and that’s not surprising, given the Dodgers beat Atlanta five times in seven games during the regular season while outscoring the Braves 35-18.

    If they played the games on paper, then this would be irrelevant because not only would Atlanta not win this series, the Braves already would be on the golf course after a season many thought would finish with 75 wins and even the most optimistic prognosticators said .500 would be a fantastic next step. Instead, they leaped forward and never looked back.

    The Braves are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. As they prepare for their first postseason content in 1,823 days on Thursday, it’s no surprise who stands in their way.

    —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.

    Braves end skid, Uptons set mark

    Beginning the weekend against the rival Washington Nationals, the Braves knew that they needed wins to keep pace in the NL East. A sweep could put the division out of reach going into the late days of August. However, the Braves stepped up and took 2 out of 3 from the Nats, placing themselves 3 1/2 games back in the division.

    After an 0-8 road trip, coming home to Turner Field is exactly what the struggling Braves needed. Getting to face Stephen Strasburg at the Ted helped their cause greatly, ending the losing streak and removing the monkey from their back.

    Stephen Strasburg had not given up 3 home runs in a game before Friday night’s home run derby off him when he didn’t give up just 3 dingers, he gave up 4. He has now given up a career high 18 homers on the season. Brothers Justin and B.J. Upton both hit 2-run blasts to dead center field. Then Freddie Freeman broke out of his slump to go yard off Strasburg. Then Tommy La Stella hit his very first big league home run. It wasn’t Strasburg’s night. Though it’s beginning to look like it is never Strasburg’s night when visiting the Ted. Against the Braves this year he has allowed 17 runs on 24 hits (5 of them homers). In his career at Turner Field, Strasburg has given up 7 homers and has allowed the Braves a .295 batting average against him. Strasburg left Friday’s game after 5 innings after giving up 7 runs on 7 hits and somehow striking out 9 batters.

    When the Braves signed B.J. and Justin Upton they certainly thought that there would be many a game when the two brothers went deep in the same game. It may have taken much longer to do it, but the Uptons have surpassed the record for the most times where two brothers went deep in the same game. With 5 such games, the Uptons now hold the record. There is now the possibility they put that record out of reach for any set of brothers to come.

    Justin Upton made some personal history of his own over the weekend. On his 21st homerun of the season, the younger Upton recorded his 1,000th hit and 500th RBI.

    For whatever reason, Major League Baseball had no qualms with the Braves beginning game 2 of the series after a 4 hour delay to the start due to rain. Despite the marathon delay, Aaron Harang pitched superb baseball but wasn’t helped out by his teammates who only managed 1 run in the 10 inning game that didn’t end until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

    The rubber match was a pitcher’s duel in every sense. Alex Wood stepped up and pitched as he had before being sent to the ‘pen earlier in the season and then down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Wood went 7 1/3 innings, gave up 1 run on 5 hits and struck out a personal best 12 hitters. After securing 2 additional runs in support of Wood, Kimbrel recorded his 34th save of the season.

    MIKE MINOR REJOINS ROTATION…

    As the Dodgers arrive in Atlanta, they have called up Kevin Correia to give their rotation an extra day rest. This means the Braves will luck out and miss both Clayton Kershaw and Zach Greinke this series.

    Due to 2 days off this past week, the Braves were able to give Mike Minor some extra rest, missing his spot in the rotation. He will rejoin the rotation this series and will face Dan Haren in game 2. Minor has struggled mightily this season, in no way looking like the pitcher he was last season. In 2013, Minor had a 13-9 record with a 3.21 ERA. This season he is 4-7 with a 5.42 ERA, including a stint on the DL with shoulder soreness.

    After turning his ankle in a weird event covering third base, Andrelton Simmons has been out of the lineup and off of his ankle hoping to avoid the disabled list. The Braves reported that Simba got treatment on the ankle most of Saturday and Fredi Gonzalez has said he would like to pencil Simmons into the lineup for Tuesday. Simmons will potentially test the ankle running Monday and barring any problems, will be in the lineup as Fredi wants. In the meantime, Emilio Bonifacio and Ramiro Pena have filled in for Simmons. Bonifacio has hit leadoff 4 of the past 6 games.

    The Dodgers send Correia (-,-) to the mound vs. Teheran (10-8, 2.92) tonight. Tuesday will feature Haren (9-9, 4.57) vs. Minor (4-7, 5.42). Wednesday’s game will pit Ryu (13-5, 3.21) vs. Santana (11-6, 3.69). And the finale of the series will send Hernandez (0-0, 3.00) to the mound vs. Harang (9-6, 3.31).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves wrap up the season, prepare for October

    While the Braves were unable to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Braves 96-66 record secured the NL East and second seed going into the postseason. The Braves will have home field advantage against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, the first game of which begins Thursday in Atlanta.

    Before the posteason gets underway, let’s look back at the 2013 season and just how the Braves were able to take back the NL East.

    The Surprises (Good and Bad)

    The brothers Upton were quite often a disappointment in their first full season in uniform for the Atlanta Braves.

    While Justin Upton largely lived up to expectations, it was a nightmarish 2013 campaign for big brother BJ.

    • The brothers Upton were two of the most hyped players this past off season. The $75 million contract given to B.J. Upton was the biggest free agent signing in Atlanta Braves history and the trade for Justin Upton sent the beloved Martin Prado and key prospect Randall Delgado to the Diamondbacks. As it turned out, B.J. brought very little offense to the Braves, finishing the season with a horrible .184 average with 151 strikeouts in 391 at-bats. His average, RBIs (26), hits (72), stolen bases (12), homers (9) and walks (44) were all career lows for B.J.

      Justin fared considerably better, finishing the season with a .263 average with 27 homers, 70 RBIs and 8 SBs. His average was the lowest since his 2008 season and dropped from the .280 of the 2012 season. There wasn’t just room for improvement in Upton’s offense, either. He had some strange lapses defensively that made fans cringe. However, there is a high ceiling for this young man and nobody believes he has hit it yet.

    • Freddy Garcia was one of the more surprising trades made by Frank Wren this season. In many ways, it was an important and timely in the 2013 season as the Ben Sheets pickup was in the 2012 season. Both brought to a young rotation veteran leadership and to the team key wins during times of injury to others on the staff. In 3 starts, Garcia had a 2-1 record with a stunning 1.83 ERA. In those 19 2/3 innings, he allowed only 18 hits, 4 earned runs, 1 homer, 4 walks and struck out 16. Prior to joining the rotation, Garcia also provided relief out of the ‘pen, notching an 0-1 record in 7 2/3 innings with an 1.17 ERA. Garcia became a great long man out of the ‘pen in his first games with the club. Garcia will likely be a key component of the 4-man rotation going into the playoffs.
    • The cost was high to acquire Justin Upton, however, the Braves had no idea what they were receiving in Chris Johnson. Coming out of spring training in a platoon pairing with Juan Francisco, Johnson won the position at third base in his own right and has worked hard to prove that he was as important as Upton and a more than adequate replacement at the hot corner in the wake of the retirement of Chipper Jones. Until the last 4-5 days of the season, Johnson lead the NL batting title race. Johnson finished the regular season with a .321 average (3rd best in the NL), .358 on-base percentage and .457 slugging. He had 165 hits, 34 doubles and 12 homers with 29 walks. Additionally, his fielding was better than expected at 3B. He finished the season with 14 errors at the hot corner for a .951 fielding average.
    • Dan Uggla had been a disappointment to Braves’ fans since his signing in 2011, but never as much as he was this season. Uggla finished the season with a .179 average, only 80 hits, 55 RBIs and 22 homers. The sticking point seems to be his strikeout rate, though. In 446 at-bats, Uggla recorded 170 strikeouts. His Lasik surgery several weeks ago in preparation for the postseason doesn’t seem to have had an effect on his ability to hit consistently. Uggla won’t be eligible for free agency until 2016.

    The Rookies

    • Rookie pitchers David Hale and Alex Wood were a great surprise for a pitching staff that suffered injuries in the second half. Like Freddy Garcia, Hale and Wood stepped in when injuries to Paul Maholm, Tim Hudson and the ongoing struggles of Brandon Beachy became an issue for Atlanta. In 2 starts, Hale posted a 1-0 record over 11 innings with a 0.82 ERA. He allowed 11 hits, 1 walk and struck out 14. Alex Wood deserves credit for getting the Braves through a terrible stretch when the future of their rotation was in doubt. Wood was called on to start at the end of July and over 10 starts, he posted a 6-4 record with a 3.57 ERA over 53 innings. He allowed 57 hits, 21 ER, 19 walks and struck out 49 batters.
    • When it was announced that Evan Gattis would be on the 25-man roster right out of spring training, there was a question of whether he would stay on the roster when Brian McCann returned. Evan Gattis never questioned it. He burst onto the scene with his power and showed better than expected defense behind the plate. He also stepped into the outfield when asked and helped fill the void when the walking wounded could best describe Atlanta’s outfield. El Oso Blanco finished the regular season with a .243 average, .281 OBP, .480 slugging, 21 homers and 65 RBIs. Perhaps the biggest impact Gattis had for the Braves came in the clutch. 9 of Evan Gattis’ 21 home runs gave Atlanta the lead and 4 of his homers were of the game-tying variety. He finished the season 1st in RBI (65), 2nd in HR (21), 3rd in slugging (.477) and 4th in extra-base hits (42) among National League rookies.
    • Julio Teheran may be the most impressive rookie pitcher to come along since Craig Kimbrel. The way Teheran pitched this season must be the way the front office expected him to pitch all along when they agreed to send Randall Delgado to Arizona for Justin Upton. Teheran showed moments of absolute brilliance this season, but overall was one of the most consistent pitchers in the rotation. Teheran finished the regular season with a 14-8 record and an impressive 3.20 ERA. Prior to the final weeks of the season, the rookie led the rotation with the lowest ERA, but was surpassed by Medlen. In his 185 2/3 innings pitched this season, Teheran notched 182 strikeouts while allowing 45 walks. In addition to the traditional stats that are cited for pitchers, Teheran helped the Braves tie with the Tigers and Blue Jays for the most pickoffs in MLB this season with 18.

    The Consistent Core

    • Freddie Freeman pulled even with Chris Johnson at a .321 average briefly during game 162. However, the average is only part of the reason Freddie Freeman is a candidate for NL MVP this season. As a final vote all-star, Freddie provided the Braves offense with pop, consistency and leadership. His famous hugs kept the clubhouse light and the boys on the bench smiling. His numbers are worthy of MVP consideration. Freddie finished the season with a .319 average, .396 OBP, and .501 slugging. He finished the season with 176 hits, 27 doubles, 23 homers and a team-leading 109 RBIs. Also, Freddie hit .443 (58-for-131) with 84 RBI with runners in scoring position this season. If there is justice in baseball, Freeman will win the Gold Glove for first basemen this season as well.
    • There is no getting around the fact that Craig Kimbrel is one the most dominant and consistent closers in the game. Since the all-star break, hitters are 15-for-107 (.140) against the closer. Kimbrel finished the season with an NL-best 50 saves, 1.23 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and a whopping 98 K’s in 66 innings. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kimbrel snag away a few votes for NL Cy Young this season. As the anchor of a bullpen that lost two key pieces–Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgeries–Kimbrel never missed a beat.
    • The most consistent member of the rotation this season was without a doubt Mike Minor. In his sophomore season, Minor stepped up in a big way for a rotation that faced its share of adversity. Without Beachy, with injuries to Maholm and Hudson late in the season, the terrible first half of Medlen and the inexperience of Teheran, Minor’s season was needed. Minor finished the season with a 13-9 record and a 3.21 ERA in 204 2/3 innings pitched (10th most innings in the league). He recorded 181 strikeouts, allowed 73 runs and surrendered 22 home runs.

     

    BRAVES OPEN NLDS AGAINST L.A. AT HOME…

    Despite a decisive win in the NL East and a successful season, the Braves are not without problems that must be addressed or worked with going into the NLDS. The biggest problem for the Braves over the past 7 games, not unlike the rest of their season, is that they’ve had 3 or fewer hits 3 times in that span and 10 or more hits 4 times. The discrepancy in hits has certainly led to far too many shutouts and close games. How the Braves can assure scored runs can be addressed on a player-by-player basis.

    First, the biggest question facing manager Fredi Gonzalez about his offense is whether or not he start B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla in the NLDS. Though Fredi has said that he’s had more fun the past few days than the last few months, the issue of his two struggling fielders has got to be on his mind. The two highest paid players on the roster are also the team’s two biggest liabilities. Uggla has gone 4-for-28 with 15 strikeouts in his past 10 games, nothing to be excited about. Upton, who hasn’t started back-to-back games since the 15th of September, has gone 0-for-16 with 9 strikeouts in his past 10 games. Both players have suitable replacements at their positions in Elliot Johnson and Jason Heyward (with an assist from Evan Gattis in left field). It would seem that starting either of them in the NLDS would be risky and starting them both in the same lineup would be catastrophic.

    It would seem that the questions in the bullpen can be helped by Alex Wood and Paul Maholm joining the ‘pen for the playoffs. After breaking his finger, Scott Downs has been terrible in relief, leaving the need for reinforcements. Jordan Walden, mired throughout the season by various injuries, is not a lock for the playoff roster. The Braves plan to have Walden throw an inning or more in the instructional league or a simulation game before deciding if he will be on the postseason roster. It would seem that we’ve seen the last of both Kameron Loe and David Hale for the season. How Fredi will juggle the arms that are available remains to be seen, however this has been the story of the season for the ‘pen and they have weathered much more adversity than this.

    A few injuries to keep an eye on, both for fans and Fredi: Chris Johnson has been dealing with a jammed right shoulder since a diving play Thursday. He missed the final game of the season with this issue, but has said he will be fine for the first game of the NLDS on Thursday. Also, Brian McCann left Thursday’s game with a right adductor strain, a slight hip injury, and was listed as day-to-day. He was available to pinch hit–the injury simply makes squatting problematic. He has been resting since the initial injury and will hopefully we able to play in the NLDS.

    Kris Medlen is slated to start game 1 of the NLDS. Medlen has a record of 5-0 with an 1.05 ERA in his past 5 home starts. In those 5 starts, he has 29 K’s, 4 BB and 1 HR allowed (34 1/3 innings). Over his past 9 starts, Medlen is 6-2 with a 1.37 ERA. In addition to turning his season around entirely in the second half of the season and catching fire the last 9 starts, Kris Medlen is now in uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched at 197. His previous season high was 138 last season after his return from Tommy John surgery. Medlen finished the season with a 15-12 record and a 3.11 ERA. The rest of the rotation should line up behind Medlen with Minor, Teheran and Garcia.

    A key player to watch is Jason Heyward. On Thursday, Heyward went 4-for-4 with a homer and 3 doubles. Those 4 hits matched a career high (5th time) and his 4 extra-base hits were also a career high. His 10 total bases matched the team season high recorded by Justin Upton in April. Since returning from the jaw injury suffered in New York, Heyward has hit .308 going 8-for-26 with 3 double, 1 homer, 3 walks and an RBI. When playing center, Heyward has hit .290 with 4 doubles, 3 homers and 10 RBI (versus .250 as a right fielder). In the lead off spot this season, Heyward has hit .333, going 38-for-114 with 9 doubles, 6 homers and 16 RBIs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see J-Hey in the lead off spot every game of the NLDS and in center field to start with B.J. Upton as a defensive replacement possibly.

    As it is currently scheduled, the Braves will begin NLDS play on TBS on Thursday in Atlanta with game 2 Friday night before the teams travel to L.A. for a Sunday game. Currently no times have been posted for these games.

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.

    Braves are NL East champs

    It may have taken a few extra games and a little help from the Miami Marlins, but as Craig Kimbrel struck out his third batter to close out Sunday’s game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the Atlanta Braves became the champions of the National League East for the first time since 2005. According the Major League Baseball, the Braves since joining the NL East for the 1994 season, have the second best winning percentage (.576) in baseball.

    Brian McCann is the only remaining position player from the NL East champion 2005 Atlanta Braves.

    Brian McCann is the only remaining position player from the NL East champion 2005 Atlanta Braves.

    Much has changed since that 2005 team clinched the NL East. The only remaining players on the roster from that team are veteran Tim Hudson and soon-to-be free agent Brian McCann (then a rookie). In 2005, current manager Fredi Gonzalez was the bench coach for the great Bobby Cox. Also on that roster, as a player, was current bullpen coach Eddie Perez. John Smoltz, Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones played on that 2005 team, as did Andruw Jones and Adam LaRoche. But that team would lose the NLDS in a heartbreaking 4th game that lasted 18 innings, nearly 6 hours at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

    The 2013 team has similarities to the last team to win the NL East. It is stacked with impressive young rookies including Alex Wood, Julio Teheran, David Hale, David Carpenter, Evan Gattis, Joey Terdoslavich and Jose Constanza. Only time will tell if they have successful careers ahead of them like the rookies of 2005, guys like McCann, Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson, Brayan Pena and Kyle Davies. The 2013 team has a dynamic young shortstop in Andrelton Simmons, not unlike the shortstop on that 2005 team–Rafael Furcal. The 2005 Atlanta Braves had an MVP candidate in Andruw Jones and the 2013 Braves could presumably be given multiple MVP votes with Freeman, Chris Johnson and Simmons all contending. In 2005, Andruw Jones won a Gold Glove in the outfield. In 2013, it’s plausible that Heyward, Freeman and Simmons all win hardware. It will be a travesty if the latter does not. There is also the possibility that either Kris Medlen or Julio Teheran win the Gold Glove for their incredible defense while on the mound. In 2005, only Andruw Jones won a Silver Slugger award. In 2013, Freeman and Johnson certainly stand a chance of winning the award.

    Though the 2005 and 2013 clubs have their similarities, there are differences between the teams that bode well for the postseason chances of the current club.

    The 2013 Atlanta Braves have weathered more than their share of adversity. When you consider that at season’s start, the Braves had a healthy Jonny Venters, Eric O’Flaherty, Tim Hudson and anticipated getting back young ace Brandon Beachy, it is stunning that their postseason hopes were able to survive those losses alone. Then consider the talent that has spent quality time on the disabled list this season. Brian McCann began the season on the disabled list. Outfielders Reed Johnson, Jason Heyward, Jordan Schafer, Evan Gattis, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton all had stints, some of them multiple stints, on the DL. The Braves lost Ramiro Pena, Tyler Pastornicky and Cristhian Martinez during the year to season-ending surgeries. Dan Uggla and Paul Maholm were the most recent DL-destined players. And the bullpen was mired with injuries this season. Luis Ayala, Jordan Walden and Scott Downs all suffered injuries. Any other team would have crumbled with this luck, but not the 2013 Braves. In fact, they seemed to thrive amidst the adversity.

    Injuries were not the only battle the Braves waged throughout the season. The huge signings of the Upton brothers didn’t bring the results everyone expected, but in the place of big numbers from Justin and B.J., other players (like “throw-in” Chris Johnson) stepped up in big ways. Two starters for the Braves will finish the season below .200, B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Even rookie pitcher Julio Teheran has a higher batting average than Upton and Uggla. Perinneal all-star and silver slugger Brian McCann will finish the season lower than expectations around .261. Despite his hot start to the season, Evan Gattis will finish the regular season around the .233 mark. And Jason Heyward, who has always been touted as a player who should be able to hit for average, will end up around the .250 mark. But in the face of these unusual numbers and below average seasons, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson, MVP contenders, will finish above .300 at around .314 and .330, respectively.

    SS Andrelton Simmons and RF Jason Heyward

    SS Andrelton Simmons and RF Jason Heyward

    Going into the postseason there will be much talk about the youth of Braves’ pitching. Perhaps this, more than anything, will be where pundits and analysts say the Braves are not built for the playoffs. However, don’t count the pitching staff out. Go back up and read about the major blows to Braves’ pitching this season and then consider just how strong Atlanta’s pitching was despite huge losses to the staff. Alex Wood stepped up in a huge way when Paul Maholm went on the disabled list and Tim Hudson had his season ended on the first base bag in New York. Mike Minor has taken on a role not unlike that of most veterans with this young staff. And Kris Medlen, despite an upside down first half, has returned to the dominant pitcher we saw when he joined the starting rotation last season and set the baseball world aflame.

    Let’s not discount one other thing that bodes well for the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs: The 2012 Wild Card debacle and loss at Turner Field. Some may scoff at this, but for a team with little playoff experience collectively, that experience may turn out to be the thing that gets this team deep into the postseason. Their stunning loss to the Cardinals last year provided a group of young guys with all the experience that is necessary going into a postseason. When you suffer a loss like that one, it’s hard not to internalize what it felt like, how it went wrong and how it could have been avoided.

    With 7 games to play in the regular season, the Braves have one goal in mind: Home-field advantage via the best record in the National League. The Braves currently hold a 92-63 record going into a 3-game set against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cardinals currently have a 92-65 record in the NL Central and the Dodgers hold a 90-66 record in the NL West. The next 7 games are crucial to giving the Braves every possible advantage in a postseason that looks to be a dog fight.

    The pitching match-ups for the next 3 games: Monday will feature Estrada (6-4, 4.26) vs. Minor (13-7, 3.19); Tuesday will pit Thornburg (3-1, 1.96) vs. Garcia (1-2, 1.31.); and, the series finale and final regular season game at the Ted will feature Lohse (10-10, 3.51) vs. Maholm (10-10, 4.44).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.