• NL Wild Card series

    AS EASY AS M-V-FREE! Braves First Baseman Caps Brilliant Season with Atlanta’s First MVP Honor Since 1999

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Many things come to mind when you mention the names Dale Murphy, Terry Pendleton and Chipper Jones. My first thought is how each was emblematic of the Atlanta Braves while wearing the uniform.

    Murphy, the kid from Oregon with the All-American boyish looks who became a star as the Braves won fans from coast-to-coast on the Superstation en route to the 1982 NL West title. Pendleton, the fiery sparkplug from Los Angeles who helped whip the youthful Braves into winners during the magical 1991 worst-to-first season. Jones, the boy from Florida possessing equal parts Southern cockiness and charm who anchored the franchise among baseball’s elite for most of two decades.

    A trio of Atlanta Braves, each a NL MVP award winner. Their exclusive club grew by one Thursday evening, and how fitting that they were joined by one who also is a symbol of the franchise.

    Freddie Freeman becomes the fourth Brave to win the honor since the franchise moved to Atlanta, the first since Jones in 1999 and joining Pendleton (1991) and Murphy (1982-83). His 2020 goes far beyond just the sparkly numbers compiled across the truncated 60-game regular season – the 1.102 OPS, the .341/.462/.640 slash line, the first two grand slams of his career.

    It transcends his postseason performance – the 13th-inning walkoff single against the Reds in Game 1 of the wild card series, the two homers against the Dodgers in the NLCS (a third robbed by MVP finalist Mookie Betts in Game 7 may have kept the Braves from reaching the World Series), the .903 OPS.

    It’s a season that wasn’t guaranteed given Freeman’s COVID-19 diagnosis, the news breaking on the Fourth of July as summer camp began at Truist Park. We all know the story of Freeman running a 104.5 degree fever, a husband and a father of a 3-year-old with twins on the way pondering his fate far beyond the diamond. And yet, 20 days later, there Freeman was, taking his hacks against his buddy Jacob deGrom on opening day at Citi Field.

    That’s the Freeman way. He’s always there. He was there as a rookie in 2010, belting his first big-league homer off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in Hall of Famer Bobby Cox’s final days as manager. He was there in 2011, squatting behind the first-base bag after grounding into a season-ending double-play in the 13th inning of Game 162. He was there in 2012, homering against the Marlins to send Atlanta to the playoffs, Jones standing famously on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Ten days later, the Braves season and Jones career ended.

    It’s been Freeman’s team ever since. Partly because of his brilliance – four top-10 finishes in MVP voting from 2012-19, five seasons hitting above .300, four All-Star appearances. Partly because he was the only position player to survive the Braves rebuild – as the franchise stripped it down to the studs, Freeman remained, a pillar around which Atlanta now has built a World Series championship contender.

    Now he joins that aforementioned trio of Braves royalty, linked not just by the MVP trophy, but by time. Murphy, traded to Philadelphia mere months before Pendleton signed as a free agent. Pendleton, who consoled Jones the night the rookie blew out his knee in spring training in 1994. Jones, sliding into the sunset after 2012 as Freeman began his ascension toward baseball stardom.

    That rise now includes the MVP trophy, and membership in an exclusive club of Braves legends.

    —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.

    RISE AND SHINE: Acuna Plunking Awakens Braves in Game 1 Victory

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – It took him about 10 seconds to race 270 feet, from a first base he occupied after wearing another fastball from another Marlins pitcher to a head-first slide at home plate.

    Safe at home, Ronald Acuna Jr. jumped up with a spin and gazed toward the third-base dugout at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Like somebody who leaps from bed as their snooze alarm goes off for the third time, the Braves outfielder might as well have told the opposition his team was awake.

    The Braves smashed their NL East rivals 9-5 in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, scoring eight unanswered runs after falling in an early 4-1 hole. Staff ace Max Fried stumbled for the first time this season, but Miami resorted to a tired tactic after Acuna’s leadoff homer in the first gave Atlanta a short-lived 1-0 advantage.

    Miami starter Sandy Alcantara buried a fastball in Acuna’s left hip, the fifth time Atlanta’s 22-year-old outfielder has worn one against Miami in three seasons.

    “He hit a long homer, and got hit by 97 (mph),” Braves manager Brian Snitker – choosing his words carefully – told reporters in his postgame press conference aired on MLB Network. “In that situation, if you’re going to go in there, you’ve got to make sure you don’t hit him.

    “It’s happening too much.”

    Slow Start, Fast Finish: The Braves trailed Game 1 of the NL Division Series 4-1 before scoring eight unanswered runs in Tuesday’s 9-5 victory.

    Leading 4-1 after touching Fried for one run in the second and three in the third, all the early momentum sat with the upstart Marlins, who are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. But there was a discernable shift in the tenor of the game after the HBP. And the Braves responded immediately, using back-to-back doubles by Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud to trim the deficit to a lone run.

    “Three-run lead, then give two runs right back,” Miami manager Don Mattingly told the media in his postgame comments, adding he did not think Alcantara intentionally hit the Braves young star. “We had the momentum.”

    But with one wayward inside pitch, it was gone. There is a time and place for everything. If Miami was trying to send some sort of message after Acuna became the youngest player in MLB history to lead off a first inning in a playoff game with a homer, it’s mind-boggling the Marlins would do it in this situation. Even with the recent history between the two division foes, there wasn’t anything leading into the series to foretell something would happen.

    (In case you’re wondering, the Braves host a four-game series against the Marlins on April 12-15, 2021. Mark your calendars accordingly.)

    Alcantara’s fastball may have been a sucker punch, but four innings later the Braves delivered the knockout blow for the game and, perhaps, the series. Honestly, it felt like just a matter of time once Acuna trotted to first base.

    The deficit stayed at one run thanks to two aspects of Atlanta’s game that’s been fantastic all season: its defense and its bullpen. Ozzie Albies made two sensational plays in a row in the fourth inning, and added a basket catch in short center field to open the fifth. Freddie Freeman ended the frame by diving to his right and snagging a Miguel Rojas chopper, flipping to Darren O’Day for the out.

    O’Day restored order after Fried scuffled through four innings (four runs allowed on six hits), needing only nine pitches in a scoreless inning. Tyler Matzek added another impressive frame to his postseason resume, striking out the side on 11 pitches in the sixth. Will Smith threw only eight pitches to sail through a clean seventh.

    Then the Braves offense, which scored just two runs in the first 20 innings of the Wild Card series against Cincinnati, exploded. It started with Austin Riley and Acuna recording singles to chase Alcantara, who otherwise kept the Braves in check with a high-90s fastball and nasty changeup. Ozuna and d’Arnaud came through after Yimi Garcia recorded an out, Ozuna’s single to left tying the game before d’Arnaud – who finished 3-for-3 with two walks and four RBIs – belted a 421-foot homer to dead center.

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

    d’Arnaud Doubt About It: Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud’s three-run homer in the seventh inning gave the Braves the lead for keeps in Game 1 of the NL Division Series Tuesday.

    “We just got it going,” d’Arnaud told Fox Sports 1 after the game. “No matter how far we’re down, we’re never out of it.”

    As d’Arnaud’s homer sailed over the fence, Acuna jumped out of the far end of the dugout, waving a white towel in his right hand. Ozuna and Riley raised their arms in celebration. d’Arnaud turned toward the dugout after rounding first base, doing the Braves patented mix-it-up hand gesture. There would be another faux selfie in the dugout upon his return and, two hitters later, Dansby Swanson launched a two-run shot to push the Braves lead to 9-4.

    Perhaps by that point, Miami needed to wave something white. Through the first 2 ½ innings, the Marlins looked like they belonged on the postseason stage. Then they did something an underdog absolutely cannot do:

    Wake up the favorite.

    “Our focus remains on winning and moving forward,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    The Braves have won three playoff games in a seven-day span, matching their win total from the past six years. They look every bit the favorite now in this series, and odds are they won’t need another wakeup call.

    —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.

    NLDS Preview: Braves Winning Playoff Series Will Pay Dividends Now and In the Future

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Marcell Ozuna paused halfway down the first-base line, raised his left arm in the air and clicked his now-famous faux selfie. In the background, his teammates in the Atlanta Braves dugout began celebrating in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 5-0 victory over Cincinnati, as the Braves clinched the best-of-three NL Wild Card series in a two-game sweep.

    By now you’ve seen the picture that signified the moment for many fans that Atlanta safely was on its way into the next round of the NL postseason. And they were right, the Braves shedding the baggage of playoff futility the franchise had lugged around for 19 years with consecutive shutout victories to earn a trip to the NL Division Series against Miami in Houston.

    Strike a Pose: MLB Network breaks down Marcell Ozuna’s selfie in Game 2 of the NL Wild Card series against Cincinnati.

    A bit of irony in Atlanta’s home for the next week: the last time Atlanta advanced in the postseason was 2001 with a three-game sweep of the NLDS over the Astros (then residents of the NL) – the first two victories coming at what is now known as Minute Maid Park. And while it’s true nobody on this year’s roster played in that clinching game so long ago, there remains plenty of significance in the Braves moving on in the bracket that goes beyond this expanded 2020 playoffs.

    At some point in time, the Braves had to learn how to finish off an opponent in October to reach their ultimate goal of winning the World Series. It sounds like such a common-sense, “well, duh” statement, but it’s true. And beating a team in a three-game series in June and ending someone’s season in the 10th month of the year are two totally different things. The playoffs and regular season are two different beasts altogether. Ask any player who has been to the postseason. Ask any fan who has attended a postseason game, even though this year’s version has been played with no fans in attendance.

    It’s just different.

    They might not admit it publicly, but it’s safe to assume the Braves have thought about the nightmare of last season’s NLDS choke against the Cardinals for nearly a full calendar year. Game 1 of the Marlins series is Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of Atlanta’s stunning Game 3 victory at St. Louis that put the Braves up 2-1 in the series. Poised to end the playoff drought at 18 years, the Braves instead squandered tons of opportunities in Game 4 before being flattened by a first-inning freight train in Game 5.

    There certainly have been outliers in this unimaginable season, but push that aside for a minute. The Braves now have taken a necessary next step. Manager Brian Snitker talked postgame Thursday about how his team had “checked a box” by knocking out the Reds, but it’s also true his team checked a box for itself by just winning a series.

    Now it’s on to Houston to face the Marlins (just as we all drew it up in February). A victory in the NLDS will push Atlanta into the NL championship series for the first time since 2001, and move it just four victories from its first World Series berth since 1999. Let’s not jump too far ahead of ourselves. The Marlins did manage to beat the Braves four times in 10 tries this season, and either the vaunted Dodgers or the emergent Padres will await if Atlanta beats its NL East brethren.

    Next Up: Braves reliever Will Smith, manager Brian Snitker, and reliever Josh Tomlin talk about this week’s NL Division Series against Miami in Houston.

    All championship teams experience watershed moments en route to the summit. The Braves crashed the postseason party two autumns ago – earlier than most of us expected – and received their playoff baptism in a series loss to the far-superior Dodgers. Last year’s defeat stung far, far worse, given how it happened. But credit Atlanta for finding a way to punch its ticket at least once this October.

    These Braves now know what it’s like to be the one advancing after a playoff series, and not cleaning out their lockers.

    It’s an experience they hope to replicate this week, and in autumns to come.

    Coming Monday: Five keys to the Braves/Marlins series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    POSTSEASON PARADISE! Braves End 19-Year Playoff Drought with Sweep of Reds

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nineteen years. Six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-nine days. Two hundred and twenty-seven months, plus 20 days for good measure.

    Finally, it’s over.

    Finally, Lucy didn’t pull the football away from Charlie Brown.

    Finally, at long and blessed last, the nearly two-decade postseason drought for the Atlanta Braves – a stretch that has defined their recent history – is just that:

    History.

    The Braves have won a postseason series for the first time since 2001, finishing a two-game sweep of Cincinnati on Thursday in the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. Time to head west to Houston for the NL bubble and a date with either the Cubs or the Marlins in the best-of-five NL Division Series. The winner plays for the pennant and a trip to the World Series.

    “I told them we’ve just checked a box off of what we want to get done,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, adding that the mood in the clubhouse was, “controlled chaos.”

    There was plenty of emotion and elation oozing from all corners of Braves Country, and it certainly was understandable … and overdue. Consider that social media did not exist when the Braves capped a three-game NLDS sweep of Houston on Oct. 12, 2001. To put it another way: the last time this franchise won a playoff series was 341 days before I became a father and 701 days before my second child was born.

    My kids are now in their senior and junior years of high school, and for the first time in their lives have experienced the Braves winning a postseason series. So excuse us if we celebrate this with the fervor of a pennant and World Series trip.

    It’s been a minute.

    Streak Buster: Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall homered in the eighth inning Thursday as the Braves finished a two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series, the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001.

    Atlanta won this series in a far, far different manner than most people expected leading into the start of the expanded 16-team playoffs. The Braves cranked out runs at a staggering pace all season, leading the majors in OBP and finishing second in runs and homers. One figured that prolific offense would have to lead the way. Had you told someone Monday the Braves would score a whopping two runs in the first 20 innings of the series, odds are they would think the season – and not the postseason futility streak – would be ending.

    In front of Braves family members and a few thousand cardboard cutouts in an otherwise empty Truist Park, Atlanta hitters spent plenty of time taking right turns and heading back to the first-base dugout after striking out. One day after fanning 21 times in Game 1, the Braves struck out 14 times in the second game.

    Certainly, there is credit due to Cincinnati’s pitching. Remember, the Reds featured arguably the best rotation among all postseason qualifiers, fronted by Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo in the first two games. That pitching was more than enough to sway many national prognosticators to pick seventh-seeded Cincinnati in the opening round.

    Somebody forgot to tell Max Fried and Ian Anderson they were supposed to play second fiddle, though. One day after Fried spun seven shutout innings to set the tone in Atlanta’s 1-0, 13-inning triumph, it was the 22-year-old Anderson who grabbed control Thursday. The Braves first-round pick in 2016 displayed poise and composure during his first six major-league starts, then took it to another level in his playoff debut.

    Anderson wiggled out of a mess in a 34-pitch second inning – prolonged by Ozzie Albies’ inability to cleanly turn a double play and several questionable ball/strike calls by home plate umpire Marty Foster. Otherwise he was unflappable, finishing with nine strikeouts and just two hits allowed across six innings.

    “This whole time coming up and making an impact, throwing the ball well,” Anderson told Fox Sports Southeast postgame. “It’s been a blast.”

    For the Reds, it was anything but. Much was made of Cincinnati’s pedestrian offense entering the series, but nobody foresaw Cincinnati’s futility in the batter’s box: zero runs in 22 innings. The Braves bullpen shined brightly, dodging disaster in extra innings Wednesday before three quiet innings in the clincher. Fried and Anderson, who each made their first career postseason starts in the series, combined to surrender eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

    Unlike Fried, Anderson left the game with the lead.

    Ronald Acuna Jr., one of few Atlanta offensive bright spots in last season’s NLDS defeat to St. Louis, collected one of six Braves hits in Game 1. His two-out double to left-center in the fifth off Castillo chased home Austin Riley with Game 2’s first run, Acuna finishing as the first Braves player to collect three hits with a stolen base in a playoff game since Andruw Jones in 2004.

    Moving On: Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the media after Atlanta’s two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series Thursday.

    The Braves offense was too good to lay dormant for too long. They broke through with four big insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, getting a pair of two-run homers from Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. Both sluggers struggled in the series, but provided the breathing room the Braves and their fans desperately craved after the drama and tension of the series to that point.

    Ozuna – who led the NL with 18 homers in the regular season – told his teammates he had a celebration in mind if he launched one in the series. As his blast traveled toward the left-field seats in the eighth, he paused briefly for a selfie with an imaginary camera halfway down the first-base line. Ozuna repeated the move in the dugout as his teammates surrounded him.

    “We all celebrate as one,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    And it’s an occasion worth celebrating. Because for the first time since the early days of this century, a Braves playoff run isn’t one-and-done.

    —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.

    FREE IN 13! Braves Outlast Reds in Classic Game 1, Sit One Win from NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Pardon me if it takes a minute to gather my thoughts. I’ve been watching and writing about the teams from here for a long time.

    So take it from me: Atlanta teams aren’t accustomed to winning this type of game.

    Certainly not in the postseason.

    Yet there the Braves were Wednesday, four hours and 39 minutes into a tight, tense scoreless fight with Cincinnati in Game 1 of the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. At some point, the urgency of jumping to a lead in the rapid-fire best-of-three series with two rookies slated to start the next two days faded into a blur of strikeouts, history, stranded runners until, finally, a soft single to center from the probable NL most valuable player ended the stalemate.

    Freddie Freeman flicked a 1-2 pitch from Amir Garrett over the second base bag, chasing home top prospect and pinch runner Cristian Pache to give the Braves a 1-0 victory in 13 agonizing, nerve-jangling, life-shortening innings. What happened between Max Fried’s first pitch at 12:08 p.m. ET and Pache becoming the first – and only – player to touch home plate on this day was thrilling.

    And torturous. At some point, I imagine even the most loyal Braves fan looked skyward and said out loud, “in what macabre way will we lose this one?”

    Not on this day, though! For once, a team based in Georgia’s capital city managed to avoid the type of crushing, soul-stealing heartbreak that fans in this part of the world not only expect, but accept as a birthright. Like closing school for one inch of snow, sweet tea at every restaurant, and a non-stop countdown to the start of SEC football, devastating postseason losses are our thing. Just ask the Hawks, the Bulldogs, and of course, the Falcons.

    But not on this day. And how the Braves managed to reach sundown with two shots to win a playoff series for the first time in 19 years is a story that will be told for a long, long time. Asked to try and put the series opener into some semblance of perspective, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker chucked.

    “I don’t know if we’ve got enough time,” he told reporters.

    Captain Clutch: Freddie Freeman delivered the RBI single in the 13th inning that lifted the Braves to a 1-0 victory over Cincinnati and a 1-0 lead in the NL Wild Card series Wednesday.

    Just consider the first glance at the box score: 12 ½ scoreless innings, the longest 0-0 contest in MLB postseason history. The two teams combined for 37 strikeouts, another playoff record. The mere fact the Atlanta offense, which led the majors in OBP this season, whiffed 21 times and still won the game is mind blowing. The Braves finished with all of six hits, three coming in a 13th inning that turned up lucky for Atlanta at long last.

    Honestly, the Reds weren’t much better offensively despite recording 11 hits. Cincinnati hitters struck out 16 times, and finished 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position with 13 left on base. Time and time again, the Reds put pressure on the Braves bullpen, a relief corps completely remade in the past 14 months.

    Consider this for a moment: the closer on July 30, 2019 was Luke Jackson. Wednesday, he was left off the playoff roster.

    Snitker gets plenty of criticism (some of it well deserved) for bullpen management, but he made all the right moves in Game 1. The guys he called upon responded, even if they walked a tightrope to get to the other side of the canyon. Darren O’Day gave up a double and issued two walks in the 11th. Tyler Matzek kept it scoreless, striking out Mike Moustakas to end the threat, then whiffed the side in the 12th after allowing consecutive singles.

    In the 13th, Shane Greene gave up two singles and threw a wild pitch. A.J. Minter came on and walked Moustakas to load the bases before a strikeout and groundout got the Braves out of trouble again. Somehow, someway, the bullpen avoided the wrong steps that so often have plagued this franchise in postseasons past.

    As the strikeouts in the scorebook and zeros on the scoreboard piled up, it became easy to forget the two pitchers who set us down this path. Cincinnati starter Trevor Bauer backed up his big talk with a command performance, striking out 12 with no walks and two hits allowed in 7 2/3 innings. The Braves handed the ball to Fried for his first postseason start – I mean, who else was going to start the opener – and the lefty responded with five strikeouts and no walks in seven shutout frames.

    Fried found himself in a jam right off the bat as Cincinnati opened the game with back-to-back singles. But as soon as Braves fans immediately started recoiling at the thought of another awful opening inning in a home playoff game, the 26-year-old induced two groundouts and a flyout to set the tone. Fried threw 53 of his 78 pitches for strikes across seven innings – one more than he pitched the final three weeks of the regular season – then sat back and watched the madness unfold like the rest of us.

    Pair of Aces: Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer and Atlanta’s Max Fried put on a show in Game 1 of the NL Wild Card series Wednesday.

    “It was so much fun to watch,” Fried told reporters postgame.

    It was a demoralizing loss for the Reds, but don’t expect any Atlanta fan to gloat too soon. There’s at least one, and perhaps two, games left to play in this series. But Game 2 and (if needed) Game 3 will have a hard time living up to the opener.

    It was the type of game Atlanta teams just don’t win.

    It was a game the Braves won anyway.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Red October Beckons as Braves Aim to Overcome Annual Autumn Stumble

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Alex Anthopoulos cut his teeth on National League baseball, growing up outside of Montreal as an Expos fan before beginning the long journey to his current role as Braves general manager. And even though he found success as GM of the Blue Jays, he remained rooted in baseball played the Senior Circuit way: without a designated hitter.

    Suffice to say Anthopoulos has experienced a change of heart as the Braves prepare for Wednesday’s National League Wild Card series opener against Cincinnati. Thank Marcell Ozuna for that, the former Marlins and Cardinals slugger helping Atlanta deploy arguably its most powerful lineup in years by logging substantial time at DH – in the first season the extra hitter has been used in the NL.

    “I’ve enjoyed the lineup this season with the DH,” Anthopoulos admitted during an interview Monday evening on the Braves Postseason Preview Show on the team’s flagship station, The Fan 680 and 93.7 FM. “Having lived through it, I’ve enjoyed the DH quite a bit.”

    That potent batting order lifted Atlanta to its third consecutive NL East championship and into the expanded 16-team playoff field. It’s a lineup Braves fans hope will lift the franchise to its first playoff series triumph in 19 years. Yes, 2001 hangs around the neck of this fanbase like an anchor.

    So naturally, the Reds arrive at Truist Park with arguably the strongest three-man starting rotation in the tournament. It’s a reason many national prognosticators are selecting seventh seed Cincinnati over the second-seeded Braves, even though Atlanta’s offense led the majors in OPS (.832) and finished second in average (.268), homers (103) and runs scored (348).

    The old baseball mantra says good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Will that hold true in a frantic opening round of a postseason like no other? We’re about to find out.

    Five Keys to the Series

    As Easy As 1-2-3: Let’s cut right to the chase, and you’re not going to like it if you’re a Braves fan. Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray could tilt this series decisively in Cincinnati’s favor. The three Reds starters are that good. It starts with Bauer, the NL Cy Young frontrunner and one who never shies away from saying what’s on his mind. Consider his response to a question from WSB-TV (Atlanta’s ABC affiliate) sports director Zach Klein during Monday’s media availability.

    Too Shy? Not I: Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati’s Game 1 starter, speaks to the media Monday.

    Bauer gets plenty of attention for his openness – remember his assessment of Braves hitters’ approach after an April 2019 start in Cleveland – but the dude can pitch. He led the NL in ERA (1.73), WHIP (0.79), opponents batting average (.159) and hits per nine innings (5.06) this season. Castillo features a changeup that is one of baseball’s nastiest pitches, and he’s a huge reason why I expect this series to go the distance. Castillo led the NL with four wins in September while finishing the month with a 2.20 ERA and .190 opponents average. Gray has revitalized his career after reuniting with his college pitching coach from Vanderbilt, Derek Johnson. The three have driven the Reds staff to 9.5 fWAR this season, third in the majors.

    Feeling Right Against Right-Handers … and Lefties, too: Now for some good news, as all three starters the Braves will see in this series are righties, and that bodes well for one of baseball’s most fearsome lineups. Atlanta hitters slashed .273/.354/.498 for an .852 OPS against right-handed pitchers this season. Regardless of which batter’s box they use, Braves hitters put up a historic season. Atlanta’s OPS is the highest in franchise history during the modern era, the Braves went 31-10 when scoring four or more runs, and led the big leagues by scoring 10 or more runs in 10 games.

    29 Feels Fine: The Braves offense mashed all season, scoring a NL-record 29 runs in a Sept. 9 rout of Miami.

    The top three in Atlanta’s lineup – Ronald Acuna Jr., MVP frontrunner Freddie Freeman, and Ozuna – garner plenty of well-deserved attention, but the rest of the Braves lineup must produce to beat the type of pitching they will face this week. Former Reds outfielder Adam Duvall hit 11 of his 16 homers in September, including a pair of three-homer performances. Ozzie Albies has exceled since returning from the injured list with 25 hits in 18 games to end the season. Travis d’Arnaud finished his first season in Atlanta with a career-best .321/.386/.533 slash line.

    From Boys to Men, Quickly: Mike Soroka isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Cole Hamels, or Felix Hernandez, or Mike Foltynewicz. Instead, after Max Fried looks to extend his brilliant regular season into Game 1, the Braves will turn to rookie Ian Anderson in Game 2 and, if the decisive third game is required Friday, will hand the ball to Kyle Wright. Anderson and Wright have combined to pitch 87 career innings across 18 starts in the majors. The Braves and their fanbase have put a ton of hope into their young arms during and since the rebuild; that faith will be tested this week like never before.

    Anderson must remain poised and aggressive Thursday. The 22-year-old has shown the ability and aptitude to throw his changeup in any count, and he wasn’t fazed by facing Gerrit Cole and the Yankees in his debut, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Wright’s road has been substantially bumpier, but the Vanderbilt product (who would face a fellow Commodore in Gray on Friday) limited opponents to a .164 average while pitching to a 2.37 ERA in his final three starts.

    Sparkling Start: Ian Anderson no-hit the Yankees into the sixth inning in his major-league debut Aug. 26.

    Need Relief? Advantage, Atlanta: The Braves poured plenty into their relief corps starting at last season’s trade deadline and continued that effort in the offseason. It paid off bigtime, as Atlanta relievers pitched to a 3.50 ERA and 1.280 WHIP. That includes several arms who will not be on the playoff roster. The nine relievers I mentioned in Monday’s roster post as locks for the series, plus Chris Martin (who was cleared to join the roster Tuesday), combined to strike out 240 hitters in 226 innings while posting a 2.26 ERA and 1.101 WHIP. The Reds feature several power arms at the back end of their pen, but overall their relievers have a 4.53 ERA and .709 OPS.

    Whether it’s a Braves starter or reliever, they will face a Cincinnati offense that has offered up a bunch of all or nothing this season. The Reds finished last in the majors in average (.212), 27th in runs scored (243) and 24th in OBP (.312), but slugged 90 homers (seventh). Cincinnati joins the 1906 White Sox and 2007 Diamondbacks as the only teams in MLB history to finish last in average and still reach the postseason.

    Redemption: Nobody needs to give Atlanta any motivation after the Braves choked away last season’s NL Division Series against St. Louis. Naysayers will remain until the franchise actually wins a playoff series. If the core of this team is indeed going to win a World Series someday, it’d be well served to finally get over the playoff hump.

    Cincinnati hasn’t graced the postseason since 2013, and four weeks ago were one of baseball’s biggest disappointments. Following an active offseason Cincinnati struggled to find its footing, waking up on Sept. 9 six games under .500 and 6 ½ games out in the NL Central. Then the Reds got hot, closing the regular season with 13 wins in 18 games.

    The X-Factors: First and Foremost

    Freeman has enjoyed an MVP-worthy season, the 31-year-old recovering from COVID-19 over the summer to hit 13 homers with 53 RBIs and career highs in average (.341), OBP (.462) and slugging percentage (.640). Baseball’s leader in fWAR at 3.3, Freeman looks to make amends for a miserable 2019 postseason during which he went 4-for-20.

    Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto is a decade removed from an MVP-winning season, and he hit a career-low .226 in 54 games this season. But the 37-year-old belted 11 homers – a 33-homer pace across a full season after combining for 27 longballs in 287 games across the past two years. Votto has not played in the postseason since 2013, going hitless in the Reds wild-card game loss to Pittsburgh.

    Ready to Rumble: Reds first baseman Joey Votto is full of confidence entering the series.

    The Difference

    Ozuna played a huge role in the Braves losing last season’s NL Division Series, going 9-for-21 with three doubles, two homers, five RBIs and six runs scored as the Cardinals upended Atlanta in five games. He signed a one-year deal in January, days after Josh Donaldson inked a four-year deal with Minnesota. Many worried the offensive production wouldn’t be there.

    All Ozuna did was put together a top-five MVP season, leading the NL in homers (18) and RBIs (56) while finishing third in average (.338).

    “He’s had such a positive influence,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said on 680 and 93.7 FM Monday evening. “With the energy he brings, how he approaches the game, how he loves to compete. He’s as good an addition to the Atlanta Braves in as long as I can remember.”

    Ozuna’s regular season was memorable. The feeling here is his postseason will be, too. Like last October, Ozuna will excel but, this time, it will be for Atlanta and not against it. And in a series that’s a coin flip, Ozuna’s presence will make the coin land on the Braves side for the first time in nearly two decades.

    The Pick

    Braves in 3.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NL Wild Card series game, starting Wednesday evening.

    —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.