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    CAPTURE THE FLAG! BRAVES SWEEP, HEAD TO NLCS FOR FIRST TIME SINCE 2001

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They didn’t know if there even would be a season. Their best player missed most of summer camp with COVID-19. Their starting pitching rotation fell apart.

    None of it stopped the Atlanta Braves.

    The Braves put the Miami Marlins out of their misery and ended a sweep of the NL Division Series emphatically and mercilessly, winning 7-0 in Game 3 on Thursday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For the first time since 2001, the Braves are heading to the NL Championship Series, beginning Monday against either the Dodgers or Padres in Arlington, Texas.

    Say it out loud. Go ahead, Braves Country, you’ve certainly earned the right to shout it from the mountaintop after all the heartache, the close calls, the near misses across the past two decades.

    The Braves are four wins from the pennant!

    The Braves are four wins from the World Series!

    “Coming from where we were five years ago to where we are at now, it’s a complete 180,” first baseman Freddie Freeman – the only holdover from all four years of Atlanta’s rebuild from 2014-17, and who was stricken with the coronavirus in early July – told Fox Sports 1 postgame. “For us to be in this situation is absolutely incredible.

    “We finally got past the NLDS.”

    The Ride Continues: The Braves head to the NLCS for the first time in 19 years after Thursday’s 7-0 victory over Miami to cap a NLDS sweep.

    There would be no other shoe to drop this time, no agonizing end to this magical 2020 season that will roll on for at least four more games. Two seasons after crashing the playoff party and 12 months after giving away the NLDS, Atlanta has won two playoff series in an eight-day span – after not winning one for 19 years.

    And who’s to say it stops there? Sure, Los Angeles or San Diego will present a tougher challenge than the Reds or Marlins. But the Braves look every bit ready for this moment, and the backdrop of the environment in which his team reached this point wasn’t lost on manager Brian Snitker postgame.

    “This has been a tough time for all of us, in our sport, our world, our city, our fanbase,” Snitker said during media availability. “I love the fact we can give those people something to look forward to and watch.”

    Not many expected to still be watching the Braves a week into October. The chorus near and far rang loud throughout the 60-game sprint to this postseason: the Braves just didn’t have the starting pitching to go far. And that was fair, given how the projected rotation outside of Max Fried disappeared due to injuries and underperformance.

    But the cursed manner of Braves starters turned into a huge blessing in disguise, because Ian Anderson (twice) and Kyle Wright (once) have owned the biggest moments of their young careers.

    Thursday was Wright’s turn. It didn’t start out well for the 25-year-old right-hander, but he bore down and found a way to wiggle out of trouble before the Braves slammed down the accelerator. In the first, Wright allowed back-to-back one-out singles before stranding both runners. The second started with Wright walking rookie Jazz Chisholm in his first postseason plate appearance, but two groundouts and a strikeout ended the inning.

    That was huge considering what happened in the top half of the frame. The Braves loaded the bases off Sixto Sanchez on a Travis d’Arnaud single and walks to Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson. Following an Adam Duvall strikeout, Nick Markakis’ sinking liner to left was snagged by Corey Dickerson and d’Arnaud didn’t try to score.

    The inning ended with Sanchez inducing an Austin Riley grounder to short. A missed opportunity, one that could have changed the game had Wright not stifled Miami after the Chisholm walk. A missed opportunity, one the Braves would regret if they didn’t get another chance.

    They did in the third and, as they’ve done all season, seized the moment.

    Marcell Ozuna singled home the game’s first run, followed by d’Arnaud – who finished 6-for-10 with two homers and tied a franchise record with seven RBIs in a postseason series – just missing his third homer in three days, a double off the wall in right-center chasing home Freeman and Ozuna for a 3-0 advantage. Albies then moved d’Arnaud to third and Swanson chased him home to make it 4-0.

    The Knockout Blow: The Braves scored four runs in the third inning to power a 7-0 victory and sweep of the NLDS.

    Wright made sure it stuck after the first two Marlins reached in the third, retiring 12 of the final 13 hitters he faced. Combined, the trio of Fried, Anderson and Wright held Miami to four runs on 12 hits (all the runs and half the hits surrendered by Fried, the staff ace) with three walks and 19 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings.

    After so many October disappointments, the Braves have smashed that narrative with a command performance through five games. Atlanta not only has yet to lose this postseason, it’s allowed runs in just three of 49 innings. Anderson and Wright are the first teammates in MLB history to pitch at least six shutout innings in their playoff debuts in the same postseason.

    Oh, and about the Marlins trying to get under the Braves skin by plunking Ronald Acuna in Game 1? It backfired, bigtime. From that moment – remember, Miami led the opener at that point 4-1 – Atlanta outscored the Marlins 17-1.

    Acuna took to Twitter postgame to send the Marlins a message, and the franchise he plays for added another couple of notches to this 2020 postseason vengeance tour. The Marlins upended the Braves in the 1997 NLCS, and Atlanta was eliminated from the 2005 NLDS at Minute Maid Park in an excruciating 18-inning defeat.

    All of that is history. This current band of Braves continues to make its own. Starting Monday, they will do something the franchise hasn’t done in nearly two decades:

    Play for the pennant and a trip to the Fall Classic.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: With Fingers Crossed, We Arrive at an Opening Day Like No Other

    Editor’s Note: Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis has missed just two Atlanta Braves home openers in the past 40 years. To him, Opening Day and the start of baseball season is when “life begins again.” He shares a very personal, emotional take on the start of this unprecedented 2020 season, the night before the Braves begin their 60-game campaign against the Mets in an empty Citi Field.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I walked outside my house Wednesday evening, needing to clear my head. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the searing temperature lowered somewhat by the torrential rainstorm that had rolled through a half-hour earlier.

    I strolled toward the front of my subdivision, leaving behind four people in my house, the four people I love more than anything on this planet. Three of the four have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. My mother has experienced her two best days since her diagnosis last week after a rough stretch; my two teenage sons have been asymptomatic so far, thankfully.

    A beautiful rainbow, its vibrant colors arching from north to south, stretched across the sky. I took it as a sign that the guilt I’ve felt in recent days and weeks about being excited for the Braves season opener Friday was unnecessary, that in trying to steer myself and my family through a time I never could have imagined, a breather was acceptable. It’s alright to desire something fun, something … normal.

    That it’s OK to feel like I usually do when baseball season approaches.

    I sat down on the curb, and I cried.

    ***

    I’ve attended every Braves home opener the past four decades, save two: 2002 and 2006 (we lived on the Georgia coast at the time; my wife was pregnant in 2002 and had a doctor’s appointment the day of the home opener, and I covered a high school game in 2006). But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve worked a single Opening Day since leaving the newspaper business 13 years ago, even when the Braves start on the road.

    Baseball is in my blood, has been from the time my eyes first gazed the green grass of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sept. 9, 1979, when I joined my grandfather and 2,780 of our closest friends for a 4-1 loss to the Padres, the 87th loss of a 66-94 campaign. The next spring I attended my first home opener in person, a 4-1 defeat to the Reds on April 17 that dropped the Braves to 0-7. Ever since, the start of baseball season has defined my school plans, work plans, social plans.

    When the Braves open on the road, I treat it as its own holiday, an extra date to count down toward through the chilly nights and cloudy days of winter. But as we’ve all learned, the cold of December and January pales in comparison to what we all have experienced in 2020. The coronavirus has killed well more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens and left millions of our neighbors without jobs. For some, the physical strain of surviving the virus and the mental toll of enduring these past five months will resonate for years. We’re also living through a transformative time in our nation, having difficult and long-overdue conversations about social injustice.

    Against that backdrop, it would seem something as frivolous as baseball shouldn’t even be a second thought. Why should we care who the fifth starter is when we have so many more important things to address? I get it, I really do. I quietly have wrestled with that in the past few weeks, and it’s been heavy.

    Then I think about my grandfather, that man who shocked his 6-year-old grandson on that second September Sunday nearly 41 years ago, taking me to my first Braves game. He’s been gone for 21 years, but “Pops” told me plenty of stories about life during World War II, including how important it was for baseball to continue while so many – from Ted Williams to Warren Spahn and both my grandfathers – battled in theaters across the globe.

    I always thought sports were an important part of helping us overcome adversity, but the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 resonated with 28-year-old me like no pass-down story or history lesson ever could. Sports came back after a week away, and when Mike Piazza homered in the first major-league game held in New York City after 9/11, for the Mets against the Braves no less, I cheered. It’s the only moment the Braves have played in my 47 years on this planet when my team lost and I didn’t care.

    New York needed that moment.

    America needed that moment.

    We all needed that moment.

    ***

    As we continue dealing with the virus, as our world spins on what feels like a warped axis, baseball coming back reminds us of a fundamental testament. When things really get bad – and it’s been bad for quite some time in 2020 – we do what we’ve always done. We pause. We weep. We mourn. We bow our heads. We catch our breath.

    And then, we move forward.

    Baseball is like that comfortable pair of jeans (although, after most of us have worked from home for months, those jeans probably don’t fit). It fills eight months of our annual 12-month journey around the sun, from guys showing up early in Florida and Arizona proclaiming they are in “the best shape of their lives,” to the daily cadence of the regular season, to the high drama and heart-stopping moments of October, until somebody lifts the World Series trophy. We follow the offseason news and, before you know it, mid-February arrives again. Players report to camp, the weather warms up soon thereafter, and the countdown toward Opening Day dwindles with each sunrise.

    The season begins and we fall into that regular rhythm like clockwork, turning on the TV or radio or firing up the stream come game time. The broadcasters for our favorite team are the soundtrack of our weekday evenings and weekend afternoons, always present whether we are sitting at home or out at the lake or attending a family reunion, excusing yourself from a conversation with Aunt Alice because it’s second and third with two outs in the eighth and a knock ties the game. It’s always-evolving fodder for your favorite publications, blogs, podcasts and talk shows.

    Baseball is the ultimate people sport. It’s a daily occurrence – 162 games in 187 days leads to a lot of conversations, be it on social media or through message boards or sitting together in the upper deck on a steamy July night. Some of those conversations lead to lifelong relationships; I know several married couples brought together not by blind dates or happenstance encounters or Tinder, but by baseball.

    ***

    It’s going to be different this season, but our world is a different place than it was just a few short months ago. I’ve attended around 80 Braves games the past two seasons, including three games at Wrigley Field, and five postseason games. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met at games, ended up hanging out with, with whom I’ve developed relationships. I’m thankful for each one of you and I miss seeing you in Lot 29, in The Battery, on the concourses and in the stands. Through baseball, I’ve met some of my closest friends in the world. After everything we’ve been through and will have to go through moving forward, I love and cherish every single one of you more than ever.

    In the perfect illustration of how different this season will be, while writing the initial draft of this post – a mere three hours after seeing the rainbow that brought tears to my eyes – my phone buzzed. My photo submission for a cardboard cutout to be placed at Truist Park this season was accepted, and my credit card was charged.

    I couldn’t help but laugh. In a crazy way, it made me feel just a little bit better about starting this season. In the past couple of days, I’ve realized it’s OK to feel heavy about playing a baseball season in a pandemic. It’s OK to question if we should be doing this. It’s OK to worry we won’t make it to the end of the season before something happens that shuts down baseball again.

    And now, after a mentally draining 10 days or so, I realize it’s OK to embrace this. It’s OK to get invested, to take those three hours a night to unplug from the real world and get lost in something that means so much to so many of us. Get upset with a blown lead in the eighth. Jump off your couch when a game-winning hit happens. Respectfully debate bullpen management and lineup construction on social media.

    To do what we always have done: ride the ebb and flow of a baseball season, regardless if it’s 60 games or 162.

    There will be plenty of moments when we will have to embrace the weird because, heck, what else are we going to do? While baseball is timeliness, each season is its own interesting microcosm. Some years, your team wins 72 when it should have won 81. Some years, your team wins 91 when it should have won 82. That’s baseball.

    And it’s back.

    When the 2018 Braves stunningly roared to the NL East title, the team’s marketing folks rolled out a social media hashtag for the NLDS against the Dodgers: #ForEachOther. It fits now more than ever. We wondered if we would get to this point, but here we are: live, regular season Major League Baseball is on my TV, and the Braves play a meaningful game in less than 24 hours.

    I’m ready for life to begin again. It’s Opening Day. After all we’ve been through, there’s just one thing left to say:

    Play ball.

    —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.

    Questions Abound As Braves Leave Town

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

    Under .500.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How concerned are you about Mike Foltynewicz?

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

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

    Is the offense better than you thought?

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

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

    Swanson? Sustainable? Or just a hot start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What needs to happen this month?

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Braves Drawing Attention from Near and Far

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    AUSTIN, Texas – There are moments when, in the midst of transitioning from rebuilding to contending, something happens that illustrates the shift in fortunes is grabbing attention.

    For me, it occurred some 965 miles west of SunTrust Park earlier this week.

    On a business trip to Austin, I strolled into the lounge at my hotel Monday night after arriving a few hours earlier. Relieved of deadline and work activities on arrival day, I grabbed a seat at the bar and looked forward to some quiet time while watching the NCAA Super Regionals. I ordered dinner and a beverage, and upon delivering my food, the bartender noticed my Braves shirt and hat.

    “You have one heckuva baseball team there,” he said, which sparked a conversation that lasted more than an hour. In that time, between bites of food and sips of Austin amber brew – which, for the record, really is good – I learned from the bartender and a couple of waiters that while they still are riding the emotional wave of the Astros winning the World Series, they recognize what’s happening in North Georgia.

    The bartender, who appeared to be around my age, kept referencing the big arms that defined the Braves for the better part of two decades – Smoltz, Maddux, Glavine, Avery, Neagle, Millwood. But the difference is those references to yesteryear began to intertwine with comparisons to the present day.

    Foltynewicz. Newcomb. Soroka, Nearly 1,000 miles away from home, these folks rolled those names off the tip of their tongue at every opportunity.

    What to take from that conversation while bellied up to the bar on the second floor of the Intercontinental in downtown Austin?

    It shows just how far the Braves already have come.

    In the words of the older bartender – who obviously knows his stuff about ball, from mentioning Jeff Blauser to Charlie Leibrandt to, gasp, Dion James and Damaso Garcia – he’s watched the Braves a few times this season and summarized, “this team is about to burst through and ascend toward the top of the majors.”

    Walking out of SunTrust Park late Sunday afternoon – six days after that conversation – the Braves only had added more validation to this phenomenal surge. Atlanta wrapped up a 5-1 homestand by downing the Padres 4-1, as Julio Teheran returned from the disabled list with six no-hit innings.

    Here are the Braves, 13 games above .500 for the first time in five seasons, leaders of the National League East by 3 ½ games. Sample size bias? Nah, not now. Atlanta has played 71 games, nearly 44 percent of its schedule, and it sits on a 95-win pace with a favorable schedule.

    Back to Austin a few days ago. There were conversation tracks focused on Ozzie Albies, on Freddie Freeman, on Dansby Swanson and on Ronald Acuna. But the talking points kept coming back to pitching. And can you blame them? These folks watched Houston’s dominant rotation pave the way to a world title last fall that brought so much joy to this part of the world.

    To step away from the biased viewpoint of tweets and text messages, to hear folks I never had met before and may never meet again, hit on the same observations, leads me to realize that what the Braves are doing is resonating far beyond the borders of Braves Country. In this part of the world, the Astros endured a miserable rebuild that featured three consecutive seasons of 106-plus losses and finishes in the division of 40-plus games out of first.

    Houston’s win total jumped from 51 games in 2013 to 70 games in 2014, to 86 and 84 the following two seasons, then 101 wins and the world championship in 2017. A dynamic pitching staff with young star power aplenty has the Astros poised to compete deep into autumn for years to go.

    But they’re not the only team following such a blueprint. There’s another team, one based in Georgia’s capital city, that is on the rise. And people far from SunTrust Park are starting to take notice.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Want to know my take?

    Both are true.

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    In 11th hour trade, Braves send Kimbrel, Upton to Padres

    No, it isn’t April Fool’s Day. No, you read that headline correctly. With hours ’til Opening Day 2015, John Hart and the Braves’ front office pulled the lever sending closer Craig Kimbrel and outfielder Melvin Upton, Jr. (B.J.) to the San Diego Padres. In return, the Braves receive outfielders Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin, Padres’ 4th best prospect Matt Wisler (RHP), outfielder Jordan Paroubeck and the 41st pick in this year’s draft.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres' top prospect.

    The key piece in the trade is pitching prospect Matt Wisler (RHP) who was ranked by Baseball America as the Padres’ 4th best prospect.

    Let’s start with the good news: The Braves continue to rake in prospects. In what is now clearly a complete rebuild, Atlanta has brought in some of the best talent in the league and continue that with Matt Wisler. Wisler was ranked by Baseball America as the 4th best Padres prospect and at 22-years-old is knocking on the door of the big leagues after spending half of 2014 with Triple-A El Paso.

    In addition to Wisler, the Braves acquired another prospect in Jordan Paroubeck. An outfielder, Paroubeck is a switch hitter who made his debut last season in Rookie ball.

    The draft pick the Braves receive is an interesting addition to what has been a winter full of draft selection pick ups. They will now have 4 picks in the first 54 selections of the 2015 draft.

    The two big leaguers that the Braves acquired in this trade that are ready and capable of being placed on the field tomorrow are Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin. Speculation is that Quentin will be immediately DFA’d to make room on the roster and so that he can return to an AL team where his skill set is better suited. Quentin’s addition to the trade package evened out the financial sides. Cameron Maybin will be the extra outfielder the Braves had hoped to have on their Opening Day roster but simply didn’t have enough players for. With the absence of Cuban signee Toscano due to visa issues, the Braves had planned on taking the field tomorrow with one less outfielder and one extra pitcher. They will now place Maybin on the OD roster as a right-handed counter to Eric Young, Jr. in center field. The Braves will call up Brandon Cunniff to fill the vacated spot of Kimbrel.

    WHY THIS TRADE MAKES SENSE FOR ATLANTA…

    Though it’s hard to understand why a player like Kimbrel would be part of this trade package, especially after this winter John Hart said that Kimbrel was a piece he hoped to build the team around, there are financial upsides to this trade that will help the team as the opening of the SunTrust Stadium approaches.

    As the team’s all-time saves leader, Kimbrel has a place in Atlanta that will leave a hole for some time to come. His salary, however, will give the Braves opportunities to sign other players as they build for 2017. The Braves owed Kimbrel $33 million over the next 3 seasons. Additionally, they owed Melvin Upton, Jr. $46.35 million over that period from a deal that has turned out to be one of the worst in Atlanta’s history. Losing close to $80 million has a huge upside for a club with a sub-$100 million salary each season.

    In terms of what they pick up in salary, the Braves take on $11 million plus a 2016 buyout on Quentin and $16 million for 2 years of the services of Maybin.

    Keeping in mind that Upton would be starting the season on the disabled list, the Braves would be sending Eric Young, Jr. out to center field every day. While his defense is acceptable, his bat is not built for both right-handed and left-handed pitching. Adding Maybin gives the Braves flexibility in center as well as lineup options.

    In the offseason, the signings of Jim Johnson and Jason Grilli seemed to bolster the bullpen and create questions regarding what a team would do with essentially 3 closers. Now without Kimbrel, either Grilli or Johnson could slot in at closer. Both have worked in camp with Roger McDowell to get back to the form they were in when they were best with Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively.

    The Opening Day roster appears to be as follows for Atlanta: Pitchers Avilan, Cahill, Grilli, Jaime, Johnson, Martin, McKirahan, Miller, Outman, Stults, Teheran, Wood; catchers Bethancourt and Pierzynski; infielders Callaspo, Freeman, Gosselin, Johnson, Peterson, Simmons; outfielders Gomes, Johnson, Markakis, Maybin, Quentin, Young, Jr.

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

    J. Upton, Northcraft traded to Friars for 4 prospects

    In a much anticipated move, the Braves traded away slugger Justin Upton for a package of prospects. Friday the front office completed a 6-player trade with the San Diego Padres. Joining Upton in the trade to San Diego is Aaron Northcraft, minor league RHP prospect. In return from the Padres, the Braves receive much-touted prospect Max Fried (LHP), Jace Peterson (INF), Dustin Peterson (INF), and Mallex Smith (OF).

    northcraft

    Aaron Northcraft was ranked 14th among Braves’ prospects prior to the trade and won’t be in the top 20 prospects of the Padres’ organization.

    The headliner headed to San Diego is Justin Upton, of course. But the Padres also receive 24-year-old pitching prospect Aaron Northcraft. Northcraft had a rough 2014 season when he went from a pitcher with a 7-3 record and 2.88 ERA while at Double-A to an 0-7 pitcher with an elevated 6.54 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett. He never had the speed or power to be a piece of the Braves’ bullpen and given his struggles in AAA, he wasn’t projected to be a possibility for the rotation. While he could add depth eventually to the Padres’ young rotation, his loss isn’t one the Braves can’t absorb.

    In 2 seasons with the Braves, the 27-year-old Upton hit 27 and 29 home runs, some would say at the cost of 160+ strikeouts per year. His .263 and .270 averages came up short of the marks he tallied the previous 4 seasons in Arizona. His defense seemed to be down while in Atlanta, though that could arguably be due to the shadow of the greatest defensive right fielder in the league–Jason Heyward–to compare him to. While playing with his big brother B.J. didn’t seem to hurt or help his game, the opposite was true for B.J. There is always the possibility that B.J. might play better without his brother on the roster with him. Time will tell.

    Upton’s bat will be replaced in the lineup by the full-time bat of Evan Gattis, presumably. Gattis will man LF while rookie Bethancourt takes on the responsibility of being behind the plate full-time.

    BRAVES MOVE AHEAD IN PUSH FOR 2017 STADIUM OPENING…

    For fans who don’t quite grasp what the Braves are doing with their offseason moves, it is helpful to understand that in 2017 the Cobb County stadium (SunTrust Park) will open. This isn’t the type of fire sale that would see the team sell off their highest valued pieces for a load of young prospects to restock the farm. This is simply letting go of players that they would otherwise only have control of for a year before they left for free agency, the case with both Heyward and Upton. In return, the Braves may not be receiving pieces that are big-league ready (which is the case with all but Max Fried in the Padres trade), but they will be by 2017 when the team hopes to have a club that can not only only compete, but can win it all.

    That said, don’t count Atlanta out. Adding Shelby Miller makes for a young, talented rotation with Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, Alex Wood and possibly David Hale. Adding Nick Markakis gives the Braves’ lineup some pop, pop that will come with less strikeouts than the Braves’ OF has brought to the equation in the last 2 years. With the signing of Callaspo, the Braves add a sure hand that can provide leadership for the up and coming young players like Pastornicky, Gosselin and Perraza.

    Trading with the Padres brought 4 prospects to the club that will help in various ways with the current plan to build for a great 2017 run. Max Fried, the prospect most likely to break into the big leagues first, had Tommy John surgery near the end of the 2014 season. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Atlanta, however. Fried was the No. 7-overall pick in the 2012 draft by San Diego and with the TJ surgery behind him, he could prove to be similar to Alex Wood in his availability once healed. At 20-years-old, Fried had a successful 147 innings in Class A rookie ball this year before being shutdown with elbow soreness. He posted a 3.61 ERA in 38 appearances.

    With Fried come 3 fielders. Jace and Dustin Peterson, of no relation, are both infield prospects. Jace played 27 games with the Padres last season and Dustin was the second round pick of the Friars in 2013. Mallex Smith is the 3rd position player in the group and was drafted in 2012. He hit .327 in 55 games in A-ball in 2014. All 3 of the fielders are 24 or under.

    Going forward John Hart hasn’t ruled out additional trades, but he has suggested that they’ll “circle back” on free agents. For now and likely for the 2015 season, Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson will remain with the club.

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

    Braves skid through San Diego & Seattle

    If there are two teams in baseball that can truly understand what the Atlanta Braves are going through, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners can.

    The Padres have struggled their way through the 2014 season with terrible hitting. They are dead last in runs scored (363). As a team, they have the lowest batting average in either league (.225). At the trade deadline, the Padres traded away their most useful hitters (Headley and Denorfia) and let veteran closer Huston Street go to a division rival. However, the Padres long-term plan is much different from the plan of the Atlanta Braves. They aren’t looking to contend right now.

    The Mariners, like the Braves, have their eyes set on the postseason. Their hope is to steal the second Wild Card spot in the American League. To do that, there biggest struggle will be giving run support to their strong rotation and dominant bullpen. They are second to last in the American League in runs scored (432). If they hope to make it into October, they will have to show the consistency that both they and their recent opponent lack.

    At the trade deadline, Frank Wren made a great deal with the Chicago Cubs to bring versatile utility man Emilio Bonifacio and left handed reliever James Russell to the team. Those additions were meant to fill holes in the bullpen and on the bench. However, the Braves have a bigger issue: Consistency. After a strong first half, the usually consistent bat of Freddie Freeman has gone cold. The Uptons have been reliable only in their strikeout rate. While Johnson has shown signs of the hitter he was in his breakout 2013 season, he, Simmons and Gattis are under performing at the plate. The bright spot in the lineup has been none other than rookie Tommy La Stella. Their lack of ability to play to their potential has been no more apparent than on their recent 8-game losing skid.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Julio Teheran struggled against the Mariners allowing 9 hits, 6 earned runs & walking 2.

    Even the Atlanta Braves at their best would have faced a formidable foe in Felix Hernandez in Seattle. Having taken their struggling offense to Seattle, with one catastrophic defensive miscue, the Braves come away with 2 more losses and a great deal of frustration. They didn’t get much reprieve Wednesday against the resurgent veteran Chris Young who has put together a Comeback Player of the Year-caliber season thus far. It was simply poor luck that Julio Teheran didn’t have his best stuff when facing a team like the Mariners who are as prone to not supporting their starters as the Braves are.

    What the 8-game skid has made clear:

    • B.J. Upton deserves to be platooned in center field. Whether that be with Emilio Bonifacio or someone else, his presence in the lineup is only damaging to a team that struggles to score runs. Moving Upton to 8th in the order simply gives opposing teams the opportunity to get back-to-back strikeouts.
    • Andrelton Simmons is the lynchpin for the Braves. As Terry Pendleton calls him–The Reason. With Simmons’ sprained ankle in Seattle, the Atlanta front office held their breath knowing that Simmons cannot be replaced. Sure, Ramiro Pena, Tommy La Stella, Emilio Bonifacio (and numerous Triple-A players) could stand in for him, but his ability to prevent runs is second to none in baseball.
    • Tommy La Stella remains shaky on defense. While the Braves no longer send someone in as a defensive replacement for La Stella in the late innings, his bat may not continue to prove valuable enough to turn a blind eye to his defense. He’s young. He will improve. But the team is going to hold him responsible for failures like that in Seattle when he dropped a pop-up and likely cost them the game.
    • Jason Heyward can be one of the hottest hitters in baseball. When on a hot streak, there is no scarier player for opposing pitchers than Heyward. In the month of July, Heyward hit .309. In the first week of August he has hit .529 with 9 hits, 2 doubles, 1 triple and 1 RBI. In a week he has only had 4 strikeouts.

    BRAVES HOPE TO SNAP SKID AGAINST RIVALS…

    Getting back home may be just the thing the Braves need. Sometimes long road trips get into the heads of the players and getting home is the reset they need. Whether this pans out or not, we’ll see. There are things that have to happen to get the boys out of this rut.

    First, this constant shuffle of the lineup to make the bats come alive isn’t working. Playing with all of the pieces in motion has proven a disaster for Fredi Gonzalez and has to stop. Not having a DH will take away one option for Fredi. B.J. Upton isn’t going to give the Braves more in the 8-hole than in the 2-hole. With the absence of Simmons, a decision will have to be made about which guys from the bench can be the most beneficial to the offense. Is Pena the best option? If not Pena, where is Bonifacio best used–CF or SS? Those two positions are the two that Fredi should rightfully shuffle. What he can’t do is expect consistency from a team that has a different lineup everyday or are expected to perform different jobs each day. Consistency may need to start with Fredi on down.

    Welcoming the Nats to Turner Field bodes well for the Braves breaking this losing streak. The Braves have dominated the Nationals in head-to-head matchups over the last 2 seasons. But if the Braves can’t get past the Nationals, this weekend could push the Braves down in the standings and give the Nats the space they need to run away with the division.

    The Nationals acquired Matt Thornton for their often chaotic bullpen. Thornton, the holder of a 2.55 ERA, came over from the Yankees and shores up the ‘pen. At the trade deadline, the Nats picked up Asdrubel Cabrera from the Indians for an infield prospect. Cabrera gives the Nats a steady hand in the infield as well as a veteran bat to the lineup. The Nats hope this helps with the shortcomings of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa up the middle.

    Atlanta will once again face a Nationals team that is without Ryan Zimmermann who is currently on the DL with a hamstring injury.

    The Nationals will pit Strasburg (8-9, 3.39) vs. Santanta (10-6, 3.59) Friday night. Saturday’s game will feature Roark (11-7, 2.94) vs. Harang (9-6, 3.41). The finale Sunday is Gonzalez (6-8, 4.01) vs. Wood (7-9, 3.20).

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

    Braves magic number holds at 4, Nats up next

    Atlanta went into the 3-game set against the struggling San Diego Padres with high hopes of dropping their magic number to within division-clinching distance before the series in D.C. began Monday. However, best laid plans never seem to pan out in these situations. The Braves suffered 2 losses at the hands of the Padres and came away from the series with their magic number of 4 not budging. The next stop for the Braves is a 3-game set in the nation’s capital where they hope to crush the Nationals’ playoff hopes and clinch the division.

    freddie

    Freeman has lifted his batting average to .314 with 160 hits, 21 homers and 99 RBIs.

    In Freddie Freeman’s last 7 games, he has contributed 13 hits (2 doubles, 2 homers) and 3 RBIs. He is currently 1 RBI away from having 100 on the season. Friday, Freeman entered the Padres series with 20 homers on the season. It is the newly 24-year-old Freeman now has 3 consecutive seasons with 20 or more home runs.

    On Friday the 13th, a 2-run blast for Brian McCann marked the catcher’s sixth consecutive 20 or more home run season. Also Friday night, Justin Upton launched his 25th homer on the first pitch he saw in the 4th inning.

    The story of the Padres series was truly the Braves’ starting pitching. Over a 7-game stretch, the Braves will have used 7 different starting pitchers. While the start of Kameron Loe was a disaster for Atlanta, the Braves got more than they expected from veteran Freddy Garcia against the Marlins and rookie David Hale in the Padres series.

    David Hale’s had a great Major League debut, despite the team giving up the 3-0 lead he left the game with. His line: 5 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 87 pitches/56 strikes. Hale’s 9 strikeouts in his MLB debut, including the strikeout of Wil Venable to start the game, far exceeded his season-high of 6 strikeouts, achieved 4 times, at Triple-A Gwinnett. Hale’s 9 strikeouts tied a franchise mark for strikeouts in a Major League debut–it was last achieved by Kenshin Kawakami in 2009. Of course, Atlanta has high hopes for Hale, hopes that don’t include anything resembling what Kawakami went through when he signed with the team. While some questioned why he wasn’t allowed to continue, it was the right move for a young arm that hadn’t started a game in 11 days.

    Kris Medlen pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings on Saturday. He allowed 4 hits, 2 walks and struck out 5. It was the 7th consecutive start for Medlen in which he has pitched into the 7th inning and the 3rd start this season that he made it into the 8th inning. Medlen has recorded the win in his last 4 starts, bringing his season record to a winning 14-12. Over the last 4 games dating back to August 29th, Medlen has given up only 3 runs, 23 hits and struck out 26 hitters in 27 2/3 innings. His ERA in those 4 games was 0.98.

    Unfortunately, pitching just wasn’t enough for the Braves to get out of the Padres series with a win. This season, the Braves went 1-5 against San Diego. Perhaps the best player the Padres have, Chase Headley, had 3 homers in the 3-game set. His 2-run shot off Julio Teheran in the series finale put the game out of the reach for the dead Braves offense.

    Like so many other times this season, the Braves lost a series to a team that shouldn’t have been hard to beat. The Braves have dominated winning teams, teams that will likely be in the playoffs, but they have suffered sweeps and losses to teams like the Phillies, Padres, White Sox and Mets. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. It might bode well in the postseason, however, when the Braves face off against teams they have had success against all season.


    BRAVES HOPE TO PUT AWAY NATS AND SECURE SLOT IN POSTSEASON…

    Heading into Washington, D.C., the Braves are in perfect position to not only clinch the division, but put the rival Nats out of their misery for the season.The Braves enter the 3-game series with a record of 89-60, while the Nats have a record of 79-70. The Nats are 10 games back in the division and 4 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race. A series win would give the Braves the division win and would likely knock the Nats out of contention for the Wild Card spot.

    With the division berth approaching, both Tim Hudson and Jason Heyward will join the team on the trip to D.C.. Heyward, recovering from a fractured jaw, took batting practice while the Braves were at home and the hope is he may be able to face live pitching by the end of next week. J-Hey has been hitting with a special batting helmet that has an attachment to protect his injured jaw. He has said that he doesn’t bother him to be using the helmet and that he feels safe when he steps into the batter’s box.

    Jordan Walden joined the bullpen in the nick of time as the fractured finger Scott Downs has been dealing with has really made him a liability. The only player that the Braves are currently hoping to get back before the postseason is Paul Maholm who had a MRI that showed inflammation of his pitching elbow, but no structural damage. They hope he returns on or before September 20th. While the loss of Beachy and Maholm this late in the season would be crippling for other teams, the Braves have been lucky to have Freddy Garcia, Alex Wood and David Hale to rely on.

    To kick off the series, the Braves will send Minor (13-7, 3.15) vs. Haren (9-13, 5.02). Tuesday’s game will feature veteran Garcia (1-1, 1.32) vs. Roark (6-0, 1.30). The series finale will pit Wood (3-3, 3.45) vs. Ohlendorf (4-0, 3.15). The first game of the series will be featured nationally on MLB Network.

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