• San Francisco Giants

    Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 4

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Welcome to part four of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, where we remember two of the most stunning losses in Braves franchise history, let alone just this decade: The ninth-inning implosion in Game 3 of the 2010 NL Division Series against the Giants and the impact it had on me after what happened that offseason, and two years later, the game not-so-fondly remembered as The Infield Fly Game (the 2012 NL Wild Card Game).

    You’re invited to catch up on the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    Part 3: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    From Elation to Excruciation: Oct. 10, 2010

    A Painful Playoff Defeat, Followed by a Much Bigger Loss

    I dreamed of this moment from the time I accepted a newspaper job in the Atlanta suburbs and moved back from the Georgia coast in August 2006 with my wife and two preschool-aged kids in tow. The chance to raise our kids in the city where my wife and I both grew up, to experience life with both sides of our family and, hopefully, to share moments like the second Sunday of October 2010:

    My two boys’ first experience attending Choptober Baseball.

    We grilled hot dogs in the parking lot and my kids tossed a football with my wife’s uncle Billy. His being there made this day all the more special. He wasn’t just family; he had become one of my best friends. He worked for Delta as a mechanic and before he got married, Billy often would fly down to the coast on weekends and hang out with his favorite niece and her sports-loving husband. We would talk life, investments, fishing, Braves baseball, Georgia football and, starting in 2002 when my oldest was born, parenting.

    When I covered UGA in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year’s Day 2003, I was able – as a credentialed member of the media covering the game – to buy two tickets at face value. I bought one for my best friend since middle school. I bought the other one for Billy. He married his wife in 2004; my oldest was the ring bearer, while I held my youngest in my arms during the ceremony. And now, we were at the NL Division Series, the wild-card Braves and NL West champs Giants tied at a game apiece. My sons’ first playoff game. My first postseason game since covering Game 2 of the 1999 World Series.

    It was, to me, absolute perfection. Billy and his wife, sitting a few rows down from us, delivering a whole pizza for the boys to consume in the fourth inning with the Braves trailing 1-0. Tim Hudson grinding through seven strong innings, surrendering only an unearned run on Brooks Conrad’s second error of the game. Jonathan Sanchez no-hitting the Braves until Huddy singled in the sixth. Tight. Tense. Can’t-breathe baseball, just like I watched in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Octobers past, before I ever dreamed I’d be a husband, let alone a father times two.

    Then, the magical eighth. Alex Gonzalez’s leadoff single and, two hitters later, pinch-hitter Eric Hinske’s laser that just got over wall in the right-field corner. Turner Field absolutely turned upside down. It was the loudest I ever heard that ballpark. In the upper deck, you could feel the stadium swaying, and my 7-year-old screamed into my ear as I held him in my arms, “Daddy, the stadium’s shaking!”

    I screamed back, “this is how it used to be across the street!”

    Then, the ninth inning. You know the story. The rookie Craig Kimbrel, one strike away from nailing down the save, gave up a 1-2 single. Mike Dunn surrendered the game-tying hit. The Giants took the lead on Conrad’s third error of the game, won 3-2 to take a 2-1 series lead, and would finish the Braves and end Bobby Cox’s managerial career one night later.

    Leaving that night was devastating. My wife kept telling me, “it’s alright. We’re going to win tomorrow.” But my boys were crestfallen. Even the always upbeat, ever-grounded Billy admitted, “that’s tough to take.” I couldn’t imagine a worse ending. Yes, attending the three 1996 World Series games in Atlanta was awful. But this was my boys’ first playoff game. This was a moment Billy and I talked about back when I lived on the beach and the kids were in diapers, that one day we’d all cheer on the Braves to October glory together.

    I felt crushed. Nobody said anything on the way home. But as always, I started thinking of next season. We’ll get it right. We’re going to storm through the playoffs, and all of us will be there together to see it.

    Then came the phone call in January 2011, my wife crying uncontrollably on the other end. Billy had collapsed. By the time she got to the hospital, he was gone. Heart attack. 50 years old. A few days later, I delivered the eulogy at his funeral. I shared our Game 3 experience, him serving hot dogs to my kids, how he turned and pumped his fist at us after Hinske’s homer, how he patted my shoulder postgame as we walked down the stairs to the left-field gate.

    Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Billy. And while Game 3 in 2010 is heartbreaking to so many, excuse me if I say this one hurts me on a different level. My dear friend’s final time watching his ballclub play.

    The Infield-Fly Rule, Ruined Forever: Oct. 5, 2012

    One of MLB’s Worst Calls Ever Incenses Braves Country

    It was Oct. 2, 2012, and I sat in the third-base dugout at Coal Mountain Park in northern Forsyth County, Ga. Fall baseball, and my 10-year-old was behind the plate, getting extra reps after a full season of travel baseball. The few moments we had free that spring and summer, we snuck down to Turner Field to cheer the Braves to a playoff spot, one that young (how strange that is to type at this decade’s conclusion) first baseman Freddie Freeman clinched with a walk-off homer against Miami one week before.

    As the second inning began, I got my son’s attention and held up five fingers, and he nodded. He knew no 10-year-old throws five pitches. He turned to the home-plate ump and shared the news with him: The wild-card game would start at 5 p.m. Friday. I swear, we got three or four borderline calls that night (for the record, we knew the home-plate ump and we knew he had corporate tickets; he may or may not have delayed the bottom of the second inning texting people after the news broke … To be fair, the opposing head coach was on the phone a good bit after the ump shared the news with him).

    Fast-forward three days. A 5 p.m. first pitch on the first Friday in October, so that meant I checked the kid out of school at 11 a.m. and headed inside the perimeter. We gathered with friends on the grassy knoll across Hank Aaron Boulevard from the right-field gate, tossing a football while watching the most impressive tailgate setup I’ve ever seen roll in a few hours before first pitch, a long-bed pickup truck complete with multiple TVs streaming sports, open bars along each side of the truck, the whole nine yards.

    There is zero value in sharing the proceedings of what happened inside Turner Field that evening. All it would do is fire me up like it happened seven minutes ago, not seven years ago (although my son and I still cuss it at every mention). I am thankful we had seats high in the upper deck. As the bottles rained down on the playing surface after Sam Holbrook lost his freaking mind and made that unbelievable, inexcusable, garbage call, I couldn’t help but think how cursed my city was when it comes to big sports moments, while making sure my 10-year-old didn’t wear a Bud Light bottle across the back of his neck.

    Niekro getting rained out in the 82 NLCS opener, one out from an official game? Game 7 in 91 in the awful Metrodome? Games 3, 4 and 5 in 96, in a stadium in which I sat in the upper deck hoping to see the Braves win the World Series in person for the second straight October? The 18-inning loss in Houston in 05? All the other playoff missteps in the late 90s and the 2000s? The Falcons and Eugene Robinson the night before the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance in January 1999? Cliff Levington’s ill-fated left hook in The Omni against Boston in Game 6 of the East semis in 1988, with a conference finals berth on the line? The Falcons with a lead at home against the Cowboys in the NFC semis in January 1981 before Danny White took over in the final minutes? The Thrashers going belly-up in the first round of 2007 against the Rangers? The “most excellent” insult from the IOC at the conclusion of the 96 Olympics?

    After the wild-card game, sitting on the trunk of my car with the windows down and the Braves Radio Network postgame show playing, my son and I were silent. We sat there for at least an hour. Neither of us said a single word. In retrospect, the Braves flubbed up plenty of chances in the decade. They didn’t need any help.

    But at the worst possible time, Holbrook made a call that will live in franchise infamy for as long as the Braves exist.

    —30—

    On Deck: The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    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.

    Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We continue looking back at my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with part three, a focus on two farewells: Bobby Cox’s last game as manager before retiring, and the final game held at Turner Field in 2016.

    As a reminder, you can check out previous entries in the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    Part 2: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Skipper’s Final Ride: Oct. 11, 2010

    Bobby’s Hall of Fame Career Ends with Game 4 Loss to Giants

    Say what you will about his bullpen management, his lineup construction, his postseason win/loss record. But let me say this. I said it as a kid watching him manage my hometown team in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I said it as a young sports writer who on occasion got to cover his teams and deal with him. I said it after watching his daughter play in the state softball playoffs in Columbus one year, when I kindly asked him if I could speak to him about being a dad and not a major-league manager, a moment he recalled the next spring when I found myself ducking into his office at his main job for a few pregame thoughts.

    I appreciate Bobby Cox.

    Sure, you can beat the drum all you want about winning only one World Series championship during the great run of the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s. That’s fair. I think about sitting next to him in the first-base dugout at Champion Stadium during spring training in 2005 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., asking if he had a moment to talk about what spring training was like in the 1960s when he was a hopeful major leaguer, for a front-page story I was working on about how the Grapefruit League had become big business, and him chatting with me for 15 minutes like I had been on the beat for 20 years.

    I think about watching him take grounders at first base during batting practice in 2000, when I got to cover a few home games in the first half of the season. Hearing those spikes click-clacking along the concrete walkway from the locker room to the first-base dugout at Turner Field. Seeing that mini-fridge in his office with the glass door that held his postgame beverages and tobacco.

    Mostly, I think about how much he loved being at the ballpark, talking shop, those quips of “c’mon kid!” the dugout mics would pick up, and how hard he fought for his players.

    It didn’t matter if you were the 25th man on the roster or a suburban newspaper reporter who occasionally dropped in to ask a question. Bobby Cox treated you with like you were a superstar or a full-time beat writer. To me, it was quite fitting that somebody who was so similar to him but plied his craft on the opposite coast, Bruce Bochy of the Giants, would be in the opposing dugout for the legendary Braves skipper’s final game, Game 4 of the 2010 NL Division Series at Turner Field.

    Atlanta, by all rights, should’ve been ahead 2-1 in the best-of-five series. The bottom line is they weren’t, and as I watched the game with my best friend from the outfield bleachers, it was in the back of our minds this could be Bobby’s last game. Brian McCann’s homer off Madison Bumgarner in the sixth snapped a 1-all tie, but Alex Gonzalez’s error in the seventh led to two runs scoring. The Braves got the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth, only to see one of my least-favorite Braves of all time, Melky Cabrera, ground out.

    When it was finished, everybody in Turner Field realized far more than a season had ended. Bochy did, too, so he instructed his Giants to applaud the Atlanta skipper while on the field during the aftermath of the series-ending victory. That singular gesture from one classy professional – who recognized the moment – to another brought tears to our eyes. Yes, the Braves should’ve won that series. They didn’t, but Bochy recognized the finality of the moment in his team’s own moment of triumph. I was proud to stand in SunTrust Park on Sept. 22, 2019, and cheer for Bochy during his final visit to Atlanta and final road game as Giants skipper.

    And what happened after the Game 4 loss and the team filed into the locker room? Cox, who never liked to go into the locker room, held court long into the night with his players. Perfect. How else would this baseball lifer close up shop on his final day on the clock than talking about the sport he loved?

    One Last Time at the Ted: Oct. 2, 2016

    Closing 50 Years of Ball Downtown with a Playoff-Type Victory

    There should’ve been zero reason for a postseason-esque buzz walking into Turner Field on Oct. 2, 2016. The Braves were 67-93 entering the finale of another lost season (remember, Atlanta played just 161 games that season, as the game seven days earlier in Miami was cancelled following the tragic death of one of my favorite non-Braves of all time, the brilliant and transcendent Jose Fernandez).

    The Braves had endured a brutal start to the season but actually played well at times in the second half, entering the season finale winning 17 of its previous 27 games. Dansby Swanson had taken over at shortstop after being promoted in early August, and interim manager Brian Snitker had steadied things somewhat following the early May firing of dead-man-walking Fredi Gonzalez. As best he could, because this team wasn’t very good.

    I spent pregame trying to find some friends of mine tailgating, to no avail. But with my two sons and their non-baseball caring cousin in tow – the cousin wearing a Braves shirt we gave him, one of my sons wearing one of my Braves jersey, and the other wearing (for some reason, but God bless him nonetheless) my Ilya Kovalchuk Thrashers jersey – we headed into the ballpark.

    What we saw, as my two kids said repeatedly that day, was a game possessing the energy of a playoff game. It was a playoff game for the visiting Tigers, as they needed to win to get into the AL postseason party, and of course they had ace Justin Verlander on the mound. The Braves countered with Julio Teheran, and following all the pregame pomp and circumstances, the one dependable arm amid the Braves rebuild shined brightest.

    Freddie Freeman scored Ender Inciarte on a first-inning sacrifice fly and Teheran took it from there, striking out 12 while allowing three hits and one walk in seven sparkling innings. Verlander was great, too, giving up six hits with one walk and eight strikeouts in seven innings as the 51,200 brought an energy and vibe that, had you closed your eyes, you’d thought it was the early part of the decade when the Braves were relevant.

    Jose Ramirez and Jim Johnson each gave up a hit in one inning of relief but kept Detroit off the scoreboard to finish a 1-0 victory, knocking the Tigers out of the postseason and officially sending the Braves nine miles northwest to the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75, where SunTrust Park was being constructed. Home plate was dug up and taken up the road via police escort during an extensive postgame ceremony that, in retrospect, felt like a celebration after clinching a playoff berth.

    There was so much emotion that afternoon for me personally. I covered a World Series game in that ballpark. I covered an All-Star game in that ballpark. The third date with my wife was in that ballpark. I took my two sons to their first Braves games in that ballpark. In May 1996, while still sports editor of the Georgia State student newspaper, I covered the first event in that ballpark, when it was a track-and-field stadium, some two months before the 1996 Summer Olympics would happen there. In October 1996, I attended media postgame events in that ballpark, trying to process the Braves slow-motion World Series train-wreck occurring across the street, while machines moved earth below the suites and continued the ballpark’s transformation from the center of the global sports universe to the new home of the Braves.

    Who could dare to dream as the sun set on the final major-league baseball game played downtown after a 50-year run, that a mere 24 months after saying goodbye to Turner Field, these rebuilding Braves would host postseason games in their new digs?

    —30—

    On Deck: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    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.

    Gettin’ Jiggy with Smith, Payroll Numbers and Offseason Impact

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When Will Smith learned his 2017 season would end on the operating table before it could begin thanks to a spring training injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, he tweeted a note of gratitude to San Francisco Giants fans, including the message, “Nothing a little hard work can’t fix!”

    Spoken like a true Georgia kid, whose hard work has brought him home.

    The Atlanta Braves seized the opportunity Thursday to make the first big strike of baseball’s offseason, signing Smith – the unquestioned top closer candidate on the free-agent market – to a three-year, $39 million contract, with a $13 million option for 2023. In doing so, not only did the Braves further vault their bullpen – such a source of consternation as recently as late July – toward elite status, they brought the Newnan product and Northgate High alum back to North Georgia.

    But this signing goes way beyond adding to the number of Peach State players on the roster (and Smith has plenty of company, from Tyler Flowers to Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Charlie Culberson). It sends the message that the Braves are ready for the next stage of their emergence, they are ready to spend the money it takes to win, and are ready to make amends for an October gone so terribly wrong just a few short weeks back.

    How the Bullpen Looks

    Smith fully recovered from that left elbow injury that derailed his 2017 season and has dominated since, posting a 2.66 ERA (2.71 FIP) with a 1.006 WHIP, a 12.7 strikeouts-per-nine ratio, 48 saves, and 167 strikeouts against 36 walks in 118 1/3 innings across the past two seasons. The 30-year-old, who turns 31 in July, earned All-Star honors in 2019 and finished with 34 saves, a 2.76 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 21 walks in 65 1/3 innings.

    Smith held right-handers to a .212 average in 165 at-bats last season, but did give up nine homers (contributing to an OPS of .709). He absolutely was lethal against lefties, who posted a .157/.167/.229 slash line and a .395 OPS in 70 at-bats. His overall numbers were better away from pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, posting a 0.910 WHIP with a 13.7 strikeout-per-nine ratio in away games.

    Braves fans (not to mention fanbases of several other contenders) clamored for Smith at the trade deadline, but the Giants opted not to deal the lefty. Instead, veteran right-hander Mark Melancon was shipped to Atlanta. Smith now joins him and the other remaining trade-deadline acquisition, Shane Greene, to form a strong back end that has combined for 309 career saves.

    Suffice to say, Luke Jackson isn’t getting the ball in the ninth inning this season.

    Add in the re-signing of Darren O’Day – who impressed with his work in September and October – plus Jackson serving as a matchup righty, and perhaps Sean Newcomb, who will get a chance to start in spring training but was a revelation in relief in 2019, and the Braves bullpen is as good as anybody’s in the National League.

    Certainly, Braves Twitter will lead the league in Will Smith references next season, one year after Tiger Woods evolved from Masters champion to unofficial fanbase symbol.

    And this Will Smith isn’t going to Miami.

    He’s on his way back to Georgia.

    How the Payroll Looks

    Given some of the contracts doled out to relievers in recent years, the $13 million AAV (Average Annual Value) investment in Smith is a good deal for Atlanta. And while $13 million for 2020 may seem like a big chunk considering the salaries of Melancon ($14 million next season) and Greene (projected to make $6.5 million in arbitration per MLB Trade Rumors), the Braves payroll at the moment remains fine.

    How? Smith’s signing gives Atlanta 19 “locks” to make the 25-man opening-day roster. A breakdown:

    Starting Lineup (all dollars in millions): Freddie Freeman ($22.36), Ozzie Albies ($1), Dansby Swanson (projected in arbitration by MLBTR at $3.3), Nick Markakis ($4), Ender Inciarte ($7.7), Ronald Acuna Jr. ($1). Note: Markakis is listed as the starter, but he will platoon (he better platoon).

    Total: $39.36 million

    Open spots: Catcher, third base (more on this shortly).

    Bench (all dollars in millions): Charlie Culberson (projected $1.8), Johan Camargo (projected $1.6), Tyler Flowers ($4), Adam Duvall (projected $3.8).

    Total: $11.20 million

    Open spots: One

    Starting Rotation: Mike Soroka (MLB minimum $564,000, rounded to $570,000 for simplicity), Max Fried ($570,000), Mike Foltynewicz (projected $7.5 million), Newcomb ($570,000).

    Total: $9.21 million

    Open spots: One (assuming Newcomb is in the rotation).

    Bullpen (all dollars in millions): Smith ($13), Melancon ($14), Greene (projected $6.5), O’Day ($2.25), Jackson (projected $1.9).

    Total: $37.65 million

    Open spots: Three (again, assuming Newcomb is in the rotation)

    Grand total: 19 players, $97.42 million

    How Does Smith’s Signing Impact the Rest of the Offseason

    It certainly will have some impact, but I’d caution against some of the reactionary, absolute statements I saw on social media saying this means the Braves cannot pursue a reunion with third baseman Josh Donaldson. On the contrary, it’s my take the Smith signing should embolden those who want the Braves to think big and back it up by raising the payroll.

    The Braves window just now has opened. Yes, October sucked. I get it. But this team is set up to be right there for the next several years. For the value Melancon and Greene add – and yes, there was comfort in knowing that, for a change, there would be no worry about finding a closer entering 2020 – both are free agents after next season. Now the Braves have a closer through at least 2022. To sign a closer to this type of deal, even if closer wasn’t a priority just a few days ago, the Braves would have missed an opportunity if they didn’t act.

    The vast majority of the remaining members of the Braves 40-man roster (currently at 33 players) all will make the MLB minimum next season (except for catcher John Ryan Murphy, who is arbitration eligible but likely will be non-tendered, and reliever Grant Dayton, who is arbitration eligible and projects to an $800,000 salary). If, say, Austin Riley or Kyle Wright or A.J. Minter or Cristian Pache make the opening-day roster, the payroll impact will be minimal.

    There remains work to be done at three key areas: catcher, third base and one rotation spot. As I wrote last night, I still believe the Braves will sign Donaldson (the value I opined is $26 million AAV for three years; let’s say three years at $24 million per year brings him back) and should heavily pursue Yasmani Grandal (I speculated AAV would be between $16 million and $20 million; let’s split the difference at $18 million).

    If the Braves did sign those two and Grandal costs my midpoint, the opening day payroll would be at $139.42 million, with the need to add a starter. That’s where I think Mike Moustakas (my guess is three years at $40 million; an AAV of $13.33 million) could make a lot of sense, especially if the demand for Donaldson carries his deal into four-year territory or an AAV north of $26 million. Adding the combo of Moustakas and Grandal (at my midpoint) pushes the opening day payroll to $128.75 million, again with the need to add a starter.

    I wrote last night if the Braves go the free-agent route to find a front-line catcher and a third baseman, they likely would explore the trade market for a starter. I think that’s even more likely now, unless they look for a value signing at catcher (say, Jason Castro at perhaps $6 million) to form a true platoon with Flowers at a rate much lower than signing Grandal.

    Those numbers will draw some skepticism, and that’s fair. After all, Atlanta’s opening day payroll has exceeded $120 million just once this century ($122 million in 2017) according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. But at some point, the Braves must push the payroll north to further enhance their chances of pushing deeper into October, with the goal of grabbing the pot of gold that awaits the last team standing come Halloween.

    Thursday’s signing signals the Braves indeed are pushing, and the thought here is acquiring Smith is the first salvo of a transformational winter.

    —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.

    WINNERS, AND STILL CHAMPIONS!! BRAVES SILENCE DOUBTERS WITH BACK-TO-BACK DIVISION TITLES

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It never gets old. It doesn’t matter how many times it happens. It doesn’t matter if it comes out of left field or becomes an annual occurrence. It never, ever, EVER gets old.

    But had you bought into the national pundits and the long-since-beaten-to-oblivion storyline in spring, you would think the Atlanta Braves would hold tight to the memories of winning the 2018 National League East championship as if it were a summertime fling with that girl who visited her grandparents in your neighborhood for six weeks, because there would be no chance at reliving that moment from Sept. 22, 2018.

    Welcome to Sept. 20, 2019.

    Welcome to Atlanta.

    Welcome to the home of the NL East champions.

    Again.

    The Braves officially answered the national media and the naysayers in the best way possible at 9:42 p.m. Friday, when Alex Dickerson’s fly ball to short center landed in the glove of Ronald Acuna Jr. Some 363 days after Acuna gloved the final out to clinch the Braves 2018 NL East crown, Atlanta again ascended the mountain, completing the first step of a journey that feels – unlike last season’s surprising surge to the playoffs – like it only has reached an initial benchmark, and not a final destination.

    The Braves of 2018 surprised so many, a newness for a franchise coming out of a painful four-year rebuild. This year’s edition, despite being overlooked by so many, shook off an 18-20 start and put the hammer down with a torrid four-month stretch that blew the doors off the revamped NL East. The Nationals, Phillies and Mets made plenty of headlines in the cold, windy days of winter.

    Amid the heat of summer, the Braves shined brightest. Now they get the chance to turn autumn upside down.

    From the moment the sun came up Friday, there was a sense of finality around the series opener with the Giants, the beginning of the final home series of the season. A chance to lock up the division title in front of a huge crowd, on a weekend, much like the Braves experienced last season on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon against the Phillies.

    But the path to bottles being popped in the home clubhouse was a bit different this time around. The Braves stumbled out of the gate, and in early May were two games under .500 after being swept by the Dodgers and losing on a walk-off homer the next night in Arizona. The bullpen was a mess, scuttled by injuries and underperformance. The offense wasn’t clicking. The rotation was inconsistent.

    You know what happened next.

    Let’s fast forward to tonight. There were redemption stories as far as the eye could see.

    Start with the front office. Yes, the front office. Financial flexibility be darned, Alex Anthopoulos knew what he was doing from the jump. He pulled the trigger for Dallas Keuchel and not Craig Kimbrel. He rolled the dice on Josh Donaldson. He took a bit of a chance in bringing Brian McCann back to his hometown. He hedged his bet on Nick Markakis, hoping the second-half regression we saw last summer wouldn’t repeat itself.

    Despite non-stop criticism from the national media and from large segments of the fanbase, Anthopoulos never caved. He remade the bullpen at the trade deadline. He supplemented the roster by coming up aces with every August move off the waiver wire.

    And his biggest splash of the winter? Suffice to say it’s worked out perfectly.

    Donaldson, who looked a shell of his former self due to injuries in 2017-18, stayed healthy all season. He’s been one of the top third baseman in the game since finding his rhythm in early June. Moving to the cleanup spot has provided the protection Freddie Freeman has lacked in his big-league career. Watching Donaldson celebrate with his teammates makes one feel he would be happy to return to Atlanta for 2020 and beyond, provided the length of contract and money involved is right.

    But the biggest story on this third Friday in September was focused on the mound. Throughout the winter, so much was made of question marks about Atlanta’s rotation. Mike Soroka and Max Fried went a long way toward answering those questions with breakthrough seasons. The addition of Keuchel provided a sorely needed veteran boost, a previous World Series champion who swam through Chattahoochee Falls during the postgame party with the joy of a child on the first day of summer vacation.

    Mike Foltynewicz pitched the clinching game for the division title a season ago, a crowning moment of a 13-win, All-Star season. But things went south after a bone spur in his elbow short-circuited his spring training, and a disastrous two-month stint send the right-hander to the minors to find himself.

    That demotion paid dividends in more ways that one. Beyond the numbers Foltynewicz has compiled since returning to Atlanta’s rotation in early August, it’s the manner with which he has owned the mound that should give Braves fans a ton of confidence. Eight shutout innings Friday on just 95 pitches (65 for strikes), complete dominance extending a streak of impressive starts to six for the 27-year-old. Once an afterthought for the postseason roster, Foltynewicz very well may be Atlanta’s most important arm in the playoffs.

    And when it was over Friday night and the team assembled on the field, Brian Snitker stood in the middle of the diamond with tears welling in his eyes. As the big screen showed the skipper, SunTrust Park roared its approval, and the emotional, stoic leader of this emerging powerhouse raised his left arm in the air.

    The lifelong Brave, in his 43rd year in the organization, walked toward the dugout with arms raised. He, and his team, destroyed the national storyline. Now, these Braves of 2019 have a chance to write their own script in October, a script for the ages.

    —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 at the Deadline: AA Says Enough ‘Bull,’ Positions Braves for Deep October Run

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Since taking the reins of the Atlanta Braves as general manager in November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos has followed a measured approach, one that belied his aggressive reputation and track record from his days leading the Toronto front office.

    Fans rubbed their hands together in frustration, screamed from every social media mountaintop, and vented to any and all who would listen as last year’s trade deadline and a full offseason passed with a few notable moves, and many more opportunities – perceived or real – missed.

    But there would be no such consternation Wednesday as the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline passed, almost simultaneous with the Braves concluding a 4-2 road trip with a hair-raising victory at National League East rival Washington. The finale saw Atlanta follow a script recited far too often during 2019, the Braves bullpen coughing up a late lead before its offense saved the day to ensure a lead in the division standings of no less than six games.

    Now, that team will be better when it takes the field Thursday at SunTrust Park for the first of four games with Cincinnati.

    Much, much better.

    At the very moments Anthony Swarzak, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb were trying to tip-toe through the eighth and ninth innings, Anthopoulos was putting the finishing touches on two deals that immediately transforms Atlanta’s biggest vulnerability into one of its strengths. The Braves authored two trades for proven veterans with closing experience, acquiring All-Star closer Shane Greene from Detroit and moments later landing former All-Star Mark Melancon from San Francisco.

    Add the Tuesday night trade that netted Texas setup man Chris Martin, and the Braves suddenly have a trio of high-quality, impactful relievers at the back end. How impactful? Jackson – the default closer who admirably has given his all in the role while walking the tightrope for large portions of the season – now slides to at least fourth on the big-league depth chart. His stuff will play outstanding in a setup role. He’s not a closer.

    The deadline’s aftermath was a stark contrast from what Braves fans are accustomed to, as the praise rang in from the national media talking heads that never hesitate to bash Anthopoulos and the franchise at every turn. Several reporters traveling with the team reported cheering in the locker room when news of the Greene and Melancon deals broke. Even Braves fans on social media universally treated the news like someone stumbling across a water fountain in the desert.

    In some respects, who can blame them? A very good team, one that many pleaded with to be aggressive at the deadline, did just that. The Braves now have a bullpen as capable of mixing and matching in the middle of games as anybody, a strategy that plays in October when starters don’t go as deep and quality arms in the middle innings can swing the balance of playoff series.

    With no waiver-wire trade deadline in August, teams entered the dying days of July knowing they had one shot to get it right. It brought about some weirdness, such as the Mets dealing for Marcus Stroman and the Reds (the Reds!) trading for Trevor Bauer, who incidentally will make his Reds debut in Atlanta this weekend. Some of the names speculated about the most, such as Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, Tigers starter Matthew Boyd, and Rangers hurler (and former Brave) Mike Minor, stayed put. Some of the deals pulled off Wednesday would have been executed in August if the waiver-wire deadline still existed, the Braves acquiring catching depth by trading for Arizona backstop John Ryan Murphy as an example.

    In the final 72 hours before the deadline, experts repeatedly talked about teams trying to “thread the needle” and balance cost effectiveness with acquisition impact on this season and, for some teams, next season. Anthopoulos pulled it off flawlessly, striking the right balance of addressing the team’s most glaring need while not sacrificing its future:

    • Martin (3.08 ERA, four saves, 43 strikeouts, four walks – no, that’s not a typo – in 38 innings) was acquired for Kolby Allard, the Braves No. 10 prospect according to MLB Pipeline who had been leapfrogged by one group of arms and was close to getting passed by another batch.
    • Melancon (3.50 ERA in 43 games, 183 career saves) cost Tristan Beck, ranked No. 17 and one member of a deep core of Atlanta pitchers, and reliever Dan Winkler, who battled inconsistency this season while toggling between the majors and Triple-A.
    • Greene (1.18 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 22 saves) was secured for promising lefty Joey Wentz (No. 7 prospect) and Travis Demeritte, an infielder-turned-outfielder who was acquired from Texas for Lucas Harrell during the depths of the Braves rebuild and did not have a clear path to the majors at any position.

    While some fans may be shocked Anthopoulos did something to this scale, the real stunner is the cost – or rather, the lack thereof – to Atlanta’s vaunted farm system. The Braves have horded prospects like canned goods to the point where their minor-league pantry is overflowing. Some of that depth needed to be thinned out, and the time was now to do it.

    Mission accomplished. The crown jewels of Cristian Pache, Ian Anderson and Drew Waters remain in the system. Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson, William Contreras and Kyle Muller are still here, too. Only 10 percent of the Braves Top 30 was sacrificed to add three arms that could take the ball in the ninth inning for a playoff team.

    Landing a starting pitcher would have put the cherry on top of this day, but Anthopoulos told reporters late Wednesday it was pretty clear there wasn’t a match as the deadline approached. He pivoted quickly, ensuring the bullpen was fixed with a double-barrel approach that addressed the source of so much frustration not just for this year, but moving forward as both Greene and Melancon are signed through 2020.

    There is delicious symmetry in the fact these moves occurred in tandem with what could have been the two most devastating losses of the season. Atlanta sprinted to a 9-0 lead Tuesday and all was well when the Martin news broke, but the Braves bullpen leaked for six runs with three walks and five hits in 2 1/3 innings of an 11-8 triumph, a game in which Jackson had to be summoned to throw 27 pitches and survived despite giving up three hits and a walk in the ninth.

    Then came Wednesday when Jackson – inexplicably brought on by Brian Snitker to start the ninth with a two-run lead – surrendered two tough-luck hits to begin the frame. Enter Newcomb, who has shined as a reliever this season but gave up a hit and a walk in allowing the two inherited runners to score. A nod here to the big lefty, who got out of the inning with the winning run on third, an escape that allowed Josh Donaldson – one of the few big moves Anthopoulos has made since arriving in town – to launch a 10th-inning homer for the winning margin.

    It came down to Josh Tomlin, a 10-year veteran pitching in his 220th career game, surviving a hit and a walk to earn his second save of the season – and of his career. It capped a scary roller-coaster ride that could have ended with the Braves lead whittled to 2 ½ games in the East.

    Suffice to say Tomlin, or Jackson, won’t be closing games for this team moving forward.

    Anthopoulos has taken his share of criticism, in some respects warranted. But at this moment, he deserves kudos. He’s given Snitker multiple viable options in the late innings, and in turn a team poised to reach October again has a much better chance to do serious damage once it gets there.

    —30—

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

    The Austin Riley Experience Leaves Us Speechless Again

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The radio hosts kept offering suggestions that the general manager considered, but it didn’t take long to tell there wasn’t a whole lot of decisiveness in the, “that’s pretty good,” and “yeah, that’s not bad,” answers.

    Alex Anthopoulos spent a few minutes on the Atlanta Braves flagship radio station Friday afternoon, and part of the 680 The Fan interview with the Braves GM focused on vetting nicknames offered by fans to encapsulate what has become The Austin Riley Experience. And while several of the suggestions were good, Anthopoulos – and quite frankly, the rest of the planet – is at a loss to describe what’s occurring on a nearly nightly basis.

    Riley – the 22-year-old third-baseman-of-tomorrow turned left-fielder-of-today-because-he-destroyed-Triple-A – did it again on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, belting an opposite-field 428-foot homer high above the Braves bullpen during Atlanta’s 10-5 triumph over the Detroit Tigers.

    On the first day of June, Riley continued doing what he’s done at a historic rate since making his major-league debut a scant 17 days ago:

    Forcing us to try and find the right words to sum up what we’re seeing.

    Good luck with that.

    Consider the facts, silly as they may sound. Riley is the fourth player in big-league history (Rhys Hoskins, Trevor Story and Carlos Delgado) to hit eight or more homers in the first 16 games of a career. His 22 RBIs tie the mark for most in 16 career games (Mandy Brooks in 1925; Jim Greengrass – an 80-grade last name, for what it’s worth – in 1952). He’s yet to go longer than three games without a homer; has yet to go more than two games without an RBI. He brings a .349/.388/.762 slash line into Sunday’s series finale, with a 1.150 OPS, 10 extra-base hits, 11 runs scored and a BABIP of .438.

    And we all thought Ronald Acuna Jr.’s at-bats last season were the type of must-see TV we only experience once in a generation. Riley is every bit as compelling, every bit as enticing, every bit as “oh my, did you see that!?!” A buzz rises through the ballpark when his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame strides to the plate. It’s downright palpable, and I noticed it on May 16, just his second big-league game in which he went 3-for-4 – the first of his six multi-hit efforts to date.

    This is not your prototypical pull-happy, light-tower power, strapping slugger who’s feast or famine at the plate. Yes, there are the 23 strikeouts in 67 plate appearances. But there also is the 94.7 mph average exit velocity, nearly 6 mph harder than the MLB average. There is the approach: looking for an Adam Wainwright curveball in his fifth big-league at-bat that he served into center field, the soft single with two strikes down the right-field line to plate a game-winning run in the 13th inning in San Francisco, the long homer Saturday to the opposite field, the fact that 31.6 percent of Riley’s batted balls have been launched oppo – 6 percent above league average.

    Suffice to say Riley won’t see Gwinnett County again, unless he’s taking a drive up Interstate 85. Ender Inciarte’s back injury opened the door for Riley to reach the majors. Inciarte threw and ran on the field prior to Saturday’s game, but has yet to swing a bat. There is no urgency coming from anybody in the organization for the three-time Gold Glove center fielder to rush back.

    Can you blame them?

    Even with the swing and miss, Riley makes a good Braves lineup downright dangerous. To be honest, several key Braves have sputtered at the plate in the past three weeks. Riley has been good enough to shoulder a heavier-than-deserved load, similar to how Acuna carried the Atlanta offense for large parts of the final two-month sprint to the National League East title last summer.

    That effort by Acuna, along with the aura surrounding every time he stepped into the batter’s box, won him NL rookie of the year last November. Might we see a similar storyline unfold that leads another one of the crown jewels of the Great Atlanta Rebuild to the same honor in five months? Perhaps. The NL is littered with standout rookie talent, and not to be forgotten is yet another shining byproduct of the Braves teardown, ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka. The Kid From Calgary gave up more than one earned run for the first time this season Saturday, raising his ERA (yes, raising!) to 1.41 as he improved to 6-1.

    Soroka’s starts are must-watch, and he persevered on a day where he had a bit of ball-in-play bad luck. But a struggling offense that netted just 10 runs during a minor three-game losing streak roared back to life with runs in the final five innings.

    And smack-dab in the midst of it all was the Mississippi Masher, who once again sent us grasping for our thesauruses in a futile attempt to describe another jaw-dropping moment in The Austin Riley Experience.

    —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.

    2018 Rewind: A Season For The Ages

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    Braves Head West with Sense of Urgency After Wednesday Meltdown

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are certain defeats each season that feel like the proverbial kick in the, well, you know where. Then there are the couple of losses that feel like you’re flying down one of those old 10-foot metal slides we had at my elementary school, and just as you reach maximum speed and just before you reach the bottom, there’s that one little jerk in every fourth-grade class who sticks out his fist at the absolute worst possible time.

    Fifteen minutes later, when you’ve been convinced that, yes, you are medically OK and no longer a danger to land in suspension for strangling the instigator, the heartrate drops, you look around and try to figure out just what in the heck happened.

    Welcome to Wednesday for the Atlanta Braves.

    It flowed swimmingly for seven blissful innings in the matinee finale of a disappointing eight-game homestand, the NL East leaders building a 7-1 lead on a Boston squad that looks like – outside of Houston – a hands-down World Series title contender, but on this day fielding a junior-varsity squad on getaway day for the bunch with baseball’s best record.

    And then it all fell apart, in spectacular, slow-motion train-wreck fashion. The Braves endured their cruelest defeat of the season, a parade of relievers spitting the bit constantly and the infield defense cracking yet again in a six-run eighth to level the score, only to see Freddie Freeman put the Braves ahead again, only to see former friend Brandon Phillips, making his Boston debut, hit one halfway to his home in Stone Mountain with two outs in the ninth.

    Got all of that? If not, pull up a barstool. There’s plenty of Braves Country already here tonight, deep into a drowning of sorrows that resembles anything but a happy hour.

    The game came unhinged in a number of moments, but go big picture here. That portrait was splendid for the first six innings, as Mike Foltynewicz continued pitching like an ace and limited the Boston sub-varsity to two hits and one run while his teammates smashed out of a recent offensive funk. Foltynewicz threw a scant 87 pitches through six frames, and conventional wisdom dictated with the starting pitcher and his mates on cruise control, in a game which the Braves needed to win to finish the homestand at .500, in advance of a seven-game road trip to two locales in Arizona and San Francisco where the Braves typically play like crap, you keep it in fifth gear and keep on trucking.

    Then Brian Snitker fumbled the shifter, missed the clutch and pulled arguably his most bonehead move of the season.

    Yes, I love Snit and root for him. Yes, I know the players love him. Yes, I criticize his in-game management at times. Yes, he only can fire the bullets that have been loaded into the guy by Alex Anthopoulos. But this was over-management at its highest, worst-timed level. It triggered a series of dominos that eventually led to the Braves losing a game no team ever should lose, regardless if Boston rolled out maybe the best bench in baseball history in the late innings as the game morphed from a getaway-day play-it-out-and-fly-home, to a stirring victory on the Red Sox’s march to 110 victories.

    In fairness to Snitker, the very talented writer from The Athletic Atlanta and the Marietta Daily-Journal, Nubjyas Wilborn, shared with us tonight that Foltynewicz noticed his velo had dipped in the sixth inning, plus he was feeling the impact of the bone-spur issue that has impacted him at times this season.

    Still, it could not have resulted in a worse outcome. How so? If the Braves miss the playoffs, Wednesday might cost Brian Snitker his job. And that would be a shame given the job he’s done in steering this ship from the wreckage of 90 losses to surprise contention in a scant 28 months.

    But winning in October – the destination for a franchise stripped to the foundation, at a time that may not be now but darn well will be by 2019 – comes down to those tactical decisions. When you are in first place in a tightly contested playoff race, you ride your horses deeper in September than you do in April or May. That’s why this is the worst loss of the season. Miss me with the Cubs wind-and-rain-palooza at Wrigley in April. That was April.

    This is September, pennant-race baseball. It only gets hotter from here, and now the Braves fly across the continent with the unenviable task of washing away the most bitter loss of recent vintage and set their sights on two teams against which Atlanta is 1-5 this season.

    Yeah, that painful feeling just came back in the pit of your stomach, didn’t it?

    Having to cover nine outs with a bullpen that’s struggled at times and has a multitude of arms at or approaching career highs in innings is different from covering six outs. Snitker loosened the lid of the jar and unleased the fury, but there also is responsibility for the folks who took the ball.

    Dan Winkler had surrendered three hits in his past nine appearances before beginning the eighth inning by giving up four hits in a row.

    Jonny Venters, he of the 3 ½ Tommy John surgeries, made his fourth appearance in seven days, giving up one hit and two runs. Both Venters and Brad Brach, who had allowed two hits total in his previous seven outings, each saw a pair of inherited runners score.

    While all this chaos was breaking loose on the mound, an Atlanta defense that is playing tighter as the calendar gets deeper into September reared its ugly-of-late head at the absolute worst moment. Johan Camargo bobbled a potential inning-ending double-play ball and then sailed the throw past fill-in first baseman Ryan Flaherty – remember, the Braves were up big, and Freeman did not start for the first time this season. Turning two there ends the inning with Atlanta ahead 7-5.

    In the previous 41 games leading into the homestand, the Braves allowed 11 total unearned runs. Care to guess how many Atlanta gifted to opponents during the eight games at SunTrust Park? Yep, you guessed it: 11.

    Freeman did his part to save the day, belting a dramatic homer in the eighth that put the Braves ahead by one. But all that did was set the stage for Phillips, the Atlanta-area native who endeared himself with fans during his brief stint with his hometown squad last season, so much so that he drew a nice round of applause before his first at-bat.

    His last at-bat deflated those left in the ballpark, save the thousands of Red Sox fans who infiltrated STP and The Battery throughout the series.

    It now remains to be seen how deflated Atlanta is moving forward. One thing about these Braves is they’ve proven resilient beyond their years at every crossroads this season. That’s a big reason why, for all the gore and angst of Wednesday, Atlanta will arrive in Phoenix leading the East with 22 games to go.

    But a cautionary tale, especially with seven games remaining against the Phillies in the season’s final 11 days. These are the types of defeats that have felled many a talented team amid the glow of a pennant race. A loss like this at this point in the calendar doesn’t just highlight a missed opportunity within a singular 24-hour window, but can pull a team into a tailspin that its players and fan base spend months, if not years, lamenting.

    Was Wednesday’s loss that bad? We’re about to find out.

    —30—

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

    Braves Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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