• Sandy Alcantara

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

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

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

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

    “It’s happening too much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Braves 7, Marlins 4.

    Braves wide awake. Marlins one step closer to bedtime.

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

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

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

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

    Wake up the favorite.

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

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

    —30—

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

    NLDS Preview: Braves Should Catch NLCS Berth, but Reeling in Fish Won’t Be Easy

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – If I had told you this time last week the Atlanta Braves would finish the National League Wild Card series with a slash line of .195/.262/.299, an OPS of .561, 35 strikeouts and just six runs scored, you surely would ask how long until my offseason coverage on this site would begin.

    You would tell me there’s no way the Braves could survive with such putrid offensive output, given the offense carried such a heavy burden through the regular season it already has regular chiropractor appointments.

    But the Braves mixed together a Max Fried gem and stellar relief in a classic Game 1 victory, plus a dominant outing from Ian Anderson and late power in the Game 2 clincher, to advance to the NL Division Series. It starts Tuesday in the Houston part of the NL bubble against Atlanta’s buddies from Miami. Yes, Miami, the perennial NL East doormat.

    I now pause for this public service announcement: stop thinking about automatically punching a ticket to the NLCS. No, do not begin sizing up the Dodgers or Padres. Do not start dreaming about playing for the pennant and the World Series berth that comes with it. Yes, the Braves have defeated their NL East neighbors 35 times in 48 meetings since the start of 2018. Sure, the Braves outscored the Marlins 39-35 across nine of the 10 meetings this season (I’m throwing out the record-setting 29-9 pounding Atlanta issued Miami on Sept. 9).

    Indeed, the Braves have the advantage in playoff experience, offense, bullpen and health. Atlanta should win this series. But be forewarned: it won’t be easy, and the Braves know it.

    “I think they’ve made some good offseason moves to help that young pitching they have accumulated,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters this weekend in describing this week’s opposition. “They’ve done a good job of putting that team together.”

    The Marlins rebuild got a boost by the shortened season, and while you can cast a side eye toward the franchise for the COVID-19 outbreak in late July that sidelined part of the roster for weeks, they do deserve credit for not falling apart. Miami went 16-14 in September to finish one game above .500, one season after losing 105 games. It’s worth nothing the Marlins did win five times in a seven-game series with floundering Philadelphia in mid-September, and also took three-of-five from Washington in the season’s final month. After starting the season 7-1, Miami went 24-28.

    For Openers: MLB Network discusses Tuesday’s NLDS Game 1.

    Still, here they are, in the playoffs for the first time in 17 seasons. In one of baseball’s delicious (and infuriating) ironies, the Marlins have never won a division title … or lost a playoff series, including a six-game upset of the Braves way back in the 1997 NLCS.

    Five Keys to the Series

    Young Arms Take Center Stage: Miami’s best shot in this series is to follow the Reds blueprint of shutting down the Atlanta offense. That’s a tall order for the Marlins considering Cincinnati sent Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo at the Braves, but that’s not to say Miami’s rotation lacks firepower. Sandy Alcantara limited the Cubs to three hits and one run in 6 2/3 innings in Game 1, while Sixto Sanchez struck out six in five scoreless innings in the clincher.

    Alcantara and Sanchez have been prized prospects in Miami’s rebuild. Pablo Lopez, who did not pitch against Chicago after posting a 3.61 ERA and 1.186 WHIP in 11 starts during the regular season, will start Game 2 after Alcantara (3.00 ERA, 1.190 WHIP) gets the opener. The bad news for Miami is Atlanta has Fried and Anderson lined up for the first two games of the series. That duo combined to hold the Reds to eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts across 13 innings.

    Who’s better in Game 3, Sanchez or Atlanta’s Kyle Wright? If the series is even after two games, how much pressure does that put on Wright, who pitched well in his final three starts but did not have to pitch against Cincinnati and will make his first postseason appearance? There’s plenty of intrigue in each of the three pitching matchups, and all six hurlers figure to be fixtures in the NL East for years to come.

    Can’t Keep Us Down: You look at the Braves offense and wonder what happened against the Reds. Was it good pitching? Noon start times and bright sunshine? Playoff nerves? Whatever the case, the Atlanta offense looked awful for long stretches of the two-game sweep.

    The feeling here is that’s out the window now. The inviting left field at Minute Maid Park, the presence of a roof, and familiarity with the Miami staff leads me to believe the Braves break out offensively in the series. Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, who had combined to go 0-for-15 with 11 strikeouts before each homered in the eighth inning of Game 2, need to rediscover the rhythm that led to a combined 34 homers and 89 RBIs in the regular season. My feeling is that right-handed slugging duo, and their teammates, will do just that.

    No Bull; It’s Atlanta Late: Much has been made of the Braves bullpen investments since last summer’s trade deadline, but it’s paid off. Atlanta relievers ranked fourth in the majors in ERA (3.50) and ninth in Fangraphs WAR (2.1) in the regular season, and gave up five hits with three walks and 14 strikeouts in 7 2/3 innings in the NL Wild Card series. One huge positive is Will Smith, who struggled with giving up homers in the regular season, looked absolutely dynamite in the first round, striking out five in 2 1/3 innings.

    The Marlins used four relievers in the sweep of Chicago, that quartet combining to strike out six with no walks and two hits allowed in 6 1/3 innings. It was a different story in the regular season, as Miami ranked 29th in fWAR (-1.4) and 26th in ERA (5.50). The Braves tied for second in the NL with eight games won in their last at-bat, winning five times when trailing in the eighth inning or later. Given that, and given the Braves have multiple veterans who can close games – not to be overlooked with a potential five games in five days – the advantage swings Atlanta’s way in late and close situations.

    Lights Out: The Braves bullpen has been a strength all season.

    Marte Party on Hold: No pun intended here, but it was an awful break for the Marlins when Starling Marte suffered a fractured left pinkie after being hit with a pitch in Game 1 against Chicago. Acquired by Miami at the trade deadline from Arizona, Marte gave the Marlins a dynamic middle-of-the-order bat who had recorded an .827 OPS in 33 games with Arizona, after hitting .295 with 23 homers for Pittsburgh last season.

    Marte, who hit .245 with a .701 OPS and four homers in 28 games for the Marlins, may remain on Miami’s 28-man roster. He’s slashed .301/.359/.500 with nine homers in 49 career games against Atlanta. The outfielder also has the postseason experience the Marlins need, having taken 35 at-bats in eight playoff games with the Pirates before this season.

    A New World: Entering the postseason the Marlins had just five players on their active roster who had played in the playoffs; one, Matt Joyce, logged time for the Braves in last season’s NLDS. While they gained experience in the two victories over Chicago, Miami’s roster pales in comparison against Atlanta’s when it comes to living the ups and downs of October baseball.

    How will the Marlins react if they drop the first game? If they fall into an 0-2 hole? One could argue after everything they’ve endured this season, a postseason deficit may not faze them. But with no off days in the series, if Atlanta can get things rolling in the opening two games, this series could end quickly.

    The X-Factors: From Slumping to Streaking

    Dansby Swanson enjoyed a breakthrough offensive season for the Braves, but like most of his teammates struggled against the Reds by going 1-for-9. He feasted on Miami pitching in 10 games this season, hitting .429 with a 1.221 OPS, seven walks and 12 runs scored. And we remember last season, when Swanson hit .389 with a .977 OPS in the NLDS.

    The Marlins need somebody to step up offensively if Marte can’t go. Brian Anderson belted 11 homers with 38 RBIs and an .810 OPS in the regular season, but went hitless in nine at-bats with four strikeouts against the Cubs. While Miami will need more than one hitter to get hot, a repeat of Anderson’s performance last week will be hard to overcome.

    The Difference

    It comes down to depth. The Braves have a deeper lineup, a deeper bullpen, more postseason experience and, if the series goes beyond three games, more options to start Game 4. Bryse Wilson figures to get the nod if this series reaches Friday; he struck out seven Marlins with three hits allowed in five scoreless innings just two weeks ago. It’s possible Miami’s starters are lights-out and keep Atlanta in its offensive funk, but I think it’s far more likely the Braves offense busts out, backing Fried and Anderson to take a 2-0 lead.

    If that happens, I don’t see the Marlins beating the Braves three times in a row. Miami could push this to a decisive fifth game, where anything can happen. The feeling here is the Braves won’t let it get to that point, thanks to strength at the top of their rotation, a rejuvenated offense and a superior bullpen.

    After going 19 years without a postseason series victory, Atlanta will win its second series in an eight-day span.

    The Pick

    Braves in 4.

    On Deck

    Reaction and analysis of every Braves NLDS game, starting Tuesday evening.

    —30—

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