• Shane Greene

    DONE, BY ONE RUN: Braves Can’t Hold Early Game 7 Lead, Fall 4-3 as Dodgers Advance to World Series

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – They only lost three games in a row once in the regular season. They held an early lead in the decisive game of the National League Championship Series. They extinguished a 19-year playoff drought, and came agonizingly close to going to the World Series for the first time since the previous century.

    In the end, the Atlanta Braves simultaneously announced their arrival as a legitimate world championship contender and learned that even the smallest mistakes at the highest level of baseball can prove fatal to one’s title hopes.

    The Braves couldn’t close the door on this NLCS, losing three games in a row after building a 3-1 series advantage. The final nail was hammered shut by Cody Bellinger’s tiebreaking seventh-inning homer off Chris Martin, lifting the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 4-3 victory Sunday in Game 7 and a 4-3 victory in the series, and ending the most successful season by the Braves since the 1999 edition captured the pennant.

    There will be no World Series appearance for the Braves this season, a season nobody knew would even happen due to the pandemic. It was a 60-game sprint to an expanded playoffs where, once there, the Braves swept the Reds and Marlins to reach the NLCS against a Los Angeles franchise making its fifth consecutive LCS appearance.

    And while plenty went right for the Braves in the seven-game series, the missed opportunities in the final three games undoubtedly will stay with them for the months to come. A bit too many quiet offensive innings, a couple of costly baserunning mistakes.

    Consider it a lesson learned, as much as it hurts.

    Let there be no doubt: It hurts. Badly.

    “It’s an unbelievable experience for a really young team,” Braves manager Brian Snitker – whose lineup in Game 7 included five players age 26 or younger – told reporters postgame. “We made some mistakes. We shot ourselves in the foot.

    “In games like this, runs are so hard to come by.”

    The Braves got on the board in the top of the first in Game 7, a Marcell Ozuna chasing home Ronald Acuna Jr. for the game’s first run. Dansby Swanson belted a long homer in the second and Atlanta led 2-0. After the Dodgers tied it with two runs in the third on a Will Smith single, the Braves answered with an Austin Riley single to recapture the lead.

    Then came one of those moments everybody will remember, and not pleasantly.

    With runners on second and third and no outs, Nick Markakis hit a chopper to third. Swanson broke from third and found himself in a rundown, being tagged out running toward the plate. Riley, who was on second, tried to take third and was cut down, a double play on a ball hit 75 feet short-circuiting what could have been a huge inning.

    Seventeen Atlanta hitters would step into the batter’s box after; one reached, an Ozzie Albies walk in the sixth.

    Meanwhile, the Braves were dodging Dodgers threats left and right on the mound. They ran out of magic in the sixth. Shane Greene needed just 14 pitches to get through the fifth, but Snitker elected to go with A.J. Minter – who threw 42 pitches in starting Game 5 on Friday – to begin the sixth. The Dodgers countered with pinch-hitter Kiki Hernandez, who destroyed a 2-2 pitch to left-center to even the score at 3.

    In the seventh, Chris Martin got the first two outs quickly. He made a mistake over the plate to Bellinger, and the former MVP smashed it deep into the right-field seats for the Dodgers first lead of the game. It was the only lead they needed to win the pennant, Austin Riley flying out to Bellinger in center at 11:52 p.m. ET to extinguish Atlanta’s World Series dream one win short.

    Hernandez fouled off three pitches with two strikes before his homer; Bellinger did the same. Even down 3-1 in the series, the Los Angeles offense grinded out quality at-bat after quality at-bat against the Braves, whose vaunted bullpen finally ran out of gas after helping carry the team to the verge of the Fall Classic.

    It’s a tough ending for a team that not many thought had a shot to get here. There will be plenty of second guessing and what ifs asked in the days and weeks to come. Rightly so. But at the same time, allowing that to diminish what Atlanta accomplished in 2020 is a bit short-sighted.

    These Braves were so much fun to watch, at a time in our history when we all needed something to rally around and look forward to other than hospitalization numbers and unemployment figures. It’s incredibly disappointing to fall one run short of the World Series, no matter the environment surrounding the moment, but there is a bit of solace even as the Dodgers begin their celebration.

    For one, the Braves overcame so much just to get here. We don’t need to go chapter-and-verse into the injuries and underperformance. It’s a testament to their toughness. While we can and should point to the lack of execution in several key moments the past 48 hours, nobody can say this bunch didn’t try everything they could to push this ride into the final week of October.

    The biggest takeaway is the progress made from last season to now. While the end comes with the subtleness of running straight into a concrete wall – it always feels like that, doesn’t it? – this also feels like a continuation of this group’s growth. The experience of getting to this stage can’t be overstated. The expectations should continue to rise, and rightly so.

    With a young core in place, this figures not to be the only deep October push. And perhaps one October in the near future, it will be the Braves playing in the World Series, winning the championship the franchise has chased for a quarter-century. At this moment, the future is as bright as ever.

    Even if in the present it’s hard to see the light, through the tears and pain of a journey stopped just short.

    —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.

    PARTY POOPERS: Dodgers Make Braves Pay for Missed Opportunities, Force NLCS to Game 6

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This has nothing to do with curses and jinxes and narratives long since exhausted, and everything to do with lack of execution and failure to seize opportunities.

    Leave third base a bit early on a ball caught in the outfield? Don’t drive home runners in the early innings? Fail to throw strikes during a tight spot? Sometimes in the regular season, those details get glossed over amid the blur of the daily march to October.

    But when you reach the 10th month of the year, you have to be on point at all times. The Atlanta Braves fell short in too many of those moments in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, and that’s the biggest reason they will face the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, instead of preparing for the World Series.

    The Braves had their chances but couldn’t take advantage, and the postseason-tested Dodgers made them pay in a 7-3 victory to keep their season alive. And while the Braves still lead the NLCS 3-2 and need just one win this weekend to capture the NL title and head to the World Series for the first time in 21 years, Friday served as a stinging reminder:

    Winning a pennant is not easy. They just don’t hand out trips to the Fall Classic like free samples at the mall food court. And the final win of a series is the hardest one to secure.

    If you get an opportunity, you best not waste it. If the disaster scenario unfolds this weekend and the Braves manage to lose games started by Max Fried (Saturday) and Ian Anderson (if Sunday’s Game 7 becomes necessary), they will rue the chances that slid through their fingers in Game 5.

    It started about as well as Brian Snitker could have dreamed. The Braves turned to A.J. Minter to kick off a bullpen game – welcome to life in 2020, with no off days in playoff series until next week. For Minter, it was his first start since his junior season at Texas A&M, and all the lefty did was strike out seven over three innings.

    Minter left with a 2-0 lead; it could’ve been more. The Braves collected five hits and two walks in the opening three innings, but scored only the pair of runs while stranding four runners on base.

    Atlanta actually put a third run on the scoreboard in the third, albeit briefly. Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner was snagged by Mookie Betts in right field, the former MVP stumbling as he picked the ball off his shoe tops. Marcell Ozuna, who began the inning with a single, left third base early and upon review was called out, the double play ending the inning.

    Regardless of how you feel about the whole momentum debate – which has raged across the airwaves and social media during this series – there’s no denying this game changed on the Ozuna blunder. The stumbles on this night don’t all fall on the loveable designated hitter, though.

    The Braves couldn’t cash in their chances in the early innings. It almost was jarring to see, considering Atlanta’s offense has scored four runs or more in one inning six times this postseason. In a bullpen game, a house of cards that can topple if just one reliever has an off night, three runs are not going to be enough most of the time.

    Not on this night, and certainly not against the Dodgers, who Friday played their 23rd NLCS game since 2016. And almost immediately after Ozuna’s run came off the board, Los Angeles did what the Braves could not.

    Take advantage.

    Corey Seager’s homer off Tyler Matzek in the fourth made it 2-1. And while the Braves still held the lead, you almost could feel what was coming next. Shane Greene wiggled out of trouble in the fifth, but left with two outs and one on in the sixth.

    Will Smith (the pitcher) came on and for the second straight night could not throw his slider for a strike, walking Max Muncy to extend the inning. That brought up Will Smith (the catcher), who golfed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Dodgers lead.

    The Battle of Wills: The Dodgers catcher put Los Angeles ahead in Game 5 of the NLCS with a three-run homer in the sixth inning Friday.

    In the seventh, Jacob Webb was one strike away from getting out of the inning. Twice. Betts singled home a run on a two-strike pitch, and Seager followed with a two-strike, two-run homer.

    7-2 Dodgers. See you Saturday.

    Atlanta certainly wanted to spend the day shifting from pennant celebration to World Series preparation. There remains work to do, however. It’s playoff baseball, and the deeper you play, the more amplified the missed chances become. That’s part of it, a part the Braves and many members of their fanbase are learning on the fly.

    That’s not to suggest the Braves suddenly are gripped with overwhelming pressure. You can afford a stumble if you build a 3-1 series advantage, which the Braves did. Friday was Game 5, not Game 7. Fried pitched well in Game 1 and will be on full rest. Critical bullpen arms like Mark Melancon and Chris Martin also are fresh. Saturday is Snitker’s 65th birthday, and what would be a better present than a pennant and World Series berth?

    One also must think the Braves will have a heightened sense of urgency after a few stumbles Friday delayed the party for at least a day. The pressure remains squarely on the Dodgers, whose sole mission from the commencement of spring training is to win the World Series.

    But if this series isn’t over 24 hours from now, we’re having a completely different discussion.

    —30—

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

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Certainly not in the postseason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It was a game the Braves won anyway.

    —30—

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

    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.

    Braves’ 2019 … Emptying The Notebook Entering The Offseason

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Back in the old days of print newspapers, it wasn’t uncommon to have items that never made it into the morning edition. Those tidbits, musings, observations would remain in your notebook, scribbled as a passing thought or jotted down in case you needed it as a point of reference.

    On the day after the Atlanta Braves saw their season end with a thud in an ugly Game 5 loss to St. Louis in the National League Division Series, it’s time to empty the notebook and touch on a few items that didn’t get flushed out in our coverage of the series. Items that, in retrospect, feel worthy of a few words as the shift from stunned conclusion to pivotal offseason begins in earnest.

    Acuna, Part I: Save for one regrettable moment in Game 1, 21-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. did more than his part, the emerging superstar hitting .444 in the series with a 1.454 OPS, three doubles, one triple, one homer and four walks. The fact Acuna finished with a .565 OBP in the series and scored just one run only underscores how putrid a large segment of the Atlanta offense was in the five games.

    Acuna, Part II: As brilliant as Acuna was, so much more has been made of the budding feud between him and the Cardinals, stoked by Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and Jack Flaherty. I had no problem with several Braves calling out Acuna for his lack of hustle on the single off the right-field wall in Game 1 (an inning I contend the Braves were not going to score whether he was on first or second base). It was warranted and necessary.

    I had a huge problem with the indifference displayed in the Braves dugout in the fifth inning of Game 5, when Flaherty gutlessly drilled Acuna in the back with a purpose pitch, on a two-strike count, in a 12-run game. I certainly did not want to see the Braves charge the field, nor do I think Sean Newcomb should’ve hit Flaherty in the following inning. But the disinterest when Acuna wore a pitch between his shoulder blades from his teammates was a bad, bad look. So, too, is the ongoing public referendum around a kid barely old enough to drink who possesses game-changing talent, a vibe the sport is trying to market.

    Let the kid play … and have his back if somebody crosses the line.

    Freddie Failure: This is Freddie Freeman’s team, without question, but I’d be hard pressed to find a five-game stretch in which the unofficial captain of the Braves was this bad. His error on Molina’s ball in the first in Game 5 cost Atlanta an inning-ending double play and opened the floodgates. It’s a play that had to be made. He was awful at the plate, collecting two of his four hits (in 20 at-bats) after St. Louis blew it open Wednesday. His inability to make contact hurt the Braves on multiple occasions (six strikeouts in the series). The Braves three-hole hitter, with the leadoff hitter on base for much of the series begging for somebody to drive him home, finished with one paltry RBI.

    In 39 plate appearances in the past two postseasons, Freeman has two RBIs – both coming on solo homers. He described the Braves as having “failed” in his postgame comments Wednesday, doubling down yet again on the fact his right elbow is healthy. But he clearly wasn’t himself, and while he never was going to come out of the lineup or move out of the third spot, Freeman’s failure to raise his game – as Acuna did – ultimately played a major role in the premature end of Atlanta’s season.

    Soroka For One, Not Two: A huge talking point in the hours after the series was the decision to save 22-year-old ace-in-the-making Mike Soroka for Game 3 in St. Louis, taking advantage of dominant road splits instead of starting the All-Star twice in the series. It’s easy to second guess the decision after the fact, but the feeling here was (and remains) that it was the right call.

    With playoff veteran Dallas Keuchel starting the opener at home and as hot as Mike Foltynewicz was entering his Game 2 assignment, you had to feel Soroka’s matchup was quite favorable considering he would pitch on the road as opposed to in Atlanta (4.14 ERA and 1.30 WHIP at home in the regular season vs. 1.55/0.96 in away games). As I mentioned in the run-up to the series, the vast majority of the time you want your No. 1 or No. 2 guy lined up to get two starts across the five games. But the decision to start Soroka just once, while painful in hindsight, did not lose Atlanta this series.

    Best Laid Plans: There are a lot of people for whom I feel awful after this belly-flop performance, but Chris Martin sits near the top of the line. Out of baseball, working in warehouses, started throwing again, went the indy ball route, eventually ended up with the Rangers, then after becoming a strike-throwing machine was acquired by the Braves at the deadline.

    Martin’s left oblique injury, suffered before throwing a pitch in the eighth inning of Game 1, not only eliminated another layer to this tremendous story, it also had an equally painful ripple effect on the Braves pitching plans. Shane Greene pitched the sixth inning in Game 1, with Brian Snitker looking to close the game with Max Fried in the seventh, Martin in the eighth and Mark Melancon in the ninth. Martin’s absence shoved Fried into a full-time bullpen role for the rest of the series (he would’ve been quite the option to start either Game 4 or 5). Instead, Snitker had to bring on Luke Jackson in the eighth in Game 1, who struggled before Melancon imploded in the ninth.

    But Sometimes, The Plan Isn’t Worth Following: Honestly, Martin never should’ve trotted in from the bullpen in Game 1. Fried absolutely dominated the seventh inning (14 pitches, nine strikes, two punchouts) and should’ve gotten the eighth. With Paul Goldschmidt leading off the eighth (who would hit one nine miles off Jackson), it would’ve been great to scrap the best-laid plans after watching Fried shove in the seventh and give the lefty at least a chance to work the eighth.

    Absurdly Offensive Offense: The Braves were carried by Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall in the series offensively, but got precious little help from most of the lineup. We’ve talked about Freeman, but he had company. Ozzie Albies had a strong Game 4 but mostly was pedestrian. Josh Donaldson disappointed. Nick Markakis was invisible (certainly, he’s made his final appearance with Atlanta, right?). Matt Joyce struggled before being benched for Duvall in Game 5.

    One of the top offenses in the NL all season, the Braves slashed .225/.302/.385 in the series. They finished with 16 extra-base hits, nine from Acuna-Swanson-Duvall. Game 5 was over before the Braves registered a plate appearance, but in the first four games they went 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and left 30 on base, including 17 in the two games they had no business losing – eight in Game 1; nine in Game 4.

    How else to explain why, after Acuna doubled to lead off the ninth of a tied Game 4, Albies didn’t bunt? Because Freeman-Donaldson-Markakis were so bad in the series, the Braves best chance was hoping their second baseman – who had a homer and a sacrifice fly in the game – could punch through a hit. It wasn’t going to happen if Albies didn’t get it done.

    Above any other reason, the inability to hit with runners in scoring position in the first four games cost the Braves this series.

    Finally, A Toast To B-Mac: Brian McCann was my oldest’s son’s favorite player growing up. The kid would crawl into my lap and ask a million questions about what the Duluth High graduate and Gwinnett County product was doing behind the plate, sparking a love of catching that led to that little boy squatting behind the dish in little league for eight years.

    McCann put together a very good career. He struggled mightily in the second half, but homered in the division clincher against San Francisco, capped the big rally against Philly with a walkoff in mid-June, and something just felt right about him being at home and going to the playoffs in, what we learned after Game 5, was his final big-league season.

    The Braves were facing the need to upgrade at catcher entering next season before McCann’s announcement. But that does nothing to minimize the impact B-Mac had on everybody who saw him play. And even more important, from everybody who crossed paths with him, from the newspaper sports editor who delighted in a 15-minute conversation at spring training 2006 talking to him about the impact the 1990s Braves had on himself and a generation of Atlanta-area kids, to my son – who refused to leave SunTrust Park on Wednesday until he saw McCann catch the final inning of his career.

    —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.

    Win, or Winter: Braves Need Offensive Revival in Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was right there, a mere five outs away from extinguishing nearly two decades of playoff futility, of popping champagne bottles and exorcising demons and reveling in a shot to play for the pennant.

    But the postseason often provides both the most wonderful and most heartbreaking of moments in such close proximity, it almost seems cruel. And that’s where we find the Atlanta Braves after Game 4 of the National League Division Series, a 5-4 walkoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that not only kept them from winning their first playoff series in 18 years, it simultaneously pushed their season to the brink.

    It’s back to SunTrust Park for the fifth and decisive game of what’s been a fantastic series, full of twists and turns and late-inning drama and “did you see that” moments. Somebody’s season is going to end Wednesday evening. If it is the Braves, they will spend the dark winter months wondering what in the world happened to the heart of a lineup that terrorized opposing pitchers for most of the summer.

    Atlanta’s 3-through-7 hitters – Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – are a combined 10-for-69 (.145) with one homer, three RBIs, four runs scored and 16 strikeouts through four games. In that context, it’s amazing the Braves even are alive for Game 5. Freeman’s struggles (2-for-16, five strikeouts) are particularly jarring. While he told reporters postgame the bone spur in his right elbow is having “zero” impact on his series, it has been painful to watch some of the swings the longest-tenured Brave has attempted in the first four games.

    And the timing couldn’t be worse.

    Atlanta had so many opportunities to break open Game 4, a tight affair that started on the wrong foot for the Braves just 20 hours after they scored three times while down to their final out in the ninth for a stirring Game 3 comeback. Any momentum from one of the most epic postseason rallies in franchise history fizzled quickly with two homers launched against Dallas Keuchel in the first inning Monday.

    The decision to start the veteran left-hander on three days rest was understandable. The other viable option was Julio Teheran, whose place on the postseason roster only came about following the left oblique injury to Chris Martin in Game 1. But Keuchel clearly was not effective Monday, surrendering three longballs before his day ended after 3 1/3 disappointing innings.

    To their credit, as they so often have done in 2019, the Braves battled back. Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth pushed Atlanta ahead 4-3, and with Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Sean Newcomb and Josh Tomlin cruising through the middle innings – combining to give up one hit with one walk and four strikeouts across four scoreless innings – it was easy to start thinking about what the scene could’ve been like in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

    And it should’ve happened.

    Atlanta had ample opportunities to put away this game and this series. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth. They did it again in the seventh. They put the leadoff man on in the ninth. It netted exactly zero runs, and with each failing came that ever-impending sense of Atlanta sports playoff doom. It didn’t help the two hits allowed by Shane Greene in the bottom of the eighth that netted the tying run for St. Louis came on balls that left the bat at 69.7 mph (Paul Goldschmidt’s broken-bat double to left) and 63.4 mph (Yadier Molina’s single that ticked off Freeman’s outstretched glove behind the first-base bag).

    A boatload of missed opportunities plus the latest installment of Cardinals Devil Magic is not the combination you want to dial up when trying to close out a playoff series.

    You can’t put this one on Greene, who worked out of ninth-inning trouble to force extra innings. You certainly can’t put this one on Teheran, who pitched for the first time in 11 days when called upon to extend the game in the bottom of the 10th and ended up the hard-luck loser on Molina’s sacrifice fly.  

    It’s hard to put this on the two guys who made the final outs of the sixth and seventh, Adam Duvall and Adeiny Hechavarria, respectively. Duvall, who struck out to end the sixth, is hitting .429 in the series and delivered the big two-run homer in Game 2 and the game-winning double in Game 3. Hechavarria chased Marcell Ozuna to the warning track in left.

    There have been bright spots offensively in the series, despite Atlanta being an abysmal 4-for-34 with runners in scoring position and leaving 30 runners on base. Ronald Acuna Jr. has been spectacular, his four hits Monday raising his series average to .500. Albies drove in three runs in Game 4. Swanson had two more hits and scored twice in Game 4 to raise his average to .500. Duvall is hitting .429 and absolutely deserves to start for either Joyce or Markakis in Game 5.

    And there is reason for hope entering Wednesday (despite what the masses on social media will tell you). Sure, the Cardinals will deploy Jack Flaherty in the finale, but the Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz. The two right-handers were splendid in Game 2. St. Louis hasn’t exactly kicked down the door offensively in the series, either, save for Marcell Ozuna (8-for-13, two homers) and Paul Goldschmidt (7-for-16, two homers). Closer Carlos Martinez has surrendered six runs on six hits in 3 1/3 innings.

    In a series where three of the four games have been decided by two runs or fewer, including two one-run decisions, which team can muster the key hit in the key spot likely wins Game 5 and earns the right to advance to the NLCS. The Braves must hope the likes of Freeman, Donaldson, et al, deliver when their team needs them the most.

    If not, they’ll have all winter to rue the opportunity squandered.

    —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.

    Choosing the Braves’ Playoff Roster: Head over Heart Must Win Out

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yes, the Atlanta Braves are not in town this week, so I’m at the abode tucked near the big lake north of the capital city doing what I normally do:

    Spending far more time thinking and writing and talking and tweeting and texting about this baseball team than any sane husband, father, head of household and holder of two jobs should. But alas, this baseball bug bit me 40 years ago. That horse is long out of the barn – just ask my wife, who knows our 20th wedding anniversary next week collides with a playoff gameday, one who weeks ago nodded her head that we shall celebrate on a different date – and here we are.

    And where we’re at is the National League Division Series. Well, not yet technically. These Braves, rulers of the NL East for a second consecutive season, are about to embark on a playoff push that – for the first time in forever – feels more like a first step than a final destination point. Even down to the lifelong Brave, the stoic manager Brian Snitker, all of Braves Country shares that sentiment, summed up by the skipper telling the team “privately” (hat-tip to Ronald Acuna Jr. and his Instagram story for providing us with all the feels we need for the next five weeks in the moments after Friday’s division-clinching victory) that the Braves last year knocked on that door.

    And this year?

    “We’re going to kick that (expletive) in!”

    Now comes one of the fun and frustrating parts of being a playoff team. Think about how many times you’ve heard Freddie Freeman, heard Alex Anthopoulos, heard Snitker say this season that you need far more than the 25 guys on your active roster at any particular time to win. It’s been mentioned often because, well, it’s true. In this day and age of baseball, of specialization, of analytics, of emphasis on specific skillsets, it takes a village to wrangle a division title.

    But that population gets culled down as the 10th month of the year dawns. Baseball playoff rosters contain 25 players. Thus, there is an exercise in determining which 25 get to take the field for each postseason series. And while heartstrings get pulled and bodies of work over this season or multiple seasons tug at you, the cruel reality is recent performance plus matchups plus how skillsets translate against said matchups often determine the makeup of a postseason roster.

    With that said, here’s one view of these Braves and the 25 men who will attempt to do something this franchise hasn’t been done since 2001: win a playoff series.

    Catchers

    Locked and Loaded: Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers

    On the Bubble: Francisco Cervelli

    Outside the Circle: John Ryan Murphy

    The Skinny: No surprises here. Both McCann and Flowers will make starts in the NLDS, and I’d take Cervelli as a third catcher. Unlike last season, when Rene Rivera filled a bench spot because there literally were no other options, Cervelli is a veteran receiver who has batted .333 with nine hits (eight for extra bases) in 11 games since joining the Braves. His presence allows Atlanta to pinch-run if a catcher gets on base late in a close game.

    Infielders

    Locked and Loaded: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria

    On the Bubble: Austin Riley

    Outside the Circle: Johan Camargo (injured), Charlie Culberson (injured)

    The Skinny: Hechavarria settled shortstop after Swanson was injured and Camargo struggled at the position. The hairline fracture that has sidelined Camargo is quite unfortunate, given he was 5-for-11 after coming back from Triple-A Gwinnett. Culberson was a lock for the roster before the frightening hit-by-pitch that ended his season. Fortunately, Hechavarria is here and has shown more promise offensively than expected – hitting .291 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.

    The biggest intrigue surrounds the 22-year-old rookie Riley. He set the world on fire his first six weeks in the majors offensively; he’s been a liability at the plate since early July. But he provides backup at third base and first base with Camargo and Culberson out, a necessary insurance policy who also can go deep on any swing. The feeling here is he will make the roster despite slashing .143/.205/.286 with 17 strikeouts in 35 September at-bats, and the fact facing right-handers doesn’t bode well for his struggles on pitches down and away.

    Outfielders

    Locked and Loaded: Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton

    On the Bubble: Ender Inciarte (injured), Adam Duvall

    Outside the Circle: Rafael Ortega

    The Skinny: Inciarte has not played since suffering a hamstring injury Aug. 16 against the Dodgers, his second prolonged stint on the injured list this season. It was unfortunate considering Inciarte was riding his typical second-half surge offensively, hitting .293 in 25 games with three homers, 17 runs scored and 15 RBIs before the injury. Inciarte could play this weekend in New York after testing his hamstring this week in Kansas City.

    But hamstrings are the type of injury that can linger, especially for a player whose game is built on defense and speed. Duvall has acquitted himself well since returning to the majors when rosters expanded, slashing .290/.353/.613 in September with three homers, and brings a five-game hitting streak into the weekend. The thought here is Inciarte is close, but not close enough, and while his left-handed bat would come in handy against either the Cardinals or Brewers, the Braves will take the hot hand and select Duvall as the final outfielder.

    Starting Rotation

    Locked and Loaded: Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried*

    On the Bubble: Julio Teheran

    Outside the Circle: None

    The Skinny: I give Fried the asterisk because he’s on the roster, albeit in a hybrid role where he may start Game 4, may pitch out of the bullpen in Game 1 before a start in the fourth game, or simply pitch out of the bullpen as a lefty power arm. The first three starters are listed in order of appearance, as the Braves have lined up their playoff rotation by moving Soroka back to Sunday, slotted for a potential Game 3 start on the road after Keuchel pitches the playoff opener and Foltynewicz gets the ball in Game 2.

    Which brings us to Teheran, who’s made 30+ starts each of the past seven seasons. A model of consistency most of the season, Teheran’s last three starts have been difficult (14 earned runs, 14 hits, five homers, a 11.12 ERA). The deception in his pitches just isn’t there right now. He won’t pitch again in the regular season. I don’t expect him to pitch in the NLDS because I don’t see him making the roster.

    Bullpen

    Locked and Loaded: Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins

    On the Bubble: Luke Jackson, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Josh Tomlin, Kyle Wright

    Outside the Circle: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Jeremy Walker, Chad Sobotka, Anthony Swarzak

    The Skinny: The Braves vaunted trio of lock-down relievers acquired at the trade deadline has solidified the bullpen, and the lefty duo of Newcomb and Blevins have spots locked. That leaves two openings for arms, and a variety of candidates.

    Luke Jackson did yeoman’s work as closer, and while it’s hard to overlook his .333 opponents batting average against right-handers on the season and a 7.04 ERA in eight September appearances, it’s also worthy to denote his 13 strikeouts-per-nine ratio. His slider Wednesday in Kansas City was as devastating as we’ve seen it all season (four strikeouts in 1 1/3 innings).

    The forgotten man, Darren O’Day, has made the most of his long-awaited Atlanta debut this month, allowing three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings in his past five appearances. His 21 career postseason appearances and a career .196 opponents average against right-handers build a compelling case, especially after pitching back-to-back outings for the first time this week.

    You could make a case for the youngster Kyle Wright (impressive power slider since being recalled), or the versatile Josh Tomlin. But I think the Braves go with O’Day’s experience and Jackson’s strikeout ability to fill out the bullpen, a group that may be supplemented by Fried early in the series.

    One Caveat

    If Inciarte returns in New York and shows that he is 100 percent with no issues, perhaps the Braves roll the dice and include him on the roster. That likely would bump either Riley (which I’d be hesitant to do given Freeman’s recent elbow issues) or a reliever (either Jackson or O’Day) off the roster. We won’t know how viable adding Inciarte is until the final three games are complete.

    The Final Roster

    Catchers (3): Brian McCann, Tyler Flowers, Francisco Cervelli

    Infielders (6): Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Josh Donaldson, Adeiny Hechavarria, Austin Riley

    Outfielders (5): Ronald Acuna Jr., Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce, Billy Hamilton, Adam Duvall

    Pitchers (11): Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Chris Martin, Sean Newcomb, Jerry Blevins, Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson

    —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.

    With East All but Secure, Braves Turn Attention to Greater Goals

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Once upon a time, back in the early days of spring when the prognosticators were offering their forecast for the 2019 season, there was little national regard paid to a defending division champion. A 90-game winner the previous season. A team awash with young talent, with more on the way. A team with money to spend.

    And yet, everywhere from MLB Network Radio to armchair experts on Twitter, the view was pessimistic surrounding the 2019 Atlanta Braves. Yes, the defending National League East champion, the team in the division (we exclude the Miami Marlins from this conversation because, well, they’re the Marlins) that did the least in the offseason. The term “financial flexibility” was deadpanned from coast to coast, and a season-opening sweep at the hands of the buffed-up Phillies did nothing but fan the flames of discontent.

    Fast forward to Sunday morning. Walking into SunTrust Park for the finale of a series we all circled months ago, and there was a strange feeling. One of finality. One of arrival. One of … dare we say, calm?

    The Atlanta Braves lost Sunday to the Washington Nationals, the 9-4 final score not indictive of the type of day it was for the home team. Max Scherzer pitched like an ace, Yan Gomes homered twice, Braves pitchers gave up 17 hits. And yet …

    It felt like it didn’t matter.

    Because it didn’t.

    Certainly, a victory Sunday would have made for the perfect bow on top of the perfect package, but the real story was what the Braves did in the three games leading into Sunday, the nine games leading into Sunday and, in a sense, the four months leading into Sunday.

    Imagine the preseason pundits now, pulling up the MLB app on their phone and gazing at the NL East standings. The Braves, trashed and torched far and wide throughout the winter and spring, sitting nine games clear of the Nationals with 18 games to go, a magic number of 11, a breakneck pace that looks unstoppable on its way to another Choptober.

    Those vaunted Phillies and Mets? Not even worth the keystrokes to mention how far back that pair of preseason darlings sit from first place.

    What the Braves did this weekend was deliver the loudest of statements. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since May 10, when in the midst of a four-game losing streak featuring an overwhelming sweep by the Dodgers and a walk-off loss in Arizona, manager Brian Snitker shook up the lineup. He re-deployed Ronald Acuna Jr. to the leadoff spot, moved newly acquired Josh Donaldson to cleanup, slotted Ozzie Albies lower in the lineup and elevated Dansby Swanson to the two-hole.

    Since that moment the Braves are 71-35, a .669 winning percentage that over the course of a full season equates to a 108-win season. It’s featured a 20-win June, a 19-win August, victories in six of their first seven games in September, series victories over the Twins and Dodgers, a split at Wrigley Field, and wins in nine of their past 13 meetings with the Nationals.

    Those last three triumphs most likely buried Washington’s shot of contending for the division title with two weeks left in the season. It started, as always, with pitching, and Atlanta starters Max Fried, Dallas Keuchel and Julio Teheran combined to allow one run in 19 innings with three walks and 20 strikeouts. It ended with solid work from the bullpen, two games closed by Mark Melancon and one by Shane Greene. It featured the lethal top of the Braves lineup unleashing its deadly duo of speed and power, from Acuna’s assault on 40/40 to Albies homering in consecutive games to the steady Freddie Freeman to Donaldson bringing rain and dancing with an umbrella in the dugout.

    These Braves have morphed into something very few of us saw coming this soon. Yes, there was a prevailing feeling in spring this team could be really good, but I doubt many of us saw them being a 100-win squad. But here we are, a new era dawning right before our eyes.

    Last year’s Braves took the baseball world by surprise. From listening to the national media this spring, you would think those 90 wins and a division crown were a fluke, a feel-good story that wasn’t sustainable. That line of thinking, while popular, was foolish … even more so in retrospect.

    What we have here is an elite team, one that has seen its goals shift. It’s been 18 years since the Braves won a playoff series. It’s been two decades since they won a pennant. It’s been nearly a quarter-century since they won it all.

    This team is capable of accomplishing all of that. It doesn’t fit the national storyline. Even to this day, there still remains the “yeah, but they didn’t do much in the offseason” narrative. And that’s fine. It’s worked out, from the lineup changes to the midseason acquisitions to the fact that, to a man, this baseball team has played like champions.

    They soon will be champions of the East, yet again, pundits be darned. And they have a better chance than anybody outside of Braves Country will give them of being champions of far, far more.

    —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.

    Message Delivered: Braves Beat L.A., Make Statement

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Braves fans metaphorically circled this third weekend in August the moment their return-to-prominence 2018 season expired last October at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    This weekend became underlined with red ink after the monsters from the West Coast, the two-time defending National League champion, raced through the Braves by an aggregate score of 23-7 during an ugly three-game sweep in early May at Chavez Ravine. Entering the weekend, the Braves were 7-20 since 2016 against Los Angeles. Any hopes of October greatness, dampened by the sobering realization that the Dreaded Blue Menace – their immense big-league talent, their seemingly limitless payroll, their stacked farm system – stands menacingly at the toll booth.

    So naturally, the Braves won this series so many had denoted weeks and months in advance. Standing inside SunTrust Park (aka the city’s largest sauna) Sunday afternoon, I was struck at how this weekend transpired. The Braves finally beat the Dodgers, logging their first series victory against Los Angeles since 2015. That’s noteworthy in and of itself.

    But the real story is how they did so.

    They did so with Freddie Freeman not recording a hit. They did so with Dansby Swanson and Nick Markakis and Austin Riley stuck on the injured list. They did so with Ender Inciarte playing just two innings in the series. They did so with Ronald Acuna Jr. playing just four innings in the series finale.

    They did so with the likes of Adeiny Hechavarria, Adam Duvall and Rafael Ortega playing major roles.

    Just like we all drew it up, right?

    Baseball is beautiful because it can get so absurd at times, and the level of “what the heck” peaked several times in a series where the Braves sought to deliver a statement to the Dodgers. Since leaving Los Angeles on May 8, Atlanta is 56-33 while clearly establishing itself as the second-best team in the NL. But no such announcement of arrival – or at least a notice of threatening to storm the castle – would carry any weight without actual head-to-head evidence.

    In other words, the Braves had a chance to prove something this weekend. And they delivered the message in the most absurd way. Consider:

    • Atlanta’s most resurgent hitter of late, Inciarte, sprained his hamstring racing home with a run in the second inning Friday. Inciarte, who admirably found a way to score on the play, is lost for at least a month, further depleting a depth chart that is so thin at the moment Ortega – he of 113 big-league games before Sunday – is in the majors.
    • Duvall, mired in a 3-for-33 slump that resulted in his demotion to Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday afternoon, hastily was recalled after the Inciarte injury. His sixth-inning homer Saturday off Cy Young favorite Hyun-Jin Ryu snapped a 3-all tie and lifted the Braves to a 4-3 victory.
    • Hechavarria, who wasn’t even with the organization Friday morning, started at shortstop all three games. He collected at least one hit in each and went 4-for-9 in the series, while settling a position defensively that had become a black hole since Swanson’s heel sent him to the injured list.
    • Then there’s Ortega, who played 41 games with the Marlins in 2018 and acquitted himself well at Gwinnett this season, hitting .285 with 21 homers and 14 steals. He was added to the 40-man roster and brought to the majors to serve as the last man off the bench. All he did Sunday was start in left field, move to center, then dramatically flip the game with a sixth-inning grand slam off Dustin May, the No. 33 prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline.

    Ortega’s defensive switch came as a result of a day Acuna won’t soon forget. It began by him nearly making another “catch-of-the-season” type play in the first, leaping high at the fence in center and getting his glove on Cody Bellinger’s three-run homer, the 21-year-old dropping his glove and hat to the warning track dirt in disbelief that he didn’t record his second homer-robbing catch in four games.

    Then came the third inning, and an opposite-field shot high off the bricks in right-center. Acuna admired the ball for far too long, never really got into a sprint and found himself standing on first base instead of second. He then compounded the mistake by trying to steal on the first pitch, when the entire ballpark knew he was going (including the Dodgers, who called a pitchout), resulting in a caught stealing.

    Both moments destroyed what should have been runners on second and third, no outs, and Ozzie Albies, Freeman and Josh Donaldson coming to the plate in a 3-0 game. Acuna’s day ended after four innings, Snitker taking his young phenom into the tunnel for a conversation, then returning to the manager’s post while Acuna headed to the clubhouse.

    Braves Twitter, to the shock of nobody, combusted in flames. (For what it’s worth, I was watching the flight of the ball, then watching the relay, and didn’t see Acuna’s lack of hustle out of the box live. Upon seeing it on replay, it was egregious.). The view here is it was a necessary message delivered and will serve as a lesson learned.

    It wasn’t the only message delivered this weekend, although it will be one the blogosphere and national media will hyper-focus upon. Nobody will equate a series in the sauna of August with one played amid the chill of October. But for the Braves to be taken seriously, at some point they had to beat the Dodgers. That mission was accomplished, and for all the weirdness and unsuspecting supporting actors who stepped up, don’t lose sight of how the Braves navigated the weekend.

    Mike Soroka pitched like an ace against a juggernaut offense. Mike Foltynewicz needed 107 pitches to get through 4 2/3 innings Saturday, but stayed focused and grinded through times when a few weeks ago he may have crumbled. Max Fried shook off allowing three runs in a rough first inning Sunday to give the Braves five innings and keep the game close.

    And as important as the beginning of the game was this weekend, the most telling sign is what happened when the bullpen gate opened. Yes, Sean Newcomb coughed up the lead Friday, but don’t overlook his 1 1/3 perfect innings Saturday that netted him the win after homers by Donaldson and Duvall in the sixth. Anthony Swarzak fired a scoreless inning Sunday.

    That paved the way to the closing trio of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon – lauded as terrific moves at the trade deadline, but ones that had delivered mostly terrible results. On this weekend, we finally saw three guys settled into their roles, and the productivity speaks for itself.

    Martin struck out two in a perfect ninth Friday and breezed through a perfect seventh Sunday. Greene needed 16 pitches to strike out the side in the eighth Saturday, and half that number to record a 1-2-3 eighth Sunday. Melancon worked the ninth Saturday and Sunday, allowing just one hit while recording a pair of saves.

    The Braves won the series so many had circled with so many unexpected pieces contributing. They won the series with several key cogs sidelined. They won the rubber game with their brightest young star benched.

    Most importantly, they won the series with their new bullpen triumvirate doing what they were brought here to do: Help a very good team surge closer to the top. That’s where the Dodgers reside. That’s where the Braves seek to be. After this weekend, the Braves aren’t there yet, but they’re closer.

    And the Dodgers know it.

    —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.

    Bullpen Stumbles Aside, Braves Country Should Be Excited As Big Week Begins

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Monday’s off day for the Atlanta Braves came at a much-needed time for a squad wrapping up 17 games in 17 days with Sunday’s victory at Miami, concluding a stretch that included pulling off several trades at the July 31 deadline.

    The respite also provided the well-meaning-yet-sometimes-maniacal denizens of Braves Country with a chance to do something it doesn’t do nearly enough – breathe.

    Then around lunchtime, Major League Baseball dropped the 2020 schedule right into our turkey sandwiches and side salads. Immediately, thoughts turned (albeit briefly; there’s a division title and hopefully more to pursue in the here and now) to how each week next season will unfold. It gave me a chance to think back to last winter, when the prematurely-bursting-into-prominence Braves were looking toward this 2019 season.

    It wouldn’t take long back in those cold December days to look at the second full week of August, spy three home games with the Mets, followed by the Dodgers for three, to realize that, “aye, that’s going to be a big week.” And here we are, that big week arriving with the first game against the red-hot fellas from Queens unfolding Tuesday night at SunTrust Park, when Max Fried takes the ball against the pride of East Paulding High, the almost-traded at the deadline and unscored-upon-since Zack Wheeler.

    On those cold winter nights, sipping on a beverage while watching Jets hockey or Hawks basketball, you think about where your team will be at certain points in next season’s schedule. Nobody could have foreseen the Mets rolling into the ATL winning 15 of their past 17 games after being nine games under .500 and rumored to trade everybody not named Pete Alonso in the days leading to the end of July. Certainly, most figured the Dodgers would sit atop their perch above the Senior Circuit, a juggernaut that looks hell-bent on rolling to a third-consecutive NL pennant and hoping a third trip to the World Series will be the charm three-decades plus in the making.

    As for these Braves? We thought they would be good. And they have been. But mercy, it’s been a bumpy ride at times, especially once the late innings arrive. The acquisitions of Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon at the deadline were supposed to smooth the final two to three innings, pushing closer-by-circumstance Luke Jackson back into lower-leverage situations. And yet, there was Jackson, battling through what remains unworldly bad BABIP luck to escape Miami with a save in a 5-4 victory Sunday that salvaged a series split to send Atlanta into its off day with at least a less-foul taste in its mouth.

    On to this week. As the kids say, it’s about to get lit. One may say the Braves bullpen has been in a perpetual state of getting lit up. The first 11 days of the Martin-Greene-Melancon era (which sounds like a law firm advertising on local TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning) have not fostered any feelings of confidence and calm. Quite the opposite. Their struggles have fanned the flames of relief discontent, although Sean Newcomb did his part in an inadvertent way to put out the fire in the visitors clubhouse of Marlins Park after Saturday’s train wreck finish.

    No, Greene was not going to pitch to a sub-1.20 ERA all season. No, Melancon is not the guy who saved 51 games for the Pirates a few years ago. Yes, Martin is not too far removed from working in a warehouse and thinking a chronic shoulder injury had derailed his big-league dreams permanently. In a vacuum, that statement doesn’t spark a lot of optimism, just like the vacuum of 11 days and sub-par performance makes one think, “why couldn’t we do more?”

    The steadier view is all three guys are better than they’ve showed in their initial forays with a tomahawk across their chest, that four days in their new “home” city right after being uprooted from their previous ports-of-call, followed by a week-long road trip, hasn’t allowed for the settling that has to happen anytime somebody transfers for a job with less than 24-hours notice.

    The thought here is all three will settle in this week. Their team needs them, too. This is an important week. The Mets are carrying a New York-sized dose of attitude, and rightly so. This series is a chance to shove it to their cynics, who fairly point out most of the work during their spellbinding surge came against some of the dregs of 2019 big-league baseball. Then the Dodgers arrive, a team that swept the Braves out of Chavez Ravine with little regard in May, a team that dominated the plucky-yet-overmatched Braves in last season’s NL Division Series.

    And now, a word regarding the hometown nine. Atlanta leads the NL East by six full games over Washington, eight over the hard-charging Mets, nine over the stupid-money Phillies. When the Braves take the field at SunTrust Park on Tuesday, 48 days will separate them from the end of the regular season and a potential second-consecutive division crown. While nobody is suggesting Atlanta try to sit on the lead and run out the clock (we all know the scar-inducing disaster that unleashes), the fact remains the Braves are a half-dozen games in front of the Nationals.

    It’s a very good team. Ronald Acuna Jr. has exploded into the transcendent star we all believed he could be, as the first 30/30 season since Ron Gant on the worst-to-first 1991 Braves is a mere formality, and baseball’s fifth-ever 40/40 season is a possibility. Ozzie Albies has found his stroke from the left side, locking down the second spot in the order moving forward, even upon Dansby Swanson’s return from a bruised right heel that has shelved the Marietta High product far longer than any expected.

    Freddie Freeman is Freddie Freeman. Mike Soroka continues to make the “Maple Maddux” moniker seem more realistic every fifth day. Fried has steadied himself after a rough stretch in early summer. Julio Teheran, the quiet veteran who’s seen the awful days, keeps shoving and shining. A nod to Ender Inciarte, burned at the stake by Braves fans on social media, who is healthy and contributing; Brian McCann, and his solid homecoming season; and Josh Donaldson, who with each passing day makes the front office seriously consider if paying for his age 34, 35 and 36 seasons would be a worthwhile investment (for the record, I’m far more onboard with this than I was two months ago).

    The path to October never is easy (well, unless you’re the Dodgers, and you’re clearly better than anybody else in the league). There are fits and starts, struggles and injuries, along with plenty of “did you see THAT” moments. That’s what makes baseball so great. It’s every single day. Win? Lose? Process it, go to tomorrow. That cadence is why, even on a day off, you see a clean slate for a season that doesn’t start for another 7 ½ months and begin pondering the possibilities.

    And that’s why, for the hiccups and finding of roles from the relief corps, you should look to Tuesday and the week to come with excitement. When you’re losing 90 games and trading assets at the deadline for prospects, these games in August and September don’t matter. That was the Braves of 2015, 2016, 2017.

    That’s not these Braves. They’re clearly in the window now. Sure, the glass gets smudged at times. Sometimes there is dust (or residue from a fire extinguisher) that blows in and makes things messy. But beyond the calamity of the moment the view remains glorious, one this team has a chance to bring into full focus starting with this homestand.

    —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.