• Sixto Sanchez

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

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

    None of it stopped the Atlanta Braves.

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

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

    The Braves are four wins from the pennant!

    The Braves are four wins from the World Series!

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

    “We finally got past the NLDS.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

    NLDS Preview: Braves 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.