• SunTrust Park

    The Newest Baby Braves Usher in a New Era

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – We conclude my look back at the top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s with a focus on the franchise’s emergence from the painful rebuild with the National League East clincher in 2018, followed by a slamming announcement of arrival in Atlanta’s first playoff game victory in five years in that season’s NLDS.

    Did you miss part of the series? Check out the previous entries below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then a Choke

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

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

    Part 4: Stunned Silence After a Pair of Gut-Wrenching Losses

    The Braves Are Back: Sept. 22, 2018

    At Long and Blessed Last, the Painful Rebuild Ends

    I stood in a cigar shop off Ga. 400 north of Cumming on the morning of Sept. 22, 2018. A cooler inside my SUV held two bottles of champagne, chilling on ice and poised for the day. As I picked out a couple of stogies (I reserve a good cigar for special occasions), the guy behind the counter looked at my Braves jersey.

    “It’s been a long time coming,” he said, smiling. “It’s so great the Braves are back.”

    That fourth Saturday in September took me back, way back, to my much younger days when it felt like popping bottles late in the year’s ninth month was a birthright. The Braves began 2018 hoping to make progress out of a four-year rebuild, with an international front-office scandal just five months prior still a gaping wound.

    On this platform, I picked the Braves to improve from 72 wins in 2017 to 80 wins in 2018, and I heard quite a bit about that from some folks.

    Turns out, we all were wrong.

    The Braves thrilled us during a dizzying ride though a 90-win regular season, with walk-off victories and emerging young stars as far as the eye could see, the pieces of the puzzle starting to join together to produce something not even the most ardent, optimistic Braves fan could’ve expected when the season commenced. Even how it started was quite remarkable: Nick Markakis blasting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth as a thunderstorm approached SunTrust Park to cap a five-run rally and lift the Braves past Philadelphia.

    While there were fits and starts, overall, that moment in the season opener seemed to galvanize this team. An early-September weekend in Arizona produced two heart-stopping victories, and I’ve said time and time again the Braves won the East in the desert those two games. But the official moment would come at 3:44 p.m. two weekends later, on a sun-splashed Saturday at SunTrust Park, when Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field.

    Freddie Freeman raised both arms into the air, as if finally freed from the purgatory of rebuilding. Brian Snitker, the lifelong Brave, fought back tears while being interviewed on national TV. A few moments earlier, as that fly ball settled in Acuna’s glove, Fox Sports national baseball announced Joe Davis uttered the same words the dude at the cigar shop said to me about six hours earlier: “The Braves are back.”

    And inside the ballpark, it was a party that had been a half-decade in the making, the joyous release of five years of frustration and pain and embarrassment. It hit me at some point during the celebration why I felt just delirious. Sure, I had just witnessed the Braves clinching something (division, wild card, playoff series victory, pennant, World Series title) in person for the seventh time. But it had been more than a hot minute. The last clinch I saw: way back to Game 7 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.

    I sat in Lot 29, finished my preview of Sunday’s game, then fired up that cigar and popped open one bottle of champagne. As I watched so many people walk past me and saw the sheer joy on their faces, it occurred to me that a whole new group of fans was experiencing what I got to enjoy so much in my late teens and throughout my 20s.

    I smiled with each delicious sip of bubbly. The rebuild, at long and blessed last, officially over.

    Indeed, the Braves are back.

    My God! He’s Just a Child: Oct. 7, 2018

    Acuna’s Slam Hints of Great Things to Come

    Look, let’s face it. The Braves exited the rebuild earlier than any of us expected. We saw an improving team with a lot of questions as the 2018 season dawned, figuring we had another season or two before contention would be realistic. Yeah, right. All the Braves did was squash that preordained timeline by winning 90 games and claiming the National League East for the first time in five seasons. And a big reason why was a 20-year-old outfielder from Venezuela who made his major-league debut in late April, smash a jaw-dropping homer in his second big-league game and never looked back en route to NL rookie of the year honors.

    But what Ronald Acuna Jr. did on the first Sunday in October 2018 just didn’t propel Atlanta to its first postseason victory in 1,829 days. It announced to the rest of the baseball world that the Braves were back and were going to be a problem for opposing teams for years to come.

    The first home playoff game in the history of SunTrust Park was met with sheer exuberance from those of us fortunate enough to be there, along with the millions in Braves Country who dreamed of this through every moment of the rebuild. Acuna, with his million-watt smile and unbridled passion, led the way through the regular season as the Braves buried the old narrative and emerged as a playoff team. Granted, it was hard to see any way past the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS, a thought reinforced when Los Angeles outscored Atlanta 9-0 in taking the first two games of the series in Chavez Ravine.

    The series shifted to the South’s capital city and we took full advantage of the moment. The tailgate party in Lot 29 was the best I’ve experienced in years of pre-gaming with Braves fans. There was an aura of, “we’re here, so let’s go” that permeated through everyone amid the smoke from the grills and the flowing of beverages. Perhaps it was five years of pent-up frustration. Perhaps it was the realization that playoff baseball was back in Atlanta after half a decade, in the Braves’ sparkling new palace.

    And while they lost this series in four games, one magical swing in the second inning of Game 3 served notice that the Braves were back on the national stage.

    Acuna found himself in the on-deck circle as starting pitcher Sean Newcomb worked a four-pitch walk against Dodgers rookie Walker Buehler to drive home Atlanta’s first run of the series. With everybody standing and the new ballpark shaking, Acuna stepped to the plate and took three balls from the Los Angeles right-hander.

    The fans in the yard were screaming. My oldest son leaned into my left ear and screamed, “he’s going to walk him. He can’t give up a big hit right here.” I agreed. Buehler responded with a fastball high in the zone, a pitch inexcusably called a strike. The crowd, in full lather and sounding like the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium assemblies in the 1990s, howled its disapproval. At that moment, I was hoping Acuna would settle himself after the blatant missed call, and simply drive the ball somewhere to plate a run or two.

    He did much, much better than that.

    Acuna’s swing at the 3-1 pitch not only made him the youngest player in MLB history to launch a grand slam in a postseason game, not only put the Braves ahead 5-0, it delivered a definitive message to the rest of the majors. This team, one that had lost 89-plus games for four straight seasons, not only was here, it was here to play. I screamed above the din to my son, “My God! He’s just a child!” Again, nobody gave the Braves a chance in the series and understandably so, but in Atlanta’s first playoff game held in its shiny new field of dreams, a small part of the payoff was realized, thanks in large part to Acuna.

    Yes, the Braves won 6-5 in Game 3, surviving a furious rally (the Dodgers were so, so much better, to be honest) as Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead solo blast. And almost as noteworthy, the nation saw the vision behind the ballpark and The Battery Atlanta realized on that Sunday night. We started tailgating before noon, some eight hours before first pitch, and traffic already was stacked around the area. It truly felt like a college football Saturday in Athens, or on the plains of Auburn, or along the river in Knoxville, in the hours leading up to the game. Afterward, the party raged in The Battery.

    It wasn’t just a game. It was an event. The Braves hit a grand slam by securing the land at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285 on the northwestern rim of the city, and this moment was one the franchise surely had in mind in November 2013 when it announced the move from downtown. And for the first time, the genius of that bold move was realized the day of Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS, a game won in part by the brightest star of Atlanta’s rebuild stepping into the national spotlight and delivering a grand slam of his own.

    Author’s note: All the moments in this series are special to me, and I hope I’ve articulated why well enough the past five days. But if I had to pick a favorite, Acuna’s grand slam would top the list.

    —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.

    Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    The Top 10s of the 2010s, Part 3

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

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

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

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

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

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

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

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

    I appreciate Bobby Cox.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    —30—

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

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

    What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 2

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s time for part two of my top 10 most memorable moments of Braves baseball I watched in person in the 2010s, looking at baseball’s epic final day of the 2011 regular season that found Atlanta land outside the postseason party after a painful late-season swoon, then taking a stroll through two games in which Braves starters nearly pitched no-hitters (and a nod to the lone no-hitter, at any level of baseball, I’ve witnessed in person across 40 years that also contains an interesting perspective on a tragic night in my hometown’s history).

    As a reminder, you can check out the introductory piece of the series below:

    Part 1: A Big Bang … Then A Choke

    The Long, Painful Death of a Season: Sept. 28, 2011

    Epic Late-Season Stumble Costs Braves Playoff Berth

    As late August 2011 arrived, it felt like only an act of God could keep the Braves from a second-straight NL playoff appearance. The Phillies were running away with the NL East but the Braves had found their footing, winning 16 times in 21 games to enter the final weekend of the month with the second-best record in the Senior Circuit and a 9 ½ game lead over the Giants for the NL’s lone wild-card spot.

    The Cardinals? Pfft, 10 ½ games behind the 79-53 Braves at 68-63.

    Atlanta flew to New York after taking three of four in Chicago, but Hurricane Irene was heading toward the nation’s largest city, too. The opening game of the Mets series was played in front of less than 23,000 at Citi Field and journeyman Chris Capuano destroyed the Braves, striking out 13 during a two-hit complete-game shutout. The final two games of the series would be cancelled and, with a Monday off day, the Braves suddenly had a three-day break as they were playing their best baseball of the season.

    They never recovered.

    The weirdness of that weekend in the Big Apple began the unraveling. It concluded at Turner Field on Sept. 28, the final day of the regular season. It would go down as one of the wildest, craziest days in baseball history (the Red Sox simultaneously were giving away the AL wild card), and the Braves entered that Wednesday night matchup with the division-champion Phillies having lost four in a row to fall to 10-19 since flying into New York.

    The Braves and Cardinals were tied at 89-72 as I walked into Turner Field alone for what I hoped would not be the final time that season. My sons were home with the next day being a school day, but downstairs in my filing cabinet were tickets to the first two home NL Division Series games. The sheer thought of those tickets being refunded was ridiculous just four weeks earlier, but as the losses piled up in September my sense of dread grew, and I don’t know if I’ve ever walked into a ballpark with so much doom-and-gloom as I headed to my seat in the lower level, midway between first base and the right-field corner.

    For six innings, everything was fine, and I started growing more confident. The Braves took a 3-1 lead on a Dan Uggla homer in the third and Tim Hudson cruised into the seventh inning. But with one out came two hits and an error by Jack Wilson at shortstop to score a run, and I started thinking again about how my heart was going to be shattered. After all, I sat in this stadium nearly a year before and watched the Braves fall apart in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NL Division Series. I remember looking around and seeing people who must’ve been thinking the same thing, the wheels spinning in our heads with that, “here we go again” refrain.

    Was the seventh the start of the train careening off the tracks?

    Perhaps not. Craig Kimbrel made his first All-Star team, led the National League with 46 saves and won NL rookie of the year in 2011. Save No. 47 would at worst send the Braves into a one-game playoff with St. Louis. But Kimbrel proceeded to give up a single, get a strikeout, then walk two hitters before Chase Utley’s game-tying sacrifice fly. And as extra innings began to march on, I couldn’t help but think of all the opportunities the Braves had squandered over the past month to avoid being in this situation.

    I saw the Braves win the World Series in person in 1995. Three years earlier, I saw the Braves score three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the 1992 NL pennant in person. I’m generally an optimistic person. But that night I found myself fighting that feeling of “not again” over and over. It only grew after Chipper Jones flew out to deep left-center with a runner on to end the 10th, and it grew even more when Jason Heyward reached third on a wild pitch before Martin Prado struck out to close the 12th.

    Of course, the Phillies scored in the top of the 13th on Hunter Pence’s single that barely cleared the infield dirt. Of course, the Braves would get a runner on with one out in the bottom half, only to see Freddie Freeman – the runner-up to Kimbrel for rookie of the year – ground into a 3-6-3 double play. We knew the Cardinals already had won some 30 minutes earlier, that 8-0 result glaring on the out-of-town scoreboard in the ballpark, and when Freeman slammed his batting helmet into the ground behind first base as the season died, the deflation nearly was overwhelming.

    Other than Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a ballpark after a loss as long as I did that night. But the worst part didn’t come on Sept. 28. It came the morning after, when I had to wake up two little boys for school and tell them their favorite baseball team’s season was over.

    Oh, So Close, But No No-No: June 5, 2013 and July 29, 2018

    Julio, Newk Flirt with Every Pitcher’s Dream

    In all the baseball games these nearly 47-year-old eyes have watched through the years – from playing to coaching my kids to my sports writing days and countless games as a fan – I’ve witnessed exactly one no-hitter. It came the night after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics, in an American Legion playoff game on July 27, 1996, in Gainesville, Ga. Andy Hussion, who would help pitch Gainesville High to a state title the following spring, twirled the gem with his dad, former Furman play-by-play man Chuck Hussion, working the PA at Ivey-Watson Field along the shores of Lake Lanier.

    The bombing was the topic of conversation everywhere, including at the ballpark. I was interning as The Times in Gainesville that Olympic summer. We were owned by The Gannett Corp. (which owned USA Today) at the time, and there were veteran newspaper people with decades of experience onsite. When the bomb went off, the presses actually stopped (just like in the movies, but never in real life). Page 1A was redone and our morning edition had the news, while other newspapers that served our area did not. I lost track of how many people in our circulation area awoke on that fourth Saturday of July 1996 with no idea what had happened downtown until they grabbed our paper from their driveways.

    Why do I share this, something that occurred so long ago? I watched two Braves take no-hit bids beyond the seventh inning in the past 40 years. Both occurred this decade. Both hold significant meaning to me, so I cheated a bit to combine both as one entry.

    June 5, 2013: The Braves had won four in a row entering a Wednesday get-away date with the Pirates at Turner Field. Both my kids were with me, ages 10 and 9 and soaking in the initial days of summer vacation. We sat in the upper deck and watched Julio Teheran dazzle the Pittsburgh lineup. Teheran at the time still sat mid-90s with his fastball, and he had everything working. We got to the top of the eighth, everybody was standing, and I was telling my kids repeatedly not to say what all of us were thinking – fortunately, they both were old enough to understand what was happening.

    Two outs in the inning, four outs away. Brandon Inge came on as a pinch-hitter, worked a 1-1 count, then lined a single to left. Teheran retired Starling Marte to end the eighth, David Carpenter worked a perfect ninth to finish the one-hitter, and my sons and I were stunned as how close we had come to seeing a MLB no-hitter in person.

    Not too long after, something happened that made my life just about completely collapse. In some of those darkest days that followed over the next two to three years, in a season of my life where hope was almost nonexistent, that Wednesday afternoon in the sunshine at Turner Field with my boys was a bright memory and a sign of better days to come.

    It just didn’t result in a no-hitter. And that wasn’t the only close call, either.

    July 29, 2018: By the grace of God, I was in such a better place as that final Sunday of July unfolded. It was the day of Chipper Jones’ induction into the Hall of Fame. My oldest son and I gathered with friends in a hotel suite near SunTrust Park to break bread and catch up, then it was on to the ballpark for the series finale with the defending NL champion Dodgers. The Braves were working to avoid a sweep after being outscored 9-2 in the first two games, as many of our thoughts were some 965 miles northeast in interior New York.

    Sean Newcomb took the mound for his 40th major-league start. He got two runs of support in the first inning and two more in the third, and the Massachusetts lefty took it from there, walking Yasiel Puig in the sixth but allowing nothing else entering the ninth. The ballpark, already an emotional mess as many of us had strained to stream Chipper’s acceptance speech during the third inning, was teeming as Newcomb took the mound to start the ninth.

    I had no doubt Newk was going to do this. Zero. Everybody was standing. I couldn’t breathe. My oldest son was pacing like I’d never seen, and he would admit later he thought it was done, too. After two flyouts. Newcomb was one hitter away. Chris Taylor worked the count to 2-2, including a somewhat questionable pitch he took for a ball, then lined a single to left field as third baseman Johan Camargo dove to his left in vain. The Braves would win 4-1, Newcomb would throw 129 pitches on the day, and the two teams would meet 2 ½ months later in the NL Division Series.

    Oh man, talk about the ultimate “what if.” I chatted with my kid while writing this and he said to this day, he was 100 percent certain Newcomb had it. His stuff was that good. I know there’s been ups and downs with Newcomb at times, but that day in July 2018 shows his potential to dominate a great lineup.

    It also shows that no-hitters are so hard to complete, and seeing one is such a rare treat. And, every day you walk into the ballpark, there’s a chance it happens. Perhaps one sweet day, Andy Hussion will have some company on my list.

    —30—

    On Deck: Saying Goodbye to The Skipper, and The Ted

    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.

    Top 10 of the 2010s (Part 1): A Big Bang … Then a Choke

    The Top 10 of the 2010s, Part 1

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – To say I’ve been blessed to follow baseball across the past 40 years is quite the understatement.

    I love this sport. I’ve watched thousands of games, from my early days playing (poorly) in Little League, to writing about high school, college, minor league and major league teams during my sports writing career, to coaching my sons for more than a decade, to being a fan of the Braves and attending games for four decades. From tagging along with my grandfather, to going with my high school and college buddies, to taking my sons to their first games. From snagging tickets here and there, to owning partial season-tickets packages in three different stadiums.

    Only God knows how many baseball games I’ve watched in nearly 47 years on this planet, some while wearing a media credential, some while holding a ticket, some while sitting on the couch watching on TV or a laptop or smart phone (or listening to via radio or streamed online).

    With the 2010s ending, I wanted to look back at my top 10 memorable Braves moments from the past 10 years. These are not ranked in any particular order, other than to be segmented into groups of two based on a common theme.

    I established three simple rules:

    • I had to see it live at the ballpark. That’s why you won’t see Brooks Conrad’s walk-off grand slam in 2010 or Chipper Jones’ homer off Jonathan Papelbon in 2012. I wasn’t at either game.
    • Final score didn’t matter. This is a list of the most memorable moments I witnessed, and it would be an injustice to only include Braves victories.
    • I wanted this series to be more than me simply regurgitating the results. Baseball Reference has all that. I wanted to tie in what these moments meant to me, what happened that day, and what it meant to myself and those around me.

    So, forgive the personal observations shared in this series. We all know what happened in the 2012 NL Wild-Card Game, and we all know what happened in Game 3 of the 2018 NL Division Series (spoiler alert: both games made the list). This is storytelling, looking through a personal lens at the games, the surroundings, the people, recalling – regardless of result – the top 10 most memorable moments these aging blue eyes witnessed in person watching this decade of Braves baseball.

    Happy Holidays! Thank you for reading, as always. I hope you enjoy.

    BLE.

    Welcome to the Show: April 5, 2010

    The Hometown Kid Says Hello with A Big Bang

    When we moved back to Atlanta in 2006, there were plenty of things I did with my kids (then ages 4 and 3) to introduce them to my hometown. Braves games. Thrashers games. Hawks games. Day trips to the mountains. And, on one spring day in 2007, we took advantage of living south of Atlanta to go check out one of the top high school baseball players in the nation.

    Fast forward to April 5, 2010, a bright spring day in Atlanta and the Braves season opener at Turner Field, the first game of the new decade. That strapping kid from Henry County High my kiddos and I watched for a few innings three years earlier stood poised to make his major-league debut. Perhaps to that point there hadn’t been a more-heralded arrival for a Braves player than one Jason Heyward, who raced through Atlanta’s minor-league system after being selected 14th overall in the 2007 player draft, then went 18-for-59 with five extra-base hits and 10 walks in 22 Grapefruit League games to earn a spot on the 2010 opening-day roster.

    You could feel the buzz pregame walking through the parking lots at Turner Field, a vibe that ratcheted even higher when Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Then the game began and Derek Lowe gave up three first-inning runs, putting the Braves in a hole before taking their first at-bats of the season. But even way up on the top row of the upper deck, high above the Braves bullpen in right field, you sensed something special was brewing.

    Maybe it was because the always combustible Carlos Zambrano took the mound for the Cubs that afternoon. Or maybe we had a feeling about what was coming, because I remember telling my boys that three runs would not beat the Braves on this day. And I was right, because after a walk to (pardon me while I puke as I type his name) Melky Cabrera, a single by Martin Prado, an RBI single by Chipper Jones and a two-run single by Yunel Escobar, the game was tied.

    Heyward walked to the plate, runners on first and second, one out, score even at 3-3. Zambrano missed on his first two offerings. With the sold-out crowd chanting his name, J-Hey unloaded on a 2-0 pitch and launched a Hollywood-esque missile, a screaming, soaring liner deep to right, one-hopping the back wall of the Braves bullpen. The stadium absolutely lost its mind. All the hype, all the hope, all the buildup for a kid who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, realized with an instant lightning bolt in his first swing as a big-leaguer.

    In the upper deck, we went nuts, everybody screaming and hugging and jumping up and down in a way that’s rare for any game outside of late September or October. It wasn’t until we got home and I watched the replay of the homer did I realize just how far Heyward launched that Zambrano pitch. Sitting at the kitchen table that evening, both of my kids and I couldn’t stop watching the replay of the homer on my laptop.

    I thought probably a hundred times that night, “a star is born.” And in a way that’s what happened, as Heyward earned NL All-Star honors before an injury knocked him out of the game. He finished his MLB debut 2-for-5 with the homer and four RBIs as the Braves ran away with a 16-5 victory.

    You never know where this game, or this life, will take you. Some six years and six months after that blast against the Cubs, Heyward helped lead Chicago to its 108-year jinx-breaking World Series title. But that moment the 20-year-old launched his career and brought down the house in his hometown remains memorable to this day, and was quite the way to kick off the decade.

    Over Before It Even Began: Oct. 9, 2019

    Braves Complete NLDS Choke with Epic Implosion

    My recap of Game 3 of the 2019 NLDS for this platform published, I grabbed a beverage and sat down in the Braves Room. After watching the Braves split the opening two games of the series with St. Louis here in Atlanta, the Braves roared off the deck in the ninth inning for a stunning Game 3 victory, one that sent every person into my house into delirium. Even my mom, approaching her 69th birthday, stood in the living room with a fist clenched, screaming at the TV.

    And that’s how I felt the entire day leading into Game 4, and even after a disheartening extra-inning loss that sent this series to a decisive fifth game – a game that never should’ve been played had the Braves not stumbled all over themselves in Games 1 and 4 of the series – my confidence wasn’t shaken. I had such a calm peace about the whole situation. Even my wife and kids were surprised, given that I will walk through the house clapping my hands in excitement hours before the first pitch of a Friday night game in June against the Phillies or Mets.

    That confidence carried into the day of Game 5. I checked out my oldest son from school. We grabbed barbecue for lunch before hitting the road, chatting about how we felt with Mike Foltynewicz – who we both watched dazzle St. Louis five days prior in Game 2 – on the mound, and how there was no way this Braves offense would spit the bit yet again after wasting so many chances in the fourth game. In fact, the only potential negative was raised by my oldest, who grew up idolizing Brian McCann during his first stint with Atlanta while my kid was learning to catch in Little League.

    “Dad, if the Braves lose, I think B-Mac retires,” he said, then adding, “but we’re not losing.”

    It would be folly to pin what happened on the fact no foam red tomahawks emblazoned with “Relentless,” the 2019 postseason hashtag, greeted fans upon their arrival to the ballpark. But the vibe felt different. Maybe it was the 5 p.m. first pitch. Maybe it was the missed opportunities of Games 1 and 4, conjuring up the ghosts of this franchise’s, and this city’s, past sporting missteps.

    It felt OK when Cardinals leadoff hitter Dexter Fowler foul tipped strike three into McCann’s glove, as I jumped and pumped my fist. Then I noticed the ball on the ground. McCann couldn’t hold onto it, and what transpired over the ensuing 26 minutes is a scenario not even the most scarred Braves fan could think plausible.

    Twenty-six minutes. Ten runs. Season over. And 15,000 people are still trying to get through rush-hour traffic and to their seats.

    There was nothing to say. Nothing. What do you say when you watch an entire season of promise and hope and expectations for the franchise to achieve something it hadn’t done in 18 years, one it should’ve already accomplished two days earlier, evaporate in the autumn sun in about the time it takes to walk from Lot 29 to Murph’s?

    I’m glad my oldest son was with me. He loves baseball like his old man, for better or worse. When Max Fried walked high-school teammate and St. Louis starter Jack Flaherty (who needs to keep his lip zipped on Twitter, by the way) with the bases loaded, my son just started laughing. When a run scored on a strikeout after McCann could not corral a pitch, he laughed again. By the fourth inning, the seats in our section in the upper deck were mostly empty. My kid and I laughed about that, too.

    What else could we do? We were shell-shocked. I kept looking down into the Braves dugout, across the stadium at other fans, and the look was the same. It was like we had watched a train wreck play out in slow motion. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in 40 years of watching baseball. An elimination game, at home, and the better team, the one that should’ve won the series, absolutely getting run off the field in stunning, this-cannot-be-happening fashion.

    In the seventh inning, I said enough. It was time to go home, to spend the 45 minutes in the car trying to think how to put this into words for my recap. But my son said we couldn’t leave. He didn’t want to go. He had school the next day. I had work. I didn’t understand why. This wasn’t funny anymore. He told me:

    “Dad, you know B-Mac’s still in the game. You know JT is getting the ninth. I have to watch them together, one last time.”

    Julio Teheran did make his way from the bullpen to the mound for the top of the ninth. There to hand him the ball was McCann. The two longtime Braves, both of whom made such a profound mark on this decade and on my two little guys’ baseball fandom, walked off the field in the last game of the decade, together as teammates one final time.

    And my son and I walked the steps to the third-base gate, for the final time this decade, fighting back tears.

    —30—

    On Deck: What Could’ve, Should’ve, Would’ve Been

    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.

    Nightmare First Inning Ends Season, But Braves Blew NLDS Before Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The witnesses looked at each other in absolute shock at what had unfolded during the 26-minute train wreck of a half inning they just watched. The energy, the enthusiasm, the hope of ending an 18-year playoff series drought, absolutely obliterated beyond recognition by the time fans could finish their first beer.

    But make no mistake: the Atlanta Braves 2019 season isn’t over just because they gave up 10 runs (yes, 10; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) in the top of the first inning of a 13-1 faceplant Wednesday in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series at SunTrust Park. Truth be told, the Braves never should have been on the field on this splendid autumn afternoon along the northwestern rim of the capital city, even though it appeared they weren’t anywhere to be found as St. Louis sent 14 hitters (yes, 14; no, I still don’t believe what I saw) to the plate in the opening frame.

    No, the Braves should’ve been at home, relaxing and getting ready for either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals, relishing in the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001, focusing on the NL Championship Series and securing four wins that would send them to the World Series for the first time in 20 years.

    They should’ve won this series long before Game 5 flew off the rails and straight off a cliff into a bottomless lake.

    They had this NLDS won, and they blew it.

    Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

    The Braves kept flubbing opportunities to put away the series, and baseball has a funny way of biting teams that don’t take care of the business at hand. Afford an opponent with enough opportunities to flip the script, and sooner or later it’s going to happen.

    It happened in Game 1, when Atlanta melted down at various times throughout the contest before allowing six runs in the final two innings of a 7-6 defeat, a sequence beginning with one of its key bullpen pieces acquired at the trade deadline (Chris Martin) leaving with a left oblique injury before throwing a single pitch.

    It happened in Game 4, when the Braves started their free-agent veteran rotation piece possessing postseason experience (Dallas Keuchel) and saw him serve up three homers in 3 1/3 innings. The offense responded by stranding nine runners and left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh innings, before two St. Louis hits that traveled with the velocity of a horse and wagon tied the game in the eighth to set up an extra-inning defeat.

    In the two losses leading into Wednesday, Atlanta’s offense was a combined 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position and left 17 runners on base. It started all the way back in the first inning of the series, when the first four Braves hitters reached, yet Atlanta emerged from the frame with just a 1-0 lead. Young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. tripled leading off the seventh in Game 4 and doubled to start the ninth, and neither time dented home plate.

    That sent the NLDS to one final act, a winner-take-all affair with a shot at the pennant hanging in the balance. The old baseball axiom says in one game, anything can happen.

    The Braves inability to close out this series before Wednesday led to a first inning that still feels like a nightmare:

    Mike Foltynewicz – so brilliant down the stretch and in a Game 2 victory (by far Atlanta’s best game of the series) – gave up seven times the number of runs (seven) as outs recorded (one, on a sacrifice bunt) before hitting the showers after 23 pitches.

    The combination of Foltynewicz and Max Fried – the young lefty so good in relief in the opening three games of the series – teamed up to surrender five hits with four walks.

    Freddie Freeman – whose miserable performance in this series cannot be stated enough – flubbed a potential inning-ending double play that would’ve allowed the Braves to escape with only one run allowed.

    Brian McCann – who returned home to chase another World Series ring in what turned out to be his final season; he announced his retirement after Wednesday’s loss – could not secure a foul tip from leadoff hitter Dexter Flower that would have been strike three, instead leading to a walk that began a half-hour even the most cynical Atlanta sports fan never could have envisioned.

    Sometimes, young teams must go through difficult times to learn valuable lessons that will serve them well moving forward. And there is no denying the future is ultra-bright for this team. The Braves are set up to contend for the foreseeable future. They are a fun, enjoyable bunch to watch play the game, one of my favorite teams in 40 years of following this franchise. And they’re good, very good.

    But in October, the best team doesn’t always win. These Braves were better than the Cardinals. They should’ve won this series. Presented with opportunities to take control of games in October, you cannot emphasize enough the urgency to execute. Not delivering with runners in scoring position, not calling for a bunt with a runner on second, not getting a fly ball with a runner on third and less than two outs, not getting outs in the final innings, not fielding ground balls to start double plays, those things will lose you games in the regular season.

    Not doing those things in the 10th month of the year will end your season.

    Atlanta learned that in the worst possible way the past seven days. The hope is this pain leads to better things in the Octobers to come.

    But that’s little solace on this night. A Braves team good enough to play deep into the postseason choked, and now finds itself in a place so many of its predecessors landed:

    Home far too early, wondering what could’ve been.

    —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.

    The Braves, And Their New Home, Have Come So Far As We Await Do-Or-Die Game 5

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The December drizzle and mist floated through the chilly wind as I made my way from my parking space toward the construction site. My annual three-week Christmas vacation from my product marketing job had just started, there were no freelance deadlines to hit for a few hours, and on a day that sparked absolutely zero thoughts of baseball, there only was one place I wanted to go.

    I darted across Circle 75 Parkway and dodged a few construction barrels, phone in hand despite the persistent moisture swirling in the 40-degree air. It had been a few months since I had spent some time checking out the future home of the Atlanta Braves, and while I was not an invited guest on this day, I spent the next 90 minutes walking the perimeter taking pictures of what would become SunTrust Park and The Battery.

    It allowed my mind to careen out of control. What future wonders might Braves Country see at this place where, even on this day in the dying moments of 2016, there still was so much work to complete with a new season set to dawn in some 17 weeks? The venue’s tenant also was a work in progress, having just wrapped up a third-consecutive season with 89-plus losses and chest deep into a painful rebuild.

    Yes, there were slivers of sunshine that appeared here and there, but it felt like a return to prominence was as hard to see as it was to envision a baseball palace amid the mud and construction cranes.

    Look at us now.

    The Braves take the field Wednesday at SunTrust Park with a shot to win the National League Division Series. It’s a do-or-die, winner-take-all series finale, one that will wrap what’s been a delicious four-game passion play with the St. Louis Cardinals. A victory gives this franchise its first postseason series victory since 2001, that coming in just the fifth year spent at Turner Field. So much heartbreak, so many missed chances, so many tears of frustration have been shed since Atlanta bounced the Astros in the first round way back when.

    Think about this place where – on that dreary December day nearly three years ago – that day’s rain sent the mud running down the recently paved entrance to what would become The Omni Hotel. Consider the roped-off areas where the restaurants, bars and gathering places would take form. Look at the stadium, still somewhat of a shell with some sections still missing seats, workers in hard hats everywhere running cable, focused on completing brick work, bringing this grand concept to life.

    We have experienced so much since the team took the field at their new home on April 14, 2017, a Friday night against San Diego. That team would be 45-45 following the first series after the All-Star break, but it wasn’t ready to contend. The 2018 team captured our hearts like no team since the worst-to-first 1991 Miracle Braves, stunning the world by winning the NL East on the fourth Saturday of September on their sparkling home field. And while that October foray was short, a four-game loss in the NLDS to the big, bad Dodgers, the Braves authored a shot across the bow in the first-ever postseason contest at the new yard when Ronald Acuna Jr. belted a grand slam and Atlanta staved off elimination with a Game 3 victory.

    Look now. These Braves are a legit championship contender, even with the ups and downs and wild twists and turns of this get-together with the Cardinals. Atlanta won 97 games this season and captured the East again, all the while authoring a book full of memorable moments at their glittering new abode. The Braves won 50 games at SunTrust Park this season. Seventeen games were sellouts. They averaged 32,776 while drawing 2.65 million, the franchise’s highest attendance since 2007.

    I’ve been very fortunate to attend both East clinchers and the first four playoff games in the new home of the Braves. Game 5 on Wednesday represents a new level. At a venue praised universally as a destination for any baseball fan, a place that now provides its tenant with a bona fide home-field advantage, where an emerging powerhouse plays, the Braves get their shot to win a game that carries equal parts clinching and elimination, season move forward or season cut short.

    We imagined moments like this on those days the shovels were busy turning up the dirt at the confluence of Interstates 285 and 75. Honestly, it hasn’t been that long ago, but at the same time it feels like forever.

    An off day leading into Game 5 allows for a few fleeting moments of recollection, of considering how far this team – and the venue it calls home – has come.

    Nine innings shy of playing for the pennant, the Braves hope by the time Wednesday evening fades to night, their new home will be awash with a celebration 18 years – and lots of heavy lifting – in the making.

    —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.

    Braves Fight Back with Redeeming Game 2 Victory, Evens NLDS

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – At some point during a summer spent trying to find his mechanics and find himself, Mike Foltynewicz had to wonder if this opportunity would ever return. At some point during a summer spent smashing baseballs all over the International League, Adam Duvall had to wonder if this opportunity would ever come.

    Their moments arrived simultaneously Friday afternoon when the Atlanta Braves needed them most, and both delivered under baseball’s brightest lights.

    Foltynewicz fired seven shutout innings and Duvall smashed a two-run pinch-hit homer in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, lifting the Braves to a 3-0 victory over St. Louis to square the best-of-five series at one game apiece. Not even 24 hours after Atlanta’s special season seemed spiraling toward the abyss after a disheartening 7-6 loss in the series opener, the Braves now sit just two victories shy of their first playoff series triumph in 18 years.

    The journeys both Foltynewicz and Duvall took to reach Friday had to felt longer than that.

    Pegged as the Braves ace when spring training started, Foltynewicz experienced elbow issues and didn’t pitch in the majors until late April. It went south quickly, leading to Atlanta’s Game 1 starter in last year’s NLDS being banished to the minors for six weeks.

    Duvall struggled miserably after being acquired at last year’s trade deadline from Cincinnati, so much so he was left off the playoff roster. With no room for him in Atlanta at the end of spring training, Duvall was sent to Triple-A and stayed there until being recalled in late July.

    Foltynewicz earned the nod in Game 2 based on the work he did since rejoining the big-league rotation Aug. 6, posting a 2.65 ERA and .211 opponents batting average in 10 starts. He struck out two hitters in the first, second and fifth innings, finishing with seven punchouts. He did not walk a batter. Only one St. Louis hitter reached second base against him. Poised and calm throughout, Foltynewicz spun a gem in perhaps the biggest game of his young career.

    The 42,911 inside SunTrust Park did not want to see his day end, and they let Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker know it when Duvall strolled to the plate to pinch-hit for Foltynewicz with two outs in the seventh and Brian McCann on first. Duvall turned those boos to cheers by hammering a 96-mph fastball over the fence in center to push the lead to three.

    One night after a muddled mess of an opener for both teams, Atlanta and St. Louis played a much cleaner, crisper affair, completed in 2 hours, 46 minutes (81 minutes quicker than Thursday’s slog). The Braves awoke Friday needing a spark to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole that likely would have ended their season, and the task at hand upon arriving at the ballpark was daunting.

    Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 15 starts since the All-Star break with 124 strikeouts and five homers allowed in 99 1/3 innings. But the right-hander gave up an opening-inning single to Ozzie Albies, who advanced on Flaherty’s wild pitch to second, moved to third on a Freddie Freeman groundout and scored on Josh Donaldson’s single to left to provide Atlanta a 1-0 lead after one inning for the second consecutive game.

    Foltynewicz made it stick from there, firing 58 of his 81 pitches for strikes by inducing swings and misses on his slider and freezing St. Louis hitters with his fastball. The growth in Foltynewicz was on full display for all the nation to see on this night, one year to the day he gave up four runs in two innings of a Game 1 loss at Log Angeles.

    Duval hit just .171 in spring training and was sent to Gwinnett at the end of camp. To his credit – much as Foltynewicz would do with the Triple-A affiliate three months later – Duvall went to work. He hit 32 homers with 90 RBIs in 101 games with the Stripers and gave the Braves a big boost after Nick Markakis broke his wrist on a hit-by-pitch in late July, homering in his major-league season debut and slugging four homers in his first five games.

    While rookie Austin Riley scuffled badly down the stretch, Duvall took advantage of the Braves early clinch of the NL East and the extra playing time that came with it, ending the regular season on a seven-game hitting streak to earn a roster spot. A 30-homer hitter in back-to-back seasons with the Reds in 2016-17, his final homer in a Cincinnati uniform came on July 25, 2018.

    It came off Flaherty.

    Suffice to say, both Duvall and Foltynewicz never will forget Friday. And their team, all but buried just one evening earlier, now flies to St. Louis needing just two more victories to earn a shot at the pennant.

    —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.

    Familiar October Stumble in Game 1 Puts Braves in Tough Position

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It happened again, across 247 minutes on the hottest October day ever recorded in the capital city. Another knife in the back with plenty of painful twists for Atlanta Braves fans. Another one of those games that go into a memory bank chock full of too many, “how did we lose” contests.

    Another deflating October stumble.

    It was supposed to be different this time, as these Braves embarked on the National League Division Series opener against St. Louis at SunTrust Park on a 98-degree Thursday afternoon. The 2018 Braves surprisingly won the NL East and entered the postseason playing with house money.

    The Braves of 2019 are expected to earn far more than a participatory certificate. Instead, they’re starting at a one-way exit ticket if Thursday is any indication.

    The Braves dropped the NLDS opener 7-6 on a miserable afternoon in front of 42,631 who baked in the blazing sunshine. By the time it ended at 9:09 p.m. ET, some 4 hours and 7 minutes after first pitch, Atlanta fans were left with that all-too-familiar feeling of opportunities missed in a close postseason defeat.

    And there were many. Too many to win in October, if we’re being honest. The missteps, the chances fumbled, occurred early and often.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to lead off the first inning. Acuna had the green light to steal but was thrown out by Yadier Molina. Considering the Braves had St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas and his 5.40 road ERA on the ropes after the first four hitters reached base, that hurt. They scored just once, leaving two runners stranded.

    In the second inning, starter Dallas Keuchel tried to bunt the slower-than-slow Brian McCann to third. His bunt went right to Mikolas on the third-base side, who easily gunned down the Braves catcher – who got the start with Keuchel on the bump despite Tyler Flowers’ recent good work with the lefty. A bunt toward first likely gets McCann to third.

    Speaking of Keuchel, he needed just 19 pitches to cruise through the first two innings. But the traffic built in the next three frames, double plays started by Josh Donaldson bailing him out twice. There was no escape in the fifth for the veteran making his 10th career postseason start, lasting just 4 2/3 innings while allowing five hits and three walks. Yes, he gave up only one run, but especially after his first two innings, Keuchel’s finished body of work was nowhere near what an otherwise young rotation needed in a series opener, and his short outing cranked up the fire on the Braves relief corps.

    The bullpen did its part, initially. Darren O’Day (if you had him being the first Atlanta reliever deployed in the postseason in August, you’re lying, because nobody did), Shane Greene, and Max Fried kept the Cardinals at bay. Fried struck out two while needing only 14 pitches to navigate a perfect seventh; even with Paul Goldschmidt scheduled to lead off the eighth, Fried should’ve started the frame. He didn’t. That’s on Brian Snitker, and it’s a decision that backfired bigtime (although to be fair, his plan for the final two innings changed before a pitch was thrown in the eighth).

    In the bottom of the seventh Acuna – who had a splendid day by going 3-for-4 with two RBIs, a run scored, and a monster homer in the ninth – committed the cardinal sin that to this point in his career has been the one stain on his record. A high drive off the bricks in deep right field went for just a single because the 21-year-old did not hustle out of the box. While it’s impossible to say with certainty how the inning would’ve played out, this much is clear: that cannot happen in the regular season, and it sure as heck can’t happen in October.

    In the top of the eighth, the Braves had it set up exactly as Snitker wanted. Leading 3-1 and six outs away from their first Game 1 victory since the 2001 NLDS (also the last postseason series Atlanta won), Snitker planned to hand the ball to Chris Martin. But the right-hander suffered a left oblique strain while coming in from the bullpen and threw nary a warmup offering before heading off the field.

    Only Atlanta in October, right?

    That forced Luke Jackson into the game (and all of those who said “Luke Jackson never will pitch late innings in the postseason” after the Braves made their flurry of deadline deals winced in unison). Jackson surrendered two runs on three hits – the last run coming on a Matt Carpenter single that tied the game off Mark Melancon, who came on for a potential four-out save.

    Melancon, who for the most part has been solid as closer, imploded in the ninth in alarming, Braves postseason-esque fashion. He gave up a pair of two-run doubles that extended the deficit to 7-3. One was down the third-base line. One was down the first-base line. Both were barely fair. They were fair just the same.

    While the Braves battled back in the ninth on homers by Acuna and Freddie Freeman, in between Ozzie Albies nearly beat out a ground ball to third. Replay showed Goldschmidt’s toe came ever-so-slightly off the bag, but the Braves challenge was unsuccessful. Of course it was.

    It was, to be blunt, a disastrous beginning to what very well may be a short playoff run. That’s not knee-jerk reaction. That’s reality when looking at losing a Game 1, at home, in a five-game series. The Cardinals played shaky defense, entered the eighth with one run, and in nine innings gave up six runs.

    And they headed back to the hotel with the series lead. Of course they did.

    That says nothing of what comes Friday in Game 2, when St. Louis trots out red-hot right-hander Jack Flaherty. He’s been the best pitcher in the National League in the second half of the season. If the Braves don’t win, their special season moves to the brink before this series moves outside of Cobb County.

    They’ve been resilient all season. They better be in a few short hours. The Braves had a myriad of opportunities to win Game 1. They stubbed their toe in ways that would make many of their postseason predecessors cringe with head-nodding agony. A victory in Game 2 levels things and recalibrates the series in a good way heading to St. Louis. And let’s be fair: this loss does not end the series. Consider the Braves starter Friday: Mike Foltynewicz has been very good since returning from the minors, and has his own measure of redemption to gain after his struggles in last year’s NLDS.

    But if the Braves don’t play better Friday and leave Georgia trailing 2-0, winter will begin far sooner than anybody expected.

    Unfortunately, that feeling is familiar, too.

    —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.