• Toronto Blue Jays

    Of Young Pitchers, Nighttime Nick, and A Historic Pace

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – This writer opined a few days ago that the Atlanta Braves rotation – ravaged by injuries and opt-outs and diminished velocity (let’s hope the locusts stay away for a few more days) – would be best served by looking at a trio of long-promising starters and saying, “here’s the ball.”

    One time through, nothing has changed my mind.

    Sure, Sean Newcomb took the loss in Wednesday’s 2-1 home defeat to Toronto and Kyle Wright saw a strong overall outing turn on two bad pitches in Saturday’s 5-0 setback at Philadelphia. In the middle, Touki Toussaint spun a gem in Thursday’s 10-1 rout of the Blue Jays, plus the bonus of a rainout Friday night in the City of Brotherly Love.

    Through 25 percent of this season that borders more on the absurd with each passing day, the trio of Newcomb-Toussaint-Wright is a combined 0-3 with 27 earned runs allowed in 27 2/3 innings. But go a bit beyond the surface, and you’ll see why I’m so bullish on giving each of these arms regular run through the Atlanta rotation.

    Newcomb was a hard-luck loser against Toronto, coming one pitch away from getting out of the fifth inning. He walked one hitter (just two free passes over nine innings combined in his past two starts), gave up just five hits and struck out four. Two runs allowed on five hits with one walk and four strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings is something any major-league manager will take in this truncated 2020 season.

    Toussaint was on from the first pitch the next night, surrendering three runs on four hits with no walks a career-high nine strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings, the best of his eight career big-league starts. Mixing in a quick-pitch delivery that reminded some of Johnny Cueto, the 24-year-old limited Toronto to one hit through the first six innings, finishing with 59 strikes in 83 pitches five days after allowing five runs in 2 2/3 innings in relief at Tampa Bay.

    Wright tap-danced through trouble Sunday against the Mets, but did not allow a run despite four walks and five hits in 3 1/3 innings. Saturday was much better except for the fourth inning, when he hung a curveball that J.T. Realmuto smashed for a homer to lead off the inning. Later in the frame, after getting squeezed on what looked like a strike on the inside corner, Wright allowed a three-run shot to Jay Bruce on a hanging slider. Despite the two mistakes Wright pitched well, throwing 59 of his 91 pitches for strikes while walking three with three strikeouts in a career high-tying six innings.

    There’s plenty clamoring for Atlanta to make a trade (not happening, not at this point) or promote one of a promising batch of arms at the alternative training camp site. After one time through the rotation following the season-ending injury to Mike Soroka, the progress is there, even if the results aren’t exactly what you want just yet. And you can’t measure progress unless you let these guys keep taking the ball.

    Nick at Nite Felt So Right

    It wasn’t Opening Day, there weren’t 40,208 jammed into the ballpark, and Gabe Kapler wasn’t coming out to yank Aaron Nola after 68 pitches with a five-run lead. But in a way, Thursday win felt a bit like March 29, 2018, when the Braves rallied in the season opener from a 5-0 deficit to stun the Phillies 8-5 on a walkoff homer by Nick Markakis.

    Some 861 days after Markakis belted his first big-league walkoff into the Chop House and turned the ballpark then knows as SunTrust Park into delirium, the 36-year-old outfielder capped his first start since returning to the team after originally electing not to play due to COVID-19 with a solo homer in the ninth to lift Atlanta to a 4-3 victory.

    In his first start since returning to the Braves, Nick Markakis called game with a solo homer in the ninth inning Thursday against Toronto.

    Markakis causes plenty of debate on social media, which as I’ve mentioned before is so ironic because Nick Markakis and Twitter are about as similar as a lava pit and the Arctic Circle. With Ozzie Albies on the injured list with a right wrist bone contusion and Matt Adams joining him with a left hamstring strain, Markakis hitting fifth against a right-hander when Travis d’Arnaud sits is perfectly acceptable.

    It also provided a pretty cool moment Thursday, regardless of how you feel about the veteran out of Woodstock (and, yes, Young Harris).

    Ynoa Start? Here Ya Go, Huascar

    I saw Huascar Ynoa make his big-league debut against the Phillies on June 16 last season, the hard-throwing right-hander allowing one hit with two strikeouts in two impressive innings. His lone other major-league appearance exactly one month later wasn’t as smooth: six runs on five hits in one inning at Milwaukee.

    Ynoa signed with Minnesota as a minor-league free agent, joining the Braves in the Jaime Garcia trade a week before the 2017 trade deadline. The 12th-ranked prospect in the Atlanta organization according to MLB Pipeline, Ynoa sits mid-90s with his fastball but touched the upper 90s during his relief appearances with the Braves a season ago. He pitched to a 5.33 ERA in 17 appearances (14 starts) at Triple-A in 2019, and Atlanta will look for him to get through the Phillies lineup at least one time to begin the first of two seven-inning contests Sunday.

    Falling Off the Pace

    Saturday’s loss dropped the Braves to 9-6 on the season, which I’m sure is disappointing to fans. Not because Atlanta is on a .600 win pace so far (good for 97 wins in a 162-game season), but that defeat put the 2020 squad one game off the pace for best record ever by a Braves team through 15 games of a 60-game campaign.

    Huh?

    Yep, the Braves franchise has done this before, but you have to go back … way back. All the way back to the 1878 season, when the Boston Red Stockings (they would become the Braves for the first time in 1912) went 41-19 en route to a second-consecutive National League pennant. A 1-0 victory over Indianapolis on June 13, 1878, lifted the Red Stockings to a 10-5 record, and pulled them within 1 ½ games of first place in the NL.

    That victory was the fourth game of a stretch where Boston went 14-2. The Red Stockings would lead the NL by as many as 7 ½ games at the end of August before a 4-6 September resulted in a four-game cushion at the end of the season.

    Far and away, there was one player who carried the lion’s share of the load for the eventual pennant winners. Right-hander Tommy Bond led the NL with 40 victories, made 59 starts (yes, he started every game but one), went the distance in 57 of those assignments, pitched nine shutouts, posted a 2.06 ERA, and piled up a staggering 532 2/3 innings. He led the NL with 182 strikeouts; he also led the league in hits allowed (571) and homers surrendered (five).

    Suffice to say, even if the 2020 Braves end up with a better record, those numbers won’t be touched. And that 1878 campaign came one season after the Red Stockings also won the pennant with a 42-18-1 record. That one tie in the 61-game 1877 season? A 1-1 stalemate on opening day against the Hartfords of Brooklyn, who in time would become the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    —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 (Off)season of Discontent: Braves Fans Upset by Lack of Action

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – You lived it. I lived it. We all lived it. The Triple-A lineups. The retread pitchers. The mismatches. The hopelessness. The trades of so many players we loved for guys we’d never heard of – some of whom we would fall in love with as time unfolded. The 95 losses followed by the 93 losses followed by the 90 losses. The move to a new, beautiful home, tinged by public outrage of a deal perhaps done outside the scope of public scrutiny despite plenty of public dollars being involved.

    The iconic country music group Alabama once upon a time sang, “We had to break it all down to build it back up,” a key lyric in their song “Here We Are” that, ironically, was part of the TBS 1991 highlight film. And it is true. The Atlanta Braves indeed broke it all down, stripped to the nubs, to build it back up to a point where the tomahawk represented something far beyond a reminder of yesteryear glories. All of this pain, all of this embarrassment, would pay off in a big way, a way we hadn’t seen in these parts in two decades.

    But a couple of funny things happened during the well-thought out rebuild plan, both of which fell out of the sky with equal parts suddenness and breathlessness. The strategic architect ran afoul of Major League Baseball rules regarding international signings and earned a lifetime ban. The season after, with his banished fingerprints remaining all over the team, the Braves won 90 games and captured the National League East championship.

    Cue Alex Anthopoulos, who entered the fray as general manager weeks after former GM John Coppolella was banned, and the engaging, impressive general manager helped bolster Atlanta’s crashing of the 2018 postseason party. Everything broke right. The Braves took advantage, flipping a city upside down and rekindling a fire within the fanbase that had sat dormant for five years. All of this set up an offseason during which many thought Atlanta would advance from breakthrough to behemoth, from playoff qualifier to World Series championship contender.

    Welcome to the second week of March, and Braves Country is in flames.

    And I don’t blame it one dang bit.

    Atlanta struck quickly in the offseason, signing Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann in the blink of an eye on Cyber Monday. The Braves brought back Nick Markakis to man right field at a sizable discount, a move I would not have made, but after not being able to lure Michael Brantley off the open market or pry Mitch Haniger from Seattle, probably made sense (my fear of regression notwithstanding).

    Atlanta did try and get Bryce Harper, but the Scott Boras effect won out in the end and Harper was rewarded with a 13-year deal. No, the Braves should not have committed to any player through 2031. But while we won’t know how creative Atlanta got in the negotiations, acquiring a player of Harper’s ilk instantly would’ve vaulted last season’s feel-good story into the championship conversation.

    And that’s part of where the angst begin. No, you’re not giving Andrew McCutchen the money Philly gave him. You’re not giving Harper the years Philly gave him. You’re not signing Patrick Corbin to six years, like Washington did. The problem is, both of those teams reside in the same division as Atlanta. Same with the Mets, who bolstered their bullpen and augmented their starting lineup with diversity that, if health abides, should make a team that went 38-30 over the second half even better.

    Boys, you only get the potentially epically bad Marlins 19 times over 162 games. Oh, and did we mention the one lone game-changing asset Miami had, J.T. Realmuto, also landed in Philadelphia?

    There is a method to the madness. Braves fans have had that narrative shoved down their throats at every turn since the start of November. To a certain extent, it’s valid. But only to a certain extend. And the cockiness of late displayed by the powers that be, to be frank, is becoming a bit much.

    The next time we hear from Braves chairman Terry McGuirk will be too soon. McGuirk is on record numerous times during the losing years about working to be in position to strike when the team turned a corner. Corner turned. The result? Mostly crickets.

    Enough, already. This insulting stance of stating over and over (and over) again that you’re able to do anything payroll-wise without signoff from faceless, non-local, uncaring Liberty Media corporate is a joke, and McGuirk would be best served by not trotting out that line as if the fanbase is full of gullible sheep. We all see right through it.

    Seriously, Terry? You want us to believe a public corporation that finished with $8.04 billion in revenue in 2018 actually would allow any of its business units to spend eight, nine figures in a vacuum without corporate oversight. Guess what? Not only do fans read the stats and know Tyler Flowers can’t hit right-handers, we also can (and do) read the 10-K and 10-Q reports.

    It puts Anthopoulos in a tough spot, to be honest. Engaging and open, a very likable part of this organization, we all understand AA’s past aggressiveness always didn’t pan out (he did trade Noah Syndergaard as the young centerpiece for R.A. Dickey, after all). To his credit, Anthopoulos has recalled several moves he made in Toronto that were geared toward building buzz and momentum in the offseason as transactions that didn’t pan out.

    But what if AA had been the original architect of the great Braves rebuild of the 2010s? What if he was here for the butt-whippings at Turner Field in 2015 and 2016, when such luminaries as Daniel Castro and Eury Perez manned the starting eight? Would have he been more inclined to lean into this offseason had he been here and suffered like the rest of us? And what in the heck is he supposed to say when his boss, McGuirk, continues spewing the corporate lines?

    I understand being strategic and pragmatic and measured, I do. It’s the right course to take most of the time. But not always. Circumstances at times dictate a deviation, a seizing of the moment. Those times when you dance in front of everybody like no one is watching, when you tell the interviewer why they are fools if they don’t hire you, when you kiss your secret crush regardless of who’s around.

    Those times when you go for it, color a bit outside the lines in order to accelerate the path forward. When the window opens earlier than expected, it’s OK to jump a bit higher than otherwise, especially when you still have one of the best and deepest farm systems in the game.

    For better or worse, this organization has decided not to do that. And if it doesn’t result in a step deeper into October, that will rest solely at the feet of the powers that be … and if it happens, the next offseason won’t be pretty.

    —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 Go Cyber Monday Shopping, Bolster Lineup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There were plenty of people who did their research, scoped out the best buys, figured out their budget and set their sights on Cyber Monday, one of those holiday events where many of us upgrade our wardrobe, electronics or household.

    Who knew Alex Anthopoulos also had that day circled on his calendar?


    Now granted, the Braves general manager probably did not set out specifically to make the first two moves of this pivotal offseason on the same day you were saving 30 percent on a pair of jeans and a flat-screen TV. But when you slip on those new jeans and fire up that TV come April, you’re going to see a familiar face and a hugely impactful face wearing Atlanta Braves jerseys.

    Atlanta welcomed home longtime catcher, Duluth (Ga.) native and eternal fan favorite Brian McCann on Monday, signing the veteran catcher to a one-year, $2 million deal. Injuries and decreased offensive production diminished his impact the past two seasons in Houston, but one of the better framing catchers in the game did help the Astros win the 2017 World Series. Reportedly, the soon-to-be 35-year-old turned down more lucrative offers for the chance to play in front of family and friends in his hometown.

    Certainly, this move did not move the needle holistically as much as it did for sentimental reasons. This correspondent even tweeted that this move did not look great at the moment, but likely would in a month or two given the moves that would come, taking care of the catching position, not spending but a mere pittance (in baseball terms) to get it done. After all, this is not the same player who made seven All-Star appearance wearing an Atlanta uniform earlier in his career.

    Then came news – merely minutes after McCann’s signing was announced by the club – that made adding a catcher who hit .212 in 63 games last season much more tolerable, sentiments be darned.

    The Braves inked slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson to a one-year, $23 million deal late Monday, reuniting the former Blue Jay with Anthopoulos, the general manager who acquired the Auburn University product after the 2014 season to help Toronto reach back-to-back AL championship series.

    That’s a lot of money for a guy who, like McCann, has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. But any return to form for Donaldson, who will be motivated to parlay this one-year deal into a huge free-agent contract come next winter, would pay tremendous dividends for an Atlanta lineup that – for all its sizzle and shine a season ago – lacked the right-handed power threat to slot behind Freddie Freeman in the cleanup spot.

    There’s a lot to like about these deals together, from an inward and an outward perspective.

    Inward, the Braves are a better team now than they were at sunrise. McCann will provide tremendous leadership behind the plate for Atlanta’s youthful staff, the catcher certainly benefitting from working with the likes of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander since he left the Braves after the 2013 season. He gained valuable experience playing in the postseason with the Yankees (who he signed with after leaving Atlanta) and Houston, including the 2017 World Series title.

    Likewise, Donaldson has his share of playoff experience, including the aforementioned two years with Anthopoulos north of the border. The soon-to-be 33-year-old only played 52 games a season ago, but slugged 33 homers with a .944 OPS in 113 games the year before, and only is three years removed from a MVP campaign in which he blasted 41 homers and drove in 123 runs. Anything approaching those numbers in 2019 gives the Braves one of the absolute most dangerous lineups in the NL, hands down.

    And what of Johan Camargo, the young fan favorite whose anchoring of third base the final four months of 2018 is hailed as one of the reasons the rebuilding Braves transitioned into the playoff-clinching Braves? Folks, I can’t see Camargo going anywhere. He has experience playing three infield positions, will get some work at first base and corner outfield in camp, and profiles exactly as the type of player Martin Prado was at one time and Marwin Gonzalez (McCann’s former Houston teammate) is at this time.

    Those guys are incredibly valuable. Baseball today has changed. Used to be, the best eight guys played every day. Not anymore. Remember the NLDS, where the Braves fell in four games to Los Angeles? Atlanta’s bench was piecemeal, while the Dodgers routinely brought guys off the bench who could’ve started for the majority of teams in the majors.

    Camargo will see time on the bench, sure, but also will get plenty of starts spelling Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Donaldson (the beauty is Donaldson does not have to play 150 games for this deal to be a winner for the Braves), a few starts in a corner outfield spot. Social media lit up immediately after the Donaldson news broke with questions of whether Camargo or Swanson would be moved.

    My feeling is neither. Anthopoulos and Brian Snitker – ironically, the man who as a minor-league manager told a 21-year-old McCann at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 that he was going to the majors for the first time – realize depth is a need if this franchise is going to play deeper into October in 2019. Donaldson’s addition allows that to happen. Consider that on a particular night, you could have Camargo (or Swanson, or Albies, or Donaldson) as your top option off the bench, with McCann as the second catcher on days Tyler Flowers starts, along with the ever-versatile Charlie Culberson?

    Beats Ryan Flaherty and Danny Santana.

    It’d be foolish to think the Braves are done, either. Certainly, Anthopoulos will take some of the remaining payroll flexibility and save that dry powder for spring training or the trade deadline, but Atlanta still has money to spend (even more so if it can find a taker for Julio Teheran, knowing it likely will have to eat some of his $11 million owed for 2019). Were Donaldson an everyday player last season, there is no way he takes a one-year deal. McCann three years ago would not have come home for $2 million.

    But here they are, and there still is room for the Braves to work.

    Not to mention Atlanta has dealt exactly zero prospects from its overflowing pantry of young talent. The capabilities are there to make a major move on the trade front, and I think that’s where the Braves will strike next. Could Cleveland’s Corey Kluber be had for a high prospect price, giving Atlanta three years of control of a perennial Cy Young candidate who is a bona fide ace? Could Seattle be enticed to deal outfielder Mitch Haniger and/or closer Edwin Diaz for a big package, allowing the Braves to address corner outfield and closer with long-term controllable pieces?

    Anthopoulos filled two needs on Cyber Monday. Time will tell if he got the most bang for his buck. And with the Winter Meetings looming and plenty of options on the table, today’s spending spree likely is only the beginning.

    —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 Offensive Swoon Just a Blip or Something More?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It was “Sandlot Day” at SunTrust Park on Saturday, complete with a postgame showing of the classic movie following the Braves loss to Arizona. And in the midst of that iconic 90s classic, a famous four-word phrase was uttered on two occasions when Scotty Smalls’ ignorance left his buddies in exasperated shock.

    But safe to assume, those weren’t the only two times on this muggy, cloudy July afternoon when that phrase left the lips of Braves fans as another Atlanta hitter trudged back to the first-base dugout, bat in hand. Eight losses in the past 10 games for a team that had yet to blink in a pennant race joined sooner than expected has everybody on the edge of frustration, and Atlanta’s maddening offensive slump has become a flashpoint for the (insert sarcasm font) always-composed, mild-mannered, slow-to-panic denizens of Braves Country.

    Consider:

    • In the past 10 games, the Braves are hitting .241 as a team with 33 runs scored – six of ’em coming in one inning Wednesday against Toronto – while striking out 100 times and leaving 76 runners on base.
    • The Braves have mustered a grand total of one run in dropping the first two games of this weekend set to Arizona, the type of team Atlanta would see should it reach the playoffs, collecting 11 hits while striking out 23 times.
    • Atlanta has belted two homers in its past eight games, after hitting 98 in its first 87 contests, and both of those came off Ozzie Albies’ bat three innings apart Wednesday.

    It isn’t hard to look at any successful team and find a 10-game stretch where the wheels come off one aspect of the game, be it offensive production or starting pitching or bullpen execution. But when it comes to these Braves, with so many young players performing at a high level for the first time, with older veterans who are enjoying a renaissance of sorts, it begs the question:

    Is this merely a bump in the road, or is it regression to the mean?

    I don’t have the answer, and none of us will know until the final tale of 2018 is told and we see how this week and a half impacted the final, finished product. But I do think there are elements of both in play here.

    This team looks like a squad that needs the All-Star break. Desperately. Like, last week.

    There are several areas offensively where the production consistently is falling short of what’s expected or what’s needed (or both). Each one puts more pressure on the guys who are hitting, and what I’ve noticed the past two weeks is – for the first time this season – the Braves pressing a bit. Baseball’s hard enough without trying to hit a five-run homer with nobody on base.

    Some counter by saying the Braves have faced good pitching during this rough stretch – and Zack Greinke was outstanding for Arizona on Saturday, no question – but one of the hallmarks of Atlanta’s early-season success was beating good pitchers (Sale, Scherzer, et al). Playing in May as a feel-good story is one thing. Playing in July with more eyes and, yes, more pressure on every at-bat, is different.

    I don’t believe this team is as bad offensively as it’s shown of late. Nor, do I think it’s sustainable or realistic to expect this team to lead the National League in batting average and homers and slugging percentage, as it did in barnstorming its way to 15 games above .500 at one point a couple of weeks ago.

    That’s not to say there isn’t offensive talent available here.

    Did Ender Inciarte forget how to hit? No. He brought a career .295/.341/.733 slash line into this season, but he’s not performing at all in the leadoff spot. He’s better than a .241 hitter, but at this moment in this season that’s what he is. It’s time to move him down in the lineup, remove some of the pressure of having to set the table and let him get back on track.

    Is Dansby Swanson a .302 hitter, as he was in 38 games at the end of 2016? Most likely not, but is he the .249 hitter he is now (and that’s after collecting two of Atlanta’s five hits Saturday)? Perhaps he is, but his defense and a .327 average from the seventh inning on this season make it easier to roll him out there every day.

    The above two gentlemen are the first names that fly off the lips and fingertips of a fanbase that spends far too much time in panic mode and far too few minutes enjoying this ongoing emergence from the rebuild. Yes, there will the pain as the scar tissue from four straight losing seasons and an embarrassing front-office scandal is broken through.

    And if you think that hurts, sunshine, just wait until the end of this month, or this offseason, when some of the prized prospect possessions this team has amassed are sent off to fix the holes some of you yell about from sunrise to bedtime.

    The key to making any team successful is putting the parts in the best place possible to contribute to the maximum level for the common good. In baseball, that means determining the right prospects to deal and the right ones to keep. It also means putting players in the best spot to succeed, foregoing personal preferences or comfort levels to amplify a positive impact on the sum of the parts.

    For baseball teams, that comes down to wins and losses. And that squarely sits on the manager’s shoulders. There are inputs from various sources, be it the mountains of data now available in every front office or the weathered eyes and gut of a 40-year baseball lifer. But at the end of the day, I wonder (and in a way, fear) that some of the stubbornness we’ve seen from Brian Snitker these past few weeks will cost him a chance to run this show next spring.

    The players love Snitker, and there is something to be said for that. At the same time, there are instances – be it overreliance on Sam Freeman as the first lefty out of the bullpen or leaving Inciarte at the top of the batting order – that certainly must give Alex Anthopoulos pause. The new Braves general manager has no tethers to Snitker or your favorite prospect.

    Prepare yourself accordingly.

    Anthopoulos spent part of his Saturday entertaining questions from season-ticket holders, with many of the queries focused on the July 31 trade deadline. Every inquiry certainly was reinforced by the pain of a magical season suddenly feeling as if it’s souring by the day (news flash: it’s not, for if nothing else the rest of the NL East is every bit afflicted with its own warts and flaws).

    There will be plenty of work done over the four-day All-Star break this week regarding the rest of 2018 and setting the table for 2019. The players need to be as far away from baseball as possible (save the four Atlanta All-Stars who head to D.C. on Sunday), but for this front office and coaching staff, there will be a lot to discuss before the “second half” begins Friday in Washington.

    There are sensible moves the Braves can make at the deadline that won’t gut the farm system (granted, it would take a lot to gut a system more stocked than a hoarder’s supply of canned goods). It will be fascinating to see how this unfolds for Atlanta over the next two-plus weeks. Some of that groundwork gets laid this week, while the sport pauses to celebrate its best and brightest, while most of the Braves hopefully hit the refresh and relax buttons.

    And no, I’m not expecting Manny Machado to have a tomahawk on their jersey come Aug. 1. The bullpen needs an upgrade (or two, to be honest). It doesn’t take the biggest name. It takes the right player in the right position at the right time.

    So, put away those dream proposals floating all over social media. Atlanta is no more likely to meet Baltimore’s asking price for eight weeks of Machado than the Mets are likely to deal Jacob deGrom – in division – for a haul of Atlanta prospects – again, in division.

    In other words: “You’re killin’ me, Smalls.”

    —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.

    After Discouraging Homestand, Braves (and Their Fans) Need to Catch Their Breath

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – A 48-hour span without a game in the midst of the long slough that is a baseball season is pretty rare, a time to step back from the blur of the day-to-day spent dissecting a team and a campaign and the nearly nightly doings under the microscope of increasing pressure and expectations.

    It should be a time of quiet reflection, a quick respite to catch one’s breath, to look around – maybe introduce yourself to the people with whom you share a house – and perhaps even go to sleep at a decent hour.

    If you seek that calming pause in the midst of this surprisingly successful 2018 campaign for the Atlanta Braves, may I share a piece of advice:

    Shut off your phone/laptop/tablet. Now.

    (Well, not right now. Finish reading this first. Then shut off your device, unplug it, disconnect your internet connection and run to the closest place where wi-fi doesn’t exist.)

    There, my friend, you will find peace. Otherwise, prepare yourself for the wrath that currently consumes Braves Country.

    Atlanta flew home from Toronto last Wednesday staring at a gift from the schedule makers: back-to-back home series against a pair of last-place teams, Baltimore and Cincinnati, a golden opportunity to build onto its National League East lead before a difficult 10-game road trip that will carry the team with a week of the All-Star break.

    (Insert narrator voice: “It did not go well.”)

    The Braves dropped both series, needing an Ozzie Albies extra-inning homer in the middle of the night to avoid being swept by the Reds.

    In the process, Atlanta saw both Albies and Ender Inciarte injured – albeit reports indicate neither is serious – lost Anibal Sanchez to a cramp in the middle of a desperately needed quality start – left enough baserunners to start a small city and, most notably, watched its bullpen crumple into a heap of exhausted arms as closer Arodys Vizcaino landed on the disabled list and the revolving bullpen shuttle between Atlanta and Gwinnett shifted into overdrive.

    How much so? Longtime Braves minor-leaguer Wes Parsons found himself signing a major-league contract Wednesday morning. He was packing his locker six hours later, bound for Gwinnett after serving as an emergency relief arm that was not used.

    Perhaps he should’ve pitched. He couldn’t have fared any worse than the relievers deployed in Wednesday’s come-from-ahead 6-5 loss to the Reds.

    The maddening thing is Parsons isn’t the only Atlanta reliever who experienced the same major-league “debut” during this cursed six-day span, the promising Evan Phillips getting the call Sunday only to sit, then return to Triple-A without throwing a pitch.

    Roll all this together, and you have a fanbase that completely and utterly has lost its collective mind on social media. Braves Twitter has its moments on a good day, but even by longtime observer and participant standards, this week has been one for the books. Or one for the panic button, which it seems the good folks in Braves Country have pushed en masse.

    There is credence to the “sky is falling” argument because, heck, it sure feels that way. The Braves bullpen is gassed, plain and simple. No group in the history of baseball needs Thursday’s day off in advance of a night game Friday in St. Louis more than Atlanta’s relievers. Manager Brian Snitker’s heavy reliance on his bullpen, in part a byproduct of the rotation failing more often than not to pitch deep into games, already is starting to catch up to this team, and we’re still in June.

    It doesn’t help that the offense, while scoring enough runs to win and getting plenty of runners on base, struggled mightily the past week in driving home runners from second and third base. Even getting a fly ball to the outfield with one out and a runner at third base has proven problematic for an offense that has spent most of the first half of the season taking advantage of nearly every opportunity to pounce on opposing pitchers.

    We quickly are approaching the time where Atlanta has to decide whether to ride out the good vibes of arriving a season earlier than many expected, or to commit to trying and crash the postseason party come October. No, nobody is saying empty the farm for a rental. Doing so would be foolish.

    But what will Alex Anthopoulos do as the trade deadline approaches in four weeks? Six games do not make a season, but it is clear the Braves need bullpen help. Premium relievers carry a heavy price tag (prospect capital as much as dollars).

    How much of the bullpen management (mismanagement?) falls at the feet of Snitker, who does not have a contract for 2019 and was not hired by Anthopoulos, but clearly is the player’s choice to lead this team?

    To be fair, these questions were going to be asked at some point, regardless. But given the events of the past week, the spotlight shines brighter now on the go-forward plan for this team for the remainder of 2018. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, who wouldn’t have signed up for this in March, that the Braves would own the East penthouse for the better part of two months, playing at a 90-plus win pace through 79 games?

    And while it feels the sky is falling, it’s important to remember for all the fits and starts of the past six days, the Braves at worst are going to lose only one game in the standings pending Philadelphia’s game late Wednesday. A decent final few days of June will give Atlanta its third-consecutive winning month. Phenom Ronald Acuna Jr., feared lost for the season after a nasty injury at the end of May, likely returns to the lineup this weekend. Vizcaino could be back by the end of the weekend.

    There are 83 games remaining in the season, and the next 10 won’t be easy: three in St. Louis, three in Yankee Stadium, four in Milwaukee. Nary an off day to be found in that stretch. The wild roller coaster of this season resumes before you know it.

    The Braves – and their fans – best take advantage of the next few hours to rest, to recover and to refocus.

    —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 Are Fun Again: From Every Angle, Lots of Positives

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Pardon us for doing a little celebrating on this night, but the Atlanta Braves have won 11 games.

    Eleven wins through April’s third week doth not make a postseason team. For some franchises, it hardly would cause a blink of the eye. But consider this tidbit: we are talking about a franchise that did not win its 11th game last season until May 2.

    Two years ago? Win No. 11 came on May 20.

    Welcome to the early minutes of April 20. The Braves are 11-7 through 18 games, a mere 11.1 percent through the season, but for those of us who predicted this team to finish around .500 – I’m on the record saying 80-82 – Atlanta already is nearly 14 percent there and we still have 10 games left in the opening month of this 2018 campaign.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday's 12-4 win over the Mets.

    Braves Manager Brian Snitker briefs reporters after Thursday’s 12-4 win over the Mets.

    These Braves may not be a playoff team, but this team has been an absolute joy to watch. Aggressive baserunning, good starting pitching, clutch hitting and, yes, some overachieving performance at the plate. And thewunderkid Ronald Acuna Jr. remains in Gwinnett, trying to settle his swing and string together enough hits to warrant a promotion.

    Where to begin with this intriguing bunch? Let’s hit a few topics as we go around the horn following Thursday’s series-opening 12-4 rout of the Mets to kick off a four-game set at SunTrust Park:

    Just Win Series

    We heard the sage Bobby Cox say this mantra over and over again during his second run as Atlanta manager (remember, he managed this team from 1978-81, when individual victories were cause for celebration). The Cox approach was if you win series, that’s a recipe for success.

    The Braves entered Thursday’s four-game series with the Mets having played six series. Four of those series, 11 games, came against playoff teams from last season. Three of those series were played against playoff teams, on the road, in miserable conditions.

    (As an aside, the scheduling by Major League Baseball is awful.)

    Atlanta emerged from that 11-game stretch – one game lost due to weather; another game that should’ve been lost due to weather, a contest the Braves lost – at 6-5. You could argue two of those losses were giveaways, the middle game in Colorado and the final game in Chicago, but on the whole, for a team that’s lost 90-plus games the past three years, it definitely was a strong showing.

    Unsung Heroes

    Every team that overachieves has to have guys who step up and provide that “did he really do that?” moment. The Braves have provided plenty of those through the first 18 games. Consider:

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington's Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    Braves OF Preston Tucker on Thursday pulled even with Washington’s Bryce Harper for the NL lead in RBI (18)

    ♦  Preston Tucker: He was just a placeholder for Acuna, and yet the former Houston farmhand has 18 RBIs through 18 games after driving in five runs in Thursday’s victory over the Mets. He’s belted a trio of three-run homers, his defense has been better than expected, and he provides left-handed power in the lineup that sorely is needed.

    ♦  Ryan Flaherty: How does this guy keep hitting? He arrived with a great glove to fill in at third base while Johan Camargo rehabbed from an obliqueinjury, but the journeyman Flaherty has established himself for now as a viable piece in the lineup. He’s hitting .352, belted a three-run homer Wednesday against Philly, drew two walks against the Mets (bumping his OPS to .954) while providing the steady defense we expected. The early-season production for Flaherty is not sustainable. Tucker likely is not sustainable, either. But Atlanta is deciding to ride the hot hands for now, starting Flaherty over Camargo and keeping Acuna in Gwinnett while Tucker does his thing.

    ♦  Matt Wisler: When Anibal Sanchez – who himself has bolstered the pitching staff – injured his hamstring the night before he was scheduled to start the series opener against the Mets, the Braves tapped Wisler, one of the “early rebuild” arms who failed to meet expectations. But he brought a renewed confidence and aggressiveness against a Mets team that entered the series opener at 13-4, carving up New York across seven tremendous innings. If nothing else, he earned the right to take the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation Tuesday at Cincinnati. He was that good.

    What About Acuna?

    The 20-year-old, who crushed at every level of the minors last season, then won Arizona Fall League MVP honors last fall, and then dominated the Grapefruit

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    OF Ronald Acuna continues to struggle at Triple-A Gwinnett

    League this spring, remains in Triple-A. The main reason? He’s pressing, going 8-for-44 with 17 strikeouts at Gwinnett through his first 11 games. For an organization that sent him down to work on “development” stuff – in other words, to guarantee an extra year of contract control – it would seem odd to promote a .182 hitter and pronounce that development compete.

    Folks, Ronald Acuna is going to be in the majors, and soon. Nobody expected Tucker to perform like he has, and likely didn’t expect Acuna to struggle so far through his first 51 plate appearances at Gwinnett. But the bottom line is once Acuna gets on a roll – and it’s coming – he will be in the majors. There is no worry there. I’d hit that kid cleanup from the get-go once he gets here, but that’s just me.

    Bautista and Bat Flips?

    Young Ronnie has some pretty good bat flips in his arsenal, but Atlanta signed the bat-flip master Jose Bautista to a one-year, minor-league deal on Wednesday. The longtime Toronto slugger, who maintained his relationship with new Braves GM Alex Anthopolous, is at extended spring training, working at third base and looking to prove he can play in the majors.

    I have my doubts. This Bautista is not the guy who finished in the top eight in American League MVP voting four times in six seasons from 2010-15. His on-base percentage has dropped each of the past four seasons, and his slugging percentage has fallen each of the past three seasons. Bautista struck out 170 times a season ago.

    I know some folks want to envision the 2014 Bautista hitting behind Freeman. I don’t see that at all. If he provides a right-handed power bat off the bench, that is a bonus. But I’m not counting on him.

    A Star in the Making

    Is there anybody in the majors today who is more fun to watch than Ozzie Albies? The kid is flat-out awesome to watch, be it diving to snag ground balls, turning double plays, blasting balls into the seats and hitting line drives into the gap.

    Seeing Ozzie round first on his way to an extra-base hit is one of the pure joys of watching baseball today. He plays with so much passion and joy, and he is so fast. His speed and baserunning is game-changing stuff.

    When the All-Star ballot comes out, punch Ozzie’s name at second base, repeatedly. If his production stays anywhere near the level we’ve seen through 18 games – .316 average, .995 OPS, five homers, 11 RBIs, 15 extra-base hits, outstanding defense – he has to be the front-runner for top second baseman in the Senior Circuit.

    What About Julio?

    RHP Julio Teheran

    RHP Julio Teheran

    Teheran has made a big change in his past two starts – relying more on his slider and changeup and mixing in a curveball, as well. In his first two starts of the season, Teheran relied solely on his fastball and opposing lineups pounded the heat, which sat around or just under 90 mph with little movement.

    Maybe Julio has found something with more mixing in of the breaking stuff. I think we all know he’s not an ace, but with four pitches in the mix, JT becomes more effective and more attractive – given his contract status – if Atlanta looks to deal him.

    ***

    It’s just 18 games, but compared to recent history, these Braves in 2018 have pushed the envelope. It’s a fun bunch to watch. There is so far to go but, so far, so good.

    —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.

    Anthopoulos Hiring Restores Hope

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Alex Anthopoulos may never lead the Atlanta Braves to a World Series championship. But amid a dark and stormy winter, the new general manager of the disgraced franchise provided something during his first day on the job Monday that felt completely unattainable through the first six weeks of the worst offseason in team history.

    Hope.

    Capping a process that accelerated over the weekend and culminated in news breaking in the overnight hours, the 40-year-old sat behind a microphone at SunTrust Park on Monday afternoon, the 12th general manager in Braves history beginning a tenure that starts under immense scrutiny and the looming storm clouds of Major League Baseball’s investigation looming on the horizon.

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    Braves Chairman Terry McGuirk introduced new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at Sun Trust Park on Monday

    But even though there undoubtedly will be stiff penalties handed down and time will be needed for the paying public to move beyond the scandal, Anthopoulos and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk sounded all the right notes in Monday’s announcement. And for this organization, getting the optics right is almost as critical in the healing process.

    McGuirk began by apologizing to the Braves fanbase for the front office scandal that forced disgraced former general manager John Coppolella to resign on Oct. 2.  He remained tight lipped about the nature of the misdeeds, revealing only that he expects Major League Baseball to announce the findings of its investigation into the Braves’ rules violations, along with resulting penalties, within the next two weeks.

    As notable as who appeared during the 30-minute press conference was who did not speak. Team president John Hart was not on stage, having been removed of any influence on baseball decisions beyond an advisory role, a necessary move for a baseball lifer who either was guilty of letting Coppolella run amuck, or too disengaged to notice.

    Longtime general manager John Schuerholz was not present on stage, either. Longtime manager Bobby Cox sat in the audience along manager Brian Snitker.

    Let’s now pause to consider this for a moment. Today has to be the first time the Braves made a major announcement without Cox, Schuerholz and/or Hart offering the voice of the franchise since 1985, the season before Cox returned to Atlanta as general manager and a decade before Atlanta won its lone World Series title.

    For a disenchanted fanbase long-since sick of hearing about “The Braves Way,” this was the right move.

    So, too, is hiring Anthopoulos, who made his mark in Toronto as a general manager not afraid to swing and miss in firing on a big deal. There were more hits than misses in building a team that reached the AL championship series in 2015-16, and time spent in the Dodgers’ front office helping bring Los Angeles its first pennant since 1988 certainly helps, too.

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    New Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos

    The fact Atlanta was able to hire Anthopoulos, one of the brighter young minds in baseball with a desire to win, is impressive. Given the current climate surrounding the franchise, it’s nothing short of a best-case scenario. For the fans, bloggers and columnists who have screamed for weeks about cleaning house and steering clear of a list of former GMs closer to retirement than relevance, this is about as good as it gets.

    Certainly, there is risk. Unless the Braves already have an idea what level of sanctions will be passed down, there is that uncertainty looming over whoever landed in the GM’s chair. There clearly are holes on the major-league roster, including the bullpen and third base and the needed move to clear room for Ronald Acuna in the outfield by March.

    But the upside is enormous, which Anthopoulos mentioned repeatedly in his opening address as GM. With baseball’s best farm system and opening revenue streams and a major-league roster already sprinkled with promising young and controllable talent, the national narrative on this day started shifting back to the pre-October storyline.

    The Braves are getting close. The better days are coming, and soon.

    The baseball decisions to come in the next few weeks will loom large for the 2018 season, one in which Atlanta looks to snap a four-season string of 90-plus losses while appeasing fans and business partners who will sting from the scandal and pending sanctions for some time to come. But at least Anthopoulos fills the gaping hole in the front office, consolidating control into a single voice, one that has built a pennant contender, one that was involved in a World Series run last month.

    And that guy holds the keys to the kingdom, one that does not seem as dire as it did before the weekend began. The honeymoon will not last long and he surely will be tasked with trading some of the overpacked pantry of prospects to address immediate needs. But in Anthopoulos the Braves have their man for the next four years.

    Again, they have hope.

    —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 split interleague series, gear up for Nats

    Juan Francisco was designated for assignment, giving Chris Johnson full-time duties at third base.

    Juan Francisco was designated for assignment, giving Chris Johnson full-time duties at third base.

    In an unusual interleague series that began north of the border and concluded in Atlanta, the Braves took one game in Toronto and one game at home, splitting the series with the Blue Jays.

    Game 1 (Toronto):

    Perhaps the only highlight of the Blue Jays rout of the Braves to begin the series was the 2-run blast by Evan Gattis who continues to impress all of Major League Baseball with his power and versatility.

    Tim Hudson has been terrible on the road of late, but his road woes are not all of the story. He has allowed 19 earned runs over his last 19 2/3 innings pitched.

    Young Cory Rasmus came out of the bullpen in the 7th and something happened that hasn’t happened since 2010–he faced his older brother Colby. The last time this happened in MLB was in 2010 when Jeff and Jered Weaver faced each other. It was not a sharp outing for Cory who gave up 3 runs in 2 innings.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 0 3 8 1
    Blue Jays 0 2 2 0 0 2 3 0 x 9 11 0

    W: Buehrle (2-3) L: Hudson (4-4)

    Game 2 (Toronto):

    Brian McCann is back and there is no denying that when he is right, he is one of the best hitting catchers in the big leagues. McCann had his first multi-homer game of the 2013 season at the Rogers Centre. It was the 9th multi-homer game of his career. His second homer of the game game in the 10th inning and proved to be the winning run of the game for Atlanta. McCann’s 2 homers were not the only for the Braves. Gattis and Schafer also went yard. Gattis and McCann had swapped duties in game 2–one catching and the other serving as designated hitter.

    It just wasn’t Maholm’s night. In the 1st inning of the game, he had very little command of his fastball and was unable to hit his spots. For a pitcher like Maholm, who simply doesn’t have the velocity to blow it by batters, there was no hiding how poorly his pitches were and the hard-hitting Blue Jays capitalized. Maholm’s 1st inning behind him, he did settle in. When he handed the game over to the bullpen, Avilan, Gearrin and Kimbrel were able to hold the Blue Jays scoreless. This was a good sign for the bullpen that has struggled since the loss of O’Flaherty and was a sign of things to come in game 3 when they picked up Kris Medlen.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 R H E
    Braves 3 1 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 1 7 12 1
    Blue Jays 4 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 6 12 2

    W: Gearrin (2-1) L: Weber (0-1) SV: Kimbrel (16)

    Game 1 (Atlanta):

    The Braves recorded their 7th shutout loss of the 2013 season. Strikeouts were once again an issue for the offense. The Braves have now struck out at least 10 times in 24 of their first 52 games. The Braves have an amazing record of 29-6 when they record at least 1 homer. They are 2-15 on the season when a home run isn’t recorded.

    After Medlen was hit by the line drive, the bullpen was solid. For perhaps the first time since the loss of O’Flaherty to Tommy John surgery, the ‘pen was able to buckle down, work together and get the Braves through the remainder of the game scoreless. Though the Braves didn’t get the win, this loss fell on the shoulders of the offense and not the ‘pen.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Blue Jays 1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 8 0
    Braves 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 2

    W: Perez (1-0) L: Medlen (1-6) SV: Janssen (11)

    Game 2 (Atlanta):

    Prior to the final game against the Blue Jays, the Braves announced that they had designated Juan Francisco (3B) for assignment to make room on the roster for relief pitcher Alex Wood. Francisco will now either be traded, claimed off of waivers or released. Francisco went 3-for-30 with 14 K’s in his last 11 games with the Braves. In that time, he did not record an RBI. For the season, he was batting .241 with 5 homers and a whopping 43 strikeouts. He had a terrible average of .159 in May.

    The Braves required an extra arm in the bullpen for the final game of the series after the ‘pen had to step in and pitch 7 innings after Medlen was hit by a line drive in the first game in Atlanta. The Braves purchased the contract of Alex Wood from the Mississippi Braves. Wood faced the minimum in a scoreless 9th inning. He was called up less than 24 hours before making his first big league start in Atlanta.

    Mike Minor continued a great start to the season with another solid outing. Minor pitched 7 innings, giving up 6 hits, 3 runs, 2 of them earned, no walks and 5 strikeouts.

    Simmons had committed five errors in the 92 career games he’d played entering Friday. He’s committed 3 in the 7 games that have followed. Simmons went 43 games w/o an error but now has three in 7 games, this one opening door for three runs in the sixth. Tied up 3-3

    Two offensive highlights from the game came from Reed Johnson and Ramiro Pena. Johnson belted his 1st home run as a Brave. His 2-run homer was his 5th career pinch hit homer. Pena had a career-high 4 RBIs in the game as he started in the place of the resting Dan Uggla.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Blue Jays 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 0 0 3 7 1
    Braves 1 1 1 0 0 3 3 2 x 11 16 1

    W: Minor (7-2) L: Dickey (4-7)

    HERITAGE WEEKEND PITS BRAVES AGAINST RIVAL NATS…

    Following the split series with the Blue Jays and the Nationals’ loss to the Orioles, the Braves have a 5 1/2 game lead on the Nats in the NL East.

    Despite the loss, the first game of the split-series in Atlanta was a good sign for Atlanta’s bullpen. Carpenter, who Braves’ fans haven’t seen much of, pitched 3 scoreless innings in relief. He could very well become the long man in the ‘pen in the absence of Cristhian Martinez. If he can be a reliable arm for Fredi Gonzalez to turn to in tight spots, that will surely help with the bullpen situation. Jordan Walden appears healthy. He hit 97 mph on the strikeout that ended the 8th inning. His velocity returning, without the prior soreness, puts him in a good position to be the setup man for Craig Kimbrel.

    The Braves are in a precarious situation with B.J. Upton as he attempts to get himself right. BJ Upton is batting .148/.236/.252. We’re a third through the season and he has just 8 RBI. In game 2 in Atlanta, B.J. Upton was quite obviously frustrations when he threw his bat and his helmet striking out for the second time in as many at bats in the game. He had been held out of the lineup for several games as he worked with hitting coaches Walker and Fletcher to try to get his swing right. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he is on the right track. B.J. Upton is qualified worst in the National League in strikeouts with 1 K for every 2.9 plate appearances. In a strange twist, Jordan Schafer, who was a huge disappointment to the Braves in his first stint with the team, has been one of Atlanta’s hottest hitters. In addition to his surprising offense, he has been a solid defender in the outfield with Justin Upton and Jason Heyward.

    The big stories of May have come via the younger guys on the roster. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran’s combined in May to go 6-1 with a 2.08 ERA in their combined 10 starts. Between them they had 55 strikeouts in 69 innings. Rookie Evan Gattis had 17 hits, 6 homers and 16 RBIs in 62 plate appearances in May. He has a .298 batting average with one day left of May. Chris Johnson, who becomes the everyday third baseman with Juan Francisco DFA’d, had 14 hits, 5 RBIs and a .304 average in 50 plate appearances in May. And quietly, Freddie Freeman has had a torrid May. In 114 plate appearances, he has 32 hits, 19 RBIs, a .305 batting average and a .360 on-base percentage.

    Beginning today and going through Sunday is the Atlanta Braves Heritage Weekend at Turner Field. The event pays tribute to the rich heritage in the Atlanta area and includes a Champions of Justice Discussion Panel today, focusing on the role of sports in civil rights. Saturday’s game will pay tribute to the Negro Leagues and will again feature the Atlanta Black Crackers throwback uniforms that the Braves sported earlier in the season. The Nationals will wear the uniform of the Homestead Grays.

    Atlanta Braves Heritage Weekend will feature Strasburg (3-5, 2.49) vs. Teheran (3-1, 3.67) Friday night. Saturday night’s game appearing nationally on FOX will feature Gonzalez (3-3, 3.90) vs. Hudson (4-4, 5.37). Sunday afternoon’s finale will feature Karns (0-0, 6.23) vs. Maholm (6-4, 3.74).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.

    Braves take series in Flushing, begin split-series with Jays

    Despite a bizarre weather-induced suspension in the 8th inning of game 1, the Braves were able to play the remainder of game 1 prior to game 2 and won both. The Braves took another series, this one within the division, before heading north to face off against the AL Toronto Blue Jays.

    Game 1:

    Somewhat lost in the absurdity of suspending the game in the 8th after the Braves ‘pen gave up the tying runs was the fact that Medlen got the no decision yet again. He is now 1-5 with a 3.16 ERA in his 10 starts. His ERA is in great shape, but he has been the recipient of all of the hard luck of the pitching staff.

    Evan Gattis did what Evan Gattis does best–he was clutch. He now leads the Braves with 29 RBIs in just 122 at bats. He hit a pinch hit blast that should have been a game-winning RBI, instead it became the 3rd potential game-winning RBI that was wiped out by the bullpen blowing the lead. Of course, the ‘pen blew the lead in the middle of the 8th due in part to terrible weather that was preventing any sort of grip on the baseball.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 R H E
    Braves 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 2 7 10 2
    Mets 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 2 0 0 5 10 0

    W: Varvaro (2-0) L: Lyon (1-2) SV: Kimbrel (15)

    Game 2:

    The story of game 2 truly was Mike Minor. In addition to pitching a true gem, Mike Minor was 2-for-3 at the plate with his first career home run. He is the first Atlanta pitcher to have at least 10 strikeouts and a home run in a start since Kevin Millwood during the 1999 season. Minor went 7 1/3 innings, allowing no runs, 2 walks and 10 strikeouts. On the matter of pitch counts, Minor threw 113 pitches. This is in line with the number of pitched both Teheran and Maholm have been allowed to throw in recent outings.

    Jason Heyward’s contributions to the team since returning from the disabled list cannot go without note. J-Hey is hitting .267 with 2 doubles, 6 walks and 4 K’s in 30 AB’s since he came off the DL following his emergency appendectomy in Denver. Through game 2 of the series, the Braves had gone 8-0 since his return.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 0 5 0 1 0 0 6 11 0
    Mets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 0

    W: Minor (6-2) L: Gee (2-6)

    Game 3:

    Rookie Julio Teheran surrendered more walks in his outing than he had in his previous 5 outings. He left the game with a 2-1 lead after 6 2/3 innings pitched. Teheran gave up 5 hits, 1 run and those 3 walks, while striking out 5 on 93 pitches.

    Strikeouts were once again an issue for Braves hitters against Shawn Marcum. Marcum matched his career high of 12 strikeouts against Atlanta. His season high had been 7 strikeouts prior to Sunday’s game.

    Dan Uggla hit a 2-run blast to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead in the 7th. For Uggla, it was his 10th home run. At that point in the game, Uggla had both of the Braves 2 hits off Marcum. Uggla appears to be seeing the ball well and heating up. His bat is a welcome addition to the hot-and-cold offense.

    The story for the Braves once again was how inconsistent the Braves’ bullpen is and how much they are struggling to bridge from the starters to closer Kimbrel. Gearrin gave up 3 runs in the 8th, blowing the lead that Atlanta had when Teheran left the game.

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
    Braves 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 2 5 1
    Mets 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 3 x 4 9 1

    W: Hawkins (1-0) L: Gearrin (1-1) SV: Parnell (7)


    BRAVES ON THE ROAD TO TORONTO, JAYS FLY SOUTH TO ATLANTA…

    In one of the strange scheduling quirks of the 2013 season, the Braves will fly to Toronto to face the Blue Jays for 2 games and then the Blue Jays will follow them south to Atlanta for 2 games. The split-series will give the Braves the opportunity to insert both Evan Gattis and Brian McCann in the lineup without having to play Gattis in left field. Gattis and McCann will each get a start behind the dish and a start as designated hitter on the short road trip.

    An update on injuries: Jordan Walden threw a side session Sunday and will get in a rebab appearance before his anticipated return on Wednesday. That is assuming that he doesn’t encounter any setbacks. His arm is certainly needed in the ‘pen, especially without a true setup man for Craig Kimbrel.

    At the Rogers Centre, game 1 of the split-series against Toronto will feature Hudson (4-3, 4.98) vs. Buehrle (1-3, 5.90). Game 2 will feature Maholm (6-4, 3.38) vs. Morrow (2-3, 5.50). The Braves and Blue Jays will then relocate to the Ted where game 1 will feature Rogers (1-2, 4.56) vs. Medlen (1-5, 3.16). And game 2 at the Ted, the final game of the split-series will feature Dickey (4-6, 4.85) vs. Minor (6-2, 2.47).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.

    Braves beat Jays, welcome Bronx Bombers

    Dan Ugga's on-base % stands at .388 (top-10 in NL). On June 11, 2011, it was .245.

    One word to describe the Braves in 2012 is streaky. For good and bad, so far the Braves seem to be grouping their wins and their losses. Heading into a 3-game series with the Blue Jays, the Braves had won 4 straight. They added to that streak by taking the first 2 from the Jays, but ended their 6-game winning streak with Sunday’s loss.

    Several roster moves occured as the Braves returned to Atlanta to take on the Blue Jays. After one rehab outing at Rome, Chipper Jones returned to the big league club. Jose Constanza went back to Triple-A to make room for Chipper. Tim Hudson was nursing a sore ankle and missed his start, thus Julio Teheran was called up for a spot start. Hudson anticipates making his next start on Wednesday. J.C. Boscan, who you’ll remember was called up when David Ross suffered a minor groin injury, was sent down to make way for Teheran. After the 10-inning game to open the series, Gonzalez was hoping to avoid using O’Flaherty and Venters out of the ‘pen, so young Randall Delgado was sent to the ‘pen in the event of an emergency. Fortunately, Tommy Hanson pitched an impressive 8 inning gem and Craig Kimbrel recorded the save. It’s unclear who will go down when Kris Medlen is ready to return, but this weekend’s bullpen adventures may require that two go down so Medlen and a reliever can come up.

    About those bullpen adventures… For whatever reason, Fredi Gonzalez stuck with his long man, Livan Hernandez last night and the result was disastrous. Julio Teheran pitched 4 beautiful innings before the wheels fell off. Instead of bringing in a reliever to get out of the jam and then use his long man, Gonzalez went with Hernandez immediately and Livan allowed 3 of the runs attributed to Teheran to score as well as proceeded to allow 5 earned runs on 7 hits. After the Livan trainwreck, Cristhian Martinez came out of the ‘pen and allowed 6 hits and 3 earned runs in a longer outing than long-man Livan’s. The least damage occurred on the watch of Chad Durbin who worked a scoreless inning.

    The Braves offense may be heating up again and the rotation may fall into piece in the coming weeks, but the bullpen needs help. That Craig Kimbrel has been lights out of late is one of the few highlights of the ‘pen. With no solid timetable for Peter Moylan’s return and Kris Medlen moving to the rotation, a decision will have to be made soon about who comes up from Triple-A and what the Braves do with Livan Hernandez who had allowed 10 hits, 2 runs in 14 1/3 innings pitched over 11 appearances between 4/28-5/25 and has now allowed 13 hits, 9 runs, and 3 homers in 4 2/3 innings pitched in 2 appearances since 5/25.

    While Martin Prado continues to be the most consistent hitter on the team and Michael Bourn keeps proving why he was an excellent pick-up for the Braves at last year’s trade deadline, the Braves can also celebrate the production of Dan Uggla (both in hits and an ungodly number of walks) and glimpses of the old Jason Heyward who scored the walk-off run on a throwing error in the 10th inning of game one of the series.

    PLAYING HOST TO THE BRONX BOMBERS…

    The Braves welcome the New York Yankees for a 3-game set at Turner Field. The series begins, of course, on a dreaded Monday. The Braves remains winless on Mondays this season, an inexplicable 0-8 record. This stat has to be in their head by now. It’s time for the team to get over their bad case of the Mondays.

    Monday: Nova (7-2, 5.09) vs. Delgado (4-5, 4.26)

    Tuesday: Sabathia (7-3, 3.69) vs. Minor (3-4, 6.57)

    Wednesday: Kuroda (5-6, 3.46) vs. Hudson (4-2, 3.83)

    There was one major change to the pitching schedule in the Toronto series that happened late: Tim Hudson was scratched and Julio Teheran was plugged in for a spot start. That change pushes Huddy back to Wednesday and Beachy will then be pushed back a day or two for the next series. There’s been no word on whether or not Minor will in fact make the start against Sabathia Tuesday, but for now he remains on the schedule.

    With one of the most feared lineups in baseball, the Yankees will prove daunting for young Randall Delgado. He will need to continue to have success with all three of his pitches as he has in his last two starts. Mike Minor will have two major challenges: Keeping runners off the bases via the walk and not giving up the long ball. Minor has struggled all season with the long ball and the Bronx Bombers will make him pay. Keeping the bases clear in the event he does give him a jack will be crucial. The key for Tim Hudson will be his sinker. As long as he can keep the ball on the ground, the veteran can be successful again the Yanks. Another bonus for Huddy is the new shortstop Andrelton Simmons who is proving to be incredibly valuable with his glove. Where Hudson has requested Jack Wilson at shortstop in his past starts, Simmons is an excellent upgrade at the position and will very likely be the starter behind Huddy.

    Weather may delay tonight’s game. It is currently scheduled to start at 7:10 (EST).

    Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch" href="https://twitter.com/#!/framethepitch">@framethepitch.