• Truist Park

    POSTSEASON PARADISE! Braves End 19-Year Playoff Drought with Sweep of Reds

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Nineteen years. Six thousand, nine hundred and twenty-nine days. Two hundred and twenty-seven months, plus 20 days for good measure.

    Finally, it’s over.

    Finally, Lucy didn’t pull the football away from Charlie Brown.

    Finally, at long and blessed last, the nearly two-decade postseason drought for the Atlanta Braves – a stretch that has defined their recent history – is just that:

    History.

    The Braves have won a postseason series for the first time since 2001, finishing a two-game sweep of Cincinnati on Thursday in the National League Wild Card series at Truist Park. Time to head west to Houston for the NL bubble and a date with either the Cubs or the Marlins in the best-of-five NL Division Series. The winner plays for the pennant and a trip to the World Series.

    “I told them we’ve just checked a box off of what we want to get done,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters postgame, adding that the mood in the clubhouse was, “controlled chaos.”

    There was plenty of emotion and elation oozing from all corners of Braves Country, and it certainly was understandable … and overdue. Consider that social media did not exist when the Braves capped a three-game NLDS sweep of Houston on Oct. 12, 2001. To put it another way: the last time this franchise won a playoff series was 341 days before I became a father and 701 days before my second child was born.

    My kids are now in their senior and junior years of high school, and for the first time in their lives have experienced the Braves winning a postseason series. So excuse us if we celebrate this with the fervor of a pennant and World Series trip.

    It’s been a minute.

    Streak Buster: Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall homered in the eighth inning Thursday as the Braves finished a two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series, the franchise’s first postseason series victory since 2001.

    Atlanta won this series in a far, far different manner than most people expected leading into the start of the expanded 16-team playoffs. The Braves cranked out runs at a staggering pace all season, leading the majors in OBP and finishing second in runs and homers. One figured that prolific offense would have to lead the way. Had you told someone Monday the Braves would score a whopping two runs in the first 20 innings of the series, odds are they would think the season – and not the postseason futility streak – would be ending.

    In front of Braves family members and a few thousand cardboard cutouts in an otherwise empty Truist Park, Atlanta hitters spent plenty of time taking right turns and heading back to the first-base dugout after striking out. One day after fanning 21 times in Game 1, the Braves struck out 14 times in the second game.

    Certainly, there is credit due to Cincinnati’s pitching. Remember, the Reds featured arguably the best rotation among all postseason qualifiers, fronted by Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo in the first two games. That pitching was more than enough to sway many national prognosticators to pick seventh-seeded Cincinnati in the opening round.

    Somebody forgot to tell Max Fried and Ian Anderson they were supposed to play second fiddle, though. One day after Fried spun seven shutout innings to set the tone in Atlanta’s 1-0, 13-inning triumph, it was the 22-year-old Anderson who grabbed control Thursday. The Braves first-round pick in 2016 displayed poise and composure during his first six major-league starts, then took it to another level in his playoff debut.

    Anderson wiggled out of a mess in a 34-pitch second inning – prolonged by Ozzie Albies’ inability to cleanly turn a double play and several questionable ball/strike calls by home plate umpire Marty Foster. Otherwise he was unflappable, finishing with nine strikeouts and just two hits allowed across six innings.

    “This whole time coming up and making an impact, throwing the ball well,” Anderson told Fox Sports Southeast postgame. “It’s been a blast.”

    For the Reds, it was anything but. Much was made of Cincinnati’s pedestrian offense entering the series, but nobody foresaw Cincinnati’s futility in the batter’s box: zero runs in 22 innings. The Braves bullpen shined brightly, dodging disaster in extra innings Wednesday before three quiet innings in the clincher. Fried and Anderson, who each made their first career postseason starts in the series, combined to surrender eight hits with two walks and 14 strikeouts in 13 scoreless innings.

    Unlike Fried, Anderson left the game with the lead.

    Ronald Acuna Jr., one of few Atlanta offensive bright spots in last season’s NLDS defeat to St. Louis, collected one of six Braves hits in Game 1. His two-out double to left-center in the fifth off Castillo chased home Austin Riley with Game 2’s first run, Acuna finishing as the first Braves player to collect three hits with a stolen base in a playoff game since Andruw Jones in 2004.

    Moving On: Braves manager Brian Snitker addresses the media after Atlanta’s two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card series Thursday.

    The Braves offense was too good to lay dormant for too long. They broke through with four big insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, getting a pair of two-run homers from Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall. Both sluggers struggled in the series, but provided the breathing room the Braves and their fans desperately craved after the drama and tension of the series to that point.

    Ozuna – who led the NL with 18 homers in the regular season – told his teammates he had a celebration in mind if he launched one in the series. As his blast traveled toward the left-field seats in the eighth, he paused briefly for a selfie with an imaginary camera halfway down the first-base line. Ozuna repeated the move in the dugout as his teammates surrounded him.

    “We all celebrate as one,” Acuna told reporters after the game.

    And it’s an occasion worth celebrating. Because for the first time since the early days of this century, a Braves playoff run isn’t one-and-done.

    —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.

    Postseason Preview: Braves Must Maximize Roster in Red-Letter Matchup

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The finish line at times seemed like a mirage, but after all the trepidation and worry about trying to pull off a shortened season in a pandemic, we made it.

    The 60-game sprint to the finish is complete. And, as it tends to do, baseball provided us plenty of memorable moments. Most of all, it brought back a familiar backbeat of normalcy during a time when for so many of us, normal felt like a foreign concept.

    I think I speak for Braves fans everywhere when I said here is where normalcy should cease and desist. While Atlanta is accustomed to reaching the playoffs after three consecutive National League East titles, it’s the typical status quo in October that has long since worn out its welcome. You know the math by now, by heart, much as it hurts: 19 years sans a postseason series victory.

    Opportunity knocks again starting Wednesday at Truist Park, where the Braves will open the NL Wild Card series against the Cincinnati Reds and their three-headed monster of a starting rotation. While there will be plenty of attention paid to Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray in the days ahead, it won’t be an easy out for either team – especially in a best-of-three opening round that immediately pushes the Game 1 loser into a do-or-die situation.

    Which is why Atlanta can ill afford to have any wasted spots on its 28-man postseason roster. No, it won’t happen but, yes, I absolutely would have Cristian Pache on the bench and William Contreras as the third catcher. In lieu of any personal feelings, here’s my projection of what the Braves playoff roster will look like:

    Starting pitchers (3): Max Fried, Ian Anderson, Kyle Wright. Open spots: none.

    Fried’s six innings pitched since Sept. 6 may be a blessing in disguise, and the left-hander has worked through back spasms and an ankle injury to reach the postseason at 100 percent. His development into a Cy Young contender and staff co-ace has been a saving grace for a rotation ripped apart by injuries and underperformance. Anderson has impressed in his first six big-league starts and the postseason stage doesn’t look to be too much for him to handle. Will we see the Wright from earlier this season (16 walks in 15 innings with a 7.20 ERA in four starts), or the one who shined his final three starts (six walks, 19 strikeouts, 2.37 ERA, .164 opponents batting average)?

    Relief pitchers (11): Mark Melancon, Shane Greene, Will Smith, A.J. Minter, Tyler Matzek, Josh Tomlin, Darren O’Day, Grant Dayton, Jacob Webb. Open spots: 2.

    The biggest injury concern is right-hander Chris Martin, who felt groin discomfort in the regular-season finale Sunday. Martin, of course, hurt an oblique warming up for Game 1 of last season’s NLDS, leading to a late Atlanta meltdown. His injury Sunday certainly sent shivers through the spine of Atlanta’s fanbase, but even without him, this bullpen (3.50 ERA, 1,280 WHIP, 282 strikeouts in 272 2/3 innings) is good and deep enough to swing a close series in the Braves direction. Tomlin, far more effective as a reliever than starter, provides insurance as a long man if a starter falters, and I expect either Huascar Ynoa or Bryse Wilson to also grab a long-man spot. One player I don’t expect to see: Luke Jackson, who has struggled mightily for much of the season.

    Starting lineup (9): Ronald Acuna Jr. CF, Freddie Freeman 1B, Marcell Ozuna DH, Travis d’Arnaud C, Ozzie Albies 2B, Adam Duvall LF, Nick Markakis RF, Dansby Swanson SS, Austin Riley 3B.

    There is room for adjustment in the bottom half of the batting order, but without question Atlanta’s offense is better than a season ago. Acuna, Freeman and Ozuna are as good a trio as any in baseball (a combined .316 average, 45 homers, 138 RBIs and 135 runs scored in 602 at-bats). d’Arnaud’s signing has worked out splendidly (.919 OPS), and Albies has raked since returning from injury (.338 average, .953 OPS with five homers and 17 runs scored in 18 games). One concern: Duvall has cooled of late (.162/.262/.270 in his past nine games) while Markakis was brutal offensively in September (.164 average, .451 OPS in 19 games).

    Bench (5): Tyler Flowers C, Alex Jackson C, Ender Inciarte OF, Pablo Sandoval 3B. Open spots: 1.

    Sandoval made his Braves debut with two walks Sunday, and provides not only insurance if Riley’s right quadriceps remains problematic, but a wealth of postseason experience. But this bench is not good by any stretch of the imagination, and even adding either Adeiny Hechavarria (who was awful defensively last week) or Johan Camargo (27.6% strikeout rate, .611 OPS) doesn’t move the needle. I expect the Braves to carry one of the two plus Jackson and Inciarte, although I’d lean to Contreras (better hitter) and Pache (speed and defense).

    Coming Tuesday: Five keys to the Braves/Reds series, who wins and why.

    —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.

    M-V-Free! Let There Be No Doubt: Freeman Deserves NL Honor

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Consider how much the world has changed this year. Shuttered businesses and ballparks. Sickness and divisiveness. Feelings of power and powerless. All of it woven together in the tapestry of 2020, a year we’ve never experienced and hope to never feel again.

    And still, constants remain. Like the kids kicking an oversized green ball in front of me along the fake green grass outside Truist Park this afternoon. Like the Atlanta Braves postseason T-shirts and hats hanging on the racks at the team’s clubhouse store a short walk from my writing vantagepoint, a rite of passage three Septembers old after Tuesday’s National League East title-clinching victory.

    Like the 31-year-old first baseman who plies his craft just a few hundred feet from where I sit on this final Saturday in September.

    If there’s one constant for the Braves, it’s Frederick Charles Freeman. He debuted in the majors 10 years ago this month, launching a home run in his 12th big-league game off Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. Two years later, his walk-off homer sent Atlanta into the NL playoffs, clinching a wild-card berth as Hall of Famer Chipper Jones stood on third base with his right arm raised in triumph.

    Eight years to the day after that postseason-clinching blast against Miami, Freeman was at it again in the late innings Friday. His 13th homer of the season capped a back-and-forth affair with Boston, the blast landing in the empty seats in left field to lift Atlanta to an 8-7, 11-inning victory. With the division championship salted away and all eyes on Wednesday’s opener of the equally thrilling-and-terrifying best-of-three wild-card series at Truist Park, Freeman didn’t start Friday’s series opener.

    But he was there at the finish, as he’s been throughout the Braves rise, fall and rebirth across the past decade. The one constant, living the collapse in 2011, the infield-fly in 2012, the division title in 2013 and then four years in rebuilding purgatory, followed by three consecutive division crowns.

    Freeman reaches the penultimate day of this weird, short 60-game season leading the majors in Fangraphs WAR (3.3) while ranking second in the NL in average (.341), OPS (1.105) and RBIs (51), and third in hits (71).

    That MVP Look: Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman enters the final two games of the 2020 regular season squarely in the NL MVP race.

    The numbers speak for themselves. Still, a deeper look at Freeman’s 2020 illustrates – with all due respect to the talented field of NL Most Valuable Player candidates, including teammates Marcell Ozuna and Ronald Acuna Jr. – how this award is Freeman’s and Freeman’s alone.

    On the field, the Braves captain (not officially, but c’mon; he might as well have a “C” stitched on his uniform) has done as he’s done since taking over full-time first-base duties nine springs ago. He’s led the way for a team where Max Fried is the lone survivor of the two-deep starting rotation depth chart from February. He’s set the tone, one season after a forgettable fall when the combination of a balky elbow and St. Louis voodoo again left the franchise again losing in the opening round of the postseason. He’s delivered in the clutch, attested by his .431 average, 1.494 OPS, six homers and 37 RBIs with runners in scoring position (a situation that may be Atlanta’s postseason Achilles heel).It almost becomes commonplace to assume Freeman will continue doing what he does because, well, he’s done it for so long. Stare into the brilliant light long enough, and the illumination’s impact begins to dull. That shouldn’t be the case with Freeman, even if his team’s never won a postseason series or won the MVP award (despite finishing in the top eight in voting four times).

    The later of those two things should end come early November, when the Baseball Writers Association of America announce their award winners for 2020. It’s a season that Freeman – and the rest of us – weren’t sure would begin at all or certainly with him, after he contracted the coronavirus and ran a 104.5 degree fever during the Fourth of July weekend. At one point, Freeman admitted he worried about his life.

    Feeling Free: Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has enjoyed a season worthy of the NL MVP award after contracting COVID-19 in early July.

    Two and a half months later, he’s worried about helping his team win a postseason series for the first time since 2001. The rest of us worry his understated stardom against a field full of star power (such as Mookie Betts and the wonderful Fernando Tatis Jr.) will hinder his odds of becoming the first Braves player to win MVP since Jones in 1999.

    The fact we’re here on the final weekend of September, with baseball wrapping up its unprecedented regular season, can be attributed in a small part to Freeman. It’s his very public COVID-19 case and his subsequent comments, urging everybody to take the virus and associated safety measures seriously, that resonated throughout baseball. While there were a couple of hiccups with the Marlins and Cardinals early on, Freeman in a way became the symbol of baseball in the pandemic and the sport navigated the season smoothly.

    Time will tell if Freeman and his mates figure out the playoffs this time around, or will Atlanta’s October obstacles trip up the franchise once more. Given how miserable last year’s 10th month was for Freeman, odds are his monster regular season is a harbinger of things to come when the postseason arrives.

    This Brave for life – he’ll never hit free agency after next season; expect a contract extension to be announced before spring training – doesn’t lack for much. A husband and father, with twins on the way, Freeman might not yet have a World Series ring. But it’s not from a lack of trying. He’s become the franchise anchor through 90-win and 90-loss seasons, taking that baton when Jones retired and setting the tone for a new generation of Braves stars.

    Simply put, he’s remained steady Freddie, even in a season when precious little stayed the same.

    But in about six weeks, he will add something new: NL MVP.

    —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.

    As Braves Close In On East Clinch, A Moment To Appreciate The Journey Here

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Two years ago today, I stopped by a cigar shop and liquor store on a bright autumn Saturday morning. I bought two expensive stogies, four bottles of champagne, and cruised toward what was then called SunTrust Park.

    A few hours later, Ronald Acuna Jr. gloved the final out in left field, the Braves raced out of the first-base dugout, and tears of joy fell as Atlanta celebrated the 2018 National League East championship. Amid the mosh pit behind the pitcher’s mound, hugs were exchanged, T-shirts and hats were handed out, and Braves Country exploded in joy as the long five-year nightmare had ended.

    The rebuild was over.

    My, how things have changed as we sit here on this Tuesday in late September, the Braves potentially being able to clinch a third-consecutive division crown in just a few hours. I won’t be inside what’s now called Truist Park. You won’t be, either. We haven’t attended a Braves game all season, but while the pandemic has kept fans at home throughout this truncated 60-game season, we can take solace in two things:

    The Braves are about to win the East again.

    We’re going to make it to October.

    The “we” in the previous sentence isn’t just applicable to the Braves, but all of Major League Baseball. I certainly had my doubts and fears in the early days of this season like no other, especially after the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals experienced outbreaks in the initial weeks of this campaign. But here we are with six games left to go, a four-game lead over the Marlins (yes, the Marlins!) in the East standings, and another date with October looming on the horizon.

    It pales in comparison to what so many have endured the past six months, but these Braves have relied on a ton of resiliency to reach this point. They watched their pitching rotation fall apart like a house of cards in a hurricane – the latest shoe dropping Monday when Cole Hamels, the biggest mistake of the Alex Anthopoulos era, landed back on the injured list and being done for the season after getting 10 outs in a Braves uniform. He joins the laundry list of hurlers who won’t help the Braves moving forward, a list that if you knew in mid-July would be a thing, nobody would blame you for wanting Atlanta to tank the season or just forget it altogether and move on to 2021.

    But these Braves had other plans. We wondered how the offense would look with Marcell Ozuna replacing Josh Donaldson, with the platoon of Austin Riley and Johan Camargo playing every day, with Adam Duvall and the ageless Nick Markakis getting some semblance of regular playing time. It’s turned into arguably the best Braves lineup top-to-bottom since the team moved to Atlanta 55 years ago, Ozuna earning himself a big payday on the open market this winter and Duvall looking like an extension candidate and Acuna and Ozzie Albies overcoming injuries to shine and Dansby Swanson – a recent slump notwithstanding – continuing his offensive progression and Travis d’Arnaud looking like the steal of last winter.

    And of course, Riley winning the third-base job and showing a much better approach at the plate. He’s never going to hit .280 in my opinion, but the power is real and the plate discipline has been much better and he’s showed he can play above-average defense at the hot corner. Duvall is a legitimate comeback player of the year candidate, ranking among the league leaders in homers. Were it not for the massive focus the front office must have (that’s not negotiable at this point, Alex) on starting rotation in the offseason, the Braves would be justified to hand Ozuna a huge four-year deal.

    But as always, the story of these Braves centers not on the prolific offense, the swagger of Acuna, the emergence of Riley and Duvall, the lock-down bullpen, or the way Max Fried has developed into a co-ace with the injured Mike Soroka. No, this story circles back to a tall first baseman from California who has been the one constant in the Atlanta lineup for a decade.

    Freddie Freeman didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball less than three months ago, stricken with COVID-19 and a 104-degree fever. We laughed when he took 30-plus at-bats in a five-day span across intrasquad games and two exhibitions against the Marlins, attempting to ramp up for the season opener. He struggled through the first 13 games, hitting .190 with a .656 OPS and 12 strikeouts in 42 at-bats.

    Since then, the Braves captain has slashed .382/.492/.711 for a scorching hot 1.202 OPS in 41 games, with 18 doubles, 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 41 games. The DH coming to the NL spurred manager Brian Snitker to move Freeman to the second spot in the batting order, where the 31-year-old is hitting .407 with a 1.233 OPS and 20 walks in 102 plate appearances.

    Freeman has placed in the top eight in NL MVP voting four times in his career; in my opinion, he should finish no lower than first this time around. The list of Braves who have helped move Atlanta to the verge of another East title is lengthy, but as always, steady Freddie stands front and center.

    Two years ago today, as Acuna gloved the final out of the division clincher, my enduring memory was of Freeman walking away from first base, both arms extended in the air, an expression of unbridled joy and relief awash across his face. He’ll soon have an opportunity to revel in another division crown, another punched ticket to the postseason.

    Who knows what awaits come October? We’ll worry about that soon enough. The moment that will come in the next day or two is one we wondered if we’d see. But it’s here now, as it was each of the past two Septembers. At least that hasn’t changed.

    For Freeman, for the Braves, for their legion of fans, the moment in and of itself is worthy of celebration.

    —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.

    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.

    Ready or Not, It’s Time: Let the Kids Pitch

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Through the first 10 games of a season like no other, the Braves had overcame shaky pitching from 60 percent of the starting rotation and a slow start from a few key offensive cogs, riding a lights-out bullpen and a handful of hot bats to seven victories.

    But in a year where nothing feels solid, the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to this team occurred Monday at Truist Park. Ace Mike Soroka – and yes, I’m labeling the kid who turns 23 today with that lofty designation – tore his right Achilles tendon breaking toward first base in the third inning. The Kid from Calgary, lying in the infield grass after trying to walk, was helped off the field while Braves Country’s collective heart stopped in unison.

    Sure, any time you lose your top starter, it’s a big blow. But when you’ve watched the final three spots in your rotation struggle to the degree Atlanta experienced through the first two trips through, it’s nothing short of devastating.

    Oh, by the way, did we mention there are just 49 games to go, in a season when more teams in the National League will make the playoffs (eight) than go home (seven)? That is, if there isn’t yet another Marlins- or Cardinals-type outbreak of COVID-19 that convinces Major League Baseball to look at the number of games already postponed, the growing number of pitchers coming up with arm and shoulder fatigue, and say, “forget it, see you in 2021.”

    Don’t expect Alex Anthopoulos to find an immediate answer outside the organization via a trade market that is non-existent right now – the Atlanta general manager told media members Tuesday morning he’s been making calls since summer camp ended almost two weeks ago. Maybe that changes as the Aug. 31 trade deadline approaches, but I have my doubts.

    If you’re the Braves, you’ve hoarded pitching prospects like canned green beans for a half-decade. Some of them didn’t pan out or were moved; a quartet of them now occupy spots in the big-league rotation, even if for a couple of them it’s by necessity. Several others are working out at the Braves alternative site camp at Coolray Field in Gwinnett, a phone call away from reaching the show.

    What should the Braves do?

    Baseball likes to say, “let the kids play.”

    I say, “let the kids pitch.”

    But not the kids you may think.

    Look, at this point, is anybody going to really call for Anthopoulos’ job if the Braves miss the playoffs in this bizarro-world of a 2020 season? Even without Soroka, the Braves just need average starting pitching behind Fried to finish in the top eight in the NL – which doing so guarantees you only a best-of-three crapshoot in the opening round.

    So why not give some of the young arms a chance to prove themselves, and not in spot-start-then-back-to-long-relief-or-Triple-A fashion, but with a sustained stretch of taking the ball in the bigs every fifth day.

    Yes, I’m aware 18.3 percent of the season already had expired by the time Max Fried – the one remaining asset in Atlanta’s starting squadron that engenders no worry – took the ball for Tuesday’s series opener against Toronto. Fried is 26 and made just his 42nd career start. But he’s a proven commodity regardless of Soroka or this season; in this current landscape, he might as well be a 15-year veteran.

    Sean Newcomb is seven months older than Fried. But he needed 161 pitches to cover 7 2/3 innings in his first two outings, struggling with control in his first start and getting hit hard in his second outing. Touki Toussaint, 24, struck out six in an otherwise rough relief appearance in his season debut, but provided some stability with four shutout innings in Saturday’s start against the Mets. Kyle Wright, also 24, had a dreadful inning at Tampa Bay after two masterful ones, then spent Sunday tap-dancing around four walks and five hits en route to 3 1/3 scoreless appearance.

    That’s your 2-3-4 in the rotation right now, folks. And you know what?

    That’s how it should stay, at least for the next three weeks.

    Nobody is asking anybody not named Fried to offer more than four good innings at this point. Yes, it’s the third time through the rotation, but I see an opportunity to try and find out how these guys could do getting regular starts. Getting into the fifth inning (or the fourth) also provides piggyback opportunities for the Josh Tomlin’s and Tyler Matzek’s of the world, both of whom have impressed in their initial appearances.

    Matzek’s tale is quite intriguing, from being out of baseball with the yips to impressing from the left side for one of baseball’s best bullpens. That relief corps figures to get better sooner rather than later, as free-agent acquisition Will Smith is slated to throw again Thursday as he continues his return from quarantine.

    Could Matzek, who made 24 starts for Colorado in 2014-15, get stretched out enough to fill the currently vacated fifth spot? Perhaps. Or, a more intriguing thought: using the 29-year-old – who has nine strikeouts with no walks in 5 1/3 scoreless innings so far – as an opener.

    There are plenty of calls to unleash the real “kids,” guys like Ian Anderson, Kyle Mueller and Tucker Davidson, that trio among the organization’s top 10 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. All three have high upside, certainly. Davidson, in particular, intrigues with high-90s velocity from the left side and an impressive showing at Gwinnett last season (2.84 ERA in 19 innings), while drawing attention during both spring training and summer camp.

    There are other options, from the veteran Jhoulys Chacin to another one of the youngsters, 22-year-old Bryse Wilson, to whatever Mike Foltynewicz can salvage from a disastrous beginning to his 2020. But I want to see what’s in front of me here and now. Newcomb has shown at times he can be an effective starter before control problems last season landed him in the bullpen (where he pitched well). We’ve seen glimpses, albeit brief, from Toussaint and Wright.

    This confluence of difficult events has afforded the trio an opportunity.

    It’s time for the organization to give them a chance to seize it.

    —30—

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

    Ten Games In, and the Braves are Off to a Hot Start

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – The Atlanta Braves played a Sunday home game today, and I wasn’t in the ballpark. As someone who’s held a 27-game A-List membership since the franchise moved into what is now called Truist Park for the start of the 2017 season, I can count on one hand the number of Sunday home games I have not attended in recent years.

    Most of those can be attributed to coaching my kids’ baseball team in 2017, their final year of baseball. One kid played for 11 years; the other played for eight years, opting to do other sports in those three years. The fees for all that baseball, and other pursuits, were paid in part by freelance work I did for Gracenote Sports, starting all the way back in November 2010.

    That relationship ended with a contract termination email landing in my inbox Friday morning, thanks to the global pandemic. But no tears here. I choose to tip my cap and remain thankful for the opportunity to spend nearly a decade writing game previews for the Braves, the Winnipeg Jets, the Hawks, and SEC and ACC football and basketball. It’s yet another reminder of just how tenuous the year 2020 is in so many respects, and how we all should count our blessings.

    We are 11 days into the regular season, and the Braves not only have avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 positive test results, their opposition also has stayed healthy enough to avoid any schedule disruptions. Atlanta has completed 1/6th of its season, and arrives at this junction in a place far, far better than I anticipated. Today’s 4-0 home shutout victory over the Mets pushed the Braves to 7-3 on the season.

    Remember, I wrote and said if Atlanta completed its 20-games-in-20-days opening stretch at 8-12, there would be no need to panic.

    The Braves have opened this crazy 2020 season by scoring runs in bunches, rallying from behind as if there were 40,000 of us in the stands cheering them on, riding two arms at the top of the rotation who look as good as anybody in baseball, and with zero regard to the starting pitching they have faced from the Mets and Rays.

    Now that we’re through 16.6% of the season (wasn’t opening day just yesterday?), and with no guarantee we’ll actually get to play the final 50 games of this unprecedented campaign, a few observations about the hometown nine, one that’s tied for the most wins in the majors as the first full week of August begins:

    2.7 is the new 1: In this new baseball world of 2020, we remember a 60-game season means each game carries 2.7 times the weight of one contest in a 162-game stretch. To put the Braves start in perspective, in a normal season, a 7-3 beginning equates to roughly a 19-8 start. That’s not too shabby. It also goes to show, after going 2-3 through the opening five games of the season, how a good week can tilt the tables with so few games on the schedule.

    Mike and Max, and that’s the facts: There are some things you can toss aside given the shortened schedule, but the top of the Atlanta rotation is legit. Let’s go ahead and say it right here and now: both Mike Soroka and Max Fried are aces. Flat-out studs. Fried pitched maybe the best game of his career Thursday against the Mets after an impressive performance in his season debut at Citi Field last weekend, while Soroka has shined in his first two starts. Bottom line: both guys not only give you a chance to win when their turn arrives, but we’re now at the point where you except the Braves to win when they toe the slab. Those two are that good, and that’s a great feeling. Now, for the rest of the rotation …

    Looky looky looky, here comes Touki: The Cooks Pest Control jingle on the Braves Radio Network has a new connotation, and one the Braves desperately need after a rough showing from the back side of their rotation. Touki Toussaint, pressed into the rotation after Mike Foltynewicz was designated for assignment and, after clearing waivers (still a surprise to me that some team didn’t take a chance on him), headed to the team’s alternative training site at Gwinnett, gave Atlanta four scoreless innings in Saturday’s 7-1 victory. The young right-hander did his job on that night, despite three walks and throwing just 45 of his 74 pitches for strikes, and he absolutely has to get the ball again Thursday against Toronto. And if it’s four clean innings out of the gate for now, we certainly will take it.

    Dansby is doing it: Dansby Swanson singled in Sunday’s victory, giving him at least one base hit in each of Atlanta’s first 10 games. Slowed by injury in the second half of last season after a good start, the Marietta kid – he played high-school baseball nine miles from Truist Park – is hitting .368 with a 1.005 OPS and 14 hits through the first 10 games. Never mind his go-ahead single in extra innings against the Mets on July 25 and his stellar defense. Is this the season we see the Vanderbilt product break through offensively? So far, so good.

    Comeback player of the … decade?: Colorado selected left-hander Tyler Matzek 11th overall in the 2009 draft. He made his big-league debut five years later with seven innings against the Braves, but after 25 appearances in 2014-15, he was out of the majors. Across the next few years, he battled the yips and didn’t pitch professionally in 2017, landing in the Braves organization in 2019. But the 29-year-old impressed in spring training and summer camp, and in four appearances in the majors in 2020 has allowed four hits with nine strikeouts across 5 1/3 scoreless innings, getting the win Sunday (his first MLB win since April 27, 2015, against Arizona) after fanning four hitters in two innings.

    The kid will be fine, part I: Ronald Acuna Jr. entered Friday’s series opener 4-for-28 on the season with one extra-base hit and 14 strikeouts. Parts of social media already were losing its never-reasonable mind over the slow start by the Braves outfielder, but the 22-year-old had squared up several balls against the Rays after a rough showing in the opening weekend in New York. Acuna enters Monday on a three-game hitting streak, belting his first homer Saturday night and not striking out in a game for the first time this season by going 1-for-3 with an RBI and a run scored in Sunday’s victory.

    The kid will be fine, part II: Ozzie Albies is off to a slow start, hitting .194 with a .550 OPS through the first 10 games, and has not started two of the past three contests due to right wrist soreness. It’s a cause for concern but, remember, this is a season of the likes we’ve never experienced before (and hopefully, never will again). Albies will be fine and likely is back in the lineup for Monday’s series finale against the Mets.

    The other shoe … when does it drop?: Anybody else waking up daily and wondering if we’ll get the news that baseball is closing up shop, or at least is pausing for a few days? Because I am, as much as I hate to admit it. We can’t deny the facts: The Marlins and Phillies have played three games. Washington has played seven. The Cardinals have played five; the Brewers have played six. To see so many teams sitting idle on the opening weekend of August should underline how unprecedented these times are, and how every game is a gift.

    A gift the Braves have paid back to their adoring fan base more often than not through the opening 10 games of 2020. Let’s continue to hope that the season continues, because for Braves fans, it’s started in about the best way imaginable.

    —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.

    On Another Wild, Weird Day, Braves Capture Home Opener

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – As if I needed another reminder of just how different this 2020 season is, I got it late Tuesday night as the Braves wrapped up a 2-3, two-city road swing through New York and Tampa Bay to kick off the truncated 60-game season. I realized that, in normal times, I’d be planning for a before-dawn alarm to cook for our home-opening tailgate. There would be beverages already iced down. There would be a giddiness that normally accompanies Christmas Eve.

    Then I realized it’s late July, this Wednesday would be just a normal workday, and my only presence inside Truist Park as the Braves played their first home game of the season would be my cardboard cutout situated nine rows behind home plate. If my partial season-ticket plan had those seats, I could afford to attend maybe four games a season, not the 27 games that are included in my package for seats in the upper deck.

    It’s such a different vibe. I must admit, with the Miami Marlins outbreak and subsequent halting of their season for the rest of this first full week of baseball 2020 (and impacts on the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, and Baltimore Orioles), it’s zapped just a bit of my enthusiasm. Not trying to be a killjoy here, but last weekend felt kinda-sorta normal. Then, the news broke of the Miami outbreak and the residual impacts and, well, it again made me think, “why we are doing this?”

    Let’s hope this not only is the lone outbreak within a team that we will experience, but that it serves as a wake-up call to anybody in baseball who thinks this is much ado about nothing.

    Wednesday brought the weirdness of a home opener with no fans, the good news of catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers returning to the active roster, and then shortly after 3 p.m. ET, 2020 decided to act the fool for the countless time: outfielder Nick Markakis, who elected not to play in early July, reversed course and rejoined the Braves. A change in MLB policy allows for players who elected not to play to change their minds and apply for reinstatement by Aug. 1, a provision even lost on some national scribes until Markakis showed up on a pregame Zoom chat with the media.

    A lightning rod on social media – which is hilarious because, seriously, it’s Nick Markakis; you think he’s thumbing through Twitter during idle moments in his day? – he has value against right-handed pitching. Used in the right role (emphasize: the right role, against right-handed pitching, and not hitting fifth every day without fail), Markakis can help this ballclub.

    We’ll wonder about the impending roster crunch of position players once the Woodstock native and Young Harris College product gets in playing shape (the 36-year-old worked out at the alternative camp site in Gwinnett earlier Wednesday; my guess is the ramp time won’t be long). The active roster is slated to drop from 30 players to 28 late next week, but even that may not be the case. Heck, does anybody know anything anymore?

    I do know this team has played six games … it’s also 10 percent of the season. I know. Embrace the weird. A few other thoughts to this point after six games, capped by Freddie Freeman’s four hits in Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Rays.

    Who’s Gonna Jive at 3-4-5: Let’s get it out there: the middle and back end of the Atlanta rotation was bad in their first turn through the rotation. No, we’re not going to freak out over three games over the course of 162 … oh, wait. It’s a 60-game season. So, it’s panic time, right?

    It’s concerning, no doubt, but catch your breath for just a bit. The numbers are ugly: an 11.57 ERA, a 2.142 WHIP, 12 runs on 11 hits with nine walks in a combined 9 1/3 innings from Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz and Kyle Wright. The 9 1/3 innings is a problem even in a shortened ramp-up to the season, and that can’t remain the norm, or else the Braves bullpen depth will get torched.

    The Braves do have options to fill that fourth spot now vacated by the organization giving up on Foltynewicz, designating the right-hander for assignment after he gave up six runs in Monday’s start at Tampa Bay. Jhoulys Chacin doesn’t spark a ton of confidence in me, but he is a veteran who did impress following Newcomb in Sunday’s victory. Wright was untouchable for two innings Tuesday, before the control yips hit him again. To Wright’s credit, he offered no excuses, and I’d tell him right now he’s getting the ball Sunday against the Mets.

    I’d also say the same thing to Newcomb; the ball is yours Friday. Yes, he struggled to throw strikes in his first start Sunday with a big lead, but I’m willing to hold tight on both Newcomb and Wright for the moment. Both have the talent to be solid starters in 2020, but check back with me in two weeks.

    If things aren’t better then? That’s trouble. The signing of Cole Hamels looks worse with each passing day.

    Farewell, Folty: I completely expected an announcement after Monday’s game, or on Tuesday morning, that Foltynewicz was heading to the injured list. He just didn’t look right to me while his fastball velocity averaged under 90 mph with not much movement against the Rays. To see the DFA announcement, and to hear that the Braves broke that news to him before the game ended, was a shock.

    I think back to last October. On my 20th wedding anniversary, my oldest son and I sat in Truist Park and watched a sellout crowd lose its mind – in a bad way – when Adam Duvall walked to home plate to hit for Folty in the seventh inning. Foltynewicz was that good on that scalding hot October afternoon, authoring one of the best postseason games I’ve watched pitched in person (and yes, I watched Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux at their postseason best in person a generation ago).

    I know Foltynewicz engendered a lot of frustration for many, many folks in Braves Country. That’s fair. I’ve felt it at times, too. He’s a guy whose highest of highs touched the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and his lowest of lows were difficult to take. Maybe it’s my previous career of covering sports, but I know these guys are human beings first and foremost and, contrary to some folks on social media who think otherwise, here’s a news flash: they don’t really want to suck. They want to be great, they want to excel, they want to win.

    Wishing Mike and his family all the best. I hope he gets things figured out. Regardless, I hope he finds peace, no matter if he’s traded, claimed, or (unlikely in my opinion) remains with the organization and is outrighted to the alternative camp. I’m not sure he ever will find it if he remains a member of the Braves after Game 5 of the NLDS and, honestly, that’s sad. But that’s the business, as people say.

    Whiffs ’R Us: It’s not a totally surprise to me the Braves offense has looked pedestrian through the first part of the season. I wrote and spoke earlier this month of my concerns about the pitching Atlanta would face in this daunting 20-games-in-20-days to start the season. And while I’m a bit concerned about the sheer number of strikeouts piled up by the Braves lineup through six games – 74 punchouts in the first 55 innings of 2020 – I cannot say I’m completely surprised.

    I get it. That’s 24 2/3 innings of not putting the ball in play, and that can’t continue. But even in a 60-game season, I’m electing to breathe just a bit. Pitchers always are going to be ahead of hitters early in a season, especially when the ramp-up for those bats to opening day is only three weeks and not six weeks.

    Atlanta at-bats have been better than the strikeout numbers would indicate through the first six games. We saw that on display Wednesday. Odds are this will even itself out soon, even with the difficult pitching that’s still to come during the next two weeks.

    All Even, Folks: I wrote in my season preview that I would not be worried if the Braves were 8-12 after the first 20 games. So while 3-3 may feel like a bit of a disappointment so far, it’s OK. The back end of the rotation has questions, absolutely, and the strikeouts have come in bunches. Yet, Atlanta finds itself at .500 as we are 30 percent through what I think is the absolute roughest portion of the schedule.

    Again, most importantly, we have baseball. In these crazy times, I’ll take it.

    The home opener is in the books, and I’m sitting at home and not leaving Lot 29. And that’s totally OK. We’ve made it to this moment, the Braves are at .500, and the next eight games are at home. My cutout is 1-0 all-time. Let’s see if that cardboard likeness of myself can stay perfect come Thursday.

    —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.

    2020 Season Preview: With Fingers Crossed, We Arrive at an Opening Day Like No Other

    Editor’s Note: Braves Wire writer Bud L. Ellis has missed just two Atlanta Braves home openers in the past 40 years. To him, Opening Day and the start of baseball season is when “life begins again.” He shares a very personal, emotional take on the start of this unprecedented 2020 season, the night before the Braves begin their 60-game campaign against the Mets in an empty Citi Field.

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – I walked outside my house Wednesday evening, needing to clear my head. Thunder rumbled in the distance, the searing temperature lowered somewhat by the torrential rainstorm that had rolled through a half-hour earlier.

    I strolled toward the front of my subdivision, leaving behind four people in my house, the four people I love more than anything on this planet. Three of the four have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. My mother has experienced her two best days since her diagnosis last week after a rough stretch; my two teenage sons have been asymptomatic so far, thankfully.

    A beautiful rainbow, its vibrant colors arching from north to south, stretched across the sky. I took it as a sign that the guilt I’ve felt in recent days and weeks about being excited for the Braves season opener Friday was unnecessary, that in trying to steer myself and my family through a time I never could have imagined, a breather was acceptable. It’s alright to desire something fun, something … normal.

    That it’s OK to feel like I usually do when baseball season approaches.

    I sat down on the curb, and I cried.

    ***

    I’ve attended every Braves home opener the past four decades, save two: 2002 and 2006 (we lived on the Georgia coast at the time; my wife was pregnant in 2002 and had a doctor’s appointment the day of the home opener, and I covered a high school game in 2006). But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve worked a single Opening Day since leaving the newspaper business 13 years ago, even when the Braves start on the road.

    Baseball is in my blood, has been from the time my eyes first gazed the green grass of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Sept. 9, 1979, when I joined my grandfather and 2,780 of our closest friends for a 4-1 loss to the Padres, the 87th loss of a 66-94 campaign. The next spring I attended my first home opener in person, a 4-1 defeat to the Reds on April 17 that dropped the Braves to 0-7. Ever since, the start of baseball season has defined my school plans, work plans, social plans.

    When the Braves open on the road, I treat it as its own holiday, an extra date to count down toward through the chilly nights and cloudy days of winter. But as we’ve all learned, the cold of December and January pales in comparison to what we all have experienced in 2020. The coronavirus has killed well more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens and left millions of our neighbors without jobs. For some, the physical strain of surviving the virus and the mental toll of enduring these past five months will resonate for years. We’re also living through a transformative time in our nation, having difficult and long-overdue conversations about social injustice.

    Against that backdrop, it would seem something as frivolous as baseball shouldn’t even be a second thought. Why should we care who the fifth starter is when we have so many more important things to address? I get it, I really do. I quietly have wrestled with that in the past few weeks, and it’s been heavy.

    Then I think about my grandfather, that man who shocked his 6-year-old grandson on that second September Sunday nearly 41 years ago, taking me to my first Braves game. He’s been gone for 21 years, but “Pops” told me plenty of stories about life during World War II, including how important it was for baseball to continue while so many – from Ted Williams to Warren Spahn and both my grandfathers – battled in theaters across the globe.

    I always thought sports were an important part of helping us overcome adversity, but the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 resonated with 28-year-old me like no pass-down story or history lesson ever could. Sports came back after a week away, and when Mike Piazza homered in the first major-league game held in New York City after 9/11, for the Mets against the Braves no less, I cheered. It’s the only moment the Braves have played in my 47 years on this planet when my team lost and I didn’t care.

    New York needed that moment.

    America needed that moment.

    We all needed that moment.

    ***

    As we continue dealing with the virus, as our world spins on what feels like a warped axis, baseball coming back reminds us of a fundamental testament. When things really get bad – and it’s been bad for quite some time in 2020 – we do what we’ve always done. We pause. We weep. We mourn. We bow our heads. We catch our breath.

    And then, we move forward.

    Baseball is like that comfortable pair of jeans (although, after most of us have worked from home for months, those jeans probably don’t fit). It fills eight months of our annual 12-month journey around the sun, from guys showing up early in Florida and Arizona proclaiming they are in “the best shape of their lives,” to the daily cadence of the regular season, to the high drama and heart-stopping moments of October, until somebody lifts the World Series trophy. We follow the offseason news and, before you know it, mid-February arrives again. Players report to camp, the weather warms up soon thereafter, and the countdown toward Opening Day dwindles with each sunrise.

    The season begins and we fall into that regular rhythm like clockwork, turning on the TV or radio or firing up the stream come game time. The broadcasters for our favorite team are the soundtrack of our weekday evenings and weekend afternoons, always present whether we are sitting at home or out at the lake or attending a family reunion, excusing yourself from a conversation with Aunt Alice because it’s second and third with two outs in the eighth and a knock ties the game. It’s always-evolving fodder for your favorite publications, blogs, podcasts and talk shows.

    Baseball is the ultimate people sport. It’s a daily occurrence – 162 games in 187 days leads to a lot of conversations, be it on social media or through message boards or sitting together in the upper deck on a steamy July night. Some of those conversations lead to lifelong relationships; I know several married couples brought together not by blind dates or happenstance encounters or Tinder, but by baseball.

    ***

    It’s going to be different this season, but our world is a different place than it was just a few short months ago. I’ve attended around 80 Braves games the past two seasons, including three games at Wrigley Field, and five postseason games. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met at games, ended up hanging out with, with whom I’ve developed relationships. I’m thankful for each one of you and I miss seeing you in Lot 29, in The Battery, on the concourses and in the stands. Through baseball, I’ve met some of my closest friends in the world. After everything we’ve been through and will have to go through moving forward, I love and cherish every single one of you more than ever.

    In the perfect illustration of how different this season will be, while writing the initial draft of this post – a mere three hours after seeing the rainbow that brought tears to my eyes – my phone buzzed. My photo submission for a cardboard cutout to be placed at Truist Park this season was accepted, and my credit card was charged.

    I couldn’t help but laugh. In a crazy way, it made me feel just a little bit better about starting this season. In the past couple of days, I’ve realized it’s OK to feel heavy about playing a baseball season in a pandemic. It’s OK to question if we should be doing this. It’s OK to worry we won’t make it to the end of the season before something happens that shuts down baseball again.

    And now, after a mentally draining 10 days or so, I realize it’s OK to embrace this. It’s OK to get invested, to take those three hours a night to unplug from the real world and get lost in something that means so much to so many of us. Get upset with a blown lead in the eighth. Jump off your couch when a game-winning hit happens. Respectfully debate bullpen management and lineup construction on social media.

    To do what we always have done: ride the ebb and flow of a baseball season, regardless if it’s 60 games or 162.

    There will be plenty of moments when we will have to embrace the weird because, heck, what else are we going to do? While baseball is timeliness, each season is its own interesting microcosm. Some years, your team wins 72 when it should have won 81. Some years, your team wins 91 when it should have won 82. That’s baseball.

    And it’s back.

    When the 2018 Braves stunningly roared to the NL East title, the team’s marketing folks rolled out a social media hashtag for the NLDS against the Dodgers: #ForEachOther. It fits now more than ever. We wondered if we would get to this point, but here we are: live, regular season Major League Baseball is on my TV, and the Braves play a meaningful game in less than 24 hours.

    I’m ready for life to begin again. It’s Opening Day. After all we’ve been through, there’s just one thing left to say:

    Play ball.

    —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.

    Puig’s Your Friend Now, Braves Country, and Other Notes as Camp Continues

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    SOMEWHERE IN NORTH GEORGIA – Yasiel Puig does not exactly blend in with the crowd, be it the gregarious way he plays baseball, his larger-than-life personality, and the fact he’s built like a nose guard.

    So it wasn’t exactly stunning when the rumor began Tuesday on Twitter that Puig – or his long-lost twin brother – had been spotted in The Battery, adjacent to Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves would play their fourth intrasquad game later Tuesday evening. The Braves would do so missing left-handed hitting outfielder Nick Markakis, who last week elected not to play the shortened 2020 season. They also took the field without Freddie Freeman, one of the best hitters in the game, who remains sidelined with the coronavirus.

    The news broke later Tuesday afternoon: Puig and the Braves had agreed to terms on an unspecified deal, one that won’t be announced until Puig passes a physical. Certainly, that will include a coronavirus test that even Puig himself probably won’t enjoy – trust me, I found out for the second time Monday that it’s not fun – but the newest Braves outfielder will have plenty of fun soon after things are official.

    The 29-year-old teaming with Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna is going to drive some opposing fan bases crazy, especially with the Braves poised to be a contender in the wild setup of a 60-game sprint. The Braves Way has been dead for quite some time, thankfully. Now, the oomph meter just shot to 11, “let the kids play” should be shouted louder than ever, and let’s face it: some folks are going to be mad about it. Big mad.

    But if you’re a Braves fan, I don’t see how you can be mad about this. Puig’s Your Friend now, after all.

    If there’s a nit to pick with this Braves squad as it’s assembled in 2020, it’s hitting against right-handed pitching. It goes without saying not having Freeman and his .304 career lifetime average against right-handers is a considerable blow. Remember, there’s no template or blueprint for a baseball player returning from coronavirus. Is it two weeks from now before Freeman can stride into the left-handed batter’s box? Four weeks? Seven weeks? We just don’t know.

    And with Markakis deciding the risks of playing this season weren’t worth it – and I’ll never blame any player for looking at this landscape and saying, “nah, I’m out” – Atlanta lost another valuable bat against right-handed pitching. So while some will opine that Puig is yet another right-handed bat in a right-handed heavy lineup, he also is a career .285 hitter against rightys with a .845 OPS and, with the presence of the designated hitter in the NL in 2020, the Braves lineup looks more formidable than it did this morning.

    It also looks more fun. Yes, Puig is loud and plays the game with an edge that sometimes boils over. He’s also approaching age 30 and free agency, so the thought here is he’ll behave himself. There will be far fewer dollars on the open market this winter than in years. And if you truly believe Puig is going to poison his limited chances at a good deal for 2021 by poisoning the Braves culture, well, in my opinion that’s a ridiculous thought.

    We play ball in 10 days at Citi Field. At least we hope. A few other notes from the past few days:

    Do the Braves remain the Braves? I wrote my thoughts about the tomahawk chop a few months ago. The manufactured chop beaten relentlessly into fans’ heads needs to go. But the name of the team? I don’t think it will change, a stance backed up by the team to season-ticket holders and the media Sunday.

    Wither Cole Hamels? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously. I talked with somebody in February whose opinion I trust; that person doubted Hamels would be ready for the scheduled opening day in late March. When I spoke to that person last month weeks ago, their perspective had not waivered.

    At this point, 10 days before the season commences, Hamels still has not thrown as much as a BP session. I think you must cross him out for the rotation for at least the first two times through, which is 10 games – or 16.66% of the regular season. I’m happy the team signed Josh Tomlin – who looked pretty good in four innings during Monday’s intrasquad matchup – and I’m really excited with what I saw out of Kyle Wright in spring training. It’d be great to see Wright on the mound, however. Like Hamels, we’re still waiting. Speaking of the rotation:

    What about Folty? It was hard to see from watching the feed of the intrasquad game Wednesday, considering the camera was positioned at the top of the ballpark, but the lanky right-hander returned to the mound at Triuist Park for the first time since the infamous Game 5 NLDS meltdown and shoved for three innings, only allowing a walk to Culberson but nothing else.

    We’re so quick to forget just how good Folty was after he came back from his demotion to Gwinnett: 2.65 ERA, .211 opponents batting average, 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings across 10 starts (6-1 record). That does not include seven shutout innings with no walks and three hits allowed in Game 2 of the NLDS. His work in 2020, in my opinion, will be critical to the Braves success. To that point, Folty made sure he would be ready for this unprecedented season. To that point:

    Cheers to the Spartans: I got a message from someone in mid-April, saying a handful of Braves pitchers had secured a high school to work out at while practicing social distancing. As we’ve learned publicly last week via comments made to Atlanta media, it wasn’t just throwing.

    Several Braves hurlers took the shutdown seriously.

    When you go through the annuals of Atlanta sports, Campbell High in the northwestern suburb of Smyrna probably would draw mention for Brian Oliver, the shooting guard who helped lead Georgia Tech to the 1990 Final Four (teaming with Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson to form the vaunted “Lethal Weapon III”). But if the Braves reach the postseason in 2020, give a hat-tip to the Campbell Spartans and their staff.

    Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb and Mike Soroka threw at Campbell High six days a week during the shutdown, firing full bullpens twice weekly. They were joined on occasion by teammates Acuna, Albies.  Johan Camargo, Charlie Culberson and others.

    With 20 games in 20 days to begin the season, starting fast is going to be more critical than ever. If the Braves ride solid pitching to a good start, don’t forget the work these guys did at a Cobb County high school field, one the baseball coach and athletic director made sure was ready and open for their MLB neighbors, while also working to keep that news quiet.

    What if Freddie can’t go out of the gate? Losing a solid bat and elite defender at a key position, not to mention the captain of the team, is not a good thing. Let’s all hope the Freddie, and Chelsea and Charlie, stay well and get over the virus.

    We have no playbook, as I referenced on ESPN Coastal last week and earlier in this piece. We’re going into this blind. But I think the Braves turn first at first to Austin Riley and his potential power if Freeman is not well enough to start the season. Riley has played a little first base, and after taking grounders a little bit at first base in spring training, has put in some work at first base during summer camp and in intrasquad contests.

    Yes, Atlanta has a couple of first basemen on non-roster invites in Peter O’Brien and Yonder Alonso – both of whom are getting time in some intrasquad games. But If either of them are on the active roster come opening day on July 24, this team is in trouble. Let’s all hope Freddie is OK and ready to go in Queens when the season starts. If not, we’ll hope some semblance or Riley and Adam Duvall and Camargo can cover first base till Freeman is back.

    To the Max: Unsolicited private comment from somebody who was in Trust Park watching Max Fried pitch in last Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage. “Fried looks poised to be a bad ass upper-tier pitcher.” Glad he’s on my fantasy team, and my favorite team, one that is hopefully a few days away from kicking off a season the likes of which we’ve never witnessed before.

    —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.