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    2019 BRAVES SEASON PREVIEW: Questions Aplenty, but Braves Squarely in Mix to Defend East Title

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Perspective is what it is, but we all know the events of the day – heck, even the minute – can shape where one stands. That’s the way the world works today, the latest soundbite or tweet or quick-take analysis trying to impact what one feels at their core.

    I began this exercise of previewing the 2019 Atlanta Braves by taking a look back at two pieces I authored for this site in the past 12 months. The first one, penned in the days before the magical 2018 season began, the second one, written in the hours after Atlanta’s season concluded with a Game 4 loss to the Dodgers in the NL Division Series.

    It didn’t take long to realize how the viewpoint evolved from last March – when the Braves were coming off a trio of 90-loss campaigns – to October and the end of arguably the most meaningful season this fanbase experienced in a generation. Now, the first glimpses of a new season’s dawn beckons just below the horizon, warm sunshine following a winter filled with enough darkness and angst, fake rumors and frustrating reaction to another player joining another NL East rival, to last a lifetime.

    We won’t dive too much into the groundswell of frustration around the fanbase given Atlanta’s lack of activity since Game 4 ended. For better or worse, we’re about to find out if Alex Anthopoulos’ measured approach to the winter of 2018-19 proves to be the stuff of genius, or represents a grand opportunity missed.

    The one big move Atlanta made figures to pay big dividends, provided of course that good health keeps Josh Donaldson on the field. The right-handed slugger has something to prove, inking a one-year contract to rebuild his value after injuries scuttled his 2018. Make no mistake, the Auburn boy brings passion and fire to everything he does, from batting practice to game time. Donaldson makes an intriguing offense all the more potent, his bat in the 2-hole adding to a formidable threat alongside MVP-candidate Freddie Freeman in the third spot and reigning NL rookie of the year Ronald Acuna Jr. sliding into cleanup.

    And that’s where the questions begin. Atlanta’s inability to land another impactful bat, plus Donaldson’s preference to hit second, leaves Brian Snitker no choice but to put the wonderkid Acuna in the fourth spot and not at leadoff, where the now 21-year-old destroyed NL pitching in the second half last summer. Acuna will get his, as they say, regardless if he hits first, fourth or seventh. The kid simply possesses such rare generational talent that it’s not audacious to put him, entering his first full major-league season, on the short list of league MVP candidates. Whether he stays in the cleanup spot long term or is bumped back to leadoff depends in large part on how a pair of critically important Braves fare hitting at the top of the order.

    Ender Inciarte and Ozzie Albies were key components of Atlanta’s first division championship squad since 2013, Inciarte winning his third-consecutive Gold Glove while Albies wowed everybody during a breathless first half that landed him in the All-Star game. Both are outstanding defensively. But Inciarte again struggled mightily at the plate in the first half and Albies scuffled against right-handed pitching during a subpar offensive second half. The plan initially is for Inciarte to bat leadoff against righties and Albies to anchor the spot against southpaws. It could work out splendidly. It also could go south and get ugly, quickly.

    There are other options available to Snitker as the Braves figure to employ more versatility in the lineup given Johan Camargo now slides into a super-utility role, Donaldson will require some rest, and Dansby Swanson’s leash appears shorter after a 2018 marked by lengthy offensive struggles and an injured wrist that hindered him more than anyone knew. Nick Markakis returns on a team-friendly deal, and the Braves have to hope the 2019 body of work bears more resemblance to his All-Star first half and not the mediocre second half that led many people (myself included) to demand a significant upgrade in right field.

    The Braves won 90 games a season ago, but there are more than enough questions offensively even with the presence of Acuna, the steadiness of Freeman and the impact of a healthy Donaldson. Again, Atlanta may rue the decision not to add another big bat to the lineup (such as catcher J.T. Realmuto, over the platoon of Tyler Flowers and old friend Brian McCann), especially if Markakis hits as he did in August-September, Inciarte hits as he did in April-July and Albies doesn’t quell his homer-happiness tendencies from the left side.

    Spring has provided plenty of positive evidence, although we roll out the old axiom: it’s just spring training. Albies and Swanson both have adjusted their stances and the results have been promising, Albies collecting two hits off righties in Monday’s exhibition victory over Cincinnati at SunTrust Park, while Swanson drilled opposite-field homers in the final two spring games. Markakis has produced steadily, wrapping up spring with a .387 average and a .988 OPS.

    But the biggest questions around this team entering the season revolve around the pitcher’s mound where, for all their depth and waves of young talent, the mere fact Julio Teheran is starting Thursday’s season opener at Philadelphia speaks volumes. And while the veteran pitched well in spring training, that fact Teheran will make his sixth-consecutive opening-day outing is not what anybody expected when this team left SunTrust Park after the NLDS. I would’ve bet cold cash in the moments after Game 4, a game in which Teheran pitched in mop-up duty as the Braves season drew its final breaths, that I would throw as many pitches for Atlanta in 2019 as Teheran.

    All-Star and staff ace Mike Foltynewicz is down with an elbow issue and likely will not return to the majors until late April. Kevin Gausman is working his way back from shoulder soreness, although the Braves say he should be ready to start April 5 against Miami. Sean Newcomb could not throw strikes at all for most of camp, a disturbing trend for the lefty who was an All-Star candidate in the first half, and he needs more outings like the four innings, no walks performance against Cincinnati in the spring finale. The good news is several of those heralded young arms – namely Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Max Fried – pitched well in camp and will at least begin the season in majors (Wilson and Wright drawing starting assignments two and three in Philly this weekend).

    That says nothing of the bullpen, where co-closer A.J. Minter and veteran Darren O’Day begin the season sidelined with ailments. Arodys Vizcaino looked good late last season, but has been hindered by shoulder issues throughout his career, placing a heavy emphasis from the jump on several arms that were good at times a season ago before tiring (Jesse Biddle, Shane Carle), guys with little experience (Chad Sobotka), and one guy who I saw pitch for High-A Lynchburg in Myrtle Beach nearly five season ago who earned his first opening-day assignment in the bigs after a fantastic spring (Wes Parsons, the feel-good story of camp).

    That sounds dire, but let’s breathe for a minute. By the end of April, Atlanta figures to have Minter and O’Day back with Vizcaino at the end of the bullpen, the immensely talented Mike Soroka (again sidelined by a shoulder injury in early spring) working back toward form, and Touki Toussaint hopefully putting a rough spring behind him by getting into a rhythm at Triple-A. The Braves have enough depth, albeit a sizable portion of it unproven at the big-league level, to survive at least initially, but no team is going to sustain itself for long with that many critical arms on the shelf.

    The Braves rode the wave of emotion from being a contender for the first time in a half-decade last summer. How will they respond to being the hunted? After all, the three other relevant teams in the division (sorry but not sorry, Marlins) all made themselves better. Even without Bryce Harper, the Nationals offense looks formidable and they added Patrick Corbin to the rotation. Harper and Realmuto hope to erase the stench of Philly’s late-season stumble. The Mets were quietly good the final three months of last season, then added Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz.

    But that’s not to say the Braves are destined to finish fourth. For the questions, the injuries, the moves not made, this remains a very good team, one more than capable of winning this division. Atlanta arguably is one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The lineup possesses a tantalizing mix of power and speed. The kids are a year older, with a pennant race and playoff series now on their resume. Even incremental improvement from several of the young core components of this team could result in the Braves of ’19 being better than their immediate predecessor.

    Remember, the window to contend was supposed to be just cracking open this season. The Braves shattered that double-pane glass all over the NL East a season ago, so it’s not surprising to see the other teams in the division react accordingly over the winter. As always, there is a ceiling and a floor with every team as a season commences. This Braves squad feels like it has more variance than one would expect from a team returning many key components (and many of those components being young players with sizable upside) from a division winner.

    At one end of the spectrum: Acuna proves he is human by enduring some semblance of a sophomore slump, Albies continues struggling against right-handers, Inciarte gets out of the gate slowly in the first half, Donaldson is hampered by injuries, the pitchers heal slower than expected, Teheran deals with velocity issues and the subsequent barrage of homers that come with it, Foltynewicz can’t get healthy, Newcomb can’t throw strikes, the bullpen is a revolving mess, and the Braves finish fourth in the East, winning 78 games.

    Given last season’s success, that floor feels woeful, but the ceiling is just as wonderful. Acuna becomes a top-10 player in the sport and pushes hard for a MVP award, Freeman is right there with him, Donaldson plays 130 games and looks like his 2016 version of himself (arguably giving Atlanta three bona fide MVP candidates), Inciarte and Albies anchor the leadoff spot effectively, Swanson takes a step forward with good health, Camargo becomes a versatile sparkplug off the bench, Folty builds off his 2018, Newcomb finds his control and takes his next step forward, Gausman and Teheran and at least one of the kids settle the remainder of the rotation, Vizcaino-Minter-O’Day form a solid back end of the bullpen, and the Braves repeat in the East, winning 94 games.

    Of course, truth almost always resides in the middle, although I’m bullish at the moment on more things breaking right than not for this bunch. The East will be a bloodletting all summer, with four teams taking turns beating up each other while taking turns pummeling the Marlins. And perhaps that patience Anthopoulos showed this winter will pay off this summer, as the Braves acquire a closer or an impact bat to tilt the razor-thin balance of power their way.

    Short of one more piece added to either the back end of the bullpen or the offense, I have cause to pause in picking Atlanta to repeat in the East. For all the bluster about the moves made in Philadelphia and New York, I do think the most-rounded team in the division resides in the nation’s capital. I believe by the end of September, the four-team jousting match for the East crown will morph into two tightly separated camps: Washington and Atlanta occupying one group, the Phillies and Mets remaining one tiny step behind.

    What does that mean on Sept. 30, the day after the regular season ends? While it’s foolish to predict a tie and a 163rd game, if there ever was a division where it made sense to call that madness six months in advance, it’s this division, this season. The feeling here is Atlanta and Washington meet for the division title the day after the regular season concludes, on the final day of the month, each having won 89 games on the nose, with the Phillies and Mets sitting just a sliver behind with 86 and 84 wins, respectfully.

    It results in Atlanta reaching the 10th month of the season again, another welcome to Choptober. It’s a team that invariably will go through its share of fits and starts but, with the talent assembled and the experience of a magical emergence one year prior, stands primed to get back to last season’s apex, with a chance to push that bar even further into autumn this time around.

    —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.

    2018 Rewind: A Season For The Ages

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Proximity often blurs perspective. Something great happens, you celebrate like mad, then as the annuals of time tick by and the years slide off the calendar, you gain a refined look.

    This is an exercise that came about for me while perusing Twitter the other night, as I spoke of memorable moments these older eyes of blue have witnessed across a variety of sports, throughout a variety of decades. The timing certainly was appropriate, given I write this with 25 or so hours before we say bon voyage to 2018 and welcome 2019 with the hopes, dreams, goals and desire each fresh set of 365 days brings.

    Being in the moment – or just barely removed from it – does not offer the same view you obtain via the passage of time. But 2018 was an amazing year for me as a sports fan. I crafted a top 10 list spanning the start of me watching sports in person in the late 1970s through today, and three events from this season actually made the list.

    The Braves were the surprise story of 2018, following another 90-loss campaign with 90 wins and an NL East pennant.

    In March, I drove to Nashville with my best friend since middle school to watch my alma mater (Georgia State) play in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Three weeks ago, I wept for joy next to my 16-year-old son inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Atlanta United celebrated winning MLS Cup – the first major pro sports championship in this city since this same old dude watched the Atlanta Braves win the 1995 World Series, in a stadium that now is … a parking lot for said alma mater’s football stadium.

    Sports has a way of connecting the dots, connecting the generations, connecting the masses. It truly is just an awesome experience. Whether I had a ticket in my pocket or a press pass dangling around my neck, the thrill of it all never gets old. This year, I was beyond blessed to attend 35 Braves games, including an opening day thriller, a walk-off bunt, a division clincher and two playoff games.

    I present to you the top 10 moments I witnessed in person this season, a campaign that expired just 84 days ago, but already resonates so deeply with Braves Country that it stands among the most memorable in the long and storied history of this franchise:

    10. Homestand-Closing Win And The Impossible Happened: The Braves began the season with a six-game homestand against two teams many picked to finish ahead of Atlanta – sexy-preseason selection Philadelphia and perennial-division power Washington. April 4 dawned with the Braves at 3-2 but staring at a daunting road trip – a three-city, nine-game, early-April swing through three cities (Denver, Washington, Chicago) that simply is inexcusable for any team to have that time of year. Plus, Max Scherzer toed the rubber for the Nationals while Atlanta sent Mike Foltynewicz to the mound.

    It was a mismatch from the start. A first-inning error on Washington second baseman Wilmer Difo extended the inning, Preston Tucker continued his scalding-hot start with a three-run homer in the inning, and Foltynewicz bested the future Hall of Famer and added the shocker of all shockers: a two-run double by the – shall we say, light-hitting pitcher – over a shallow-playing outfield in the fourth inning as the Braves won 7-1. It marked my nephew’s first visit to SunTrust Park, and my two sons’ first game of this memorable season.

    As an aside, the oldest kid called Tucker’s dinger. As an aside, he hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

    9. Through The Chill, Promise Of Hot Times Ahead: Actually, my oldest son got in a game before the aforementioned victory over Washington and his since never-ending prognostication. Atlanta played an exhibition game against a team of top prospects two days before the season opener. The weather was raw, drizzly and cold, but Mike Soroka started, Kolby Allard pitched, Cristian Pache belted his first two homers as a professional and Austin Riley nearly killed us with a scathing line drive just foul near the left-field pole.

    Oh, and some kid recorded a base hit that registered an exit velocity of 115 mph. Some dude named Acuña.

    8. The Home Debut Of The Phenom: The heralded promotion of 20-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr. came after the Braves had dropped the first two games of a four-game set in Cincinnati in late April. After going 1-for-5 in his big-league debut, he slammed an upper-deck tank job the next afternoon.

    Eight days later, in his first home game against the Giants, Acuña went 0-for-4 from the two-spot in the lineup in a 9-4 defeat.

    One of the coolest things of my year happened pregame. With both my sons in attendance, we were able to meet up with Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun. What does that have to do with baseball, one may ask? One, Ken covers the Winnipeg Jets, who once upon a time were the Atlanta Thrashers, and I’ve kept cheering for the boys even after relocation. Two, Ken is a huge baseball guy who loves to visit stadiums. An off day in the Jets/Predators Western Conference semifinals gave him an opportunity to attend the game, and it was absolutely awesome to talk hockey with one of the best scribes covering the NHL.

    7. Charlie Clutch, Part Deux: Charlie Culberson etched his name all over the 2018 story and, in many ways, embodied this team. Born in Rome, raised in Calhoun, nearly an MVP in the previous season’s NLCS for the Dodgers, Culberson was a throw-in piece of the Matt Kemp contract-salary dump deal in December 2017. But after a slow start, Culberson began performing the heroics that have placed his name in Braves lore forever.

    Atlanta opened a homestand on Memorial Day against the Mets with a doubleheader, and Culberson provided a two-run walkoff homer in a 5-4 triumph in the first game. Six days later, Culberson walked to home plate in the ninth inning of the homestand finale against the Nationals, the game tied at 2, and blasted a Tanner Roark pitch into the seats to lift Atlanta to a 4-2 victory.

    I posted a picture on Instagram of Culberson arriving at home plate with the simple caption: “THIS TEAM!!!” That moment was the first time, 59 games into this magically developing season, when I first thought to myself that team just might contend.

    6. Walk It Out … With A Bunt: I often have folks ask how many baseball games I’ve attended in my life. Well, counting 40 years of going to Braves games, a decade-plus covering baseball games from the Braves, the minors, college and high school, and a decade of coaching my kids in baseball, suffice to say the number is quite high.

    There is an old saying that on any given day at a baseball game, you may see something you’ve never witnessed before. I’d never seen a walk-off bunt, not until April 21 against the Mets. Eventual Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom did his typical job of stifling the opposing offense, while the New York batters did their typical job of not providing any run support. That set the stage for a heart-stopping ninth inning, where Inciarte drug a perfect bunt down the first-base line and Johan Camargo raced home with a head-first slide to cap a thrilling 4-3 victory.

    And you know what? Ender’s game-winning bunt wasn’t the only thing that night I’d never witnessed in person. Camargo tied the game in the ninth with a triple that hit on the infield, skated into the right-center field gap and rolled all the way to the wall.

    5. Young Newk; Damn You, Chris Taylor: I could not breathe. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Not necessarily the best scenario since I had been hospitalized late last year with stroke symptoms. But there were no medical issues as I stood in Section 431 on the final Sunday of July, watching one of the Braves future cornerstones chase immortality.

    Sean Newcomb had it all working against the Dodgers that day. As his pitch count climbed, my oldest and I both agreed the powerful lefty had to stay on the bump. Through eight innings, he had no-hit the defending NL champions, and I had chills on top of chills as the crowd roared for Newk as he walked to the dugout just three outs away. I flashed back to early June 2013, when both kids and I stood inside Turner Field and watched Julio Teheran no-hit the Pirates for 7 2/3 innings.

    Newcomb got two outs in the ninth, and up came Taylor, who worked the count to 2-2 and then lined a sharp single through the hole and into left field. I’ll never forget my son holding his phone to record the moment, and I noticed how he couldn’t stand still. Twenty-two years earlier, I sat in the press box at a baseball field in Gainesville, Ga., and watched a kid named Andy Hussion (who would go on to pitch at Georgia) throw a no-hitter in an American Legion playoff game. To this day, it is the only no-hitter I’ve witnessed in person, and it happened on a night where Andy’s dad (longtime Furman announcer Chuck Hussion) was doing PA duties, and where many in the stands had went to bed the night before with no knowledge of the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park until they retrieved their copy of our paper from their driveways that Saturday morning. We slammed the presses shut and redid the front page after the explosion – the only time in my newspaper career where we really “stopped the press.”

    4. A Tone-Setting Comeback For Openers: The home opener is sacred to me. I guess it’s because I always got home opener tickets every year for my birthday (in March), and through 40 years I’ve only missed two of them. I also was fortunate to cover three home openers, including Andres Galarraga’s homer in the 2000 opener after he missed the previous season with lymphoma. The night before was spent preparing around 100 sausage balls, stocking coolers with beverages and recording a 90-minute season-preview podcast.

    March 29 found me heading to SunTrust Park early in the morning. Several hours of tailgating preceded the 4:10 start time, the second opener in the history of the new ballyard. Connecting with old friends and meeting new ones, for all the angst of the previous offseason, a new day dawned for this franchise while delivering quite the harbinger of things to come.

    Down 5-0 in the sixth, Atlanta battled back, setting the stage for Nick Markakis to blast a three-run, ninth-inning walkoff homer into the right-center field seats. The celebration turned wet immediately afterward as a strong thunderstorm blasted the ballpark, but nobody complained. It would be the first of many comeback victories by the Battlin’ Braves of ’18.

    3. Title Time In Tomahawk Town: I walked into a cigar shop off Ga. 400 and bought my first cigar in probably five years (I typically only have one on the golf course, and I haven’t played golf lately). It was around 10 a.m. and I already had four bottles of champagne icing in the back of my SUV. The cashier asked if I was going to the game and, upon telling him yes, he said, “been a long time since I’ve been this excited about the Braves.”

    Brother, I felt ya in that moment. And the Braves delivered like champions, Atlanta jumping all over Jake Arrieta – the experienced playoff veteran Philadelphia acquired to lift it to October – knocking him out after scoring four runs in two innings. Meanwhile, Foltynewicz took a no-hitter into the seventh and when Acuña gloved the final out of the game, everybody in Braves Country lost their minds.

    How did this happen so fast? The rebuild ended, the new era fully engaged. Wow, here we are, with championship T-shirts and champagne showers in the locker room and tears of joy and hugs and screams of delight. It marked the seventh title I’ve seen the Braves clinch in person – but other than the Miracle Comeback in the ninth in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the World Series clinching victory in Game 6 of 1995, it’s hard to think of any other Braves moment that tops Sept. 22. And while my kids weren’t there, getting to cry with and hug some of my great, dear Braves friends made the moment absolutely awesome.

    2. Acuña Slams The Postseason Stage: I mentioned above three of my top 10 moments witnessed in person across all sports occurred this season. I honestly had little expectations going into the NL Division Series against the big, bad Dodgers. But when the Braves came home for Game 3, I thought they would buck up and find a way to win and draw within 2-1 of the series. I could just feel it.

    But the manner in which it happened took our breaths away. Acuña, the eventual NL rookie of the year, becoming the youngest player in baseball history to belt a postseason grand slam, a second-inning shot into the left-center field seats. What followed was two or three minutes of absolute bedlam, complete and comparable to the early/mid 1990s euphoria. It literally shook SunTrust Park to its foundation.

    Atlanta would capture Game 3 on a Freddie Freeman homer, a Chop House special deep to right field, but the Acuña grand slam represented more than four runs with one swing of the bat. It marked the return to prominence of this franchise, and its fanbase. There may be three or four moments where I’ve experienced the ear-splitting, knee-buckling spontaneous combustion of noise that I felt that night. I’ll carry that feeling to my grave.

    It also landed a buddy of mine with an Acuña tattoo on her wrist, and a prominent spot on the national news.

    1. Sharing This Ride With All Of You: Our world is filled with so many dividing items, and it feels that’s the case now more than ever in my lifetime. Social media can be toxic. News coverage can be depressing. Conversations that go just beneath the surface can break up relationships decades in the making. In times like these, the connection a sports team can provide is not only welcomed, it’s needed.

    I have met and developed relationships with so many people through Braves baseball, from folks who played at the highest level to award-winning writers to so many folks who are just like me, who love this sport and love their team. There is so much passion, so much energy from so many wonderful and talented people throughout Braves Country, whether you’re in Atlanta or around the world.

    It truly is an honor to be in your midst, online and in person.

    I have met some of the best people in my life through my love of the Braves, and 2018 took that to a whole new level. People I have met through following and writing about the Braves have taught me valuable lessons, provided me a shoulder to lean on, prayed for me in sickness, enhanced my ballpark and tailgating experience, and overall cast even more sunshine into my life. For that, I’m thankful. So much love to all.

    That’s the biggest thing I’ll carry from 2018, a year in which the Braves ended the rebuild. The best is yet to come, and I cannot wait to continue this journey with all of you.

    —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 Bring Pennant Fever Back Home to Atlanta

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It would’ve been folly back in spring to pinpoint the final Sunday of August in Miami and consider it a seminal moment, but in this 2018 Atlanta Braves season that toggles between fanciful and frightening, it makes perfect sense.

    Game No. 130 on the 162-game schedule found the Braves wrapping up a seven-game road trip against the National League East cellar-dwellers, having won 12-of-21 during a hellish 22-game-in-20-day stretch that some feared would exhaust the pixie dust that seemingly has been sprinkled on this team.

    And yet, there was plenty of dread entering the series finale after Atlanta scored exactly one run in its previous 22 innings, losing 1-0 and 3-1 contests to Miami as Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis – the veteran linchpins in the middle of the lineup – both fighting significant slumps at the same time. Not an optimal situation at this time of the year, especially considering the dynamic Ozzie Albies has been awful against right-handed pitching this month.

    But as the case has been with this team, it’s never nearly as bleak as it seems despite the constant roar on social media, a volume that surely will build as September dawns and the sprint to the finish begins.

    The Braves scored four times in the final four innings Sunday, earning a 4-0 victory that sends Atlanta into its first off day since Aug. 6 with a three-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. When the gauntlet of games every day (including two doubleheaders) commenced Aug. 7, the Braves sat 1 ½ games in arrears of the Phillies.

    Sunday concluded with the Braves owning a three-game advantage for the fifth consecutive day. No ground gained – Saturday marked an ample opportunity after the Phillies choked a five-run lead, but Atlanta only could scratch a Dansby Swanson solo homer – but overall it’s still a win for the Braves, considering five days have elapsed from the calendar and the Phillies remain at arm’s length.

    It’s a short arm, though, and seven of the final 10 games of the season loom against the lone challenger to the Braves (yes, you can administer last rites to the ghost of the Washington Nationals, who trail Atlanta by 8 ½ games and who dealt Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in waiver-wire deals this week that signified everybody’s favorite paper champion raising the white flag). It’s not the time for the offense to turn south, and the Braves averaged 2.5 runs per game on the road trip while hitting .226 as a team with nearly as many strikeouts (44) as hits (45) entering Sunday.

    But recall the old saying that pitching and defense wins championships. It applies here, as the Braves have been outstanding on the mound in recent days. Atlanta allowed six runs total in seven games on the swing, pitching to a 0.89 ERA as a staff with only nine extra-base hits allowed. Kevin Gausman, the Plan B after Pittsburgh overpaid grossly for Chris Archer at the trade deadline, owns a 1.69 ERA in five Atlanta starts after throwing five scoreless, one-hit innings Sunday to win his fourth consecutive decision.

    Gausman’s short outing Sunday can be attributed to being pinch-hit for in the sixth inning, when the Braves were trying to break through offensively nursing a 1-0 lead. It came one night after Brian Snitker left Anibal Sanchez hit for himself with runners on and two outs in a scoreless game, a decision that bit the manager when Sanchez – who is hitless on the season – struck out, then allowed the eventual game-winning run before leaving with a hamstring injury.

    The Braves have been outstanding offensively for large stretches of the season, but in the past month the pitching staff – bolstered by the acquisition of Gausman and relievers Brad Brach and Jonny Venters, the steadying of Sean Newcomb and the sudden consistently good Julio Teheran – has given Atlanta a needed shot in the arm. That says nothing of the contribution by Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson, who excelled in winning their major-league debuts during the 22-in-20 stretch. Coupled with stellar defense – Ronald Acuna made another web-gem worthy catch Sunday, one night after Swanson made an acrobatic field-and-throw from short left field – the Braves are in a great position entering the final 32 games.

    Now, it gets serious. A getaway day in Miami resulted in the perfect outcome for a team that desperately needs a day off, that only has two more the rest of the way. A surging Tampa Bay team, fresh off a sweep of Boston, arrives at SunTrust Park for two games starting Tuesday. The Cubs pop in for a makeup game, followed by three at home with the Pirates and then those aforementioned Red Sox for three games.

    That precedes a seven-game road trip to Arizona and San Francisco, two locales where the Braves historically do not play well. That carries us into the next off day Sept. 13. Sixteen games in 16 days, pretty close to the grind Atlanta just concluded.

    It would be nuts to suggest the Braves will gain 4 ½ games in the standings in that span, as they did during the stretch just ended. It is a brutal schedule, as the heat of the pennant race ratchets up to a temperature Braves Country has not experienced in half a decade. And once through that stretch, the final maddening sprint features series with the hottest team on the planet (St. Louis), the wounded but still dangerous corpse of the Nationals, and those seven head-to-head meetings with Philly (four in Atlanta; the final three games of the regular season on the road).

    Suffice to say, if the Braves pop champagne and don celebratory T-shirts, they will have earned it. On the final Sunday of August, they found a way to grind out a much-needed victory.

    They will need more of that in the final five weeks.

    —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.

    Acuna’s Unbelievable Surge Fueling the Surging Braves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – Late Tuesday night, my cell phone buzzed. It was a text from my best friend, who I met on the first day of sixth grade way back in 1984 in the cafeteria at Chapel Hill Middle in Douglasville, Ga. We’ve shared the highest of highs and lowest of lows when it comes to Atlanta sports for nearly 3 ½ decades since.

    On this night, he sent me a text that simply sums up where all of us reside when we try to describe what one Ronald Acuna has unleashed of late:

    “Amazing doesn’t begin to describe it.”

    I responded with “it’s otherworldly,” and yet, even that seems not enough to encapsulate what Acuna has done the past few days.

    Before I try to capture what the 20-year-old phenom has delivered in the midst of this pennant race – one that finds the Braves waking up on Wednesday with a two-game lead, at 16 games above .500 for the first time since 2013 – let’s get the stats out of the way. They’re video-game numbers, but we’ve watched them unfold before our very eyes in recent days:

    Acuna homered as the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the first inning for the third consecutive game Tuesday, and in four of the past five games. In the game he didn’t homer in the first inning, he drew a walk, only to homer in his next at-bat. He’s homered in his first official at-bat in the past five games, the first player to do so since a 23-year-old outfielder accomplished that feat for the New York Giants in 1954.

    Maybe you’ve heard of him. Some dude named Willie Mays.

    Starting with the first game after the All-Star break Acuna, who has been in the leadoff spot, is hitting .358 in 24 games with 11 homers, 24 RBIs and 25 runs scored. He has homered in five consecutive games, in seven of the past eight games. He brings an eight-game hitting streak into Wednesday, batting .485 in that stretch with 13 runs scored.

    If the Braves cap this storybook run with a division title, moving Acuna to the leadoff spot may be the biggest reason why this team reaches the postseason for the first time in five seasons.

    Now to the hard part of this piece, which is trying to frame what Acuna has done on the biggest stage of all in recent days. As someone who has watched baseball for 40 years, from the majors down to the grass-roots level, as someone who always has the right words and the right perspective, I can’t provide you anything definitive.

    That’s because this kid – who is not old enough to buy a drink, who two years ago was playing in Single-A – is doing something that even in high school would turn heads. But in the majors? For a first-place team battling for a playoff spot? In 99 percent of cases, kids who smash in the minors get exposed. There is no way they can be this good at the major-league level.

    And yet, here is Acuna, smashing baseballs (I’d venture to argue that his line-drive single up the middle in the fourth inning Tuesday was his most impressive swing of the night) all over the yard, helping push the Braves to heights none of us dared to dream in March this team could achieve.

    Beyond the raw talent – and many of us think he will become a top-10 player in the majors sooner rather than later – is his raw emotion and love for the game, and his team. He flips bats. He hugs teammates. When Charlie Culberson followed Acuna’s leadoff blast with a homer of his own Tuesday, Acuna was jumping in the dugout. He’s a kid who doesn’t hesitate to let his emotions show, a welcomed sign for a franchise that has been too buttoned-up for far too long.

    Acuna has seven multi-hit performances in 14 August appearances, impressive in its own right, but all the more so considering his team has won 13 of its past 17 games to surge to the top of the division. He has drove home at least one run and scored one run in six of his past eight games. At the time where the pretenders are separated from the contenders amid the dog days of August, one could argue Acuna has not only kept the Braves in the race, but has energized his team at one of the most important junctures of this season.

    He destroyed opposing pitching in spring training, and yes, he was facing some front-line guys because Atlanta gave him starts and at-bats early in Grapefruit League action. He recovered from a knee injury in Boston the final weekend in May. Even with June lost while he recovered, even with Washington’s Juan Soto blazing his own trail at age 19, Acuna has thrust himself squarely into the race for rookie of the year.

    Despite the Nationals falling eight games behind Atlanta in the NL East race, and a crowded field to jump just for wild-card consideration, it may be national belief the uber-talented Washington outfielder deserves the rookie of the year since he’s the youngest player in the majors. And that’s OK.

    Why? Rewind the clock 23 years to 1995. So many people felt Chipper Jones deserved rookie of the year, but instead it went to Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo (who had pitched professionally in Japan). It turned out OK. Nomo won the rookie award.

    Chipper won a World Series ring.

    Nobody dared to dream the Braves would be in this type of position in March. But here we are, a team leading its division playing with the confidence of a championship contender, led in part by a kid who keeps making our jaws drop on a nightly basis.

    —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.

    Can Emerging Braves Finish What They’ve Started?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – When I covered sports on the Southeast Georgia coast, I would travel to Atlanta to cover events or see family. Upon departing, I always looked forward to reaching Macon and hitting Interstate 16.

    It’s one of the most desolate stretches of highway I’ve ever traveled. It’s long, it’s boring and there’s not much to grab your interest as you traverse from central Georgia to I-95 and the final leg home to the beach. I learned quickly to divide I-16 into thirds, so on the way home the mental objectives were to reach Dublin, reach Metter and then reach I-95.

    Exactly two-thirds of this baseball season now reside in the rear-view mirror, 108 games to be precise. We’ve made it to Metter, to use the exercise above. There are 54 games remaining, and by the time we steer the car off I-16 on Sept. 30, we will know if the Atlanta Braves will continue their 2018 joyride into the National League playoffs or pull into the garage.

    Suffice to say, if the Braves reach October, they will have earned it.

    Atlanta used Monday’s off day in Washington to refresh and refuel before beginning one of the most challenging schedules in recent memory. Twenty-two games in 20 days, starting with a doubleheader Tuesday against the Nationals (another double-dip looms Monday at home against Miami). Following an Aug. 27 off day, the Braves play 16 consecutive days through Sept. 12. An off day then is followed with 16 games in 17 days.

    That in and of itself provides a tremendous challenge for any team, let alone one experiencing a pennant race for the first time in a half-decade and with only two holdovers (Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran) from that 2013 division-winning squad. And that says nothing of the competition Atlanta will face between now and October.

    Consider: Thirty-eight of the Braves final 54 games come against teams that woke up Monday within five games of a playoff spot. Fifteen are against division leaders (four with Arizona, three with Boston, seven against Philadelphia – all coming in the final 10 games of the season – and a makeup game with the Cubs). That’s 70.3 percent of the remaining schedule against contenders, 27.8 percent of those contests against division leaders.

    That speaks in part to the parity in the NL, where 11 teams reside above .500 (including the Giants, who were 5 ½ back of the second wild-card spot the Braves occupy starting Monday; Atlanta faces three in San Francisco in September after playing four in Arizona, two locales where the Braves typically do not play well).

    We have not seen these Braves nosedive at any point this season, save a 5-13 stretch over the bulk of July that dropped Atlanta from 3 ½ games up in the East to 2 ½ back. To their credit, the Braves have responded by winning six of its next seven – albeit six of those games came against the Mets and Marlins – to slice one game off the Philadelphia advantage.

    But the margin for error shrinks as the days disappear from the calendar, in particular when the games come fast and furious and the competition is tough. It will be the stiffest test of all for a team that has raced past expectations and exceeded even the most optimistic hopes of spring. But now the rubber begins to hit the road in earnest, and these Baby Braves will be challenged like never before in 2018.

    How will they respond? Will the outstanding seasons of Freeman and Nick Markakis, the emergence of Mike Foltynewicz and Sean Newcomb, the impact of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, a revamped bullpen and a bolstered bench, be enough to carry the Braves to their first postseason berth since 2013? Can a rotation that at some point during the next few weeks will see the resurgent Anibal Sanchez, the young Max Fried, the maddeningly inconsistent Teheran, the spot-starting 20-year-old Kolby Allard (who acquitted himself well enough in his debut despite horrible pitching conditions), and perhaps the enigmatic Luiz Gohara and the promising Touki Toussaint, make starts in the pressure cooker of a pennant race hold up?

    If nothing else, there are key components of Atlanta’s future core that are going to get baptism by fire in the heat of a playoff push. That in and of itself is a win, regardless of how successful or how ugly the results may be. The Braves window has cracked open sooner than expected. There is a bonus opportunity here. There is a feeling to run with this house money and see if the Braves can trump the dealer and slide into the festivities of October, which considering where this franchise sat last October would be cause for immense celebration.

    But for every fairy-tale ending, there are countless others that careened off the road. The schedule is stacked with nary a breather to be found. This is where the pragmatic approach takes root. Logic may dictate at some point, there’s a 2-7 stretch coming that sends the Braves just far enough back to dash those October dreams. But even if that were to happen, did anybody expect these Braves to arrive a full week into August holding onto a playoff spot?

    Monday served as a breathing point, a last chance to pull off the exit at Metter, top off the gas tank, grab a cup of coffee and some snacks. Tuesday brings a doubleheader in the nation’s capital, the first step toward what the Braves and their victory-starved fans hope will result in a victory lap and a chance to race under the bright October lights.

    —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 AT THE DEADLINE: Anthopoulos must make the right move

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – And to think, just four months ago we all assumed this week would be about getting some type of return for Brandon McCarthy and Nick Markakis.

    Unless you’ve been hiding on another planet since March – and if you have, pull up a chair because you’re truly not gonna believe this – you realize the preconceived notion of the 2018 Atlanta Braves has transformed greatly thanks to the team winning 54 times in the season’s first 98 games. At least a year ahead of the expected opening of its contention window, Atlanta sits in a very enviable and yet difficult spot as the hours tick toward Tuesday’s trade deadline.

    We could spend the next 40 paragraphs discussing the craziness that has transpired with this franchise since last summer, when Atlanta’s midsummer moves included releasing Bartolo Colon and Eric O’Flaherty, and dealing Jaime Garcia and Anthony Recker to Minnesota for a little-known prospect named Huascar Ynoa (who incidentally today was promoted to High-A Florida and is considered by many as an intriguing pitching prospect).

    Imagine that, another young impact arm in the Braves system, a system that despite the sanctions imposed by Major League Baseball in the wake of Coppygate still bursts as the seams with talent that could make waves in the majors for years to come.

    “Could” is the key word, and therein lies the rub as general manager Alex Anthopoulos surveys the madness of a market that one person described to me today as quiet for now, but “would not surprise me if it becomes frantic in the next three-to-four days.”

    The Braves, among several other teams, deserve credit for that madness. The National League was to be a victory lap for the Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers in 2018, with Arizona and Colorado and Milwaukee fighting for the two wild-card spots. Alas, the standings are chaos, with 10 teams sitting within five games of a playoff spot.

    Alas, the Nationals are not among them.

    How to sort through this unexpected landscape, especially with a team contending a year ahead of schedule and a fanbase starving for a postseason game and a system overflowing with players who could impact your future in a good way (or bad, if you deal the wrong ones)? This is when general managers make their money.

    I’m on record in this space in saying I don’t expect an earth-shaking move to come in the next seven days. It would not be prudent to deviate from a plan that has caused so much pain in order to chase a short-term gain – as sweet as October baseball would be – at the risk of negating what many expect to be a long-standing swing at championships extending into the next decade.

    Again, back to my conversation today. I was reminded of two names.

    “Stephen Strasburg.”

    “Matt Harvey.”

    Strasburg blitzed through the league in 2012 as a 23-year-old, winning 15 games with a 3.16 ERA, but was shut down after 159 1/3 innings to protect his arm. The Nationals did as the Nationals do, flopping in the NL Division Series. Six seasons later, Washington has won as many playoff series as you and I combined, and woke up today six games out of a playoff spot.

    Harvey led a young, talented Mets rotation to the 2015 NL pennant, then famously refused to yield to manager Terry Collins after eight innings of a must-win Game 5 of the World Series. He gave up a walk and a double leading off the ninth before being yanked, the Royals won in extra innings to capture the championship, and today the Mets are a dumpster fire while Harvey pitches every fifth day for Cincinnati.

    One, an organization decision based on belief opportunities would present themselves without fail for years to come. The other, a manager who was convinced to change his mind with good intentions and perhaps lost the only shot that franchise will have at the brass ring for years to come.

    Both are cautionary tales of counting on a future that may not arrive. And so, as the clock ticks toward the deadline, Anthopoulos and his charges won’t sleep much. That’s life in a major-league front office in the days before the deadline, but the challenges facing this Braves regime as July crawls to a close are equally unique, daunting and exciting.

    For his part, Anthopoulos is not shying away from the task at hand. On SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Monday morning, he stated the Braves are able to make the moves they need to make, provided it’s right for the organization for 2018 and beyond. It’s comforting to know this front office won’t empty the farm system for one run at a ring, but at the same time one wonders just how far they should push.

    After all, the right move – not the biggest move, and not just for the biggest name, but the right move – could vault Atlanta alongside the Dodgers as NL favorites. There is a three-headed beast in the American League, four if the Brad Hand deal stabilizes Cleveland’s bullpen, so many think the Senior Circuit is playing for runner-up honors. But the fact is you can’t win the World Series until you get there, and the Braves are in the mix of NL teams who could find themselves getting the chance to win seven games (or eight, depending on if they are in the wild-card game) in October to reach the big stage.

    But at what cost? What will it take? And remember, for all the folks on Twitter begging the Braves to get “this guy” or “that guy” or “those guys,” it takes two to tango. Some of the proposed moves by basement GMs border on absurd. At the same time, Atlanta could offer the moon and sun in any one deal and still have a top-10 system. That’s the result of four years of misery and all the work that’s transpired to rebuild this once-proud franchise.

    Sorting out the varying possibilities and the potential impacts, good and bad, always are part of the recipe of July for front offices. For the one residing at the confluence of Interstates 75 and 285 on Atlanta’s northwest flank, figuring out the straightest path through the winding madness could yield an amplifying boost for the next three months while not negating the opportunity to contend for the foreseeable future.

    After today, I have backed off my earlier stance of the Braves not doing anything, for what it’s worth. Call it intuition, call it a feeling, call it a guess. But the closer we get to 4 p.m. ET on July 31, the more I think Anthopoulos and the Braves will strike.

    —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.

    Keys to the Second Half: These Players Must Step Up …

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – The thunder rolls on a stormy Saturday night in North Georgia, and a deluge in D.C. leaves us with no Braves baseball to enjoy with our beverages of choice on this fine midsummer’s evening. Instead, we watch the Cardinals and Cubs, stay mindful of weather alerts, and ponder once more this journey 95 games deep into this 2018 season.

    It is a campaign that finds the Atlanta Braves a mere ½ game out of first place in the National League East. The division-leading Phillies also fell victim to the rain and thunder, so an unplanned quiet night before the race begins yet again, another stop-then-start coming just one night after the All-Star break concluded and the Braves captured an 8-5 triumph against the struggling Nationals.

    (I still can’t believe Washington is one game under .500, for the record.)

    Saturday’s rainout – which resulted in the game being banged several hours before scheduled first pitch, perhaps a result of the famous non-rain rain-delay boondoggle last season – marks the fifth day off in the past six for the Braves, the first four courtesy of the All-Star break. Following Wednesday’s scheduled off day in Miami, Atlanta has just two scheduled off days before Sept. 13.

    The next 10 days leading up to the trade deadline may bolster a gap here, help prop up a deficiency there. But by and large, my gut feeling at this moment (subject to change with one Twitter notification or text message) is the group that has brought the Braves from projections of .500 or less to honest-to-goodness contenders is going to have to carry the mail across the finish line. And let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not going to be easy, even if everything is clicking.

    Looking at the current 25-man roster and considering their impact to the Braves success, there are three players who could push Atlanta into the postseason with strong finishing kicks to the season … performances that, by and large, we have not seen enough of through the first four months.

    Ender Inciarte: It pains me greatly to include him. Inciarte is a fantastic center fielder with two Gold Gloves in his pocket. He also is an ultra-passionate player and a fan favorite. The sheer joy on his face when something goes right is an expression of pride and commitment. But offensively, one season after collecting 201 hits and batting .304, Inciarte looks absolutely lost at the plate.

    His OPS is a career-worst .644. He is mired in a 1-for-25 slump. There have been far too many weak grounders to second base, far too many bats slammed to the ground in frustration, and one pop up in Cincinnati in which Inciarte did not run hard out of the box, which eventually cost his team a run and landed him on the bench for the rest of the afternoon.

    It would be foolish to move on after three rough months from a 27-year-old with his resume and his talent, as some of the lunatic fringe of social media continues suggesting. But there is no debating this: a .206 average against left-handers screams situational platoon, a drastic step for a player who despite his offensive swoon already has stolen a career-best 23 bases. Inciarte resembling something like the hitter we saw last season would be as big as almost any offensive upgrade the Braves could make at the deadline.

    Tyler Flowers: Another very popular member of the roster who is suffering through a rough offensive season. Flowers hit .276 with a .801 OPS through his first two seasons with the Braves, averaging 10 homers per campaign while helping nurture a young pitching staff. His 2018 took a turn south in his opening at-bat of the season when he injured an oblique, and the offensive production has not recovered.

    Flowers brings a .237 average and four homers through 42 games to Sunday, after hitting .281 with 12 longballs in 99 games a season ago. A 2.1 WAR according to Baseball Reference in 2017, he sits at 0.7 this season in part because of a paltry .165 average and 29 strikeouts in 97 at-bats against right-handed pitching.

    The 32-year-old teams with Kurt Suzuki to form a valuable duo behind the plate, something worth denoting given the heat and humidity present for many of Atlanta’s home games. Suzuki has posted a .775 OPS while hitting eight homers in 67 games, and it’s fair to ask at this point if Atlanta isn’t better suited with a matchup platoon moving forward. With both catchers on expiring deals, it presents the Braves with a potential offseason quandary of what to do in 2019 behind the dish, especially if Flowers can’t get going.

    Julio Teheran: There may not be a more polarizing member of this franchise than the gifted right-hander who, at age 27, continues to make us wonder which pitcher we will see every fifth day. It reminds me of the ultimate Jekyll-n-Hyde pitcher, Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, who posted a 1.73 ERA in his 329 career wins and a 5.28 ERA in his 244 career losses.

    Teheran’s recent work is an exercise in living life as a yo-yo made of cowhide and held together with 108 red stitches. Consider: four runs allowed in four innings June 4, no runs (or hits!) allowed in six innings June 17, seven runs in 4 2/3 innings June 23, no runs on two hits in six innings June 29, five runs in five innings (with 10 strikeouts, and with a nasty virus!) July 4. His final two starts before the All-Star break were really good, as his fastball velocity – also on a yo-yo throughout the season – stabilized in the low 90s.

    Consider Teheran owns a .524 win percentage, a 3.62 ERA and a 1.200 WHIP in 181 career starts, and never has missed significant time due to injury despite being an anchor of Atlanta’s rotation for six years running, and the criticism may seem misguided. The only thing that’s been consistent about Teheran this season has been his inconsistency, but he possesses the stuff to be a huge difference maker and rotation stabilizer down the stretch … if he can keep stringing together more upswings than downturns.

    In Conclusion: If you could see these three seasons back on the morning of March 29, one would think the Braves would be below .500 and not pushing for their first postseason berth since 2013. There have been many breakthrough seasons and remarkable performances to put Atlanta squarely in the race.

    The feeling here is other than in the bullpen, a difference-making acquisition isn’t walking through that door. Again, subject to change given the vibration of a cell phone.

    It’s up to the guys in that clubhouse to make it happen. Fair or not, the final destination of this team will in part be determined in how the trio of players named above performs over the final 10 weeks.

    —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.

    Here’s What We Know: These Braves Are Good

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s getting to the point where it feels almost otherworldly, like you couldn’t dare to script something like this on your laptop late at night four glasses into your libation of choice, because even the most forward-thinking and optimistic person would read it and simply laugh in your face.

    A 29-year-old journeyman infielder serving as the last man on the bench, playing 57.3 miles from where he graduated high school, belts a walkoff home run. It’s a pinch-hit blast, just the seventh longball in his 226th career game, and it landed into the left-field stands at 4:49 p.m. Eastern time to knock off a division rival.

    Six days later, at 4:24 p.m., the same person comes off the bench and slugs a walkoff homer, another pinch-hit game winner, toppling another division rival and keeping his team in first place.

    The Atlanta Braves have turned the late innings into a dimension difficult to describe, and increasingly difficult for opponents to survive. In this era of the quantifiable, this is hard to nail down numerically. Heart, character, guts and fortitude don’t lend themselves to neatly sortable columns in an Excel spreadsheet, and yet here we are, trying to grasp what this team has done through 59 games.

    Here’s an absolute truth: These Braves are a very good baseball team.

    Here’s another one: They continuously find a way to own the biggest moments in games, in the late innings where the at-bats and pitches and fielding decisions become massively more important.

    Here’s one more: Sitting in SunTrust Park on Sunday, in the moments before the Braves snatched a 4-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Charlie Culberson’s second walkoff homer in the past week, you almost could feel it among the 33,132 in attendance.

    This team was going to win this game. Simplistic. Direct. Blunt. But there is no denying: that feeling was there. It was palpable, and then once again, it happened.

    It’s the type of stuff, in the midst of a sun-splashed muggy Georgia afternoon in the infant days of June, that sparks the initial flickering of something that sounded so ridiculous just a few weeks ago – against the backdrop of three consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses – but now doesn’t feel so outlandish considering the body of work through the first 59 games.

    The Atlanta Braves, a contender for a National League playoff spot. Not in 2019. In 2018.

    Yes, this season.

    There are 103 games remaining, and here are these Braves, at 35-24 on the season and leading the NL East by 1 ½ games, owning a .593 winning percentage that projects to 96 wins over a 162-game season.

    Does it sound crazy, this talk of finishing 30 games above .500 and earning a playoff berth and perhaps turning SunTrust Park into a house of horrors for the best of the rest of the NL in the 10th and most important month of the season? Sure it does. But with each passing day, each game logged off the docket, each last-minute heart-stopping, hug-invoking, water-cooler emptying victory, that feeling of this not being sustainable erodes.

    That’s not to say begin budgeting for playoff tickets. We are not calculating magic numbers. We are not clearing out the first week of October from our calendars. Not yet … but isn’t it fun to think about those things?

    We are seeing a city and a fanbase becoming more energized with every thrilling victory. We are seeing a pitching staff that in the past week has began pushing deeper into games. We are seeing heroes step up nightly, be it MVP candidate Freddie Freeman, destined All-Star Nick Markakis, breathtaking Ozzie Albies or a myriad of other players who are delivering in the moments that matter most.

    Those are the traits of a special team, a special season. You can’t make sense of it. You can’t break it out onto a spreadsheet. But in this day and age of instant gratification, of split-second analysis and criticism, of balancing the data on the screen with the thoughts in the brain, this much we can say with absolute truth:

    The Atlanta Braves are good.

    Will they make the playoffs? Far too much time remains to say with any certainty what autumn will bring. But this much I know: This team is going to be fascinating to watch the next four months.

    —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.