• Exclusives

    Braves Ready for Cards … But Can They Exorcise NLDS Demons?

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – There are moments in the journey where things get real quiet, real still, the phone falls silent, and you have a few minutes to consider where you’re at – and how far you’ve come.

    The day before the National League Division Series rarely provides one of those reflective moments, not with stories to write and plans to make and work to finish and, well, all the other stuff we have to do every other day of the year, approaching playoffs be darned. But Wednesday evening, I found myself driving home from the car wash, and decided to take a different turn and swing by the lake.

    I parked and spent a few minutes reflecting. So, too, did four deer, who sauntered past my parked car amid the heat of the hottest October day in North Georgia history. It only added to the calmness, like the silent minutes on Christmas Eve when the kids finally are in bed, the last toys are put together, the cookies for Santa are on the table, and you stare at each other and exhale.

    A last calm moment before things get popping. Before the noise builds. Before the madness begins. Before, we hope, that (expletive) door gets kicked in with the velocity of 18 years of pent-up frustration.

    The Atlanta Braves open the NLDS in less than 24 hours. They do so as a bona fide favorite to win their first postseason series since 2001. They have a realistic shot to win the pennant, although the good men of St. Louis, Los Angeles and Washington certainly feel the same. They begin the postseason at home, in one of the shining new palaces of North American professional sports, a dream vision realized at the confluences of Interstates 75 and 285, with a roster harmoniously balanced with veteran leadership and youthful exuberance.

    And talent. Lots and lots of talent.

    Was it just two years and one day ago I sat in a meeting room in Austin, Texas, and finally felt moved to look at my phone due to the nonstop buzzing of notifications – I honestly thought someone had died due to the frequency of vibrations on the board room table – to see the previous general manager had resigned in disgrace? That was 24 hours after a third consecutive 90-loss season concluded, some 48 months since this franchise had played a meaningful game in October.

    My, oh my. How far these Braves have come.

    How far can they go in the next week? We’re about to find out. Here’s what to watch for along the way:

    The First, but Not the Only Step

    The Braves of ’18 weren’t expected to win the East. These Braves, financial flexibility and fanbase moaning be darned, felt they would be here. They met their own expectations with 97 victories and another division title. But getting to the same spot as last year, without going any further, would be a disappointment.

    At times in last season’s four-game loss to the Dodgers, the Braves looked almost overwhelmed by the stage. There will be no such stage fright this time around. Not with the youngers who were here a year ago. Certainly not with the veterans who have been here, done this. Even guys like Mike Soroka, who weren’t on the playoff roster last fall, have experienced a brighter spotlight this season than in seasons past. Again, because of expectations. So far, so good.

    Clean(er) Bills of Health

    The word out of SunTrust Park Wednesday afternoon was the two wounded cogs of Atlanta’s offense – first baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. – came through pre-series workouts feeling much better. An Atlanta offense with Acuna still hobbled by a left groin strain and Freeman limited by a bone spur in his right elbow would throw a wrench into the Braves plans to play deeper into October.

    The proof remains to be seen once Game 1 begins, but it was encouraging news nonetheless for a team that has dealt with a ton of bad injury developments in recent weeks (such as news breaking late Wednesday that outfielder Ender Inciarte has a quad strain to go with his hamstring injury, likely ending his season).

    The Classic October Battle

    The Braves finished third in the NL in runs scored, fourth in batting average, fourth in homers, and had three players approach 40 homers while also employing the league leader in runs scored (Acuna, 127) and stolen bases (Acuna, 37) and the league leader in hits (Ozzie Albies, 189) in the top two spots of the lineup. They face a Cardinals team that placed second in the NL in ERA (3.80), a number that dipped to 3.44 with a 1.24 WHIP during a 47-27 second half.

    Jack Flaherty, lined up to pitch Games 2 and 5, will get Cy Young votes after leading the league in WHIP (0.96) and hits per nine innings (6.18) while pitching to a 2.75 ERA. Dakota Hudson, tied for third in the NL in wins with 16, will be available out of the bullpen in the first two games of the series (same as Braves lefty Max Fried, who finished with 17 wins). And the Pride of the SSI (St. Simons Island, Ga.), the 38-year-old former Braves farmhand Adam Wainwright, won 14 games at age 38 and provides the pedigree of a two-time World Series champion.

    Is Wong Right?

    The Braves aren’t the only team who entered the playoffs wondering about health. St. Louis second baseman Kolten Wong, one of the few left-handed bats on the Cardinals roster, hit .285 this season while serving as the primary competition to Albies for the Gold Glove, but has been hindered by a grade 2 left hamstring strain. Manager Mike Shildt told reporters Wednesday that Wong – who has not played since Sept. 19 – will be in the lineup for Game 1.

    How effective will he be after a two-week layoff? Wong hit .342 with a .896 OPS in the second half, far exceeding his first-half numbers (.244; .703). If Wong is right, the Cardinals odds of winning this series improve.

    Why Y’all Are Here

    When the visitors clubhouse at Nationals Park exploded into cheers and high-fives shortly after 4 p.m. ET July 31, the source was Braves players celebrating the acquisition of relievers Mark Melancon and Shane Greene at the trade deadline. Along with Chris Martin (acquired the previous evening), the Braves rebuilt the back end of their bullpen in three swift moves that – after some initial hiccups and settling into roles – have worked.

    So far.

    I say so far because the trio was not acquired to defend the East. It was brought in to help Atlanta forge deep into the calendar’s 10th month. The trio’s success at locking down the final nine outs of games will go a long way to determining how long the Braves play this month.

    Why You Are Here

    Nearly two months before the bullpen triumvirate was secured, the Braves signed Dallas Keuchel for days like Thursday: A veteran presence who has been there, done that, and to show the youthful Atlanta rotation the way to navigate the challenge (and nerves) of postseason. Keuchel pitching well in Game 1 could set the tone for the rest of the series. And while some fans fret over his final three regular-season starts, in the biggest games of the season he dominated by posting a 0.97 ERA in a six-start stretch as Atlanta salted away the division crown. He also has nine playoff starts on his resume; he surrendered two or fewer earned runs in six of those outings.

    And there’s extra motivation for the 31-year-old lefty. Keuchel remains livid about the frozen free-agent market that led him to not sign until after the early June MLB draft, and he coyly mentioned it in his media availability Wednesday. He’s got a shot at not only his second World Series ring in three years this month, but also to set himself up for a big payday on the open market this winter.

    The X-Factors

    This time last season, Dansby Swanson sat on the bench in the postseason, unable to play due to a loose body floating in his left wrist. This time last season, Tommy Edman was preparing for the Arizona Fall League after hitting .301 between Double-A and Triple-A.

    This October, both may go a long way to determining which team advances. Swanson struggled to find his stroke after missing a month with a right heel injury, but while he hit just .204 in the second half after batting .270 before the All-Star break, he closed the season with a four-hit game and a three-hit effort in his final five contests, batting 9-for-24 with five runs scored in that span.

    Edman has been a Swiss-army knife for the Cards, logging time at third base for the slumping Matt Carpenter, filling in at second for Wong, and playing some in the outfield. He hit .329 with a .921 OPS in 53 games since Aug. 1. A big showing from either could tip the scales of this series.

    The Braves Win If …

    Keuchel sets the tone in Game 1 with a victory. Mike Foltynewicz continues his second-half revival in Game 2. Mike Soroka pitches as he has on the road in Game 3. The top four in the lineup produce at levels closer to May through August and not September. The veteran relievers at the end of the game shut down the St. Louis offense.

    The Cardinals Win If …

    Flaherty remains one of the top pitchers in the game (as he’s been in the second half) and steals Game 2 on the road. The Cardinals cover their home games with Wainwright in Game 3 and Hudson in Game 4. Wong is healthy and produces from the get-go. St. Louis cracks Atlanta’s bullpen trio with late-game heroics.

    The Pick

    We see various elements mentioned in the previous two paragraphs at different times across the next week. Keuchel nails down the opener, while Flaherty answers with a dominant performance in Game 2. Things get wild once the series shifts to St. Louis, with the kid (Soroka) besting the veteran (Wainwright) in Game 3 before the Cards squeak out a back-and-forth series-tying Game 4 victory in the matchup of young starters who moonlighted in relief early in this series (Hudson and Fried, neither of whom factor in the decision).

    That sends the series back to Atlanta for a winner-take-all Game 5. Flaherty vs. Keuchel. In what feels like the closest matchup of any of the Division Series, Atlanta exorcises the demons of nearly two decades of playoff disappointment behind the playoff veteran lefty and earns itself a shot at the NL pennant after five enthralling games.

    —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.