MLB

1 2 3 11

Chopped

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Let’s get this out of the way: “Redskins” is a racial slur, and the fact that the NFL has allowed a team to continue using that term as a mascot is both abhorrent and, apropos of the team being in our nation’s capital, disappointingly unsurprising.

The reason I start this piece off with such a disclaimer is because the recently-ousted-from-the-playoffs Atlanta Braves had a few headlines during their NLDS appearance owing to the comments of a St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher.

If you weren’t following or haven’t heard, it boils down to this: Cards’ pitcher Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee tribe, expressed to the media that he was disappointed that Atlanta still hands out their famous foam tomahawks and encourages the Tomahawk Chop.

In Helsley’s estimation, the Tomahawk Chop is a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people and Native Americans in general, and is disrespectful.

In response, prior to the 13-1 drumming Atlanta took at the hands of St. Louis in Game 5, the Braves decided not to hand out the foam axes and reduced the usage of the Tomahawk Chop music over the loudspeakers during the game.

There was some chatter about this during and following the game (including some foolish notion being spread that the removal of the tomahawks was the reason for the embarrassment…I can’t even start with that nonsense), with varying opinions.

Being a die-hard Braves fan, I’ve been asked several times about this. Should the Tomahawk Chop be cast into exile?

I have a two-part answer. Stick with me.

The first part of my answer is this: to me, the Braves nickname and the Tomahawk Chop is so very tenuously associated with Native Americans that I don’t really consider that a part of Atlanta’s brand.

At worst, the nickname “Braves” is akin to “Warriors” – a group of the strongest fighters that, if anything, is celebratory. But I don’t see the letters across the chest and think about “Indian Braves.” I don’t do the Tomahawk Chop and think about a Native American war cry – they’re specifically, for me, associated with Atlanta’s baseball team, and that’s all.

That is, in part, because the Braves have done a relatively good job of doing away with Native American iconography as a part of their brand. The screaming Indian is gone (despite a brief attempt at a comeback in 2013 that was mercifully rejected), Chief Noc-A-Homa has been retired and there are very few feathers adorning the uniform outside of the 1970s throwback.

All that adds to me – this is one man’s opinion – not feeling like I’m appropriating a culture. There’s just not any association in my mind.

However. Here’s the second part, and it’s much more important: I don’t care one little bit about the name of the team. I genuinely don’t. I don’t care about foam tomahawks and the Chop and all of that. To paraphrase Shakespeare: the team by any other name would still be my team.

So, here’s the thing: if the Native American community thinks that the name and the Chop and the tomahawk are offensive or in any way inappropriate, then let’s change the damn name of the team.

I’m a white man. I can’t reasonably tell you what is or isn’t offensive to Native Americans. So, if changing some inconsequential things about the team that I love will make a group of people who have been disenfranchised by this country a little happier, then by god let’s go ahead a do it.

Look, I’m not out campaigning for change. If this dies down and nothing comes of it, then I’ll be back next season doing the Chop with a tomahawk on my chest, because I see those as a baseball thing, not a Native American thing.

But that’s just me, and if a change needs to be made, then that’s fine with me too. I’ll still be back next season, cheering on my team.

And if you’re sitting at home, reading this, grumbling about how people shouldn’t get upset over something like the Chop, then maybe try to assess who’s got a more sensible reason to be upset, and check your privilege at the Right Field Gate next April.

Chop or not, I’ll see you next season.

The Peach Curse

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Ten run top of the first inning, blown 25 point Super Bowl lead with 17 minutes left in the game, 2nd and 26 in the National Title game, 4 game sweeps after having the best record in the NBA Eastern Conference, back up QB playing like a Heisman winner in 2018 SEC Title game, Loss after loss to Florida in Jacksonville in 2002, 2003, 2005, when UGA has clearly better teams, 3-2 sliders drilled over the left field fence to change the balance of a World Series, being beat into submission by a FSU home run barrage in the 2019 Athens Baseball Regional.

You get my drift? The list goes on and on. The curse of Georgia sports is real and right now there does not seem to be a cure at this moment in time.

The latest debacle was masterfully created by the 2019 Atlanta Braves.

We should have seen this one coming from a distance. The Braves went 97-65 in the NL East, clinched a division and slumped into the playoffs against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Braves were drilled 13-1 in a deciding game 5 in the NLDS. BTW, Atlanta has not won a post-season baseball series since 2001.

Yeah, we should have seen this one coming, but the 2019 Braves provided something the Georgia sports scene longs for and that is hope.  All of that hope faded in about 20 minutes during the 5PM hour on October 9th, 2019.

The debacle started before the series even began when Mike Soroka was slated to only get one start in the series. How does your two most consistent starters during the regular season Mike Soroka and Max Fried only get one combined start in the NLDS?

Fried, a 17 game winner, was relegated to the bullpen in the series where he struggled at times. Maybe his manager could have given this 25 year old kid a confidence boost by giving him something he earned during the regular season, which was a start in the NLDS.

Why didn’t Mike Soroka get two starts in this series? Seven strong innings in game three, but yet he was slotted as a game three starter after a meaningless start in New York on September 29th, which he was coming off 10 days rest after beating the Phillies on 9/19.

If the rotation was Soroka, Keuchel, Fried, Foltynewicz, and Soroka do the Braves win this series? Then you have Keuchel ready for game one of the NLCS.

We know Dallas Keuchel did not pull his weight in the series; or maybe he would have if he was not pulled in the 4th inning of a 1-1 game in game 1 with 2 outs.

Atlanta signs him for $13 million in June for a playoff run and you don’t let a Cy Young winner pitch out of a little jam in the 4th inning?

Why not let Josh Tomlin stay in the game in game 4 when he was mowing down the Cardinals at the time?

We know Freeman, Donaldson, and Markakis struggled at the plate in the series batting .200, .158, and .143, respectively. Freddie, just one fly ball in game 4 and you are hosting the Nats with a World Series on the line.

Why do managers feel like they have to manage differently in the playoffs? I get the all hands on deck mentality in elimination games, but Fried in the bullpen with 17 wins during the regular season raises a lot of questions. Baseball is a funny game maybe our most unpredictable game.

Position players have to produce runs, pitchers have to get outs, and managers have to make the right moves.

As a team the Braves failed in all three areas. The team is young and will continue to grow. Brian Snitker got badly out-managed in this series and I just did not see that coming.

This was a bitter defeat for the Atlanta Braves, and it appears the Curse of Georgia Sports is alive and well.

UGA is undefeated in football, but you have this sick feeling in your stomach don’t you Georgia sports fans that you cannot explain?

The Washington Nationals in the NLCS really stings.

Home Fried Cooking

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

After a travesty of a NLDS Game 1, the Atlanta Braves, behind a stellar outing from a flame-throwing Mike Foltynewicz, evened up the series with a 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Now the Braves travel to enemy territory. They will need to win at least one of the two games to be played at Busch Stadium in order to keep their hopes alive of winning their first postseason series since 2002 and advancing to the National League Championship Series.

The Braves will be sending their ace and master of the road game Mike Soroka to the mound on Sunday to face off against the Cards’ veteran Adam Wainwright. That should make for a compelling match up, and one worth watching.

The hopes of Braves Country, however, rely less on Soroka’s pitching ability, that is likely to be on point, and more on whether or not he can pitch deep into the game.

The blowing of the 3-1 lead during Thursday’s Game 1 could arguably be attributed to Chris Martin or to Chris Martin’s oblique, which got hurt during his warm up pitches and forced him from the game in the 8th inning.

With that, the reliable Shane Greene/Martin/Mark Melancon triad was disrupted, and instead Brian Snitker brought in Luke Jackson, who promptly gave up a moonshot to Cards’ first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Then Jackson allowed two more baserunners before Melancon came in and allowed one to score, tying the game up.

It isn’t really Chris Martin’s fault. Jackson was going to be the scapegoat no matter what happened, because he’s Luke Jackson; but Melancon hasn’t been a treat to watch either. He also allowed the tying run to the plate on Friday’s Game 2 before recording the save.

It’s a small sample size, but in the postseason when it’s life or death, a small sample size is enough. It might be time to rethink the way the bullpen is being used going forward.

Martin, unfortunately, isn’t coming back. Even if he heals quickly, taking him off the NLDS roster because of an injury makes him ineligible to return for the rest of the series and for the NLCS as well.

Taking his place on the roster is Julio Teheran. Teheran carried the team on his back for much of the year and also stumbled so mightily in September that his lack of inclusion on the DS roster was a shame but not a shock.

Unfortunately, that gives Snitker two guys, Julio and Jackson, who didn’t enter October on a high note as option from the bullpen.

Melancon hasn’t looked like the kind of shutdown closer that World Series winners tend to employ.

Max Fried has, though. Fried has now made two scoreless one-inning appearances in two games, with two strikeouts to boot.

At this point it’s unlikely that he’ll start Game 4 (it might be Julio, it might be Keuchel on short rest), and instead he’ll continue being a weapon in relief. Even though it’s not the role he thrived in all season, I think it’s time to go all-in on this notion.

Even if he doesn’t necessarily close games out, Fried should be the guy, along with Greene, to get the high-leverage situations.

He’s got a power arm and a sharp curve that can strike batters out with ease, as he’s already shown.

He’s not one of the mercenary relievers that the Braves picked up at the trade deadline, but in these desperate times he’s looking like the guy who can save – no pun intended – the Braves postseason hopes.

 

The Injury Bug

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The playoffs begin this week and the Atlanta Braves await either the St. Louis Cardinals or the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday at Suntrust Park.

Both will provide unique challenges and Atlanta shouldn’t breathe easy simply because they don’t have the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round (it is, I will say, massively impressive how the Brewers have clinched a playoff spot and have stayed within striking distance of the NL Central title even after losing last year’s MVP Christian Yelich to injury just a few weeks ago).

It isn’t as though the Braves can rest easy knowing they’re at the height of their powers, either. The team was healthy for so much of the 2019 season, with the exception of injuries to Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson; both of which took them out of the game for significant periods of time.

However, as I’ve pointed out before, the backups and new acquisitions stepped up and showed out in the absence of the two Atlanta lineup mainstays.

But now, at the worst possible time, the injury bug has started to bite. The Charlie Culberson hit by pitch was a freak accident, nothing really to say about that. But it took out a reliable bench player and pinch hitter that would have doubtlessly gotten huge opportunities to make a difference in October.

The other side of that same coin is Johan Camargo, who has had a fairly miserable season but showed signs of turning things around in the minor leagues, who offers the same defensive versatility as Culberson.

Camargo would have been the obvious choice to make the roster as a super utilityman in Charlie’s place, but it looks like he’s down for the count as well.

That brings us to the other two (three, sort of) injuries, all due respect to Culberson and Camargo, the minor injuries to Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. are more major.

Freeman was benched for a few games to heal a wrist injury from last week. He returned for the season finale series against New York, but that nagging wrist had really been doing on number on Freddie’s production at the plate. He may be playing through it, but the 3-hole hitter is playing at a disadvantage.

Of equal (maybe greater?) concern is Ronald Acuna, Jr., who hurt his hip during the two-game set against Kansas City last week and was benched for the rest of the regular season so that he could heal up.

This did, disappointingly, prevent Acuna from getting the three steals necessary for him to be the fifth player ever to go 40-40 in a season. The leadoff hitter is the dynamic sparkplug that sets the Braves off and they need him as close to 100% as possible for the playoffs.

Piggybacking off of that is something that probably didn’t seem like it would be as important a week ago as it is now. That is Ender Inciarte being ruled out for the NLDS.

Inciarte has been hurt a lot in 2019, his first stint on the IL coming after a disappointing start to the year and his second coming at an equally disappointing time: just as he seemed to have found his stroke and was hitting well.

Him not being on the DS roster doesn’t seem like it changes much, since the team played so much of the season without him, but the Acuna injury makes Ender’s inability to play hugely significant.

A healthy Ender is a multiple-time Gold Glove winner and could patrol center field while Acuna strains himself less in left but it’s not to be.

The Braves seem confident that Freeman and Acuna will be ready to roll on Thursday. Having an additional three days off can’t hurt. Atlanta has to be aware of their ongoing concerns and can’t afford to underestimate the Brewers or the Cards.

The Wild AL Wild Card

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Well, here we are again. In what seems like an increasingly annual tradition, the Tampa Bay Rays are making a run at the MLB playoffs.

Indeed, it feels like I’m writing an article about the unexpected contention and postseason push of that love-able overlooked and under-dogged Rays every September.

This is no different (the Rays are over 90 wins with a week to play and are currently tied for the second American League Wild Card spot) but there are a few extra wrinkles this year. Particularly, how close the three-team Wild Card race is in the junior circuit this year.

Entering the second to last weekend of the regular season, Tampa Bay is tied with the Cleveland Indians for the second Wild Card slot, two games behind the Oakland A’s.

All three clubs are on good-to-great tears right now, with Oakland in particular smoking hot, having won 9 of their last 10 contests.

With three teams so closely competing for two postseason berths, there are a number of different ways this could shake out for Tampa Bay.

The simplest (and, assumedly, preferred by the team) assurance of a longer season is for the Rays to win one of the two spots outright. They get that one-game Wild Card playoff and they’re off to the races.

Tying with either Oakland and/or Cleveland (and/or Minnesota, which is mathematically still possible) is where things get complicated and interesting.

If one team were to fall off and the Rays tied with, say, Oakland, then whoever won the season series would be the host team in the Wild Card Game (Tampa would visit the A’s in this scenario, having lost the season series 3-4). That one is fairly simple as well.

The real fun begins when you think of the likelihood that two teams end up tied for the second Wild Card spot.

If Tampa and Cleveland end the season dead even but still behind Oakland, they would play a one-game play-in contest (which Tampa would host, as they won the season against the Indians 6-1), the winner of which would go on to the Wild Card Game in Oakland.

If all three teams have identical records on Sunday, things get very tricky. Oakland, having the highest winning percentage against the two other teams, would get to choose to be designated Team A, Team B, or Team C. Tampa, having the next highest winning percentage, would choose between the remaining to designations, and Cleveland would be assigned the remainder.

Team A would play Team B, with the winner moving on to the Wild Card Game. The loser of that game would then play Team C for the second Wild Card spot.

The question then becomes: what would Oakland prefer? Team A gets two chances, sure, but Team C gets a day off and wouldn’t need to prepare for the possibility of three straight days of must-win games (four, really, counting what is sure to be an intense final day of the season that leads to this mess).

Tampa, getting to choose second in this scenario, makes essentially the same choice: choose designation B and give yourself the chance for redemption if they lose the first game; or designation C, where they could potentially line up the likes of Charlie Morton to carry the burden of the season.

I’ve always been a supporter of the second Wild Card and the implementation of the one-and-done Wild Card Game.

It’s like having a pair of Game 7s to kick off the postseason every year. This year, with a tightly contested race for the AL Wild Card spots, we’ve got a possibility of seeing four such games.

That’s probably not the way the Rays would like things to shake out, but as a baseball fan, it’s hard to root against it.

Chopping October

By: Jason Bishop

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

October baseball will take place once again in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Braves defended their 2018 NL East Crown by clinching the division this past weekend.

Most experts did not have the Braves winning the division in 2019, mostly taking into account all the money the Philadelphia Phillies spent in the offseason. Those Phillies most likely will not make the playoffs at all.

As October approaches, there is still the business of Atlanta setting their playoff roster. The Braves roster suffered a ton of injuries in the last two months of the season. Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte, Austin Riley, Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo all spent time in the Injured List and Atlanta will be without Culberson and Camargo in the first round and maybe throughout the playoffs.

The Braves will likely be matched up with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.  The Cardinals likely will win the NL Central.

St. Louis, once again, put together a second half run to put themselves into the mix.

The Cardinals will bring with them into a postseason a young starting rotation, headed by Dakota Hudson. Hudson currently has notched 16 wins for the Red Birds with a 3.35 ERA.

Outside of Hudson, the Cardinals will have Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, and Adam Wainwright.

Paul Goldschmidt hit 31 homeruns for St. Louis and led the team.

Meanwhile, the Braves will bring an offense that has carried the team all year long and a decent rotation.

Mike Soroka had a breakout season for Atlanta and along with Dallas Keuchel, Max Fried and either Julio Teheran or Mike Foltynewicz in the rotation.

Realistically, the Braves will be huge favorites to beat the Cardinals in the 3 of 5 series. If that happens, the Braves will get the winner of the NL West Champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the winner of the Wild Card Game.

I believe the Dodgers will get the Washington Nationals in the first round. That series have the potential to go all 5 games.

Last season the Dodgers bombed Atlanta in the NLDS, but the Braves pitching is far better than last season and so is the offense.

The Dodgers will be favored to beat the Braves if that is the matchup but Atlanta would be favored against any other team they may play in the NLCS if they get past St, Louis.

In my opinion, the Braves will do no worse than an NLCS appearance and will give LA all they want in the NLCS. On paper, the Dodgers are deeper and better.

The most exciting thing is the Braves will be making plenty of playoff appearances moving forward. They are good and young.

If not this season, a World Series Championship should be on the horizon for the Braves.

The Second Guessing Game

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Monday morning quarterbacking is a very real epidemic in sports fandom and it’s certainly not limited to football fanatics.

That’s where the term comes from, of course, but the desire to second guess any team’s coach and manager’s every move is so alluring and satisfying that it has permeated into every sport in which decisions are made.

Baseball is, of course, included. Fans of every team revel in post-correcting their favorite(?) manager’s lineups, defensive alignments, rotation choices, and bullpen management.

Managers are mortal men, mind you, so mistakes can be (and are) made. I would never claim otherwise. For the record, I also do some managerial criticism from time to time.

Even reigning Mangers of the Year get criticized for anything and everything; one such person is Atlanta Braves’ manager Brian Snitker, who I hear get criticized constantly by friends, by family, and by sports radio hosts.

Folks in Braves Country always have one thing or another to complain about when it comes to Snit and his managerial decision-making.

I’m not here to tell you that you can never criticize Brian Snitker again. He will, someday in the future, maybe soon, make a decision you disagree with. You are allowed to share your disagreement. But today I want to celebrate him. Because I just watched him get thrown out of a game, and I’m fired up about how much I like the guy.

The game I just watched was against the Washington Nationals. You’ll know it as the horrific game in which Charlie Culberson took a fastball off his face on a bunt attempt. Insanely, it was called a strike.

Brian Snitker really didn’t like that.

MAYBE second to the Jose Urena Incident, this was far and away the most pissed off I have ever seen the usually-calm Snitker.

At the time, I was far too shaken from Culberson’s injury to really appreciate the fight Snit was putting up against a godawful call.

Looking back on it now, I see the Snit that these Braves players love to play for. He was arguing about a strike, but under the surface you just knew that Snit was channeling the fear and love that the whole clubhouse has for Charlie into that tirade.

Snitker seems like a paternal figure to this team in a way that Fredi Gonzalez never was – and before you get ahead of me, he’s not quite Bobby Cox either.

The Braves under Cox, whom I love, were always professional to a fault.

Snit’s team is allowed to be little more expressive. There’s a lot of youth and excitement on the team, but Snitker seems to encourage it. He’s also going to provide a firm hand when necessary, like pulling Acuna for lack of hustle just a few weeks ago. And yet, I feel confident that Acuna wouldn’t have an ill will for his skipper.

And at the end of the day, the thing that matters is that these Braves want to play for Snit. Guys like Freddie Freeman notably advocated for Snitker to get the full-time job after his interim stint a few years ago.

His bullpen usage will be what it is – he’ll make whatever decisions he thinks will help the team win or will help a player in one situation or another – but the guys on the field want him filling out the lineup on a daily basis. They want to win for him. And they are.

 

Picking Teams

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

A playoff spot is pretty much a lock at this point for the Atlanta Braves. The math is starting to catch up, as the Braves’ magic number lowers each day.

That being said, the Braves have had all kinds of contributors to their winning ways in 2019 but only 25 of them will be called upon to be on the playoff roster. This week we’re going to try and predict who’s going to be helping the Bravos win their first playoff series since 2001 and (hopefully) play deep into October.

STARTING PITCHERS

Mike Soroka

Dallas Keuchel

Max Fried

Julio Teheran

Mike Foltynewicz

This one is pretty easy, as the starting rotation has been one of the more consistent parts of the Braves’ team this year, especially after Alex Anthopoulos picked up Keuchel and Folty was called back up from Triple A Gwinnett.

I chose to include all five starts despite the fact that, at most, the Braves will only throw four of them in a five-game Division Series.

My reasoning is this: it’s pretty clear that Soroka and Keuchel will go 1-2, and Fried probably locked down the third start, but Teheran has been steady all year and has earned his spot in the playoff rotation.

With Folty as the odd man out, you’ve got a flamethrower who could ratchet up the heat coming out of the bullpen for long relief or even just to get a much-needed strikeout.

BULLPEN

Mark Melancon

Shane Greene

Chris Martin

Sean Newcomb

Luke Jackson

Jerry Blevins

Darren O’Day

The first five here are obvious. Melancon, Greene, and Martin were the big ticket items acquired at the trade deadline in July, Newcomb has found new life in relief, and Luke Jackson, despite his still-frustrating missteps, has been the mainstay of the bullpen all year long.

Jackson held down the role of closer for months when the ‘pen was a mess, and his ticket is punched to the postseason.

Blevins will make the roster so that Newk isn’t the only southpaw, and while O’Day was hurt up until this week, he’ll be given every opportunity to show Brian Snitker that he can take the ball in high leverage situations.

CATCHERS

Brian McCann

Francisco Cervelli

Tyler Flowers

It’s a little unorthodox, but my gut tells me three catchers. Cervelli may not even see a pitch (batting or catching), but his presence allows Snit to use Mac or Flowers as a pinch hitter late in games.

INFIELDERS

Freddie Freeman

Ozzie Albies

Josh Donaldson

Dansby Swanson

Adieny Hechavarria*

The fifth spot is the interesting one here.

Johan Camargo was abysmal in the big leagues during 2019, but he turned things around in Gwinnett and brings more versatility to the bench than Hechavarria does.

I’m not sure that Camargo will get enough playing time over the next few weeks to erase the bad taste from the season’s first half. That’s why I think the veteran will get the nod here – maybe (see below).

OUTFIELDERS

Ronald Acuña Jr.

Austin Riley

Nick Markakis

Matt Joyce

Charlie Culberson

Billy Hamilton*

*One or the other

This is where things get hairy.

Markakis, assuming he makes it back on the field in the next week or so, will get a playoff spot.

The real question mark is Ender Inciarte. Ender was tearing the cover off the ball before he got hurt for the second time in 2019.

The Gold Glover, who is the de facto center fielder, can’t just be discarded if he’s healthy. If he does make it back, that throws the rest of the outfield into disarray.

Austin Riley struggled enough in the second half that he might not get the call if Ender resumes his starting duties and Acuña heads back to left.

Matt Joyce has been an undervalued presence off the bench all season long, and his work should warrant a playoff spot.

Culberson hasn’t had as many clutch hits lately as Braves Country is used to him having, but the fact that he has that history and can play all over the field pretty much guarantees him playing in October.

That versatility may also come into play by not including Hech OR Camargo, letting Charlie serve as the lone backup infielder and picking Billy Hamilton to come off the bench as a pinch runner/defensive replacement.

This scenario seems like a good idea if Inciarte doesn’t make it back and Riley is starting in left.

The good thing is, however the roster is structured, the Braves have a lot of talent at a lot of spots and that bodes well for a playoff series win.

 

Braves Spare Parts

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Washington Nationals have been hotter than hell the past couple of weeks, scoring big win after big win; including a three-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley. For most ballclubs, a hot streak like the one the Nats are on right now would be a highlight of the season – a cause for joy; but for Washington, it must be very frustrating.

Since winning 13 their past 16 games, the Nationals have gained essentially no ground whatsoever in the National League East. That’s because the Atlanta Braves have matched their hot streak blow for blow.

Atlanta has been winning a lot lately, including huge series wins against the hard-hitting Minnesota Twins and a landmark statement series victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the best team in the National League and the squad that wholly outmatched them in the playoffs last October.

The fascinating thing about the Braves’ current run of wins is the players they’ve been winning with.

Atlanta has actually been bitten by the injury bug in a really big way of late. Lineup stalwarts Nick Markakis and Dansby Swanson went down in July, followed shortly by Ender Inciarte, Austin Riley (who had been Ender’s replacement the first time he hit the IL), and Brian McCann in the weeks following.

These successive injuries called into question the Braves’ depth.

General Manager Alex Anthopoulos also seemed to think that Atlanta had a depth problem. Since July 31st is now the only trade deadline during the season (meaning no waiver wire acquisitions during August) he went to the scrapyard to look for spare parts. What he found there did more than plug holes in the lineup: they made it sing.

Adeiny Hechavarria was dropped by the New York Mets, so Anthopoulos picked him up to fill in for Dansby (since Johan Camargo was having a horrendous 2019 showing).

The Queens castoff hit nearly .400 in his first week and provided an incredible bat flip for Braves country after a 2-run bomb his first weekend with the team.

But it seemed like all of the Braves pickups provided game-influencing dramatics after joining the team. Outfielder Billy Hamilton provided huge hits after being plucked off the discard pile from Kansas City, and Rafael Ortega, who has bounced around from team to team and from minors to majors for the past decade, made an immediate impact as well.

Once McCann went down, the Braves acted quickly to pick up Francisco Cervelli, the longtime Pittsburgh Pirate, who was on the brink of retirement earlier in the season.

The veteran has been a Brave less than a few weeks and has already made a huge difference to the win/loss record.

Swanson has returned, relegating Hechavarria to the bench. Likely similar fates await the rest of the newest Braves but their impact when they were needed the most cannot be understated.

Most teams, when faced with both mass injuries and a second-place team that won’t lose, would crumble; the Braves have managed to thrive.

Best of all, many of these weapons have their use beyond filling in for injured players in the short-term. Think about Billy Hamilton pinch-running late in a tight playoff game; shades of David Roberts (whose Dodgers might be on the receiving end of some Hamilton fireworks)?

Regardless of what happens going forward, these “scrap heap” players have secured their legacy in the annals of Atlanta Braves lore.

When the Bravos finish the year on top of the NL East, a major part of their story will be the potential August slump that never happened thanks to these ballplayers.

Cold October For Braves?

By: Mike Anthony

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

There is still plenty of baseball to be played in the 2019 regular season, but thanks to a torrid June and a good July, the Atlanta Braves have placed themselves in prime position to repeat as the National League East champions.

As the Braves dig in for the dog days of August and the stretch run in September, speculation will run rampant as to how the playoffs will shape up.

And with July 31 marking the annual trade deadline and new league rules prohibiting waiver trades during the month of August, playoff contenders will have only their current MLB roster and farm system (along with any unsigned free agents) to turn to as the pressure ramps up.

Regardless of the moves made in the final hours before the trade deadline, the Braves have built a formidable squad.

Ronald Acuna has progressed nicely from his 2018 Rookie of the Year form and 2019 rookie Austin Riley has proven to be a dangerous bat despite a midseason swoon.

Freddie Freeman continues to perform at near-MVP levels while Ozzie Albies is earning every bit of his new contract and the one-year deal struck with Josh Donaldson over the winter is paying big dividends as the third baseman has shown flashes of what made him a former American League MVP.

Without exception, any pitcher taking the mound against Atlanta’s lineup will have to tread carefully.

Unfortunately, the adage still holds true that good pitching tends to beat good hitting in the playoffs. And – in a scenario that seems to be resembling Braves division title runs from 2013 and last season – it could be the arms that prove to be their undoing.

To be sure, the Braves aren’t a bad pitching team. Mike Soroka has already racked up 10 wins in his rookie campaign, Dallas Keuchel is a solid piece in the rotation and Max Fried is quickly becoming a frontline starter.

Meanwhile, Sean Newcomb has found success in later innings since being dropped from the starting rotation and – all hair-raising Luke Jackson appearances aside – the Atlanta bullpen has been better than general complaints from fans would indicate.

But the problem with previous division title winners in Atlanta has been that their pitching just didn’t quite stack up with the rest of the best in the National League, and that issue could prove true once more.

The class of the National League has been the Los Angeles Dodgers, thanks in no small part to their starting rotation.

The Dodgers’ top three all started games in last year’s playoff series win over Atlanta, with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw combining for 15 scoreless innings against a similarly hot-hitting Braves offense.

Conversely, Braves starters combined to throw just 13.1 innings over the four-game series, allowing nine earned runs in the process.

The potential matchups aren’t much better for Atlanta if a team like Washington gets through the wild card round and brings its rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin to town.

St. Louis is currently making a run to the top of the N.L. Central and – while not boasting top starters – has one of the most dependable bullpens in the league that can shorten up tight postseason games.

None of this is to say that Atlanta can’t win. The Braves have the second-best record in the National League and have proven that they can bash teams into oblivion on any given night.

But baseball purists love to look to the past to figure out what will happen in the future. And in the case of the 2019 Braves, that means that the pitching will have to hit another gear or the bats will need to keep hitting like its summertime for the next three months.

1 2 3 11