MLB

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Lump Of Cole?

By: Kipp Branch

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Braves continued with a dazzling array of off-season moves with the addition of LHP Cole Hamels.

Hamels signed a one year $18 million dollar deal this week. Hamels, who will be 36 years old on opening day, has been in the major leagues since 2006.

Cole Hamels will try to help the Braves get over the hump. The Braves won the past two division crowns, but haven’t yet managed to translate that success into the postseason.

Hamels will step in for Dallas Keuchel as a durable veteran, who has ‘been there and done that’ plenty of times over a long and prosperous career. Keuchel let the Braves down in the 2019 Postseason.

Following a long and successful run in Philadelphia from 2006-15, he was traded at the deadline to the Texas Rangers in a blockbuster that involved eight players, mostly prospects.

He was a summer trade target again, three years later, when the Cubs acquired him from Texas for three more players in July 2018.

He’s been a reliable member of Chicago’s rotation ever since, making 27 starts for the organization in 2019 and holding a 3.81 ERA and 4.09 FIP in 141.2 innings.

It was the 12th season of his career in which he was worth at least 2.5 WAR. Hamels was the 2008 World Series MVP for the Phillies, leading them to their first World Title since 1980. Hamels has a career record of 163-121 with a 3.42 ERA and a 7-6 postseason record with a 3.41 ERA.

This is the latest addition for the Braves, who have already added some nice pieces before the Winter Meetings even launch.

Hamels isn’t the top-of-the-rotation arm he once was, but his addition doesn’t rule out other moves. At this stage in his career look for Hamels to be a solid #2 or #3 starter in the Braves rotation in 2020. Now the focus moves to resigning Comeback Player of the Year Josh Donaldson at third base.

Is a 36-year-old Hamels going to be reliable for the Braves in 2020? With Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole on the market you would think the Braves, who are set up for a World Series run, would have gone after one of these two studs to anchor the rotation.

The knock on Hamels is he possibly is wearing down. During the month of September last season Hamels never made it past the 5th inning in any of his starts. Does that sound familiar Braves fans; starting pitchers not making it through 5 innings?

Have the Braves gotten better by swapping Keuchel for Hamels?

Back to Donaldson, with the Braves using $18 million on Hamels will the Braves still try and sign Donaldson? Does this now mean that the Braves are finished dealing during this offseason?

The bullpen is now the best ‘on paper’ in baseball, and you bring in Hamels to help anchor a shaky rotation, but without re-signing Donaldson has this team really improved this offseason?

I for one hope the Braves are not done this offseason. This team is close to contending for a World Series title, but even with signing Hamels, I think the Braves need to get another top line starter to go with the awesome everyday line-up.

We know of all the young arms in the system, but will they be ready in 2020 to make a contribution?

Come on Braves finish the winter strong. Keep your eye on the prize.

Hall Of Fame Steal

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame is always a fascinating thing to unpack and dissect as we examine the bona fides of the newly eligible and reevaluate the careers of those who have remained on the ballot from the previous year’s attempt.

Several former Atlanta Braves populate the several dozen potential Hall of Famers eligible for induction in the summer of 2020, including the first (and, sadly, probably last) appearance of popular shortstop Rafael Furcal.

With Furcal, we have the spark that started off games for the last six years of Atlanta’s legendary 14-straight NL East Division wins.

‘Fookie,’ as Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox called him (would ‘Raffy’ have probably been better? …yes.), exploded onto the scene in 2000, making the leap straight from Single A to the Major League ballclub thanks to an offseason injury to then shortstop (now bench coach) Walt Weiss.

Furcal hit .295 with 40 stolen bases that season en route to a Rookie of the Year award.

He was a consistent presence at the top of the lineup after that, never hitting below .275 and never swiping fewer than 22 bases. Other highlights during his time with the Braves include hitting three triples in a game (tying an MLB record) and recording the 12th-ever unassisted triple play in 2003.

When he left Atlanta, Furcal put in five and a half solid years (one of which – 2005 – was pretty spectacular) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, before being traded to St. Louis in 2011, where he won the World Series.

His career did not end with the same pop with which it began – a 9-game stint with Miami in 2014 – but he hung his cleats up with a .281 batting average, a .748 OPS, and 314 stolen bases. Is it enough to make the Hall?

It isn’t. This will undoubtedly be Furcal’s only season on the ballot – it’s too overcrowded with better candidates for him to get the necessary 5% of the vote to stick around another year.

It’s a shame, too, because while Furcal didn’t have the kind of eye-popping numbers that merit induction, he was an indispensable piece of winning teams for his entire career (almost every winning team has a player like this – essential to the team and overshadowed by his teammates).

There were plenty of factors that led to the end of the Braves’ 14-season winning streak, but the fact that Furcal leaving coincided with that end is no coincidence.

The fact that Furcal’s teams made the playoffs in 10 of 14 seasons is no coincidence either (10 out of 13 if you discount that week and a half he played for the Marlins). Fookie was a winning player, and that’s not nothing.

Unfortunately, it also isn’t going to be enough. Furcal’s biggest skillset was his speed – both bat speed and baserunning speed – and that’s a skill that conveniently doesn’t slump (hence his consistency) but inconveniently doesn’t age well (hence his numbers beginning to dwindle at age 33 and his retirement at age 36).

Maybe if Furcal’s seasons of peak production had stretched out a little longer, he’d have a better case; but alas, it isn’t so.

It also can’t help that headlining this year’s new Hall of Fame candidates is one of the best shortstops of all time, Derek Jeter.

Furcal pales in comparison, though, to be fair, so do most players at any position. Jeter is likely to be the second unanimous election come January (now that we’re done with that no-unanimous-elections nonsense – what a joke that was for decades).

Despite the fact that he won’t be immortalized in the Hall, Furcal should be able to rest easy knowing that he was a crucial and cherished part of winning teams for his whole career. It’s not a plaque in Cooperstown, but it’s enough to be proud of.

The Closing Act

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

While the first two moves of the Atlanta Braves’ offseason failed to impress (the re-signing of Tyler Flowers and Nick Markakis), Alex Anthopoulos and company made a bigger splash by signing the best free agent relief pitcher on the market.

Atlanta inked All-Star closer Will Smith to a 3-year, $39 million contract (with a 4th year club option for another $13 million), shoring up what was their most glaring weakness going into the 2019 season and checking off one of the bigger offseason boxes on their list (though far from their only need).

This is a signing that looks good and should pay dividends, even if Brian Snitker keeps Smith’s former teammate from the San Francisco Giants Mark Melancon in the closer role.

Smith’s numbers against lefties are ridiculous. He has allowed a .157 batting average against and an OPS of a meager .395 from southpaws, not to mention an insane 42-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties. That’s 42 strikeouts for every 1 walk that he surrenders.

Really bonkers stuff from Smith. His numbers against righties (.212 average, .709 OPS) are strong as well. He gets strikeouts, with 37% of his outs coming from a K, and he’s managed to keep walks low and balls in the ballpark for his whole career.

The indication that Melancon will retain his role as the team’s closer isn’t much of a surprise, given that Melancon converted all 11 save opportunities after Atlanta acquired him midseason.

He’ll back the guy who’s played for him; but it may not stay that way for long. Smith seems like the more natural choice, given his stuff and his strikeouts, plus the fact that Melancon has one year left on his contract and Smith just signed for three (maybe four). That means the job will be Smith’s eventually anyway. Time will tell how things shake out.

Perhaps, the more interesting (and immediate) consequence to consider of Smith’s signing is what it means for the rest of the Braves’ offseason. $13 is nothing to scoff at, which could mean one of two things: 1) Liberty Media has decided to open their checkbook and Atlanta is ready to spend on talent, or 2) this was the big signing of the offseason for the Braves.

Knowing Liberty Media, the latter does seem likely.

Josh Donaldson is still out there, having predictably rejected the Braves’ qualifying offer of nearly $18 million to play third base for them in 2020.

The market for him will be one to watch. I still feel that everything being relatively equal, Donaldson will return to Atlanta, umbrella in tow.

I don’t foresee him signing with the team sight unseen, but even with a salary discrepancy of, say $10 million (another team offers him 3 years, $80 million vs. a Braves offer of 3 years, $70 million), he’ll be back at the hot corner in Suntrust Park this April.

I also think that Madison Bumgarner is still on the table after the Smith signing. I do wonder, however, if both would be.

Certainly, signing Donaldson to somewhere around $25 million eliminates even the vaguest possibility of a Gerrit Cole joining the Braves. (A long shot regardless – the Braves can’t win a bidding war.)

Madison Bumgarner might be looking at something more akin to $10-15 million per year for 2 or 3 seasons. That’s not unreasonable for the Braves to afford.

The issue then becomes finding a catcher and deciding what to do in the outfield (start the season with Inciarte, Acuna, and a farm hand?).

Questions are infinite, but at the end of the day the Braves took care of a need, and that’s a good start.

Splashless

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

During the last offseason, Braves Country waited for what seemed like forever for the Atlanta front office to make a splash.

It seemed like for a long while that Atlanta’s fans would be disappointed, but finally the day came when Alex Anthopoulos and company pulled the trigger on two signings that would figure into the Braves’ plans to improve upon their surprising win of the NL East in 2018.

Both Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann were announced to have inked to 1-year deals on the same day.

McCann, in what would be his final season as a big-league catcher, thrived in his return home.

Donaldson merely returned to his heyday form, hitting 37 home runs alongside a .900 OPS and providing the necessary protection behind Freddie Freeman to allow the first baseman to put up his career-best season. Not to mention, being a positive force in the clubhouse who became beloved by the fanbase and provided clutch hits throughout the season (but was he worth the $23 million price tag? Asking for a friend/editor).

It was the kind of banner news day that the Braves were craving.

This year the Braves made moves earlier in the offseason and yet again made news involving two different players on the same day. Though this time they were re-signing two of the pieces from their two-time division-winning team, instead of bringing in new blood.

Nick Markakis and Tyler Flowers actually both had their options declined by the Braves (as did Julio Teheran) but were then each signed to a new, 1-year, $4 million contract.

Essentially, they make the same amount of money after the buyouts are added in, but the Braves save some money on payroll because those buyouts are considered 2019 money.

The Braves still have time to make a big splash (Donaldson negotiations are, one imagines, ongoing), but this two-fer day certainly lacked the excitement of last year’s.

For one, neither of these players are likely to be everyday guys anymore or at least, they shouldn’t be.

Markakis has fallen off in a big way each of the past two years during the second half. He’s well-respected and a good hand to have, but his days of being able to spend a season in the middle of the order are behind him. Hopefully the Braves are looking at him as a backup or at most a platoon player going into 2020.

Flowers has been splitting time at catcher for a few years now to great success. First with Kurt Suzuki and then with McCann. It’s time for him to fall into a true backup role, even though that’s an imperfect solution for his presence on the roster as well.

Flowers’ primary skill is pitch framing. He’s one of the best in the league at stealing strikes for his pitchers; but he also led the majors in passed balls in 2019 as a part-time player.

Plus, he’s consistently been the lesser hitter of his platoon. So, he’s good at framing, which would be helpful five times a week, but bad at catching the ball, which should prevent him from playing five times a week. And he’s a poor hitter, so coming off the bench doesn’t serve anyone well.

The key to Flowers coming back not being a bad decision will be acquiring a front-line backstop. The Braves should be in on the likes of Yasmani Grandal, but they’ll have competition and without a Suzuki or a McCann, Flowers is going to get exposed. This is a big need.

The 2019 offseason has already had some movement, but not coupled with the excitement that 2018’s did around this time.

Luckily, there’s still a lot of road ahead for the Braves to make moves that will take Atlanta to the next level.

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.

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