• 73°

It’s go time for Braves

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

Better later than never.

A year ago on this day, the Atlanta Braves were more than 100 games into the season, and they were in first place in the division, although the Phillies and Nationals were in hot pursuit.

The Braves held off both of those teams to capture their second straight National League East title, and the season came to an unfortunate end a short time later with a loss to the Cardinals in the division series (game five joins the list of epic Atlanta sports failures).

As the Braves headed to spring training in February, hopes were high.

They’d lost Josh Donaldson to the Minnesota Twins, but nearly everyone else was back, and general manager Alex Anthopoulus had brought in some nice new pieces to strengthen the squad.

The Braves were a few weeks away from the season opener when the sports world changed.

With the growing threat of the coronavirus, leagues were postponed, tournaments were canceled,  and everything was basically shut down, including Major League Baseball.

Spring stretched into summer, and as the players and owners bickered, we wondered if big-league baseball was done until 2021.

Fortunately for those of us who love the sport and couldn’t imagine a summer without it, the two sides found common ground and agreed to the framework of a season that will look unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Instead of the usual 160 games, there will be an abbreviated 60-game schedule, and there will be an expanded playoff field.

So here we are, on July 24th, and it’s opening day for the Braves, about three months late.

There won’t be any fans in the stands (although there will be weird cutouts), but baseball will be played, and that’s a breath of fresh air during a year where good news has been hard to come by.

That brings us to the Braves.

Despite the unpleasant way the 2019 season ended, the Braves are in a great place with a solid core group of players and a general manager in Anthopolous who has proven adept at filling in the gaps.

It all starts with Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Freddie Freeman has been the face of the Braves for years and the first baseman remains an elite player, but this is Acuna’s team.

Acuna is a dynamic player who can do anything on a baseball field, and he’s coming off a season where he hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases, leaving him just short of the exclusive 40-40 club.

He is an absolutely spectacular talent, and he has a magnetic personality to match.

Throw in second baseman Ozzie Albies, shortstop Dansby Swanson, and Freeman, and the Braves have a formidable core group of players, and if the supporting cast of Marcell Ozuna, Austin Riley, Johan Comargo and Ender Inciarte can produce, then the scoreboard operator will stay busy keeping up with the runs.

The Braves also have a young star on the pitching staff, with Mike Soroka settling in as a legitimate ace and number one starter, and Max Fried is a solid number two guy in the rotation.

After that it’s hit or miss, but a deep bullpen should help the Braves overcome some shaky performances from the starters (I’m looking at you Mike Foltynewicz).

Working against the Braves is the schedule.

The National League East is formidable, with defending World Series champion Washington leading the way, and the Braves will also play teams in the powerful American League East.

I suspect the Braves are up to the challenge, though.

With the deep bullpen, the Braves are well-equipped to succeed in this truncated season, and I believe when game 60 is done, they’ll have a third straight division championship under their belt.

Beyond that, who knows.

The Braves haven’t won a playoff series since 2001 (how is that possible), so all bets are off in the postseason, but I like their chances.

Whatever happens, it’s awesome to have baseball back, and here’s hoping the season (fingers crossed) goes off without a hitch, and that it’s another winning summer for the Braves.