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Why September return of Nick Markakis could be Braves’ October difference-maker



WASHINGTON – It’s a classic case of addition by addition.

The Atlanta Braves got Nick Markakis back on Friday. In related news, they just became an ever more dangerous October out.

Playing in his first game since suffering a fractured wrist on July 26, Markakis was all over the place. Facing Nationals ace Max Scherzer in the second inning, he lined a single to center field. In his next trip against the three-time Cy Young winner, Markakis laced a double to center and came around to score the Braves’ first run of the game. In the fifth, he came up with the bases loaded and just barely missed hitting a grand slam, instead settling for a 385-foot sac fly that sent Nats outfielder Victor Robles all the way to the wall in left-center and extended Atlanta’s lead to 3-0.

“I was just up there trying to get comfortable again,” said Markakis, who was hitting .284 with a .787 OPS at the time of his injury. “Your first game back after seven weeks against a pitcher like that is not the easiest feat, so I was pleased. Didn’t see as many pitches as I’d like to, but when I did see my pitch, I tried not to miss it.”

He didn’t miss much of anything in the outfield either.

With Atlanta and rookie starter Mike Soroka leading 2-0 in the bottom of the fourth, following a leadoff double by Adam Eaton, Nats MVP candidate Anthony Rendon lifted a fly ball to the gap between left and center. Markakis, a right fielder by trade who was playing left field for the first time this year, converged on the ball along with center fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. and confusion ensued. In the end, it was Markakis who ended up laying out and making an acrobatic, albeit avoidable, backhanded grab that kept Washington scoreless and almost resulted in him getting trampled by Acuna. An inning later, Markakis was on the ground again, sliding to his knees in shallow left to deprive Robles of a leadoff single.

In typical Markakis fashion, neither play was a work of art (nor was the ball that got under his glove in the seventh and was graciously ruled a double). But considering that Markakis has now played a grand total of four games in left field over the last 12 years, the Braves will gladly live with it. Just like they’ll gladly live with having Markakis back in the lineup.

In the seven weeks since Markakis suffered that broken wrist, the Braves’ outfield has been something of a mess. Austin Riley, who came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Month in May, came crashing back to earth and then landed on the injured list with a sprained knee in early August. Opening Day center fielder Ender Inciarte, who missed two months with a lumbar strain and returned shortly before Markakis got hurt, hit the IL again in mid-August with a balky hamstring. Riley and veteran reserve Adam Duvall, a pair of right-handed hitters, have been good against southpaws but can’t be trusted against righties, and lefty swinger Matt Joyce has been the opposite. If not for Acuna, who’s played all three positions (not at the same time) and is threatening to join the exclusive 40-40 club, Atlanta’s outfield might have collapsed on itself and turned into a certifiable black hole. Or something like that. Now, with Markakis back, the Braves’ universe is measurably more copacetic.

“My god,” said manager Brian Snitker following Markakis’ re-entry into Atlanta’s atmosphere. “It’s just something else. One live BP, and two of the hardest hit balls he’s probably had all year. And made a couple really nice plays in left. The guy’s a ballplayer. It’s huge for our lineup and our team to have him back in there.”

To be clear, the “huge” that Snitker refers to is more about the future than the past. Despite the disarray in the outfield, the Braves did just fine, thanks, without their veteran outfielder. In fact, their 30-14 record during Markakis’ absence was tops in the National League and 2.5 games better than the mighty Dodgers. Over that stretch, they managed to extend their division lead by three games over a Washington team that was as hot as any in the league. But that was then and this is now: In order for the Braves to accomplish their goals, from overtaking LA for top seed in the NL to winning a playoff series for the first time in nearly 20 years (2001 was the last time) to going all the way, they’ll need all hands on deck. On Friday, they added one more very capable pair of hands.

“It was awesome to have Kakes back,” said Soroka. “I know he really wanted to come back and make an impression, and I think he did that right off the bat. That gave us a little life.”

More importantly, it gave Atlanta an even better chance in October.

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Cubs continue skid after Kimbrel’s blown save



CHICAGO — The Cubs are seeing their season slip away in heartbreaking and dramatic fashion as they lost their fourth consecutive one-run game at Wrigley Field on Saturday, after closer Craig Kimbrel gave up back-to-back, ninth-inning home runs, on back-to-back pitches.

Kimbrel, 31, entered the game against the St. Louis Cardinals holding onto an 8-7 lead before Yadier Molina hit his first pitch, a 97 mph fastball, out to left field. Paul DeJong did the same, moments later, hitting another fastball out.

“I feel like I made two competitive pitches that I wanted to and they went out,” Kimbrel said after the game. “It’s frustrating. It’s the only thing I can say.”

The ending is becoming all too familiar for the Cubs and Kimbrel. He also gave up a game-winning home run to Matt Carpenter in Game 1 of the series on Thursday, breaking a 2-2, 10th-inning tie. In just 23 appearances since signing with the Cubs in June, Kimbrel has given up nine home runs, a career high for one season.

“We had the right guy there at the end,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You talk about two shots to the jaw, and they got the win.”



Watch Craig Kimbrel discuss the two home runs hit off him on back-to-back pitches in the Cubs’ 9-8 loss to the Cards on Saturday. Video by Jesse Rogers

The Cubs will have to wonder if Kimbrel was ready for the moment, considering he was on the injured list until Thursday with right elbow soreness. The team deemed him ready after a 16-pitch simulated game a couple days earlier, but three home runs given up in less than two innings of work might say something different.

“I feel great right now,” Kimbrel said. “I just didn’t get the results I wanted. The results I need to have to do my job. Moving forward I have a good feeling I will.”

Maddon added: “He was already in one game. He’s had ample time to get it back together. It was kind of surprising…That was the right time for him. There was nothing wrong with his arm strength.”

Kimbrel is signed on for two more seasons after this one, so concern may grow about his performance, if indeed he is healthy. But the here-and-now is the only thing that matters for the Cubs at the moment. It was a crushing defeat in a week of them, even though they fought back several times in Saturday’s four-hour, 24-minute marathon. But whatever can go wrong has, as the Cubs dropped their fifth consecutive game and are reeling from injuries and blown saves.

“Craig’s a Hall of Fame closer,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “He’s got a track record for a reason. He puts in the work. We all see it. He’s an amazing guy in the clubhouse. We have his back. It’s tough. I know he feels bad, but he’s a competitor and he’s a champion and he’ll bounce back.”

It’s been 47 years since the Cubs lost four consecutive one-run games, but they’ll have to put that all behind them if they have any chance at a fifth consecutive postseason appearance. Saturday’s game will be a tough one to get over. Chicago’s chances to make the playoffs dropped from 77 percent at the end of play on Monday to 13 percent following Saturday’s loss, according to FanGraphs.

“I’m feeling for Craig right now more than anything,” Maddon said.

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Braves’ new world — Loftier goals than NL East title



ATLANTA — One year ago, just winning the NL East was enough for the rebuilding Atlanta Braves.

Now manager Brian Snitiker and general manager Alex Anthopoulos expect more.

Even as players celebrated their second straight division title with beer and bubbly on Friday night, focus shifted.

“Our first goal was to win the East and we did, and I think now that’s not good enough,” Snitker said Saturday. “I think our guys know they’re capable of a lot more than that. The goal now is the big prize. We feel like we have a team that can do that. We are deep enough, strong enough. I think that is a realistic goal, not just to want to get in but to win the whole thing.”

After Friday night’s clinching 6-0 win over the Giants, Anthopoulos stood outside the clubhouse doors while the rowdy celebration continued inside.

The GM didn’t allow himself to be sprayed. He was looking ahead to the Division Series starting Oct. 3.

“Kind of by design,” Anthopoulos said when asked how he stayed dry. “Hopefully we’re doing this after the DS and that’s when I’m going to be wet.”

The Braves haven’t won the World Series since 1995 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, two ballparks ago. They have lost nine straight playoff series since sweeping Houston in the 2001 NL Division Series, including last year’s four-game loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Atlanta’s only regulars in Saturday night’s lineup were Ronald Acuna Jr., Josh Donaldson and Dansby Swanson. Others, including Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, were rested.

Donaldson likely will not start on Sunday. Snitker acknowledged it may be more difficult to hold out Acuna, who is chasing a 40-40 season.

Swanson, however, feels he needs at-bats after missing a month with a foot injury.

“I need to play,” Swanson said. “I missed enough time. I’m still looking for ways to kind of find that groove and get back to where I was before. Each day I’m working to get better and I need the at-bats to continue to boost myself in the right direction.”

“I told the guys I feel like we knocked on the door last year. Now we’re going to try to kick that sucker in.”

Brian Snitker, Braves manager

Swanson said the offseason additions of Donaldson and catcher Brian McCann plus re-signinh Nick Markakis put the Braves in position to be a more viable postseason contender.

“I think as soon as the season was over last year everyone was excited to come back and get to work,” Swanson said. “With the additions of J.D. and Mac and having Nick come back really put us in a good position to really win consistently and to be able to do it in a multitude of ways.”

Acuna (41 homers), Freeman (38) and Donaldson (37) have led Atlanta’s deep lineup. Freeman’s 120 RBIs led the majors entering Saturday’s games. Acuna led the NL with 126 runs and 37 stolen bases.

“I told the guys I feel like we knocked on the door last year,” Snitker said. “Now we’re going to try to kick that sucker in.”

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‘Animated’ Boone ejected for arguing strike zone



NEW YORK — Yankees manager Aaron Boone clashed Saturday with another rookie umpire, and this time, veteran crew chief Joe West stepped in.

Boone was ejected by West, umpiring at third base, for arguing balls and strikes during a 7-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

New York slugger Giancarlo Stanton struck out looking at three low strikes from rookie T.J. Zeuch for the final out of the first inning. Stanton argued briefly with plate umpire Jeremie Rehak — an injury replacement from Triple-A — before heading back to the dugout.

Boone, meanwhile, shouted profanities from the bench, and West signaled his ejection from across the field. Rehak also booted Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames during the exchange.

“I was just upset within an at-bat where G’s coming back and I felt like there were a few in there in his at-bat where it kind of got taken away, so I just got animated,” Boone said. “The bottom line is I probably wasn’t going to get thrown out from Jeremie. I was starting to walk away and the confrontation happened with Joe.”

Boone’s interactions with umpires have been well-documented this year, and he’s been tossed five times. The most notable was an exchange with rookie ump Brennan Miller in July when TV mics capture Boone repeatedly calling his players “savages.” That tirade went viral, and New York players routinely wear T-shirts commemorating the rant.

“I like to think I’m always in control of my emotions,” Boone said. “There’s times that I’m going to fight and I think it’s necessary. As hard as we are on our guys about controlling the strike zone and how much we demand of them in that regard, it’s something I’m passionate about and I’m going to fight. I don’t want our guys leaving the strike zone.”

New York was also peeved with West over his strike zone Friday night, when Brett Gardner argued forcefully after a called strike in the ninth. Boone said that disagreement wasn’t a factor Saturday.

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