Atlanta, GA

‘Tomahawk Curse’ Ensnares 2021 Braves

National League MVP Freddie Freeman hopes for better things in the final four monthsDan Schlossberg

By Dan Schlossberg

Baseball has survived the Curse of the Bambino, the Goat Curse of Wrigley Field, the Curse of Rocky Colavito, the Curse of the Cowboy, the Billy Penn Curse, the Curse of Alex Rodriguez, and many more.

But now there’s a new one that could rival them all.

Call it the Tomahawk Curse, since the Atlanta Braves are the victims this season.

After refusing to honor the wishes of Native Americans that they follow the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Indians in changing their nickname, the Braves began the season badly and got progressively worse.

Opening at Citizens Bank Park, a notorious bandbox, they scored three runs in 28 innings. They lost a 10-inning opener, 4-3, on April Fool’s Day, then lost again during a scheduled off-day on April 2, the date Commissioner Rob Manfred picked to strip the city of the 2021 All-Star Game. Manfred acted hastily when National League manager Dave Roberts, bolstered by union chief Tony Clark and a few other prominent African-Americans in the game, protested Georgia’s new voting laws.

After hastily patching over the 2021 All-Star logos on their uniform sleeves, the Braves looked and played like ragamuffins. They managed just one base-runner — on a second-inning single by Travis d’Arnaud — against Zack Wheeler on April 3, then lost a 2-1 game to complete the lost weekend in a city that showed no brotherly love.

They would lose another before running off a four-game winning streak but never managed to scramble over the .500 mark — hardly indicative of a team with designs on a world championship.

Things really started to rot the minute the baseball calendar entered its second month.

On May 1, d’Arnaud tore a ligament in the thumb of his catching hand and needed surgery certain to keep him out at least three months.

Fifteen days later, sudden pitching sensation Huascar Ynoa fractured his right hand while smacking the dugout bench in frustration.

During a game at Fenway Park on May 24, defending National League home run king Marcell Ozuna foolishly slid head-first into Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers — getting himself out on the play and out for six weeks with two fractured fingers.

But Ozuna wasn’t done: at home on May 29, he was allegedly involved in a serious domestic battery altercation against wife Genesis, triggering a probable MLB suspension and possible legal punishment of 1-20 years in prison.

That very same day, the Braves learned that No. 1 pitcher Mike Soroka would need exploratory surgery to determine the cause of pain around his patched-up Achilles, torn in his third start of last year.

That meant that team’s top pitcher, top RBI man, star catcher, and newest pitching star would all be out well into the second half of the season — if they returned at all.

That’s a pretty tough hit for a team that came within one game last year of winning its first pennant since 1999 and competing for its first world title since 1995.

Oh, and did we mention that the Atlanta injured list this year has been occupied at times by Max Fried, who succeeded Soroka at the top of the rotation; Chris Martin, Atlanta’s best right-handed reliever; and Cristian Pache, a gifted center-fielder whose losing battles with hamstring and groin issues emulated his efforts against opposing pitchers. Backup centerfielders Guillermo Heredia and Ender Inciarte also missed time, along with understudy catcher Alex Jackson.

Just this week, on Tuesday night, budding rookie star Tucker Davidson left a game early with forearm tightness in his left arm. Since he’s a lefty, that’s not good news — especially since he had been almost flawless in his previous three starts.

But the worst news of the week was the continued bullpen implosion. Since suffering through a two-hour, 53-minute rain delay in Boston on May 26, the Atlanta relief corps has been anything but. Its collective ERA before Wednesday night was 5.55.

Then A.J. Minter coughed up a grand slam on an 0-2 pitch to the first man he faced, pinch-hitter Christian Arroyo, and turned a 7-6 Braves lead into a 10-7 deficit. That led to a 10-8 loss for the second consecutive night, as once-dependable Chris Martin had thrown a game-losing gopher ball to Alex Verdugo in the eighth inning of a 7-7 tie.

Speaking of ties, the Braves entered play Thursday night with an 0-10 record in games that were tied after seven innings. They lost seven games when leading after six innings — after losing just six in that situation during the previous two seasons combined.

Chalk up another one for the Tomahawk Curse.

That curse has tentacles; with the exception of Ronald Acuna Jr. and buddy Ozzie Albies, the whole team hasn’t hit. Defending National League MVP Freddie Freeman, hoping for a contract extension that may never come, is hitting the ball hard — and sometimes out — but hovering more than 100 points below his .341 batting average from the shortened season.

To make matters worse, former Braves Mark Melancon and Adam Duvall — both severed when the team cut payroll to compensate for pandemic-year losses — proved their worth elsewhere, while newly-acquired pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly failed to justify the combined $26 million investment that brought them to Atlanta.

Shane Greene and Darren O’Day, solid relievers last year, were also allowed to leave, though Greene returned June 6 after the bullpen proved the Achilles heel of the entire team. Nearly a dozen one-run losses had piled up before his return.

Melancon, meanwhile, had 19 saves and a 0.64 ERA for San Diego, which signed him to a one-year contract at the bargain price of $3 million. So what if he’s 37?

If Denver-based Liberty Media, which owns the team, would provide better funding, the unfolding calamity could be curtailed. But John Malone, who runs Liberty and has a personal worth of $9 billion, decided to donate a million to Donald Trump when that money would have been far better spent on player payroll.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos, acutely aware of the problem, revealed earlier this week that he'll have the leeway to enlarge the payroll before the July 30 trade deadline. But even taking on a Charlie Blackmon or Joey Gallo contract might not be enough, though Anthopoulos says d’Arnaud, Soroka, and Ynoa could all come back in August.

According to SporTrac, Atlanta’s payroll of $141,929,773 ranks just 14th — very middle-of-the-pack — and behind all three of its top rivals in the National League East.

Teams need to spend money to make money and the Braves don’t spend nearly as much as the Mets, Phillies, or Nationals. They’ll need to do better if they have any hopes of escaping the Tomahawk Curse.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg is a former AP sportswriter who covers baseball for, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, and Sports Collectors Digest. He’s also the author of 38 baseball books. His e.mail is

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Detroit, MI

Detroit Tigers: Evaluating the System for Seasons Ahead

By Joe Underhill Another September and another losing season is coming to a close for the Detroit Tigers. The focus for Tigers fans now shifts to saying farewell to a future Hall of Famer in Miguel Cabrera, who has a legitimate chance to climb a few more spots on the all-time lists before his season ends. The focus for fans should be the auditions taking place in Detroit and on the farm for roles next year. The focus here will be on the Tigers currently under contract for next year and who fans should be keeping tabs on as AJ Hinch and Scott Harris work to put a playoff-caliber team on the field in Detroit for the first time in almost a decade. Outfield: Currently on the 40-man: Akil Baddoo, Kerry Carpenter, Riley Greene, Austin Meadows, and Parker Meadows. In the minors: Justyn-Henry Malloy (AAA), Wenceel Perez (AAA), Justice Bigbie (AA), Max Clark (low A). What do all of the full-time outfielders on the 40-man have in common? They are all left-handed hitters. Of this group, Austin Meadows has missed the majority of the past two seasons dealing with an injury and an anxiety disorder and is at the greatest risk of being non-tendered. Parker Meadows, Riley Greene, and Kerry Carpenter have solidified their roles. Akil Baddoo has the most to prove offensively, but his defense has been above average. Carpenter, OPS+ 136 and Greene OPS+ 116, have been the Tigers’ best hitters. Matt Vierling has played the majority of his games in the outfield but is being transitioned into more of a utility role by playing third base. Vierling plays strong outfield defense in the corners and can cover center in a pinch. Justyn-Henry Malloy and Wenceel Perez will come to spring training looking to compete for place on the roster. Malloy has a strong right-handed bat, slashing .292/.432/.509 including 23 home runs and over 100 walks. At AA, Justice Bigbie has been the story of the Tigers’ minor leagues. He has hit over .350 across high A and AA. Bigbie and Malloy share a challenge, though: defense. Both Malloy and Bigbie will figure into Detroit’s plans sooner rather than later due to their bats, but defense will determine how much playing time they’ll get. In the low minors, the most exciting prospect is Max Clark, who is already flashing the potential five-tool package that enticed the Tigers to select him third overall. Utility: Currently on the 40-man: Nick Maton, Zach McKinstry, Tyler Nevin, Wenceel Perez, Matt Vierling. Of this group, McKinstry and Vierling have pretty strong grips on utility roles, with Vierling being the only right-handed outfielder currently on the roster. McKinstry has been a very productive player, even though is OPS+ is only 80. With Parker Meadows moving Greene to a corner, Verling has begun to see more time at third base. Nevin can play all four corners but is more of an infielder. He has raked at AAA, slashing .326/.400/.543 for an OPS of .943. The only problem is he has not been able to translate that success at the major-league level, slashing only .132/.242/.189. Perez has made the shift from the dirt to the outfield this season and has taken to the outfield quite well. He is a switch-hitter who brings speed (25 steals) and an OPS of .802 across three levels in the minors in 2023. The challenge for Perez will be overcoming the “yips” that showed up on his throws from second base. His path to playing time will be tied to his ability to play the utility role. Infield: Currently on the 40-man: Javier Baez, Andy Ibanez, Ryan Kreidler, Eddys Leonard, Andre Lipcius, Nick Maton, Wenceel Perez, Zack Short, and Spencer Torkelson. In the minors: Colt Keith (AAA), Jace Jung (AA), Kevin McGonigle (low A). Javy Baez probably won’t exercise his buy-out after a bad year in Detroit. Baez has an opt-out, but based on how poorly his offensive season has gone, he is unlikely to utilize it. Baez has continued to play solid-to-above-average defense at shortstop. Torkelson’s power has come on since June and he now leads the team with 25 home runs and has risen his OPS+ above 100. Defensively the numbers don’t like Tork’s defense, but the eye test suggests he is a solid defender at first. Second and third base are the positions where there is the most movement. McKinstry, Short, Ibanez, Vierling, and now Lipcius are all seeing time at the positions. The Tigers are hoping Keith shows enough aplomb to be able to handle the majority timeshare at third base. The biggest defensive challenge for Keith is rebuilding his throwing strength after a shoulder injury in 2022. Kreidler won a sport on the initial roster, but injury derailed his season. Kreidler and Short are natural shortstops, who both bring plus defense, but question marks with the bat. Lipcius is auditioning to play second and third next season. Maton began the year with the Tigers but struggled with the bat. He’s hit well at AAA and will come to spring training competing for a spot. If Jung continues to hit and show solid defensive acumen, he will be in the picture at second base at some point in 2024. Catcher: Currently on the 40-man: Carson Kelly, Jake Rogers, Donny Sands (AAA). In the minors: Dillon Dingler (AAA). Catching depth is a major concern for the Tigers, who cut ties with Eric Haase and added Carson Kelley in mid-season. Rogers has shown a solid ability to hit for power (16 home runs) while playing excellent defense. Sands and Dingler are time-sharing in AAA and will be joining the competition in spring training. This is an area to expect to see the Tigers looking to add to the competition in the off-season. Starting Pitching: Currently on the 40-man: Beau Brieske, Alex Faedo, Matt Manning (IL), Casey Mize (IL), Reese Olson, Eduardo Rodriguez, Tarik Skubal, Spencer Turnbull, Joey Wentz. In the minors: Sawyer Gipson-Long (AAA), Keider Montero (AAA), Jack O’Loughlin (AAA), Ty Madden (AA), Brant Hurter (AA), Wilmer Flores (AA). The expectation is Eduardo Rodriguez will opt out at the end of the year, and it will be interesting to see if Scott Harris tries to resign him. Rodriguez has been rock-solid for the Tigers and seems to have enjoyed his time in Detroit. The rest of the rotation depth has a lot of question marks regarding health. Mize is still working his way back; Manning just suffered a second foot fracture as a result of a batted ball. Turnbull is working to rediscover his command and control of his pitches and has been optioned to the minors. The Tigers have been playing with using Brieske and Faedo out of the bullpen, but they will come to spring training as part of the competition for the rotation. Right now, the rotation is going to be anchored by Skubal and Olson, with the back three spots up for grabs. Olson has had a strong rookie year and has placed himself firmly in the rotation plan moving forward. This is an area where I would expect the Tigers to go after a veteran or two (similar to last year with Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen). Bullpen: Currently on the 40-man: Tyler Alexander (IL), Miguel Diaz, Mason Englert (IL), Jason Foley, Garrett Hill (minors), Tyler Holton, Alex Lange, Freddy Pacheco, Andrew Vasquez, Will Vest, Brendan White, Trey Wingenter (minors). The bullpen has been a strength for the Tigers this year. Tyler Holton has been a phenomenal this year and worked into leverage situations. The same can be said for Jason Foley, Brendan White, and Will Vest, who are all young pitchers growing into reliable arms. The Tigers have also been deploying Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo in the bullpen and both have had good success. Depending on how the competition for the rotation plays out either or both could find themselves pitching in leverage situations in the bullpen. Expect a few low-profile signings/waiver claims in the off-season to build the competition going into spring training. Joe Underhill is a high school administrator and diehard baseball fan and fan of the city of Detroit. Joe currently writes for You can follow Joe on Twitter@TransplantedDet.

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Opinion: Maury Wills Deserves a Niche in the Baseball Hall of Fame

By Dan Schlossberg One of the most stringent standards for Hall of Fame considerations is whether a candidate changed the game. Maury Wills certainly qualifies. In his 14-year career, Wills was a seven-time All-Star who won three World Series rings, two Gold Gloves, and an MVP trophy. He revolutionized the use of speed as a vital part of the offense, stealing a then-record 104 bases in 1962. That broke Ty Cobb’s record of 96, which had stood for 47 years. Neither Babe Ruth’s nor Hank Aaron’s home run records lasted that long. When Wills was in the minors, Spokane manager Bobby Bragan would make frequent calls to Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi urging his promotion to the majors. "Bobby would call six times a day and tell me over again how Wills had learned to switch-hit and how he was a great team leader, off and on the field, and how I was absolutely nuts if I didn't bring him up right away," Bavasi said. Wills was finally promoted to the majors in June of 1959 after batting .313 in 48 games for the Pacific Coast League club. He never looked back. A switch-hitter who led the National League in stolen bases six years in a row, Wills hit .281 with 586 steals. He would have had more except for his late start; he was 26 when he arrived in Los Angeles. Wills parlayed his speed into several championships for the Dodgers, starting in his very first season. The ‘59 Dodgers finished in a tie with the Milwaukee Braves, then won the first two games of an unscheduled best-of-three pennant playoff. The banjo-playing shortstop even supplemented his then-meager baseball salary by singing and cutting records during the off-season. Wills spent 12 years with the Dodgers, sandwiching his stints around stops in Pittsburgh and Montreal. He later managed the Seattle Mariners. Like Lou Whitaker, Maury Wills was a star infielder who somehow got overlooked by the Hall of Fame. It’s an oversight that needs to be corrected. Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ writes baseball for, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Memories & Dreams, and others. Contact him at

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Opinion: It’s High Time To Shrink the Playoffs, Scrap the Wild-Card

By Dan Schlossberg Sorry, guys, but I’m not wild about the wild-card. I hated it when there was one wild-card winner in the playoffs, hated it more when there were two, and absolutely detest the fact that there are three — expanding the post-season into a tournament that reeks of football, basketball, and hockey. Baseball has a 162-game schedule for a reason: to determine the best team between the end of spring training and the start of the post-season. Anything that creates the slightest chance that the best teams won’t reach the World Series is a travesty. For example, the Miami Marlins managed to win two world championships without ever finishing first. In 31 seasons, including this one, the Fish have never won the NL East. The 2002 Los Angeles Angels won their only World Series by getting hot when it counted, riding a wild-card into a world championship over another wild-card, the San Francisco Giants. Though obviously a bold-faced revenue grab, the wild-card system was supposedly designed to retain interest in cities whose teams dropped out of contention in September. To the contrary, the wild-card justifies mediocrity, creating the very real possibility that a team with more losses than wins can get hot just in time to win a world championship with a losing record. That would be a black mark against the game, as is anything that compromises the integrity of the World Series. With six divisions in baseball today, isn’t there enough interest in the races for the division titles? It’s a good storyline that the Los Angeles Dodgers have reached the playoffs 11 years in a row and the Atlanta Braves have the longest active streak — which will reach six this year — and also own the longest title streak (14) since the 1969 advent of divisional play. Except for the East and West divisions of the National League, all of the divisions have real races going on. There are even three-team races in two of those four, the AL West and NL Central. The American League East race is intriguing because every team is likely to finish over .500, while the American League Central is the weakest division in the land. While wild-card standings change almost daily, does anyone really care about them? MLB Network keeps trying to make that case but isn’t very convincing. The wild-card also weakens the trade deadline, with way too many teams (notably the 2023 Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres) thinking they’re still alive. That stifles trading and deprives fans of the most exciting aspect of baseball season between the All-Star Game and the playoffs. Since baseball would be better balanced with 32 teams rather than the current 30, why not realign into four eight-team leagues, each split into divisions of four, and send the wild-card to the dustbin of baseball history? Baseball has made plenty of changes, especially recently, but focusing on champions rather than also-rans would be an enormous improvement. What say you, Rob Manfred? Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 42 baseball books and a national baseball writer for Email him at

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