Don’t say the final weekend of the regular season meant nothing. It meant enough that the Cardinals, in the effort to stay out of the dreaded wild-card game, started Jack Flaherty, the best pitcher in baseball since the All-Star break, on Sunday, which means he won’t start Game 1 of the NLDS. He’ll wait until Game 2 on Friday, which is a break for the Braves.
Flaherty’s ERA over the second half was 0.91. His ERA in September was 0.82. The last time an opponent managed more than three earned runs was two days before the Fourth of July. He’s the sort of pitcher who could tip the balance of a best-of-five series: Let him win twice and play .333 ball over the other three games, and you’re bound for the NLCS.
The Braves hit better than St. Louis. They finished third among 15 National League teams in runs and OPS; the Cardinals were 10th and 11th. If this series becomes a slugfest, the Redbirds could be done by Sunday night. At issue is whether, even in the year of the juiced baseballs and home runs by the boatload, any series will become a slugfest. A given game might, but an entire series?
Hitting is harder in October, largely because teams that can’t pitch aren’t here. A struggling pitcher isn’t allowed to struggle long. Bullpens come into play earlier and more often, and sometimes relief comes in the form of a redeployed starting pitcher. (Latest example: Washington’s Stephen Strasburg working innings No. 6, 7 and 8 of Tuesday’s play-in game.)
One through 25, the Braves are more talented than St. Louis. If we count only pitchers, the Cardinals hold the edge. That doesn’t mean Dallas Keuchel can’t throw a gem in Game 1 or that Mike Foltynewicz can’t recall the Folty of 2018 in Game 2, but the other side has, over the fullness of a six-month season, had the better rotation and the better relievers. The convenient thing about baseball’s hoariest axiom is that it tends to hold true: Good pitching does stop good hitting.
(And here you’re saying, “If that’s so, then why did those pitching-rich Braves win one World Series in 14 postseasons?” And here’s where I trot out the second-hoariest axiom: That’s baseball.)
Not going to lie: If I’m the Braves, I’m not crazy about this matchup. A best-of-five leaves scant room for error. The Braves hold the home-field edge, but that could become no edge at all if the Cardinals split the first two games here. And Flaherty, we say again, will work Game 2.
Still, the Cardinals aren’t playing an empty chair. Any lineup including Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Josh Donaldson and – last but never least – Freddie Freeman is fearsome. (The bottom of the Braves’ order isn’t half as robust, though. It was better a year ago.) The Braves have configured their NLDS roster/rotation in a way that makes common and analytic sense. Here was Brian Snitker on Wednesday, speaking of his starting pitchers:
“Keuchel -- that's why we got this guy. We went out and signed him because he brought instant credibility. He's been through this war. He's a World Series champion. When we signed him, we envisioned him making this opening start. Foltyhas been hot -- hot hand right there. And (Game 3 starter Mike) Soroka … you look at the home and road splits and it hits you right between the eyes.”
As for a possible Game 4: “Right now Max (Fried) is available, depending on how we get there. If we have to use Max (in relief) the first two games, we can still probably do that. Right now Max will be our Game 4 starter. I say that, but it could change. Last year we had a Game 4, and we brought Folty (who’d started Game 1) back on early rest. I guess that's also a possibility.”
All this makes sense. So does the omission of Austin Riley, who tore it up after promotion from Gwinnett but soon became a whiff machine, from the 25-man roster. There’s a greater need for a left-handed bat, meaning journeyman Rafael Ortega. And if you’re going with a six-man bench, which Snitker is, you can’t carry 12 pitchers. Ergo, no Julio Teheran, the Opening Day starter every year for 2014. He’d only be working in relief, and relievers can’t walk people, and he finished third in the majors in bases on balls.
Speaking of analytics, which everybody does, here was Keuchel after being asked why he’d gone back to relying on his sinker: “The data was saying that my four-seam (fastball) played really well up in the zone. I believed it for a minute. But when you see opposite results, you don't really believe it anymore.”
The Braves need Keuchel to beat Miles Mikolas in Game 1 because Flaherty’s working Game 2. The key game in the series – the one that could keep the Braves from having to see Flaherty a second time, at least as a starter – could be Game 3 in St. Louis. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt declined Wednesday to identify a starter, but the belief is that it will be Adam Wainwright, who nearly a generation ago was working for the Double-A Greenville Braves, who were managed by Snitker.
Said Snitker of Wainwright: “I loved him then and I probably love him and respect him more now.” Nobody among the Braves will love it if maybe the worst trade the Hall of Famer John Schuerholz ever made – essentially 14 years of Wainwright for 6-1/2 months of J.D. Drew – rears its head yet again.
But let’s not think dark thoughts, OK? Let’s enjoy the moment. It wasn’t so long ago that we wondered if the Braves would ever break .500 again. Now they’re favored to win a Division Series.
As Keuchel said: “This is the real season. This is what you play for.” And here we, and they, go.
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