It would have been a nice day for a champagne reception. As is, the Braves – who’d already secured a playoff spot – guaranteed that they’ll finish no worse than in a first-place tie atop the National League East. Given that Washington, once seen as a looming threat, is 6-10 since Sept. 2, there’s no cause to fret.
Thursday’s 5-4 victory lowered the Braves’ magic number to clinch the division to the skinniest there is – 1. They salvaged a game in their final series against the Phillies, against whom they opened the season 0-3. Other developments of note:
Ronald Acuna’s home run was his 40th, making him the third player to reach the big 4-0 at age 21. (The first two: Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews. Their plaques can be viewed in Cooperstown.) Mike Soroka, who’s 22, worked five acceptable innings and saw his ERA rise from 2.57 to 2.60, which tells us how good he has been. Freddie Freeman drove in his 118th and 119th runs of the season, tying him for the big-league lead. Josh Donaldson did nothing, having been granted his first day off since May 22.
The official clinching can come Friday night, which would beat last year’s date by two days. Asked if the assurance of a first-place tie meant anything to him, manager Brian Snitker said: “We’ve got to win one more game.”
Those who study Snitker know he’d rather kiss a rat than act as if something’s locked away when it’s not quite. That said, the removal of Soroka after 88 pitches was a clear nod toward October. “I was hoping he’d do six (innings),” Snitker said. “But we’re trying to manage his innings and limit the stressful innings.”
Soroka needed 22 pitches to get through a scoreless first, 23 to escape the fifth, an inning that saw the Phillies score twice. He was due to lead off the bottom of the inning, leaving Snitker with a choice. Did he stick with his best pitcher for another inning in a tie game? Had this been a day in June, the answer might well have been yes. But this was September, with what could be a long October ahead.
Snitker: “I just thought, with where we are and where we hope to go, this is the right decision. And I hoped we’d get a pinch-hit and score and win the game.”
Which is what happened. Matt Joyce singled off Aaron Nola, who’d beaten the Braves three times this season, and soon Freeman pulled a single into right field to score two runs, and that was that. Brian Snitker, genius.
Afterward, a visitor dared to do the look-ahead thing, asking if Snitker has decided what to do with his starting pitchers come the playoffs. “Not yet,” he said. “We’ll run the regular rotation out there until we win one more game. Then we might think about resting some and what we’re going to do.”
This is not, it must be said, a question with an easy answer. Soroka and Dallas Keuchel are locks to start Games 1 and 2, probably in that order, but who gets Game 3? Max Fried, who has a 6.28 ERA in September? Mike Foltynewicz, who started Game 1 last year but who saw his 2019 ERA dip under 5.00 only last week? Julio Teheran, who’s 14th among qualifying NL starters with a 3.55 ERA but who leads the league in walks?
Two weeks ago, Fried seemed the favorite to start Game 3, although the Braves might consider ages here. Games 1 and 2 will be played at SunTrust Park. Would you rather your younger guys – Fried is 25 – work at home? On the other hand, do you want two October newbies getting consecutive starts? Is Keuchel preferable as a buffer? And there’s this: As impressive as Fried has been, his ERA is 4.25. Would Foltynewicz, who has yielded two earned runs over his past three starts, be the better Game 3 option?
As for Game 4: Would you use Fried there, or would you prefer Teheran, who has had his best season since 2016? A year ago, Teheran made the postseason roster only as a long reliever, which yours truly took as a sign that he wouldn’t be a Brave much longer. Fooled me. He has yielded one run or fewer in 17 of his 32 starts. He just doesn’t dazzle anybody anymore.
There’s a chance the Braves could try tag-teaming, as happened in Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS when Sean Newcomb started and gave way to Kevin Gausman in the third inning. (Game 3 was the one the Braves won.) They could start Teheran and bring Foltynewicz/Fried along after one time through the order, though the reverse wouldn’t seem as enticing. You’d rather start with the pitcher who nibbles and bring the harder throwers in later. You’d also prefer that your relievers not walk people.
“We’ll pitch them all,” Snitker said, meaning his starters in October. Then, after a moment’s reflection: “Well, four of them.”
Back to Soroka and load management. Counting two tune-up starts with Gwinnett, he has worked 179 innings this year. His previous high was 153 2/3 in 2017 in Double-A. If the Braves reach the World Series, he’ll probably exceed 200 –which was why his manager endeavored steal an inning on a 75-degree September day.
Soroka deserves to start Game 1. But would the Braves be apt to do with this Game 1 starter as they did with Foltynewicz last October – bring him back on short rest for Game 4 when facing elimination? “Probably not,” Snitker said. “We have a rotation now. It took a long time to develop, but it’s been rolling for a while.”
Not long ago, this correspondent wondered if the Braves had enough starting pitching for October. These starters have been better of late. As of Thursday morning, their September ERA was 3.71, 10th-best in baseball. (It was 5.46 in June, 25th-best.) The guess is that have enough arms. Their deployment will be fascinating to see.
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