The top of the first inning ended. Press box discussion commenced. Which was worse, 28-3 or what we’d just beheld? After time to reflect – it says much that reflection was required – consensus held that the Falcons blowing a 25-point lead with 17-1/2 minutes left in the Super Bowl remains at the bottom of Atlanta sports indignities. There is, however, a new runner-up.
A Braves season that generated 97 wins and a playoff series suffused with drama fell to pieces over a half-inning Wednesday night. The Cardinals had scored 13 runs in the first four games; they scored 10 in this first inning. As bad as that sounds, it was worse.
St. Louis mustered the runs on five hits. (Try doing that sometime.) Starter Mike Foltynewicz, who'd yielded no runs and no walks in Game 2, walked the first batter. That was a bad sign: Dexter Fowler, the Cardinals' leadoff man, had been 1-for-17 in the series. Kolten Wong bunted Fowler to second. The sacrifice would be the only out the Braves recorded until they trailed 9-nil.
Freddie Freeman, the Braves' cornerstone, muffed what should have been a double-play grounder. Foltynewicz walked in a run and was gone after eight batters. Max Fried walked the first man he saw, pitcher Jack Flaherty, with the bases loaded. And then came a moment of such dark comedy that you knew not whether to laugh or cry.
Fried threw a curveball. Marcell Ozuna swung and missed. The third strike should have ended this endless inning. Ozuna turned toward his dugout. Then he realized the ball had eluded catcher Brian McCann. Ozuna began running toward first base. McCann collected the ball at the backstop and sought to throw to first. He fell instead. A 10th run scored.
When finally the inning ended, the Cardinals did something remarkable: They made a defensive substitution – Harrison Bader entered to patrol center field – before they’d played any defense.
Braves manager Brian Snitker: "I don't know that I've ever seen that many guys (bat) in the first inning in my life. That thing got rolling and we couldn't stop it -- not anybody."
Then: “We’d done our game-planning, but you don’t cover that.”
That wasn't quite the end – the Cardinals would win 13-1 and will play for the National League pennant – but, for us scarred Atlantans, it was way too much. There hadn't been a dime's worth of difference between these teams over four games, all of them pulsating, and now we'll recall the 2019 National League Division Series only for its gruesome end.
That’s a shame. This was a splendid team. It consolidated all the gains it made in winning its division last year, and it won a much more competitive NL East again without undue strain. It entered October believing it could reach the World Series, and the sight of Washington pushing the mighty Dodgers to a similar loser-goes-home Game 5 should have heartened the Braves still more.
After a wrenching Game 4 loss in St. Louis, the Braves were back at SunTrust Park. With Flaherty starting for the Cardinals, nobody figured it’d be easy. That said, nobody in this world – not even someone who has watched big-league Atlanta sports since big-league sports came here – expected 10-0 after a half-inning.
Never in a postseason game had a team scored 10 runs in a first running. Never has a team scored more in any inning in any October. The last Braves’ team to yield 10 runs in a first inning wasn’t based in Atlanta or even Milwaukee: It was the Boston Braves on July 2, 1925 ,against the Brooklyn Robins.
Also: This NLDS marked the Braves’ 10th consecutive postseason series loss, counting the 2012 wild card game – also against the Cardinals – as a series. That ties them with the Cubs, who spread their losing over an 88-year span. The Braves have crammed theirs into a mere 18 years.
Oh, and there’s this: Had someone magically granted the Braves a first-inning mulligan, they’d have lost 3-1.
I’m sorry to be so negative, but really … what’s left to say? The Braves put up a spirited fight over four games only to be obliterated by a team they considered their inferior. This wasn’t the Leyritz game, in which the Braves led 6-0, or the Brooks Conrad game, in which a ninth-inning lead was lost. On Wednesday, they made certain there was no lead to blow.
They didn’t do it on purpose. They’re not bad human beings. They just picked the worst possible moment to string together the most egregious series of events any of us have ever seen.
Snitker: “It’s hard. We had a great year. The players are all hurting in there. We had huge expectations, and rightly so. We know anything can happen in postseason -- as we just saw.”
I get paid not to root, and I don’t. But I’ve lived here 35 years, and I’ve seen so much go wrong that, just for variety’s sake, I wouldn’t mind seeing something go right. I really thought the Braves would close out the Cardinals in Game 4, but then Paul Goldschmidt slipped a broken-bat double down the line and Yadier Molina hit one off the label that glanced off the leaping Freeman’s mitt. The Braves had come within four outs of the NLCS. That, alas, will stand as their epitaph: Four outs away.
The Braves have enough good young players to believe they’ll be back in October soon. There could well be a championship in this franchise’s future. That said, the Braves themselves believed they could do damage this month. Any damage was done to their self-esteem.
No team has ever looked worse in a bigger game than they did in this first inning. Say what you will about the Falcons, but they did enough right to lead by 25. The Braves took the big stage and tripped over the footlights. I don’t mean to be cruel, but there’s no other way to say it: They embarrassed themselves.
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC