Let’s try not to overreact. Can we do that? It’s possible the Atlanta Braves will win this series in four games. It’s possible they’ll score 10 runs in Friday’s Game 2 off the lately unhittable Jack Flaherty and go to conquer not just St. Louis but all postseason comers and there’ll be a parade down Peachtree quicker than you can say Chuck Tanner.
OK, there’s your disclaimer. Now to the unhappy tidings.
Even by Braves-in-October standards, Thursday’s Game 1 was a terrible loss. Maybe not Jim Leyritz bad. Maybe not 18-innings-in-Houston bad. Maybe not Brooks Conrad bad. But awful all the same.
They led 3-1 with six outs to go. They lost 7-6. Their bullpen, retooled at the trade deadline with autumn baseball in mind, collapsed at the first October hurdle. Luke Jackson generated more hits (three) than outs (two). Then closer Mark Melancon, summoned for a four-out save, first blew the save and then the game. Melancon’s line: One inning, four runs, five hits, two walks. Ye gods.
Melancon: “We’ve got to move on from this ... I feel like I gave the game away.”
Oh, and there was also this: The Braves’ most talented player didn’t bother to run hard – again.
Nothing much happened over the first five innings. The Braves scored a run off Miles Mikolas in the first that coulda/shoulda been more. Dallas Keuchel went 4-2/3 innings without dazzling – he struck out nobody – and exited with the game tied at 1. With the starting pitchers gone, the night began its descent into craziness.
With one out in sixth, Tyler Webb hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch. Nick Markakis flipped a double over first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The Cardinals walked pinch-hitter Adam Duvall to load the bases. Giovanny Gallegos, in for Webb, struck out Francisco Cervelli, another pinch-hitter, on a checked swing. (Close call.) Gallegos fell behind Dansby Swanson 3-0. After taking strike 1, Swanson sent a bouncer toward third baseman Tommy Edman that could have ended the inning. It did not.
Edman played the ball off his chest. It was scored an error before being changed to a hit. Shortstop Paul DeJong grabbed the rolling ball and sought to throw out Duvall at second. The throw bounced away from second baseman Kolten Wong, enabling Markakis to make it 3-1. That made two errors (nearly three) for the team that made the fewest in the majors over 162 games, for the team of which manager Mike Shildt had said before the game: “Our strengths have been pitching and defense.”
In the seventh, Ronald Acuna made an error of omission. He lofted a fly ball to right field and – um, how do we put this? – neglected to run. Indeed, he carried his bat two-thirds of the way to first base, which tends to slow one’s roll. What should have been a double became another in the lengthening series of 320-foot Acuna singles.
Remember when Acuna did something similar against the Dodgers on Aug. 18 and was summarily benched by manager Brian Snitker? Remember how the great young player said he’d learned his lesson? And here we say, after a pause for emphasis … THESE ARE THE PLAYOFFS! You can’t be troubled to run hard in the PLAYOFFS?
Said Snitker: “He should have been on second. And we're kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”
Said Acuna to a cluster of reporter, speaking through a translator: “These things happen. That’s baseball.”
The maddening inning yielded no runs. It ended with Donaldson lining out and Acuna being doubled off second. By then, he should have been at third. Let the record show that Snitker didn’t pull Acuna this night. We say again: These are the playoffs. You’re not here to teach, although another message will be surely be sent behind closed doors. You’re here, duh, to win.
And really, what choice does Snitker have? If he decides -- he won’t, but play along -- to sit Acuna for Game 2, there’s a real chance the Braves’ season will end over the weekend. Would that be fair to the other 24 guys?
The harrumphing over Acuna’s absence of effort had barely begun to subside when something else weird happened. Chris Martin was summoned from the bullpen to start the eighth and apparently tweaked his oblique en route. (Where’s a golf cart when you need one?) Martin was pulled without throwing a pitch. Luke Jackson scurried to the mound and yielded a Goldschmidt home run that landed atop Kennesaw Mountain.
One-run game. Playoff baseball. (Someone remind Acuna.)
Soon it was tied. DeJong and Wong struck two-out singles off Jackson. Matt Carpenter — a key figure off the St. Louis bench — pinch-hit. He faced Braves closer Mark Melancon, summoned for what would have been a four-out save. It became a blown save. Carpenter flared a 3-2 pitch into left. DeJong scored to tie it. Wong was thrown out at home by some distance by Duvall. Whoa, Nellie.
The tie was broken emphatically in the top of the ninth. Dexter Fowler singled with one out. Edman’s single pushed Fowler to third. Melancon pitched around Goldschmidt to load the bases. Marcell Ozuna fell behind 0-2 and then ripped a two-run double down the line. Wong followed with another two-run double. Melancon was mercifully asked to relinquish the ball and take a refreshing shower.
But wait! That wasn’t all! Acuna smashed a two-run homer off Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez in the bottom of the ninth. He did an emphatic bat flip and stared into the Braves’ dugout as he ambled to first. After Albies was called out at first base on a close play that replay upheld, Freddie Freeman launched a home run to make it 7-6. Winning was still possible!
And then it wasn’t. Donaldson grounded out. Markakis took a called third strike. The Cardinals celebrated their 1-0 lead, as well they should. They’ve got Flaherty primed for Game 2, and they’ve already secured the road split that the lower seed in a best-of-five craves.
But the series isn’t nearly over, and these Braves have proved to be adept at never staying down for long. “I have all the confidence in the world in this team,” Melancon said, which is what you’d figure he’d say. But the memories of this one will make for some difficult hours before Game 2 commences. This was a bad one, folks.
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