Here’s where I venture onto a limb so skinny that it’s not a limb – it’s more of a twig. I know this, yet I do it anyway, meaning you folks are hereby absolved of liability. This is all me, and this is me saying:
The Braves will win Game 5.
And this you saying, “Are you SERIOUS? Where have you been the past 30 years? Do you have any idea of the Braves’ record in winner-take-all games? Do you know how long it’s been since these clowns won a series?”
I do. They’re 2-5 in ultimate games, the most recent victory coming – against the Cardinals, FYI – in Game 7 of the 1996 NLCS. (They won 15-0.) They haven’t won a series since 2001. Over the past 22 years, they’ve seen 10 visitors celebrate in Atlanta/Cobb County. I’ve been there for most of those. I had my AJC-issued laptop stolen from the auxiliary press box at Turner Field after the Game 5 loss to San Francisco in 2002. Fun times.
So yeah. I know all that. I also know that Jack Flaherty, the best pitcher in baseball (non-Verlander division) since the All-Star break, will start against them Wednesday. This being baseball in October, I know this is the utter definition of a coin-flip game. I also know that the Braves are terrible at coin flips.
I know all this, and I’m picking them anyway. Having beheld every pitch of this careening series, my belief is that the Braves are the better team by some distance. Had you told me the Braves would pitch the way they have in this NLDS, I’d have guessed they’d sweep. That they’re tied can be traced to one thing: They haven’t hit.
Pick any offensive category, and you’ll find a relative match. The Braves are hitting .235, the Cardinals .243. The Braves have scored 16 runs, the Cardinals 13. The Braves’ OPS is .723; the Cards’ is .714. They’ve each hit four home runs. The Braves have draw 15 walks, the Cardinals 13. The Braves have struck out 36 times, the Cardinals 35.
That there’s nothing, hitting-wise, to separate these teams is the big fat point: There should be something separating them. The Braves ranked third among National League teams in runs and OPS over 162 games; the Cardinals were 10th and 12th. The two Redbirds expected to do the heavy lifting – Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna – had tepid seasons. They have not had a tepid series. Ozuna is batting .471 with an OPS of 1.500; Goldschmidt is batting .438 with an OPS of 1.563.
Ronald Acuna and Dansby Swanson have similarly gaudy NLDS numbers, and Adam Duvall has done his bit, but the men batting third and fourth have gone missing. Freddie Freeman is hitting .135 with an OPS of .535; Josh Donaldson is hitting .133 with an OPS of .478. Once past Donaldson, there has been nothing until Swanson. Nick Markakis, Matt Joyce and Brian McCann – all left-handed hitters; the Cardinals have no lefty starters – are 6-for-39 (.154) with no RBIs. If not for Swanson, this series would be over already.
Flaherty is the real deal. He wasn’t especially sharp in Game 2, but his team trailed only 1-0 before Duvall hit his 105th pitch over the center-field wall. (Flaherty was then allowed to throw 12 more pitches, which made no sense.) Mike Foltynewicz was the better pitcher that day, his performance a personal best. Do I expect him to equal or surpass it? No. Do I think Flaherty will be better this team? Probably. So why am I picking the Braves?
Because at some point I expect this club to hit. It mightn’t be against Flaherty, but the damage could come against the Cardinals’ bullpen. Not to go all pie-in-the-sky on you, but Freeman and Donaldson are way past due. The guess is that Freeman’s elbow is causing some of this – he says no – but he’s still Freddie Freeman. I can’t imagine these two going a full best-of-five without leaving an imprint.
Yes, that’s a guess, and it’s the best I’ve got. In a coin-flip game, it’s the best anybody has. Flaherty could work a masterpiece and render everything else null and void. These Braves could do as so many Braves teams have done – lose in October to somebody they should’ve beaten.
But I’m thinking they won’t. I’m thinking – this is me getting ephemeral – that this team is different, that it won’t be haunted by the ghosts of Octobers past, that it’s too young and too bold to stop now.
Yes, this is baseball, where the better team doesn’t always win. (Ask the Dodgers, who won 13 more games than Washington, about facing Stephen Strasburg in their Game 5.) But the mood in St. Louis was that the Best Fans in Baseball seem satisfied to have gotten great mileage from a pretty good team that not only won its division but killed the postseason chances of the hated Cubs.
At 91 wins, St. Louis was the least of MLB’s division champs and the second-worst postseason qualifier. At some point, I believe that will show. If it doesn’t, the Best Fans will begin dreaming of another 2006, when the 83-win Cardinals with Adam Wainwright as emergency closer won it all. But those folks aren’t there yet. Busch Stadium wasn’t sold out for Game 4. (Best Fans, eh?)
I don’t believe this will be another Redbird October. I believe the Braves will hit enough in Game 5. (Guessing Duvall starts ahead of Joyce.) I believe Foltynewicz will approximate Flahery and this bullpen will hold. I believe, just this once, that damn coin will come up heads.
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