Losing in October is never easy. You’ve worked six months – almost eight if you count spring training – to get here, and nobody’s ready to stop. But nine playoff qualifiers must, else MLB wouldn’t know what to do with its flag-festooned trophy. The young and restless Braves were sent home Monday, losing Game 4 of the National League Division Series 6-2. They will, almost assuredly, be back soon.
And that part made this loss, if not quite easy, then bearable. In forcing the Dodgers to a fourth game and taking a lead therein, the Braves put up a better showing than the Rockies and Indians, who were swept in this round without offering much resistance. The Braves made their blue-blooded conqueror work, maybe even sweat. If they didn’t quite give us a finish, they gave us a thrill.
“It was a great ride,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It surpassed everybody’s expectation. It’s sad. After winning the game last night, we kind of thought we could pull this off.”
That they didn’t is no cause for shame. Indeed, we should credit Snitker for attempting to seize this holiday Monday. He brought back Mike Foltynewicz, who started and lost Game 1, on three days’ rest. For the second time in the series, he yielded a first-inning run. (This time on Manny Machado’s two-out double into the left-field corner.) Unlike Game 1, Foltynewicz lasted more than two innings. He exited after four, having thrown 64 pitches and kept his team within that one run.
The Dodgers missed three chances to build a working margin. Yasmani Grandal struck out on a Foltynewicz slider to end the first with Machado at second base. Joc Pederson struck out on another to end the second with two men in scoring position. With men on first and second, pitcher Rich Hill fought through an eight-pitch at-bat before Foltynewicz whiffed him, too. That was his final fling. Soon, though, the Braves would have the lead.
Hill walked Johan Camargo, hitless in the NLDS, to open the bottom of the fourth. Then he walked Tyler Flowers, who benefited from Tom Hallion’s decision that Hill’s 2-2 curve missed high. Ender Inciarte bunted the two over. Charlie Culberson, starting at shortstop because Dansby Swanson has an injured hand, grounded to third. Two out, two men in scoring position, pitcher’s spot coming up. Your move, Mr. Snitker.
“(Foltynewicz) probably had one more inning,” Snitker said. “But the runs were out there, and they’re so tough to come by. If we never get another chance in this game, I’ll regret not taking that shot.”
Snitker lifted Foltynewicz for pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki, who drove Hill’s 1-1 curve into left field, just ahead of the onrushing Pederson. The Braves led 2-1. In its fourth game, this NLDS had finally seen a lead change. It would soon see another.
First, though, the Braves failed to exploit two misplays. In the fifth, third baseman Justin Turner – playing what amounted to second base in the Dodgers’ shift against Freddie Freeman – couldn’t glove a one-hopper that was generously deemed a hit. Nick Markakis walked. Camargo grounded a ball that might have been a double play, but Machado flubbed it. Bases loaded, one out, and somewhere Skip Caray was saying, “A little insurance couldn’t hurt.” But Flowers fouled out to catcher, and Inciarte popped to short. The margin was still a skinny run.
Top of the sixth. Jonny Venters, in his second inning of relief, was touched for Kike Hernandez’s one-out single to left. One out later, Yasiel Puig blooped a single that fell between Ozzie Albies and Nick Markakis in right. That was all for Venters. Brad Brach, acquired at the trade deadline with such a moment in mind, was summoned to face pinch-hitter David Freese. In 2011, Freese was the World Series MVP as a Cardinal. Now he’s one of those many Dodger subs acquired … well, for such a moment.
Brach loosed a 96-mph fastball on 3-2. Freese drove it to the left of Culberson, who took two steps and dove. We’ll wonder forever as to whether Swanson makes that play. Culberson could not. The ball flashed beyond his glove. Hernandez and Puig scored. The favorites were 12 outs from heading for Milwaukee and the NLCS.
We can’t argue that Snitker didn’t lift Foltynewicz at the right moment. He’d gone four good innings on short rest, and Suzuki, batting in his stead, put the Braves in front. But that left five innings for the Braves’ bullpen – the worst part of their team, as exemplified by the inclusion of rookie starters Touki Toussaint and Max Fried on the playoff roster as relievers – to negotiate.
Snitker: “We knew it was going to be tough to cover all the innings today with the guys we had.”
Come the seventh, the Braves were already on their fifth pitcher – another rookie. Chad Sobotka was summoned to the majors Aug. 10. He had a big final two months, holding big-league hitters to a batting average of .104. But the Dodgers are a cut above. Turner led off the seventh with a single to right. Max Muncy walked. Up stepped Machado, the biggest prize of the July deadline deals. He fell behind in the count, fouling off two 97-mph four-seamers on 1-2. Sobotka threw another fastball. It landed in the seats above the visitors’ bullpen in left field.
From 2-1 up, the Braves had plunged into a 6-2 hole. The SunTrust Park gathering – not quite a full house, but close – sank back into its seats. For several long moments, the notion of a Game 5 in Dodger Stadium had seemed a real possibility. Then the Dodgers, a deeper and more seasoned team, dropped the hammer. There’s a reason they’ve won the NL West six years running. There’s a reason they reached last year’s World Series and probably will do it again. They’re better than the Braves – for now.
Said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts: “I’d like to congratulate the Atlanta Braves. ... We’re going to be dealing with them in the future.”
If there’s a message behind this giddy season, it’s that the Braves have gotten good again, and they only figure to get better. They’re so far ahead of schedule – hey, the Great Rebuild really worked – that the schedule got shredded before Memorial Day. They pulled away from the Phillies in September and won, dare we say, breezing. They weren’t expected to win this series, and they didn’t. But there will be more playoffs, likely next year, and they won’t be new to them anymore.
Snitker: “When they get to spring training next year, they’ll have an eye on the prize. They’ll remember this experience.”
Then: “I have a great sense of the future. It’s very bright. We took a huge step forward this year.
Yes, this was an ending. It was also the end of the beginning. The Braves now have an idea who they are and what they can do. We’ll spend the next decade watching them do it.