What, you thought clinching would be easy? For an Atlanta team? Even for an Atlanta team that seems the stronger side in this series? Were you born yesterday? Could I interest you in buying the Brooklyn Bridge?
The Braves came excruciatingly close – “excruciating” being the adjective of choice when discussing Atlanta teams in postseason play – to closing out St. Louis in Game 4 of the NLDS here Monday. They lost 5-4 in 10 innings. They face a decisive Game 5 at SunTrust Park. And, as anyone who wasn’t born yesterday knows, the Braves’ record in loser-goes-home games at home is … not good.
“We got Game 5 on Wednesday,” said a grim Brian McCann. “The winner moves on.”
If this series indeed goes un-won – not saying it will, but if it does – the Braves will rue Game 4 forever. They’d come from 3-1 down to take a 4-3 lead on Ozzie Albies’ home run in the fifth. A succession of relievers kept the Cardinals, who don’t hit much, in check. In the sixth and the seventh, the Braves loaded the bases and didn’t score. They would go 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “Usually when you leave those spares out there, they come back and haunt you. We’re a hit away. We just need some productive outs. We just need to add on.”
The Cardinals tied the game in – we’ve already burned “excruciating,” so let’s settle for “agonizing” – fashion. Paul Goldschmidt, one of the Cardinals’ two real hitters this series, doubled down the left-field line off a Shane Greene sinker.
Snitker: “Goldschmidt broke his bat.”
Greene struck out Marcell Ozuna, the other significant Redbird batter, looking. Two out in the eighth, four outs from clinching. Up stepped Yadier Molina, the 37-year-old catcher who was 2-for-15 this series. Molina took another Greene sinker and flared it the wrong way. It was one of those just-put-it-play swings. The ball wasn’t hit hard – just hard enough to tick off the leaping Freddie Freeman’s mitt and fall safely in right field. Tie game.
Freeman: “I thought it was going to be in there (his glove). I needed to be 6-7.”
Snitker: “When they score that run, (the Braves) not getting spares earlier makes that it all the more important.”
Ronald Acuna, who over four games has become the bane of Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez’s life, led off the ninth with a ground-rule double into the left-field corner. (Being Ronald Acuna, he punctuated this by clapping and screaming at Martinez.) At that moment, shares in the Brooklyn Bridge seemed a safer investment than Martinez – who’d yielded six runs in the series – working a scoreless inning. But he did. Albies popped to shortstop. Freeman grounded to second. Josh Donaldson hoisted a fly to left field. Acuna didn’t score.
Acuna spent the day not scoring. He had four hits without crossing home plate. In the seventh, he saw center fielder Dexter Fowler play a single into a leadoff triple. Still didn’t score.
Freeman is 2-for-16 in the NLDS, Donaldson 2-for-15. Nick Markakis 3-for-17. The Braves 3, 4 and 5 hitters have driven in three runs. Adam Duvall, who hasn’t started a game, has driven in five.
Freeman was asked afterward how much impact his iffy elbow has left on this series. “Zero,” he said. Still, you wonder. If the Braves lose Wednesday, there’ll be several long months to wonder.
With the game tied after nine innings, Snitker’s pitching choices were limited. He’d already used five relievers, starter Dallas Keuchel having lasted only 3-1/3 innings . Max Fried had been deployed as a pinch-runner – he didn’t score, either – being off-limits for pitching this day. Once into the 10th, the road team tries to save its closer for the bottom of the inning after it takes the lead. That left … Julio Teheran, the starting pitcher who wasn’t on the 25-man roster when Game 1 commenced.
The idea was for Teheran to go as many innings as he could, which is what starters are trained to do. Of Teheran, Snitker said: “He could have pitched into the night.”
He lasted six pitches. Kolten Wong, who’d struck out three times, pushed an opposite-field double down the left-field line. Goldschmidt was walked intentionally. Ozuna came close to grounding into a double play, but he beat Albies’ relay to first by a hair. First-and-third, one out, a fly ball wins. Again the key at-bat falls to Molina.
Snitker on Molina: “This guy's a Hall of Famer. He hits to the situation, stays within himself, doesn't try to do too much. Take all the cliches – everything, that's him. He's a ballplayer. He plays the game in front of him probably about as good as anybody in the game.”
Teheran’s first pitch was a fastball. Molina hoisted it to left field. Wong scurried home with the series-evening run.
Said Teheran of pitching in relief: “It wasn’t really used to it, but no excuses – I tried to do my job. After they got the double, there wasn’t a lot I could do.”
Said Swanson, who had three more hits after his bravura Game 3: “They did a great job being able to settle back down after we went ahead. We had chances and had the right guys up. But that’s kind of baseball.”
Asked if this lost lead made him ponder the dire 21st Century history of the Braves in postseason (no series wins since 2001), Snitker said: “No, I don’t think that. Today’s game was more about the runners we left at third base. … Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. I mean, it happens.”
Yes. But it seems to happen a lot to one particular club. “Our confidence is still really high,” outfielder Matt Joyce said, and it should be. Man for man, they’re the better team. Trouble is, they’ll have to beat Jack Flaherty again to prove it.
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