The Cards wilted. The Nats rule. The Braves feel worse

The Braves lost a playoff series to a team that was swept in its next round. That had happened before. The 1998 Padres, who beat the 106-win Braves in the NLCS, lost to the World Series 4-0 to the 114-win Yankees. Also not new: The Braves get to watch the runner-up from their division in the Fall Classic. That happened in 1997 (Marlins), 2000 (Mets) and 2003 (Marlins).

When you’ve whiffed as much as the Braves in October — they’ve made the playoffs 21 times since arriving from Milwaukee, winning it all once — it’s hard to fail in a way you’ve never failed before. This latest loss, however, might sting more than any this century. (Agony-wise, the Leyritz game of 1996 and the Sterling Hitchcock series of ’98 will never be matched, or so we can only hope.) The Braves knew they were better than the Cardinals. But this is October, and these are the Braves.

Said Brian Snitker, moments after his team was eliminated: "This one hurt. They all hurt ... We kind of felt like — well, we are — we're a very good team. We're a really good team. We're a very good team."

The Cardinals scored more runs in the first inning of Game 5 at SunTrust Park than in four games and 36 innings of the NLCS against Washington. There they managed six, the first two of which were because of outfield misplays. They had 16 hits against 48 strikeouts. Coming off a 10-run first inning in Game 5, they were nearly no-hit — by Anibal Sanchez, a Brave last season — in Game 1 of the NLCS. They mustered three hits, none before the seventh, in Game 2. In the closeout Game 4, the Redbirds themselves yielded seven runs in the first inning.

If you're the Braves, you're asking, "How did we lose to those guys?" The easy answer is to say, "That's baseball," and it's not entirely incorrect. Baseball is weird. How did the Nationals beat the 106-win Dodgers? How did the Nats survive that wild-card game against Milwaukee? Getting down to cases, the NLDS began to go wrong in Game 1.

The Braves led 3-1 after seven innings. Snitker had his right-handed reliever of choice — Chris Martin — readying for right-handed hitters Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and Molina. Martin tweaked his oblique before he threw a pitch. Snitker was forced to summon Luke Jackson, whom Goldschmidt greeted with a home run. Jackson couldn’t get through the inning, which meant closer Mark Melancon was needed for a four-out save. He wound up with a blown save and a loss.

If the Braves hold the Game 1 lead and the rest of the series plays out as it did — granted, there's no assurance it would have — they sweep. Mike Foltynewicz outpitched Jack Flaherty to win Game 2. Mike Soroka matched Adam Wainwright, who was at his peak, and Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall won Game 3 in the ninth. The Cardinals can say they'd have won in four if not for Carlos Martinez's Game 3 failure, but over the first four games we'd seen what regular-season stats told us: St. Louis really did have a tough time scoring.

Then it scored 10 runs before it made a second out in Game 5. The same team never led in the NLCS.

From May on, the question uppermost in the minds of Braves’ fans was, “Do we have a shot at the Dodgers?” The Nationals would have rendered the point moot, had not the Braves mooted themselves by losing 13-1. They won 97 games, four more than the Nats, and the final margin flattered Washington. After the penultimate Sunday of the regular season, it trailed by 9-1/2 games.

As we’re forever being reminded, October isn’t like the six months that preceded it. The Nats have three very-good-to-great starting pitchers. The Braves have Soroka. Dallas Keuchel, who started Games 1 and 4, is serviceable but not scintillating. Foltynewicz threw a career game against Flaherty; five days later, the former was gone before the latter took the mound. Max Fried was needed in relief. Teheran wasn’t needed at all until Martin got hurt.

The question the Braves will have to answer forever: Why did their one great pitcher pitch once over five games? It wasn’t because the Braves gave the matter too little consideration. They might have overthought. They believed Keuchel, who started Game 1s elsewhere, was up to the task. (Before Game 3, Soroka hadn’t thrown a postseason pitch.) They felt Foltynewicz’s strong September was a harbinger of a big October, which turned out half-right.

The Braves have never said as much, but I suspect saving Soroka for Game 3 was a nod to his age (22) and his unprecedented seasonal workload. If you’re down 2-1, teams tend to bring back their Game 1 starter. (The Braves did that with Keuchel even though they led.) The choice, then, was between Soroka and Foltynewicz for Game 2. Soroka had better road numbers and seemed less apt to be cowed by a road crowd, and after the Braves rallied in the ninth nobody was doubting the sagacity of the their choices. Games 4 and 5 threw everything open to question.

If they knew then what they know now, the Braves could have gone with Soroka in Game 1, then Foltynewicz, then Keuchel, then Fried, then Soroka again. But Fried became Snitker's most trusted bullpen arm once Martin was lost; saving him for a Game 4 start would have meant he couldn't have worked four of the five games, which would have weakened what was never a lockdown bullpen.

The greater point is that the Braves, for all their machinations, were an arm short. With Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin, the Nationals are better suited for postseason. (They’ve used all three in relief this October; if you tried that in April, your rotation would be shredded by May.) The tangle, though, is that you can’t build just for October. You’ve got to get there first.

At its best, the Braves’ rotation might have been good enough — but how often was Foltynewicz at his best? How often was Keuchel a marked upgrade over Teheran? As Snitker said during the NLDS, “For me, starting pitching is still the biggest thing.” Even in this era of bullpenning entire games, starting pitching usually is what separates great teams from good ones. It’s the reason the Nats are in the World Series. It’s the reason the Astros lead the Yankees. It’s the reason the Braves aren’t there yet.

The Braves should have beaten St. Louis. I doubt they’d have beaten Washington in a best-of-seven. They should have made the NLCS, but that would have been the end. They didn’t pitch well enough to win it all. In these dark days of Atlanta sports, that sobering thought will have to pass as a consolation prize.