The Atlanta Braves were one out from doing one of those Braves-in-October things. They were about to fall within a game of elimination against an opponent that, apart from the eighth and ninth innings of Game 1, had scored two runs in the series. On a day when Mike Soroka, making his first postseason start, was nearly a match for Adam Wainwright, making his 13th October start, Soroka’s only wobble stood to be the difference.
Then Cardinals manager Mike Shildt made a choice. He’d made essentially the same choice in Game 1. By intentionally walking Brian McCann, Shildt again aligned closer Carlos Martinez to face Dansby Swanson.
On Thursday at SunTrust Park, first base was open when Swanson came to bat in the eighth. Had the Cardinals walked Swanson intentionally, the Braves would have had to decide whether to let Mark Melancon, their closer, bat in a tied game. Shildt opted for Swanson, and after the game he strongly implied that he liked the Swanson-Martinez matchup. He likes it less now.
In Game 1, Martinez struck out Swanson on a fastball. In a Game 3 that figured to the turning point of this NLDS, started Swanson with a slider. The Braves’ shortstop — who’d had two of his team’s four hits off Wainwright — lined a double off the base of the left field wall. Billy Hamilton, pinch-running for Josh Donaldson, scored to tie it. Adam Duvall then drove home pinch-runner Rafael Ortega and Swanson with the runs that would give the Braves a 3-1 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
Said Shildt: “The consensus was we’d rather take a shot at Swanson. He’s 0-for-6 against Carlos. We took our best shot to win the game. He got a pitch he could handle and put a good swing on it.”
Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “I love Dansby in that situation. That kid lives for those moments … I love when teams narrow him down to the that situation. There’s something about his DNA. He lives for that spot.”
Told that Shildt had identified him as a weak point in the Braves’ order, Swanson said: “That’s his personal decision. If he wants to play it by the numbers, that’s his decision. My job is to put together a professional at-bat.”
And how, after swinging through a Martinez fastball in Game 1, was he ready for a first-pitch slider in Game 3? Swanson laughed. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination. In a situation like that, you’re just trying to relax.”
Until the careening ninth, the game was a match of the Braves’ latest great young pitcher and an opponent who became a great pitcher after the Braves traded him to St. Louis on Dec. 13, 2003. This was something approaching a Wainwright testimonial – the 38-year-old who nearly retired a couple of years ago working a massive Game 3 before the self-proclaimed Best Fans In Baseball, and the man was equal to moment, his curveball baffling the Braves as much it had Carlos Beltran on the final pitch of the 2006 NLCS.
Said Soroka: “He’s been one of the staples of postseason baseball for a long time. He's been fun to watch as a fan before I even got to professional baseball. It comes from watching guys like him to be able to kind of put yourself in their shoes and understand you might be there one day. And to get the opportunity to pitch against him in a game like this was a lot of fun.”
Wainwright was magnificent — 7-2/3 innings, no runs, four hits, eight strikeouts, two walks. Soroka was no worse — seven innings, two hits, one run, seven strikeouts, no walks. If you want to liken this to John Smoltz against Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, I won’t rise to object.
Soroka: “Everything was going. It was one of those days when everything shows up to play.”
Snitker: “Soroka tonight — my god, that was about as good as it gets. His ability to slow the game down, to stay in the moment -- it doesn’t surprise me how he did, going against a great postseason pitcher.”
Soroka: “If you don’t have the ability to stay calm, the game’s not going to go well.”
And here we who watched pause for breath, and to say: How about this series, huh? All three games have ended with the tying run at the plate. Two changed directions at the very end. Either team could have swept this thing by now. As is, the better team — the Cardinals really don’t hit much, do they? — will come to work Monday with a chance to punch its ticket to the NLCS. Not since 2001 have the Braves played for a pennant.
Feel free to look ahead, but forgive me if I dwell on Game 3 a bit longer. Everyone in Busch Stadium seemed to know they were watching something special, from Soroka vs. Wainwright to Swanson vs. Martinez to Duvall driving home the game-winner. An October classic? Absolutely.
Snitker: “It was really cool to see the guys — this is what they do. It's like an NBA game. You don’t want to leave this team in the seventh inning because they could lay around dead in the water and everything happen in the last 30 minutes. They never quit. They never give up. The heart and desire and will is unbelievable in those guys. Doesn’t always work out. But I know the DNA of this team is really, really good.”
Shildt: “You’re one out away from being up 2-1. There’s disappointment, no doubt.”
Swanson: “That was baseball in its purest form. Their guy was awesome. Our guy was awesome. To be able to compete in a game like that was amazing.”
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