The late comeback attempt by the Braves just made what came before seem worse. They lost by a run after giving at least one away. They needed the outs they squandered and the base they didn’t take. The Braves blundered more than the Cardinals, who did it plenty, and now they are down 1-0 in the best-of-five NLDS.
The Cardinals scored six runs against Braves relief pitchers over the final two innings. It happens. Less understandable are the mental mistakes and bad decisions that cost the Braves in a 7-6 loss at SunTrust Park.
“We should have had that one,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said.
There was a lengthy list of what-ifs for the Braves.
Ronald Acuna trotted slowly to first base as a would-be double to lead off the seventh bounced off the wall. The Cardinals got in position to score the tying run because Braves lefty Dallas Keuchel was too nonchalant about holding a runner at second base. Manager Brian Snitker ordered Keuchel to sacrifice slow-footed catcher Brian McCann from second base to third, with a predictable result.
Acuna’s miscue was most maddening. He had three hits, including a two-run homer in the ninth, and a fantastic diving catch of Kolten Wong’s line drive. But if he ran for a double then, at worst, he’s at third base with two outs and Nick Markakis at the plate.
Acuna had an almost identical play during an August game at SunTrust Park. Inexplicably, Acuna did it again in the opening game of the first playoff series.
“It is frustrating,” Freeman said. “But I think you have that conversation once. It’s kind of beating a dead horse after you keep having that same conversation over and over again. You’ve got to know that. That can’t happen in the playoffs. That can’t happen in the regular season.”
Snitker left Acuna in the game after this latest lack of hustle.
“He should have been on second,” Snitker said. “We're kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”
Acuna also got caught stealing in the first inning. Snitker said Acuna had the green light to go. He probably shouldn’t have.
In general, it’s a good idea for Acuna to run. He had 37 stolen bases on 46 tries this season. That 80 percent success rate was tied for 15th among major leaguers with at least 20 attempts.
But the circumstances made Acuna’s decision questionable. There were no outs and Ozzie Albies, a good hitter, was up to bat. Yadier Molina is one of the best throwing catchers in the majors. He picked Miles Mikolas’ breaking ball out of the dirt and, according to tracking data, got the ball to shortstop Paul DeJong in 1.89 seconds.
Albies ended up walking. Freeman followed with a single that would have scored Acuna. Then Josh Donaldson hit into a fielder’s choice that scored Albies. That’s one run forfeited by the Braves.
Still, Acuna had a reasonable chance of stealing that base. McCann’s odds of making it to third base on Keuchel’s bunt in the second inning were, shall we say, lower. Keuchel’s bunt wasn’t good. A perfect bunt may have been needed to give McCann a chance.
Better to let Keuchel swing away there. Maybe he gets a hit. If he doesn’t, Acuna was up next with McCann in scoring position.
Keuchel gave the Cardinals another run in the fifth inning. Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader singled and went to second on Mikolas’ sacrifice bunt. Keuchel looked at Bader briefly before turning his head back to the plate. Bader took two big strides before Keuchel delivered the pitch and easily stole the base.
“I’m usually really, really good at holding runners on and changing looks,” Keuchel said. “That’s something that really disappoints (me).”
Bader scored on Dexter Fowler’s groundout. Tommy Edman doubled with two outs, so maybe Bader would have scored anyway. At least make the Cardinals earn it.
Keuchel didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Snitker pulled him with two outs and right-handed power hitter Paul Goldschmidt at bat. That early hook ended up being a big deal when reliever Chris Martin left the game after suffering an oblique injury while warming up to pitch the eighth.
Luke Jackson came on instead. He gave up a 446-foot homer to Goldschmidt. Closer Mark Melancon gave up the lead in the eight and the go-ahead runs in the ninth. Now the Braves will have a short bullpen for Game 2 on Friday.
The Braves rallied with Acuna’s homer and a solo shot from Freeman. It wasn’t enough. The Cardinals won despite committing two errors and allowing an unearned run. The Braves lost after their bullpen gave back the lead but, before that, they’d played too much bad baseball.
“That was a game that should have been ours,” Freeman said.
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