What the Braves did Friday in Game 2 of the National League Division Series was simultaneously unexpected and foreseeable. There was no way to see it coming. Yet, looking back at this Braves season, it made perfect sense.
Of course, right-hander Mike Foltynewicz pitched like the All-Star he was last season and not the guy who was sent to the minors in June. Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty had been nearly untouchable since the All-Star break, so naturally, Adam Duvall smashed a pinch-hit, two out homer against him in the seventh.
All season the Braves won with big contributions from unexpected sources. Injuries threatened to sink their season, but they stayed afloat. Bad losses could have beaten them down, but they kept getting back up.
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Considering all that, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the Braves erased an ugly loss in Game 1 with a stirring 3-0 victory in Game 2 at SunTrust Park.
“It’s what this team is about,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “We’ve done it since April 1. We’ve been a complete team and answered the bell. This was no different.”
Well, the higher stakes made it different. Game 2 began less than 24 hours after Game 1. You could still hear the grumbles about Ronald Acuna’s lack of hustle, manager Brian Snitker’s quick hook on Dallas Keuchel and the bullpen coughing up four runs in a game the Braves lost by one. The Braves needed to change the subject as much as avoid falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series.
Foltynewicz did that with seven scoreless innings. The Braves needed it after chewing through their bullpen in Game 1. They scored one run off Flaherty through six innings. It was a tight, tense game.
Duvall’s homer took some pressure off. The Braves had a three-run cushion to work with over two innings instead of one. Max Fried, normally a starter, pitched a scoreless eighth. Closer Mark Melancon, who had blown Game 1, allowed two baserunners in the ninth before closing the victory with a nasty knuckle-curve to strike out Kolten Wong.
The Braves might have been finished if they squandered this game. They got the lead on Flaherty with Josh Donaldson’s RBI single in the first inning. Then they got the outstanding outing from Foltynewicz that was necessary opposite Flaherty.
Foltynewicz worked with confidence and purpose. The Cardinals couldn’t hit his slider, the pitch that was key to his resurgence. Four of Foltynewicz’s first six innings were perfect. St. Louis had three singles and got one base runner as far as second.
Yadier Molina was the only Cardinals hitter to make good contact against Foltynewicz. In the seventh inning he smacked a good slider off the plate to left field. The next hitter, Wong, grounded into a double play.
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Foltynewicz skipped his way to the dugout as Braves backers roared. They booed Snitker’s decision to hit Duvall for Foltynewicz in the bottom of the inning. It wasn’t an outrageous choice. The Braves had the one-run lead and a runner at first with two outs.
There was some risk in pulling Foltynewicz when he had plenty left. The bullpen allowed four runs in Game 1 and was short on fresh arms. The possible reward for with a pinch hitter was another run or two to give the relievers some breathing room.
“You flip a coin,” McCann said.
Snitker’s calculation paid off. Duvall smashed Flaherty’s high, full-count fastball into the seats in center field. Fans who had heckled Snitker’s decision now cheered the outcome. Or, as Snitker put it: “That boo ... yay! moment.”
Duvall was an All-Star for the Reds in 2016, but he didn’t do much for the Braves after they traded for him at the 2018 trade deadline. He wasn’t on the 2018 postseason roster and began this season at Triple-A Gwinnett. Duvall hit well there and when injuries thinned the Braves outfield, he ended up being one of the hitters who helped keep them going.
Now Duvall is the Braves hitter who put St. Louis away in his team’s biggest game of the season.
“That’s hard when you've been up here, and you’ve been an established major leaguer, to go back to Triple-A and put the dedication and devotion and everything that he did,” Snitker said. “It says a lot about the man and character of the man.”
The Braves aren’t a flawless team. They played some downright bad baseball in Game 1. In the fourth inning of Game 2 they couldn’t score a run with runners at first and second with no outs and ended the inning with a double play on some bad base running.
But the Braves have been a resilient team all season. What Foltynewicz and Duvall did in Game 2 was a surprise that shouldn’t have been.
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