It was an uncharacteristic sequence that summarized the Braves’ season.
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig popped a ball into right field. Braves defenders Nick Markakis and Ozzie Albies pursued, only to see the ball drop between them.
A batter later, David Freese pushed one beyond the reach of shortstop Charlie Culberson, scoring two runs, leading to natural wonders if Dansby Swanson could’ve stopped the ball from reaching the outfield.
The Braves made the Dodgers sweat, batting back after losing the first two games, but their season – still an extraordinary success in the eyes of many – ceased with a 6-2 loss in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Monday.
“It was a great ride,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It surpassed everybody's expectations. It's sad. I mean, you know, we got this far, and after winning a game last night, kind of thought, well, maybe we can pull this off. But they never quit.
“They never stopped fighting all year. It was an unbelievable group to be around. I'm honored to have had the privilege to manage all those guys. I mean, from the get-go, it's a great, great group of guys. It was a lot of fun being with them for the last seven months.”
Down a run, the Braves brought in rookie gem Chad Sobotka to keep the game manageable in the seventh. Justin Turner singled, Max Muncy walked and Manny Machado – the biggest acquisition of July’s trade deadline – tattooed a ball into the left-field seats, sucking the life out of SunTrust Park and unofficially sending the Braves to the offseason.
After allowing the fewest home runs in the NL through the regular season, the Braves were decimated by the long ball against a burly Dodgers lineup. Los Angeles scored 14 of its 20 runs via homers. The Braves hit two – courtesy of Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna in Game 3 – the entire series.
“We didn’t win the World Series, so it’s a lost season in my book,” Freeman said. “But overall, I thought winning the division was a good start to what’s going to happen in the future. ... I think you’re going to see the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs for a lot of years.”
Just before the Dodgers’ outburst, the Braves’ misspent their best situation in the fifth. Freeman singled, Markakis walked and Johan Camargo reached on a Machado fielding error. They loaded the bases with one out, already leading 2-1.
Tyler Flowers popped out to fellow catcher Yasmani Grandal in foul territory. Ender Inciarte popped out to Machado. Of the many times the Braves left players stranded, none will sting more than the fruitless fifth.
“We had opportunities,” Flowers said. “We’re talking one pitch, one big hit away from a Game 5. I think we’re there (contenders). It just didn’t go our way.”
Mike Foltynewicz, pitching on short rest for the first time in 2018, somewhat avenged his mediocre Game 1. He went four innings, holding the Dodgers to a run, before being lifted for a pinch-hitter.
Following a Muncy walk, Machado ripped a double for a first-inning lead. Foltynewicz settled in from there, throwing three more frames and holding the Dodgers to a run. His only dent was made by a Machado double after walking Max Muncy in the first.
Snitker lifted him for pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki in the fourth, concluding the fireballer’s day at 64 pitches. Foltynewicz has been pivotal in the Braves’ return to the postseason, and barring a significant rotation addition, should be the team’s opening-day starter in 2019.
“After that great win last night, I wanted to come out and do my best for these guys,” Foltynewicz said. “Especially after how it went in Game 1. Still, my fastball was still a little shy. I had four walks, only went four innings. That’s a lot to ask of a bullpen to cover against this kind of lineup.”
Suzuki’s pinch-hit appeared paramount in a contest when both teams had struggled to capitalize with runners in scoring position. Camargo and Flowers walked to start the inning, positioning the Braves to take advantage of Rich Hill, who didn’t see much adversity in the first three innings.
Inciarte bunted the runners over before Culberson grounded out to third, forcing the Braves to pull Foltynewicz for Suzuki. The catcher’s two-out single to left scored Camargo and Flowers, putting the Braves ahead.
The defense let down the much-maligned Braves bullpen. Markakis and Albies’ communication error proved disastrous. The wind sliced the ball away from Albies, Markakis said, and it became difficult for both to read.
“It was just a matter of one of us getting there,” he said. “It was unfortunate.”
Albies added, “The ball fell, we can’t do anything. He went for it. I went for it. We didn’t get to it. That’s it.”
Freese’s hit would’ve been a hard play for anybody, but it’s natural to wonder if the currently injured Swanson could’ve halted the ball, which could’ve kept the score at 2-2.
“It’s just baseball,” Acuna said. “Not everything goes the way you want it to go. Not everything happens the way you want it to happen. We did everything we could in our control. Put in the maximum effort. Just didn’t go our way.”
In a last-minute attempt to rally, Inciarte and Culberson knocked back-to-back two-out hits. Slugger Lucas Duda pinch-hit, demolishing a ball to right field that turned foul. He ultimately flew out to center.
Perhaps the Machado homer resonates through the offseason, but it shouldn’t. The Braves’ 2018 season was a resounding success, conquering any reasonable expectations and fortifying a foundation. Several players took steps forward. They won their division and, in the face of elimination, pushed the defending NL champs.
“We’re really close,” Freeman said. “You heard about the names sprinkling into the big leagues, and now they’re here. We’ve got a lot more coming still. So hopefully we can put it together completely next year and win the World Series.”
There’s an active winter ahead for the Braves, who will have ample spending room and are expected to dip into the higher-caliber players pool, both in free agency and the trade market. The core remains mostly intact, with Markakis and Suzuki the key expiring deals.
Be it a few tweaks or a splash move, the Braves’ next task is to transition into “real” contender status. This season, despite ending sooner than they would’ve liked, properly ushered them into a new era.
“I have a great sense of the future,” Snitker said. “I think it's very bright. I think it's -- we took a huge step forward this year. We had some very young players get a lot of great experience, both during the regular season and the post-season. And we have some really good players coming. And I really am excited about the future of the Atlanta Braves right now, with the young nucleus that we have here.”
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