Even by Atlanta expectations, which usually include openly expressed dread before decisive playoff games, what unfolded Wednesday was unthinkable. For a franchise that’s endured many a gut-wrenching defeat, this was unprecedented.
"I don't know that I've seen that many guys hit in the first inning that quick in my entire life," manager Brian Snitker said. "I don't know. It wasn't how we drew it up, I know that. I don't know. That thing just kept rolling and we couldn't stop it."
The Braves, who won 97 games and their second consecutive NL East title, were completely abashed in front of a sold-out home crowd, which paid hard-earned dollars to see one of the franchise's most prideful seasons jettisoned to the wasteland.
Trending throughout the evening on Twitter: "Atlanta sports." A team that'd made so many strides in the regular season, appearing to be a legitimate World Series threat, was being mocked nationally. It might not have been 28-3, but it was the next worst thing.
The brutality began with a common culprit of the Braves’ season: A walk. Foltynewicz lost a full-count battle with Dexter Fowler, putting the leadoff man on base. The Cardinals, playing small ball in what they surely expected to be a tight contest, had Kolten Wong bunt him over, giving the Braves the last out they’d see for a while.
Paul Goldschmidt singled to shortstop Dansby Swanson, who stopped the ball from entering the outfield but didn’t have a play. Marcell Ozuna, who’d tormented the Braves the entire series, smacked an 0-2 slider to right field for a 1-0 lead.
What happened next was the defining moment of the game. Yadier Molina hit a ball directly to Freeman. He couldn’t field it cleanly, missing out on a possible double play and awarding the Cardinals the bases loaded with only one down.
The error was a microcosm of Freeman's series. The All-Star and MVP candidate was a non-factor, looking unsettled at the plate and falling victim to two of the most untimely defensive plays in the series: Wednesday's error and his attempt at snagging Molina's game-tying hit in Game 4, which scraped his glove but soared just out of his reach.
“All of it,” Freeman said, shouldering blame for the series. “I didn’t come through. Everybody is going to say what they want to say but this one’s on me.”
Matt Carpenter, also drawing a full count, walked in the ensuing at-bat to score the second run. Tommy Edman laced a double down the right-field line to add two more. Foltynewicz intentionally walked Paul DeJong, re-loading the bases.
Snitker had seen enough. He pulled Foltynewicz from the game, replacing him with lefty Max Fried. Foltynewicz, who was sensational in his seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 2, finished having pitched one-third of an inning, allowing seven runs (six earned) on three hits.
“There’s not much to say, I got one out,” Foltynewicz said. “I’m very embarrassed. For all this hard work for this team, these veterans to do, for it to come down to this and I don’t even give this team a chance before they even bat, it’s tough. ... It’s embarrassing, especially on a stage like this for millions of people to see.”
So about the rest of those runs: Fried walked opposing starter Jack Flaherty upon entry, meaning Flaherty had an at-bat and RBI before taking the mound. Fowler, who entered the day 1-for-17 in the series, doubled to left to make the score 7-0.
“More shock than anything,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “You don’t expect something like that to happen, especially with how well we’ve played all season.”
Fried’s outing didn’t get any better. Wong doubled to center, scoring another pair. Goldschmidt flew out to right, finally producing the second out in the inning. Fried induced the would-be third out when he struck out Ozuna, but the ball eluded catcher Brian McCann, allowing Ozuna to reach and Wong to score the 10th run.
Molina grounded to third to mercifully end the inning. The Braves were shrouded in sarcastic cheers from a crowd that had just witnessed an abomination unlike any other the franchise has suffered.
“You put this thing together, your goal is to get in the playoffs because anything can happen after that,” Snitker said. “I guess we saw that. Anything did happen.”
The Cardinals would tag on three more “just in case” runs during the game. The Braves’ run came on Donaldson’s solo shot in the fourth off Flaherty. Freeman had a chance to at least make his bottom line look better when he hit with the bases loaded in the fifth, but he grounded into a force-out at second.
“Worst nightmare coming true,” Swanson said. “Things that completely went their way. A lot of what-if scenarios. Unfortunately that’s how this game goes sometimes.”
The grotesque first frame launched the Braves into a winter of questions. Last offseason was about supplementing an ahead-of-schedule core. This one will center on who’s going, who’s coming and how this group can get over the hump.
McCann announced his retirement after the game, while fellow backstop Tyler Flowers, outfielder Nick Markakis and starter Julio Teheran have team options. The outfield around Ronald Acuna is unset. The rotation and bullpen are littered with uncertainties.
The biggest decision revolves around Donaldson, who’ll re-enter free agency looking for a sizable multi-year commitment.
“We’ll see,” Donaldson said about his future. “I enjoyed being here. I enjoyed my time here. I know this organization has a bright future ahead of it. ... Being around these guys every day, it was a joy to be around. As a ballplayer, you live for teams like this.”
The Braves could look much different in 2020. That reality, acknowledged by the players, makes this season’s shortcoming even more painful.
Because as widely successful of a season this was pre-October, the Braves were left in the same spot as 2018: Watching the opponent celebrate a clinching victory at SunTrust Park. They spent a year motivated by the desire to avenge one playoff ousting. Now they’ll spend another year motivated by two.
“We all know we had a good-enough team to win this whole thing,” a subdued Freeman said. “Last year was a ‘hooray.’ We proved a lot of people wrong. This year we expected to win this division and go far in the playoffs. And we didn’t do it.”
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