The Braves’ postseason rotation is lined up for Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz and Mike Soroka to start the first three games. But manager Brian Snitker insists that’s subject to possible change and fluid based on the opponent, which as of early Saturday night will be either the Cardinals or Brewers.
Keuchel started Friday’s opener in New York, going five innings and allowing four runs in the Braves’ 4-2 loss to the Mets. It concluded his regular season, which didn’t begin until June because of a lengthy free agency that landed him in Atlanta when the team felt the rotation’s status quo wouldn’t cut it.
He finished the season with a 3.75 ERA and 91:39 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Keuchel had rough stretches and dominant runs, but overall provided well-worth the Braves’ $13 million investment.
The playoff-tested veteran southpaw likely will start Game 1 of the NLDS, set for Thursday. But the Braves will cross their fingers he’s significantly better than he showed Friday in Queens, when Keuchel labored through the evening and allowed runs in three of the first four frames.
“He looked like he was forcing things a little bit,” Snitker said. “You’re going to have days like that. … Anybody can go through a period like that. This is a hard business to go seven months perfect and not have ups and downs every now and then.”
The Mets homered twice off Keuchel, one coming from slugger Pete Alonso – whose 52nd shot tied the MLB rookie record – and the next from J.D. Davis, who belted a two-run shot that put New York ahead.
It was a mediocre performance, especially by Keuchel’s standards that usually begin and end with the ability to eat seven innings. He instead required 98 pitches to survive five frames, issuing four walks and a hit by pitch in that span.
“You’d like to (finish stronger),” Keuchel said. “That’d be the ultimate A-plus grade. But you’re still playing a major league baseball schedule and although the Mets aren’t where they want to be, they’re certainly still playing for something. Sometimes that’s the toughest way to go out and play.
“That’s still a good lineup over there and they’re a quality team. I had my work cut out for me tonight and just a few pitches I’d like to have back. Other than that, I felt pretty good. That’s the main key. I wouldn’t like to walk as many guys but I felt like I was around the plate and making the quality pitches I wanted to. So we’ll get ready for the fun now.”
And while Keuchel was a successful regular-season addition, his true value will be determined in October. The Braves needed a crafty, experienced starter. They need Keuchel to lead the charge, calming the storm and giving their stellar offense a chance.
In blunt terms, they need better than Friday’s showing from their likely No. 1 starter. When asked if he had a preference as to when he’d pitch in the NLDS, Keuchel made it clear it he does not.
“I’ve pitched in the wild card (game), I’ve pitched Game 1, I’ve pitched Game 3,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter as long as you’re pitching. That’s the main key, getting out there and pitching in a meaningful game. This is what you play for starting on Thursday. We’re going to be ready to go.”
Delving into the rest of the rotation, the most controversial – for lack of a better word – decision could revolve around Soroka, the Braves’ budding 22-year-old All-Star. He’s scheduled to pitch Sunday in New York, lining him up to start Game 2 at the earliest.
But it’s more likely the Braves are setting him up to start Game 3 in either St. Louis or Milwaukee. Soroka has MLB’s best road ERA (1.35) in 15 outings. It’s a logical choice, but it also means they’ll only get one start out of their best arm.
If that’s the direction the Braves take, Soroka would be available out of the bullpen in a potential Game 5, Snitker confirmed before Friday’s game, which surely plays a role in the franchise’s thinking.
Soroka, like Keuchel, didn’t express a preference for which game he’d start. This will be Soroka’s postseason debut.
“I have no preference,” he said. “I want to be out there whenever and as many times as they want me to help the team. It’s always awesome to look back and look at what pitchers have done in the postseason, one being Madison Bumgarner. He was one of the first ones that I paid attention to and what he was able to do, was it Game 1, 5 and 7? One, four and seven?
“So obviously pitching early means a lot and you get the chance to go out there and take the ball for your team and set the tone right away. Whatever we want to do, I’m behind it. It’s about going out there and winning a game for the team.”
Keuchel and the rejuvenated Mike Foltynewicz would pitch games 1 and 2, respectively, under that scenario, which means either could be available to start a Game 5. Foltynewicz owns a 2.35 ERA with a 50:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .211 average against in nine starts since returning from his Triple-A stint.
The order isn’t necessarily set in stone, Snitker said, and whether the Braves see the Cardinals or Brewers might affect how the Braves lay out their Keuchel-Foltynewicz-Soroka trio. It’s also worth noting that even if that order is solidly the Braves’ plan, there’s no reason for Snitker to confirm such at this juncture.
“It can line up however we want, really, with the way we’re working it this weekend,” Snitker said. “You look at numbers, people upstairs are looking at matchup numbers, things like that, and we’re not set with how we’re going to go yet.”
Braves coaches and executives will meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to finalize their decisions. But they have two more games to complete beforehand, beginning with Foltynewicz against Steven Matz on Saturday evening.
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