If the Braves don’t arise victorious in Wednesday’s winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Yadier Molina’s hit just escaping Freddie Freeman’s grasp will loom as one of the largest “what ifs” in team history.
The Braves lost a back-and-forth Game 4 with the Cardinals on Monday afternoon, 5-4 in 10 innings, to split the games in St. Louis and mandate a Game 5 to determine who advances to the National League Championship Series.
For as exciting as their Game 3 win was on Sunday, their Game 4 loss deflated the jubilance.
Up 4-3, the Braves brought in All-Star reliever Shane Greene with one down in the eighth inning. Paul Goldschmidt smacked a broken-bat double but ensuing hitter Marcell Ozuna struck out, leaving the Cardinals’ chance to tie the elimination game in jeopardy.
Molina slapped a ball in the air toward first base. Freeman backed up but couldn’t reel it in, with the ball just scraping his glove and landing in the shallow outfield, permitting Goldschmidt to score the equalizer.
“Yep, I thought it was going in (my glove),” Freeman said. “I just needed to be 6’7.”
The Braves, who left the bases loaded in the sixth and seventh, received a lead-off double from Ronald Acuna to open the ninth. Carlos Martinez, beaten to a pulp in Games 1 and 3 of the series, proceeded to retire Ozzie Albies, strike out Freeman and coax a fly out from Josh Donaldson to escape the inning.
Acuna, who tripled to open the seventh but wasn’t brought home, was the ninth man the Braves left on base. In fact, he was on base four times and never scored, a reflection of the Braves’ wilted offense that went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
“Usually when you leave those spares out there, you know, seventh inning, then we (Acuna) triple and can't get him in,” manager Brian Snitker said. “They seem to come back and haunt you, those little add-on runs (we couldn’t get).”
Kolten Wong doubled against Julio Teheran to start the 10th. Goldschmidt was intentionally walked. Ozuna advanced Wong to third for Molina, whose sacrifice fly to left won it.
Max Fried was off limits after pitching in the previous three games, Snitker said. The Braves turned to Teheran given that he, alongside Mark Melancon, who also pitched the past three days, was one of two arms available and could’ve provided length in the extra innings if needed.
Albies’ two-run homer in the fifth had given the Braves their first lead, 4-3. A Cardinals offense that had been ineffective most of the series homered three times off Dallas Keuchel (Goldschmidt, Ozuna twice), sporting advantages of 2-0 and 3-1.
“The frustrating part is I felt good enough to go five or six and didn’t deliver,” Keuchel said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. It’s not in my nature to go short. I knew I’d be on a shorter lease today, being on three days rest, but that’s no excuse not to come out and attack the zone more.”
Dansby Swanson’s one-out double earlier in the fifth set up the Braves’ three-run frame. He advanced to third on Molina’s passed ball and scored when Adam Duvall slapped a ball to third that Matt Carpenter couldn’t field cleanly. It awarded the slugger his fifth RBI of the series (the Braves have scored 16 runs over four games).
With two outs, Albies clubbed the first pitch he saw over the right-field wall, scoring two runs and putting the Braves up 4-3. An offense that didn’t generate barely anything against Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson had swiftly chased him from the game.
But the Cardinals’ ability to continuously escape threats - or the Braves’ inability to capitalize, if you use that perspective - allowed for Molina’s finishing heroics. His knock out of Freeman’s reach and sacrifice fly plated the tying and winning runs, respectively, and kept the Cardinals’ season alive.
“Sometimes (you miss opportunities throughout the game), we’ve done that before this year,” Donaldson said. “We’ve been able to bounce back. And that’s what we’re looking to do Wednesday.”
Monday might’ve also marked the worst game of Freeman’s career. He went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. He was responsible for six outs and failed to convert with runners in scoring position (a microcosm of his team). And then there was the Molina hit just out of his reach, a defining moment of the series.
Freeman stressed that the bone spurs in his right elbow, which derailed his finish to the regular season, have had “zero” impact on his play this series.
“I’m just not hitting,” Freeman said.
He isn’t alone: The Braves’ veterans - Freeman, Donaldson, Markakis and Brian McCann - went a combined 1-for-17 with two walks and six strikeouts.
“This whole postseason thing is timing and we had the deck stacked I thought pretty good in our favor, more than once today,” Snitker said. “And we just couldn't get a hit. It's like all those guys have carried us all year and (the Cardinals) did a good job of pitching to them.”
The Braves will start Mike Foltynewicz against Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty on Wednesday at SunTrust Park. The winner will face the victor of Dodgers-Nationals in the NLCS.
The game will be at 8:07 p.m. if it’s the lone Game 5. If the Dodgers and Nationals require a deciding contest, the game will start at 5:02 p.m.
It will be the fourth time the Braves play a deciding NLDS Game 5 at home. They’re 0-3 in the past games, but the team is confident largely because of Foltynewicz, who pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cardinals in Game 2.
“It’s going to come down to two right arms on Wednesday,” Freeman said. “Folty’s been amazing, Flaherty’s been amazing for about three months, so we’ll see if we can score a couple runs and give (Foltynewicz) the lead because I think that’s all it’s going to take.”
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