Atlanta has seen this movie, and it doesn’t end well. The Braves need a director’s cut from the middle of their order and their reborn All-Star.
Wasting every avenue to a victory Monday has forced the Braves into a win-or-go-home situation: Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Cardinals at SunTrust Park, where the victor will advance to the National League Championship Series and sit four wins away from a pennant.
Then again, it’s not technically win or go home. The Braves would actually be home, where they’ve lost countless playoff finales, even at newish SunTrust Park when they were eliminated in Game 4 a year ago. This is their fourth time hosting an NLDS Game 5. They’ve lost the previous three.
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“I don't think any of those guys in there think about any of that,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Most of them don't remember it. They were probably in grade school. And they talk about that — well, you haven't won a playoff series, whatever — and, again, I say we haven't won one in a year as far as I’m concerned. This is our second year with this group.”
As Snitker said, the Braves players and coaches don’t care about the team’s or city’s dreaded playoff past. They won 97 games this season and their second consecutive division title. They seemingly always rebound from the horrific loss. They are hosting a winner-take-all with starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz — in whom they hold immense faith — in front of what’s been an electric crowd for most of the season.
The Cardinals, on paper, look inferior to the Braves talent-wise. It’s why few picked them to win the NL Central over the Cubs and Brewers. Their production has mainly come from their middle of the order: Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and Yadier Molina. Their pitching has been outstanding, helping them overcome poor production from most of their lineup.
“This has been an unbelievable series,” Snitker said. “My God, both teams just banging at each other and the close games and the late-inning heroics. It's been something. It's been exhausting, I know when you're a part of it. But it's been a heck of a series both sides. I guess it's only fitting that we're going to be going out there in a winner-take-all type atmosphere tomorrow.
“So this place will be rocking. And it's going to be a great experience, I think. And it's going to be fun to feel and experience what we're in for (Wednesday).”
The Braves have also received outstanding pitching that’s had to make up for a lack of offense. Regardless of Snitker’s decisions, or how general manager Alex Anthopoulos constructed the roster, the Braves need their veterans to perform. It’s been an unexpected, impossible-to-predict development that’s the primary reason the team is cornered into a Game 5.
Freddie Freeman, Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis and Brian McCann went 1-for-17 in Game 4. Freeman hasn’t factored positively into the series outside his homer in Game 1. Donaldson ripped a double to start the Braves’ ninth-inning rally in Game 3, but has otherwise been quiet. Markakis nor McCann have swung the pendulum.
Snitker is toying with tweaking the lineup, he said Tuesday, though he didn’t elaborate further other than indicating Adam Duvall, who’s knocked in five of the team’s 16 runs this series, could start, likely in place of Matt Joyce.
Freeman is dominating the storylines, insisting the bone spurs that cost two games in the final week of the season aren’t impacting his play. When asked if he thought Freeman was OK, even Snitker expressed doubt.
“I don’t know that he is, just by performance,” he said. “But I know he’s Freddie Freeman. He’s a special animal. And he’s a special player. And at any point in time this guy can — because I’ve seen it over and over and over, man, he could come out — he’s the type of guy that will come out tomorrow and put everybody on their shoulders and take them for a ride.”
You can guess how a series will go, study matchups, Vegas odds and make educated projections. But the Braves couldn’t have accounted for their veterans having such little impact. It’s the kids — Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Mike Soroka, Max Fried — who’ve played a pivotal role. If the core of the order was playing to expectations, the series would’ve ended Monday.
But they haven’t, and it didn’t. And so the Braves must again try to beat Jack Flaherty, who they tagged for three runs over seven innings in Game 2. Odds are, he won’t begin with the same nerves he exhibited earlier in that outing.
Asking Foltynewicz to match his exemplary showing in Game 2 wouldn’t be fair. It was perhaps the best day of his career, with the right-hander going seven scoreless, fanning seven Cardinals and walking none. Any performance in the same stratosphere would be happily accepted.
Foltynewicz will try not to dwell on the outing over the next day. He planned to spend time with his family Tuesday night, relaxing and maybe even watching “Toy Story 4” with his son, Jett. On Wednesday, he’ll embark on the biggest start of his life.
“It's almost just like a chess game — a lot of reading of the swings, see if they’re moving up, in, out in the box, just a lot about pitching, mixing it up,” Foltynewicz said of the Cardinals offense. “At the same time, it’s just you never know how you’re going to feel on the days you start. You might have a pitch; you might not have one. It’s just all about how you feel that day.
“But everybody’s going to be ready, Game 5. I’m sure the adrenaline will be pumping both sides. Everybody’s going to be aggressive, everyone’s going to be ready. We’ll take all those things into consideration and go from there.”
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