Mike Foltynewicz returned from the depths of the minor leagues with a vengeance. The 2018 All-Star, humiliated earlier this season, forced his way back in the Braves’ plans and even their postseason rotation. 

He was named the team’s Game 2 starter for the National League Division Series, illustrating how far he’d come in regaining the organization’s faith.

What the Braves couldn’t have envisioned months ago, or perhaps even days ago: Foltynewicz would deliver one of the most dominant playoff outings in Braves history.

The right-hander posted seven scoreless innings before he was lifted for pinch-hitter Adam Duvall, who slammed a two-run homer that gave the Braves breathing room in an eventual 3-0 win over the Cardinals on Friday at SunTrust Park. The best-of-five series now stands at 1-1.

“Keep talking about it, the kind of year I had, just for the Braves to have trust in me,” Foltynewicz said. “And I kind of proved what I went down to work on that I'm still the pitcher that I was last year. We had that experience, too, in the postseason, so I kind of knew what to expect if things got a little crazy. I slowed the game down pretty good tonight.
“These games are pretty big, but at the same time it's just the same game we've been playing all year. I said that the other day and that's kind of how I took it tonight. But really made sure to slow things down, to stay in my mechanics and make sure all my pitches were working like they were tonight. And it was smooth sailing, so it was a lot of fun.”

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Game 2 erased much of the bad vibes from Game 1. The Braves traveled to St. Louis with the series tied 1-1, and avoided the disaster scenario of losing both home games. They have their reborn ace’s artistry to thank.

Foltynewicz was in complete command from the first batter (a strikeout of Dexter Fowler). He glided through the Cardinals lineup, permitted just three hits through seven frames. 

His slider was sharp, inducing those desirable swings and misses. His velocity stayed in the high 90s. He mixed his pitches well, throwing in the curveball and two-seamer to complement a heavy dose of his four-seam and slider combo.

“I wasn't going to walk anybody because just giving up free bases bad things happen,” said Foltynewicz, an Illinois native who grew up a Cardinals fan. “I was just going to have them earn it whatever it was. And just being aggressive early. I was throwing my slider early. And once you see guys taking big hacks at it on the first pitch, that was going to be the model for the whole team.”

 

Foltynewicz at one point retired 13 of 14 Cardinals. Just once St. Louis had two base runners in an inning. Yadier Molina singled and Paul DeJong reached on Ozzie Albies’ error in the second. Foltynewicz responded by striking out Harrison Bader to end the frame.

In his final inning, Molina singled with one out. Foltynewicz coaxed a double play from Kolten Wong to finish his afternoon at 81 pitches.

“What a performance he put on today,” catcher Brian McCann said. “Unbelievable. He loves the moment. He wants the ball.”

It was everything about “Good Folty,” the oft-unpredictable flamethrower who put it together a year ago when he led the Braves with a sub-3.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts. The pitcher who posted a 6.37 ERA across his first 11 starts this season – and was appropriately demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett – is long gone. The one who earned a 2.65 ERA since his Aug. 5 return appears here to stay.

The 27-year-old went seven innings, striking out seven and not issuing a walk. And his exit, which seemed premature in the moment, paved way for the Braves’ biggest swing. Manager Brian Snitker pressed the right button.

Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the bottom of the seventh, a decision that drew boos from the crowd (the righty joked they were chanting ‘Doov, Doov’ instead). Fittingly, Duvall cranked a two-run shot off Flaherty that put the Braves up three. It was the team’s first runs since the first inning when Josh Donaldson singled home Albies.

“That's what you play for,” Duvall said. “It was a big win for us and this is what you work for. This is what you dream about. And it was a good result. It was a good game. And we're all just happy going to St. Louis, trying to get two more wins.”

And so Duvall, like Foltynewicz, rose from Gwinnett to award the Braves a playoff win. The outfielder spent most of the year in Triple-A, first promoted upon Nick Markakis’ injury in July. He’d bounced between the majors and minors as a depth piece.

“I couldn't be happier for any one individual,” Snitker said. He's kind of right in that same light with Folty. How Folty went back this year and got himself going. And what Adam did out of spring training, how he went to Gwinnett. This guy is a former All-Star, he's had Gold Glove votes. He's a 30 and a 90 or 100-type Major League player. And last year didn't go the way he wanted it to. 

“We got him out of spring training. We optioned him down, he went down and hit - I don't know how many homers, and just stayed the course and worked. I have so much respect for a guy like that that does that. That's hard. When you've been up here, and you've been an established Major Leaguer, to go back to Triple-A and put the dedication and devotion and everything that he did, it says a lot about the man and character of the man. And I have nothing but the utmost respect for that guy.”

Snitker’s gamble paid off. He knew Duvall had homered off Flaherty once before - a recollection even Duvall himself didn’t have - and rolled with his slugger.

The homer came July 25, 2018. It was Duvall’s last homer with the Reds, days before he was traded to the Braves at last year’s deadline.

Braves left fielder Adam Duvall (23) celebrates his two-run home run. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Friday’s blast stands as Duvall’s crowning achievement since that deal. But what Foltynewicz demonstrated was more meaningful than any of his past accomplishes. Even without the context of his mid-season comeback, Foltynewicz’s outing would be revered as one of the best in Braves history. 

He was largely responsible for the 12th postseason shutout in team history and first since a 1-0 Game 2 victory over the Astros in the 2001 NLDS - the last postseason series the Braves won. That game was also the last time a Braves starter pitched as many scoreless frames, with Tom Glavine logging eight.

“It's pretty cool to see for a guy (Foltynewicz) that went through what he's went through this year and where he's come back from and the rough start that he had,” Snitker said. “And to see him step up like that is something really special.”

The Braves suffered a gut-wrenching loss Thursday, botching a two-run lead entering the eighth and seeing their closer collapse in the ninth. Losing Friday would’ve nearly sealed the series. The Cardinals carrying a 2-0 lead back to St. Louis was the ultimate nightmare scenario.

Instead, Foltynewicz posted the best day of his career. And he did so opposing Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty, whose 0.91 second-half ERA was MLB’s best. Much of Foltynewicz’s arc has centered on his mental processing. If ever there was a performance to display his mental toughness, it was Friday.

After the Braves scored off Flaherty in the first, he didn’t permit another run until Duvall’s shot. Flaherty finished the inning with his 117th pitch.

Max Fried and Mark Melancon, both of whom pitched in Game 1, completed the game for the Braves. Fried impressed for the second consecutive night, showing he’s a weapon at the end of the bullpen. The lefty’s adjustment to the new role required “big cojones,” according to Melancon.

Melancon, despite throwing 28 pitches Thursday, followed Fried to notch the save, leaving two Cardinals stranded on base.

The NLDS continues Sunday with Game 3. The teams traveled to St. Louis following Game 2 and will hold workouts at Busch Stadium on Saturday. Game 3 will feature Braves All-Star Mike Soroka against former Braves farmhand and long-time Cardinals staple Adam Wainwright.

“Every game is a must-win game,” Duvall said. “And yesterday didn't go how we planned. But we came back today. We're going to St. Louis and looking to get two wins there and just keep playing good baseball, keep pitching like (Foltynewicz) pitched tonight. Get some timely hits. Play good defense and everything will take care of itself.”

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