We say yet again: These Braves aren’t a great team. They are, however, a stubborn bunch. “We’re a gritty group in there,” Will Smith said Sunday, and the personification of it is ... Will Smith.
Sunday night, bottom of the ninth, two on, Tatis up: Raise your hand if you thought Smith’s next pitch would fly over the center-field fence, just as it happened Friday. But no. Smith threw a curve. Tatis watched it. Strike 1. Two pitches later, Tatis admired a slider. Strike 2. What happened stands as the most dramatic moment in a season of palpitations. Smith dealt a third consecutive slider — no fastballs to Tatis — that ump Greg Gibson adjudged a strike. Tatis came and went without swinging, though not without grousing.
With that, the inning changed. Even though Smith walked Tommy Pham to push the tying run to third, the Braves were done with Tatis. Trent Grisham struck out, also looking, on a 2-2 fastball. Ha-Seong Kim whiffed on a 2-2 fastball. Smith’s inning: three walks, three strikeouts, no hits, no runs and the biggest save of his life.
Asked how he dealt with the agony/ecstasy of this ninth inning, Snitker said: “Not really well.”
Then: “That’s the one thing about Will. He never gives in. He guts through things. It probably bothered him more than it bothered me.”
A series that might have sunk a season ended with the Braves bubbly and buoyant. Max Fried’s shutout in Friday’s nightcap was the season’s biggest win. Saturday’s rallies from three and then four runs down to win in 10 innings was bigger still. Smith’s ninth inning was drama of the highest order.
Counting the suspended game, the Braves finished their trip 7-4. (Remember, they lost the first two in San Francisco.) Snitker again: “It says a lot for our guys and how they compartmentalize things, how they take it a day at a time, how they approach the game, how they prepare for the game. I keep saying that, and maybe it sounds redundant, but they do a great job of living in the present, which is the only thing you can control.”
Now the Braves play Philadelphia, the lead at 2-1/2 games, the magic number at five. The only way the Phillies can leave town in first place is by sweeping three games. Even if Philly goes 6-0 this week, the Braves could force a tiebreaking 163rd game on Oct. 5 — by taking three from the woeful Mets and winning on Oct. 4 against Colorado in a makeup game that won’t be made up unless it matters.
Said Snitker: “It’s what you play for … You wake up, you have a cup of coffee, you can’t eat — all you want to do is go to the ballpark.”