Agony and ecstasy: Will Smith and these ‘gritty’ Braves

Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (left) celebrates with relief pitcher Will Smith after they defeated the San Diego Padres Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in San Diego. (Derrick Tuskan/AP)

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Braves catcher Travis d'Arnaud (left) celebrates with relief pitcher Will Smith after they defeated the San Diego Padres Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in San Diego. (Derrick Tuskan/AP)

Everything happened in that half-inning, although — technically speaking — not much happened. The Braves held a 4-3 lead with three outs to go in the season’s 155th game. This half-inning, which took almost half an hour, could make for, as baseball folks say, a happy flight. It also could make for a grim one. With a week to go, the difference between leading by 1-1/2 games and 2-1/2 is as vast as the distance between San Diego and the A-T-L.

Will Smith, the closer who lives to drive his constituency nuts, took the ball. He threw 31 pitches to six batters. None put the ball in play. The Braves’ fielders could only watch, same as us folks hiding behind our couches. What we all beheld was a spectacle that took years off our lives but left us feeling exhilarated enough to run wind sprints in the backyard.

Being, Will Smith, he walked the first two Padres. This brought Fernando Tatis to the plate. On Friday night, in the final inning of a game that began in a different time zone 65 days earlier, Tatis hit the winning home run off the same Smith. The Braves then had to play another game, this a full one. Had they lost again, their lead over Philadelphia in the National League East would have been a half-game.

Three nights later, Braves manager Brian Snitker recalled the moment. “It could have gone the other way fast against a club like this,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how they’re playing. You look at the names on the jersey and the lineup.”

For much of the season, the Padres were among baseball’s best teams. Having lost the completed suspended game the same way Game 1 of the scheduled doubleheader on July 21 — on a Tatis home run, that off Shane Greene, who’s no longer a Brave — Snitker’s team had to pick itself and try again.

Will Smith stats

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.”