We live in Atlanta, where nothing’s ever over until … well, you know. There’s still a chance the Braves lose this series. It’s baseball, and we’re Atlanta, and these are the Braves. There’s your disclaimer.
Here’s the reality: The team that hasn’t won a playoff round since 2001 took a huge step toward the National League Division Series on Wednesday. They won on a day when the opposing pitcher was as good as any opposing pitcher – Morris, Pettitte, Livan, Livan’s brother El Duque, the Big Unit, Lincecum, Kershaw – has ever been against them in a postseason game. They got nothing off the Reds' Trevor Bauer. They won anyway.
It was the first time since Oct. 9, 2001, that the Braves have taken a 1-0 lead in a playoff series. On that day in Houston, the great Chipper Jones smashed a titanic eighth-inning home run off the great Billy Wagner. As September 2020 gave way to October, it was the great Freddie Freeman, who three months ago tested positive for COVID-19, authoring a more modest hit – a single to center in the 13th inning – that carried the excruciating day.
“Game 1, that’s huge,” said Braves starter Max Fried, who offset Bauer in a way reminiscent of John Smoltz against Black Jack Morris in Game 7 all those years ago. “Especially how deep into extra innings we went. Now we’ve got a chance to win it tomorrow.”
If it seemed to take forever for a run to come, that’s because it did. (This is Atlanta. These are the Braves. You thought anything would be easy?) But we around here have seen epic playoff games reach thudding ends – 11 innings in Minneapolis, 18 in Houston – and at this late date we’ll take anything, no matter how prosaic. The team that not long ago stacked 29 runs on the Marlins barely stirred against Bauer, who worked 7-2/3 innings, yielding two hits and striking out 12.
In all, the Braves would strike out 21 times. They would muster six hits, half of which would come in the 13th. Nick Markakis led off with a single to right. Austin Riley singled to left. For the first time, they had two on and no outs. Ronald Acuna’s ground out pushed pinch-runner Cristian Pache to third. The Reds changed pitchers, summoning lefty-killer Amir Garrett, and overloaded their infield, stationing outfielder Nick Castellanos at third base. Didn’t matter.
Freeman punched the fourth slider he saw over the stacked infield. (“I was trying to hit a sac fly,” he said.) The Braves won 1-0. They lead the series 1-0. They’re halfway to the NLDS and the Houston bubble. They’re halfway to a series win for the first time since Ian Anderson, who will start Game 2, was 3 years old.
Said manager Brian Snitker: “Some kind of job by that bullpen – and Max. I don’t care who you’re facing, that’s some kind of pitching.”
It must be said that the Reds spent the irregular season making almost all pitchers look good. They batted .212 as a team, the worst for any big-league club in 110 years. They had more scoring chances – they left 13 men aboard and were 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position – but they squandered an opportunity in the first against Fried and three more in extra innings. They blundered their way out of a first-and-third in the seventh, attempting a delayed double steal that had no chance of working. The Reds were terrible, if you will, in the red zone.
The Braves, meanwhile, spent the game validating the wisdom of general manager Alex Anthopoulos' offseason splurging on the bullpen. Fried went seven innings, yielding six hits and no walks. The seven pitchers who came after him – Chris Martin, Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Darren O’Day, Tyler Matzek, Shane Greene and finally A.J. Minter – worked six innings, yielding five hits and striking out 11.
It took four hours, 39 minutes. It was the first playoff game ever to stay scoreless beyond the 11th inning, surpassing the Smoltz/Morris epic. It was the first playoff game to see 37 strikeouts. For long stretches, nothing much happened. Always, though, the tension of what MIGHT occur bore down on the home club, which is the National League’s No. 2 seed and is therefore supposed to beat the No. 7. For the Braves to have lost this Game 1 would have brought this franchise’s forlorn 21st century history of postseason baseball rushing back.
“A lot of these guys don’t know what’s happened,” said Freeman, who has never yet played in a winning playoff series. “I remember. I know how important Game 1 is.”
Said Fried: “Playoff baseball, that’s what makes it exciting. Anything can happen at any time.”
With one out in the bottom of the 13th, the franchise cornerstone drove home the winner and spared the Braves the indignity of being pushed into a win-or-go-home Game 2. The Reds still can throw Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray these next two days, assuming this series lasts that long, but they cannot spring Bauer on the Braves again. He was as good as advertised – and as antic. He strutted off the mound after one inning-ending strikeout, and he performed a tomahawk chop on his exit in the eighth. But his team lost.
“We saw everything he did,” Freeman said, and there’s a chance the Braves won’t see another pitcher so good if they play all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. They took what was surely the Reds' best shot. They won 1-0. They lead 1-0. For the first time in nearly two decades, they made a Game 1 go right.