First, realize that pitching in October is an altogether higher form of the art.
Just listen to a couple guys who between them have 427-1/3 innings of postseason experience, along with 29 playoff wins and even a handful of saves in one case. They are among the few who have forged a very special relationship with October.
“You get everybody’s best at-bat,” said Tom “Just Give Me One Run” Glavine, author of the Braves best World Series moment (eight innings, one hit in 1995’s clincher against Cleveland).
“It’s not Sunday in August and 104 degrees and, ‘It’s my fourth at-bat and I want to get out of here.’ You don’t get that. Everybody grinds every pitch.”
Echoing that sentiment is John Smoltz, he of the 15-4 postseason record for the Braves. And four saves. And a roommate of Glavine’s in Cooperstown.
“You’re dealing with a game that will be the most fatiguing game you’ve ever pitched,” Smoltz said. “You’re dealing with a game where a runner on first is a rally. The crowd is into every pitch. There is nothing taken for granted.”
The intensity, Smoltz said, is such that 100 pitches in October will wear on you 150 any other time of year.
“If they’d tell you, OK, I want you to pitch 35 postseason games in a year, I couldn’t get through half a season,” Smoltz said.
Having established that this fall baseball is a gnarly beast, the question then becomes just how are the Braves equipped to deal with the pitching piece of the challenge this time around?
It will be a largely different look for the Braves than just a year ago, when they were the surprise of the NL East and then four-and-out against Los Angeles in the divisional series. And a different opponent — St. Louis is up.
Last year in those four games against the Dodgers, your starters were Mike Foltynewicz, Anibel Sanchez, Sean Newcomb tag-teaming with Kevin Gausman and Foltynewicz again. The winning pitcher in Game 3 was. . . we’ll wait a moment while you try to come up with the name.
Time’s up: Touki Toussaint.
Gausman and Sanchez are gone. Newcomb has been re-purposed as a reliever. And Foltynewicz had to go to Gwinnett on a Triple-A vision quest to find himself before returning to Atlanta as a viable arm. Lo, here he is the hottest Braves pitcher down the stretch — 1.50 ERA, .149 batting average against, 26 strike outs to six walks in his last five starts.
This time, the presumptive starters — Dallas Keuchel, Foltynewicz, Mike Soroka and Max Fried should the need arise — represent a quite different mix of experience, youth and stuff. There have been some late-season wobbles among them, but as a whole, our esteemed guest lecturers today believe that the Braves are much better served by their starters than in 2018.
“I think they’re set up pretty well,” Glavine said. “I think on the pitching side they’re much stronger going in this year than they were a year ago. I think the rotation is much more an asset than it was a year ago. The bullpen the same thing.
“They’re in the enviable position of making tough decisions (for the makeup of the postseason roster), which every organization wants to do.”
Glavine was 25 when he made his playoff debut for the Braves in 1991, Smoltz 24. If either is concerned about the 22-year-old Soroka (13-4, 2.60 ERA and an All-Star) being dropped into the middle of the playoff crucible, he disguises it well. Soroka is tentatively scheduled to pitch Game 3 of the NLDS in St. Louis.
“If he goes out there and does what Steve Avery did at 21-years old in Pittsburgh, then I’m OK with it,” Glavine said with a smile. Young Avery threw 16 scoreless innings at the Pirates in the ’91 NLCS.
“I worry less about age and more about make-up,” continued Glavine, who has watched up close as the occasional TV analyst for the Braves. “In Soroka’s case I think he’s wise beyond his years. He’s got a great understanding of what he’s doing and what makes him good. I don’t think he gets rattled by the situation. I don’t worry about him.
“You can have talent and experience,” Glavine said, “but if I can only have one, give me talent.”
At the other end of the age and experience spectrum is the gloriously bearded 31-year-old Keuchel, acquired in June as a stabilizer for the staff. He has in his back pocket nine postseason starts for Houston and the guile to go with it, and is scheduled to start Game One Thursday.
Do not underplay the Keuchel Effect, even if he isn’t one of those new-age whip-arms capable of overpowering an opponent on command. (Keuchel is 8-8 with a 3.75 ERA as a Brave).
“It’s huge based on certain match-ups. He’s been through it. He knows how to pass some of that information on. He’s been on a championship team, pitched when he wasn’t maybe exactly perfect but figured out a way,” Smoltz said.
At the back end of the pitching equation, the Braves also did some major trade deadline remodeling in their bullpen, acquiring Chris Martin, Shane Greene and Mark Melancon to apply the finishing coat to games.
“That’s about as good a move as any team has made covering up some of the things that needed to be covered up,” Smoltz said. “It’s basically given (the Braves) a chance to make a deep run – a deep run.”
“What the Braves have done is close the gap that was a pretty good gap around the All-Star break between the Dodgers and everybody else (in the National League),” Smoltz said.
A lead analyst for Fox Sports and the MLB Network, Smoltz this season is assigned the American League playoffs and the World Series.
One wonders if Smoltz might be in the position to call a few October games featuring the same team he once upheld in the postseason.
“I said about three years ago at (a Braves banquet) that selfishly I was going to give the organization three or four years to give me the dream scenario of calling a World Series in my home city,” Smoltz said.