• Exclusives

    Familiar October Stumble in Game 1 Puts Braves in Tough Position

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It happened again, across 247 minutes on the hottest October day ever recorded in the capital city. Another knife in the back with plenty of painful twists for Atlanta Braves fans. Another one of those games that go into a memory bank chock full of too many, “how did we lose” contests.

    Another deflating October stumble.

    It was supposed to be different this time, as these Braves embarked on the National League Division Series opener against St. Louis at SunTrust Park on a 98-degree Thursday afternoon. The 2018 Braves surprisingly won the NL East and entered the postseason playing with house money.

    The Braves of 2019 are expected to earn far more than a participatory certificate. Instead, they’re starting at a one-way exit ticket if Thursday is any indication.

    The Braves dropped the NLDS opener 7-6 on a miserable afternoon in front of 42,631 who baked in the blazing sunshine. By the time it ended at 9:09 p.m. ET, some 4 hours and 7 minutes after first pitch, Atlanta fans were left with that all-too-familiar feeling of opportunities missed in a close postseason defeat.

    And there were many. Too many to win in October, if we’re being honest. The missteps, the chances fumbled, occurred early and often.

    Ronald Acuna Jr. walked to lead off the first inning. Acuna had the green light to steal but was thrown out by Yadier Molina. Considering the Braves had St. Louis starter Miles Mikolas and his 5.40 road ERA on the ropes after the first four hitters reached base, that hurt. They scored just once, leaving two runners stranded.

    In the second inning, starter Dallas Keuchel tried to bunt the slower-than-slow Brian McCann to third. His bunt went right to Mikolas on the third-base side, who easily gunned down the Braves catcher – who got the start with Keuchel on the bump despite Tyler Flowers’ recent good work with the lefty. A bunt toward first likely gets McCann to third.

    Speaking of Keuchel, he needed just 19 pitches to cruise through the first two innings. But the traffic built in the next three frames, double plays started by Josh Donaldson bailing him out twice. There was no escape in the fifth for the veteran making his 10th career postseason start, lasting just 4 2/3 innings while allowing five hits and three walks. Yes, he gave up only one run, but especially after his first two innings, Keuchel’s finished body of work was nowhere near what an otherwise young rotation needed in a series opener, and his short outing cranked up the fire on the Braves relief corps.

    The bullpen did its part, initially. Darren O’Day (if you had him being the first Atlanta reliever deployed in the postseason in August, you’re lying, because nobody did), Shane Greene, and Max Fried kept the Cardinals at bay. Fried struck out two while needing only 14 pitches to navigate a perfect seventh; even with Paul Goldschmidt scheduled to lead off the eighth, Fried should’ve started the frame. He didn’t. That’s on Brian Snitker, and it’s a decision that backfired bigtime (although to be fair, his plan for the final two innings changed before a pitch was thrown in the eighth).

    In the bottom of the seventh Acuna – who had a splendid day by going 3-for-4 with two RBIs, a run scored, and a monster homer in the ninth – committed the cardinal sin that to this point in his career has been the one stain on his record. A high drive off the bricks in deep right field went for just a single because the 21-year-old did not hustle out of the box. While it’s impossible to say with certainty how the inning would’ve played out, this much is clear: that cannot happen in the regular season, and it sure as heck can’t happen in October.

    In the top of the eighth, the Braves had it set up exactly as Snitker wanted. Leading 3-1 and six outs away from their first Game 1 victory since the 2001 NLDS (also the last postseason series Atlanta won), Snitker planned to hand the ball to Chris Martin. But the right-hander suffered a left oblique strain while coming in from the bullpen and threw nary a warmup offering before heading off the field.

    Only Atlanta in October, right?

    That forced Luke Jackson into the game (and all of those who said “Luke Jackson never will pitch late innings in the postseason” after the Braves made their flurry of deadline deals winced in unison). Jackson surrendered two runs on three hits – the last run coming on a Matt Carpenter single that tied the game off Mark Melancon, who came on for a potential four-out save.

    Melancon, who for the most part has been solid as closer, imploded in the ninth in alarming, Braves postseason-esque fashion. He gave up a pair of two-run doubles that extended the deficit to 7-3. One was down the third-base line. One was down the first-base line. Both were barely fair. They were fair just the same.

    While the Braves battled back in the ninth on homers by Acuna and Freddie Freeman, in between Ozzie Albies nearly beat out a ground ball to third. Replay showed Goldschmidt’s toe came ever-so-slightly off the bag, but the Braves challenge was unsuccessful. Of course it was.

    It was, to be blunt, a disastrous beginning to what very well may be a short playoff run. That’s not knee-jerk reaction. That’s reality when looking at losing a Game 1, at home, in a five-game series. The Cardinals played shaky defense, entered the eighth with one run, and in nine innings gave up six runs.

    And they headed back to the hotel with the series lead. Of course they did.

    That says nothing of what comes Friday in Game 2, when St. Louis trots out red-hot right-hander Jack Flaherty. He’s been the best pitcher in the National League in the second half of the season. If the Braves don’t win, their special season moves to the brink before this series moves outside of Cobb County.

    They’ve been resilient all season. They better be in a few short hours. The Braves had a myriad of opportunities to win Game 1. They stubbed their toe in ways that would make many of their postseason predecessors cringe with head-nodding agony. A victory in Game 2 levels things and recalibrates the series in a good way heading to St. Louis. And let’s be fair: this loss does not end the series. Consider the Braves starter Friday: Mike Foltynewicz has been very good since returning from the minors, and has his own measure of redemption to gain after his struggles in last year’s NLDS.

    But if the Braves don’t play better Friday and leave Georgia trailing 2-0, winter will begin far sooner than anybody expected.

    Unfortunately, that feeling is familiar, too.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.