Instead, the Braves found themselves flying back to Atlanta on Monday night to prepare for Wednesday’s Game 5 against the St. Louis Cardinals. For that, they can blame their own failures, some exceptional relief work from the Cardinals’ bullpen and the cursed baseball fates — all of which ganged up on the Braves in a 5-4, 10-inning loss.
When it comes to the adage “Baseball is a funny game,” we can now quantify that, thanks to the wonders of Statcast and its exit-velocity readings.
In the ninth and 10th innings alone, the Braves made four outs on balls that left the bat at 100 mph or greater; this season, major league hitters batted .636 on balls with such an exit velocity. But the eighth-inning base hit that sent the game to extra innings, the single by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina off the tip of Freeman’s glove at first base, clocked in at 63.4 mph — the third-lowest of the 49 batted balls Monday.
Two innings later, Molina drove in the winning run with a deep sacrifice fly to left (with an exit velo of 102.1 mph, for all of you Statcast nerds) off Braves right-hander Julio Teheran. Teheran, who had been added to the Braves’ roster in the aftermath of Chris Martin’s oblique injury in Game 1, wasn’t expected to see high-leverage innings — but bullpen ace Max Fried was unavailable after pitching in each of the first three games of the series, and Braves Manager Brian Snitker held back closer Mark Melancon for a potential save situation.
One batter before Molina walked it off for the Cardinals — punctuating the winning swing with a boomerang-style bat flip for the ages — the Braves, with runners on first and second base, nearly converted a 1-4-3 double play on Marcell Ozuna’s slow tapper to the left of the mound, but Ozuna beat the throw at first by less than half a step. There was no play at third because third baseman Josh Donaldson was charging the grounder. That’s how narrow the margin between winning and losing was in this one.
The Cardinals’ win, which required 5⅓ scoreless innings from their bullpen, sent the series back to Atlanta — with a pitching matchup that now favors the Cardinals. They will send ace Jack Flaherty, who posted a 0.93 ERA across his final 16 starts of the regular season, to the mound against Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz. Yes, the Braves won that same matchup in Game 2, with Foltynewicz outpitching Flaherty, but you can be sure the Braves wanted no part of a rematch.
The Braves will lament any number of missed opportunities and ill-fated decisions in Monday’s loss — beginning with the decision to double-switch right fielder Matt Joyce out of the game in the fourth inning when they pulled starter Dallas Keuchel, who was in the process of putting the Braves in a 3-1 hole.
Of course Joyce’s spot in the order would come up in one of the biggest spots in the game — with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh, with the Braves holding a one-run lead. And of course pinch hitter Adeiny Hechavarría would fly out to end the inning — symbolic of a day when the Braves went 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position, stranding the bases loaded in both the sixth and seventh. The Braves also managed the rare feat of wasting a leadoff triple in the seventh and a leadoff double in the ninth, both off the bat of Ronald Acuña Jr.
Keuchel’s struggles, meanwhile, underscored the Braves’ choice to start him in Game 1 in Atlanta, instead of 22-year-old ace Mike Soroka — a choice ostensibly made because Soroka had far better results on the road — and again Monday on three days’ rest. But given the choice of two starts from Soroka (who overpowered the Cardinals for seven innings in Game 3) or two from Keuchel, they probably would have been better off with the former.
And then there is the heart of the Braves’ order — Freeman, Donaldson and Nick Markakis — which went a combined 1 for 12 with four strikeouts and six runners left on base. Freeman contributed three of those strikeouts and hit into a double play, leaving him 2 for 16 with five strikeouts in the series. Despite an elbow injury that has nagged him all season and forced him out of the lineup for four games during the final week of the regular season, he insisted he is not hurt.
It would have been a victory that resonated beyond one simple outcome for the Braves, who haven’t captured a postseason series since 2001, losing seven times in the division series in the interim, as well as the 2012 wild-card game. Monday’s loss was the sixth straight for the franchise in games where it had the chance to advance.
Instead, it was a loss that resonated beyond Monday’s outcome. The Braves still need that one more win to advance, but now, with Flaherty awaiting in Game 5, the series has tilted ever so slightly against them.