It was that way in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, where the visiting St. Louis Cardinals held on for a 7-6 win over the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park — a game that played out 90 feet at a time until the very end, when a barrage of homers tightened the score and only drove home the importance of every base gained and every small opportunity seized across nine compelling innings.
This won’t be another get-off-my-lawn screed decrying the all-or-nothing, homer-or-strikeout nature of modern baseball. Because only a fool, a grizzled old-timer or Maury Wills himself would try to argue that a towering home run — like the ones Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman hit for the Braves off Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez in the bottom of the ninth inning to close a four-run deficit to one — is less exciting than an artful deke by a base runner rounding second base.
But ultimately, it was such a deke, by veteran Cardinals right fielder Dexter Fowler, that served as the turning point on a night that defied the M.O. of baseball in 2019, at least for 8 1/2 innings.
The moment came in the top of the ninth inning of what was at the time a 3-3 game. Fowler was on first base with one out, having singled off Braves closer Mark Melancon. When Tommy Edman rifled a single to right field, Fowler took off for second, then slowed ever so slightly as he approached the bag — enough of an ease-up to momentarily fool Braves right fielder Nick Markakis into thinking Fowler was holding there. Only then did Fowler put his head down and dig for third base, with Markakis’s rushed throw too late to get him.
What happened next would break the game open. With the go-ahead run now 90 feet from home, and with second base open, the Braves pitched around slugger Paul Goldschmidt — who had blasted a 446-foot homer an inning before — but Melancon gave up a two-run double to Marcell Ozuna, then, three batters later, another two-run double to Kolten Wong.
And so, the Cardinals, champions of the NL Central, stole a game in the home park of the NL East champs on a night when their defense — among the best in the game this season — made two critical errors, and when their closer could barely hold a four-run lead.
The Braves are now in a dangerous position, having to face Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, arguably the best pitcher in baseball for the past three months, in Game 2 on Friday. And they may have to survive without Chris Martin, one of their top relievers, who strained an oblique muscle while warming up before the eighth inning and is likely to be replaced on their roster before Game 2.
The final margin Thursday night — that single, thin run — only served to drive home how little separated victory from defeat. It was a reminder that for all the brilliance on display from Acuña on the two-run homer in the ninth off Martinez, he may have also cost the Braves a crucial run in the seventh — when, with the Braves ahead by two runs, he admired a long flyball to right, thinking it was a homer. When it hit the wall and caromed perfectly to Fowler, Acuña was forced to stay at first with a single.
The 90 extra feet Acuña failed to gain became critical when, three batters later, he was doubled off second base to end the inning.
Those were not the only 90 feet that will haunt the Braves in the aftermath of Game 1. They might also lament the steal of third base they allowed to Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader in the fifth — the first stolen base allowed all season by veteran Braves lefty Dallas Keuchel, who simply failed to check on Bader before he took off. Two batters later, against a drawn-in infield intended to cut down the lead runner at the plate, Bader took off for home on Fowler’s smash to the left of Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, scoring without a throw for the Cardinals’ first run of the night.
Fortuitously, Albies was mic’d up by TBS, which caught an exchange between him and shortstop Dansby Swanson that drove home the razor-thin margin between that run scoring or not — which came down to the angle of the groundball and Bader’s speed.
“If it was straight at me, I would charge and go [home],” Albies told Swanson. “He’s good on the base paths.”
All the way back in the first inning, the Braves left another run on the bases when Acuña drew a leadoff walk off Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas but was thrown out trying to steal second — a base runner and an out the Braves could have used when another walk, a single and an error led to one run when it could have been two.
This is the way Thursday went — back and forth, 90 feet at a time, every base and every out precious — at least until the late homers by Goldschmidt, Acuña and Freeman, who combined to hit 113 of them this season.
This was the Year of the Home Run in baseball — with a record 6,776 of them hit — and this may yet be the Postseason of the Home Run. Heck, the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, who became the first teams in history to surpass 300 homers in a season, have yet to play their first game in the AL half of the bracket.
But for one night, the Braves and Cardinals reminded everyone what baseball used to look like. This isn’t a value judgment; only an observation. It wasn’t necessarily better, but it was certainly different.
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