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Cardinals Nearly Blow Game 1 Against The Braves, But Don't, Dammit

Photo: Kevin C. Cox (Getty)

Game 1 of the NLDS between the Braves and the vile Cardinals did not represent the best that either team had to offer. There were slick plays and dingers, and there was some gutsy pitching, but there was also some sloppy defense, lots of glaringly bad luck, and some spectacularly crappy late-innings pitching. The Cardinals prevailed, 7–6, but only after they did their level best to give the game away, several times.

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Atlanta’s 3–1 lead, which held up into the eighth inning, was largely the result of luck. Josh Donaldson got on with one away in the sixth when a Tyler Webb fastball glanced off his pinky. A Nick Markakis grounder, hit more or less exactly at Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, became a double when the ball took an unexpectedly loopy bounce 10 feet in the air and into shallow right. On exactly zero well-hit balls, the Braves had runners in scoring position with one down.

Following an intentional walk to load the bases and then a strikeout, Dansby Swanson slapped a hard grounder at Cardinals third baseman Tommy Edman, which should’ve ended the inning. But this ball, too, took a troubling hop, flummoxed Edman, and ricocheted off his chest. But wait! The ball happened to ricochet directly to shortstop Paul DeJong, who fielded it cleanly and pivoted quickly to throw to second for an inning-ending force-out. But DeJong’s throw was short, and the ball took another difficult hop and ricocheted off the glove of second baseman Kolten Wong and into shallow left. A second run scored. This was every bit as goofy as it sounds.

So, yes, the Braves technically “manufactured” a couple runs to take a sixth-inning lead. But these were deeply suspect runs, allowed in an out-of-character sequence by one of the best fielding teams in baseball, and it seemed right and cosmically just that even a team as loathsome as the Cardinals should come back to tie the game in almost equally screwy fashion. Braves reliever Chris Martin injured himself throwing warmup pitches from the mound in the top of the eighth, and had to be taken out before facing a single batter. Luke Jackson, hastily brought on in relief, threw one breaking pitch in the dirt and then saw his first strike get socked into low Earth orbit by Paul Goldschmidt. Later in the inning, the Cardinals scored a run on an unimpressive bloop single up the line in left to tie things up and give this game a chance of being settled by non-screwy baseball plays.

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What broke things open was the decision by Braves manager Brian Snitker to use reliever and oft-creaky closer Mark Melancon for a four-out save. It was Melancon who gave up Carpenter’s game-tying RBI single in the eighth, and it would be Melancon whose weak stuff was bashed around by the Cardinals in the ninth. Melancon is very much not a strikeout pitcher, which distinguishes him from most other late-innings relievers, and leaves him susceptible to the randomness of balls in play. He loaded the bases in the ninth on mostly soft contact, plus a walk, and then allowed a two-run double to Marcell Ozuna. Three batters later, following an intentional walk and a strikeout, Melancon allowed another two-run double, this time to Wong. By the time he was pulled for Sean Newcomb, the Braves looked dead and the crowd was silent.

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But the Cardinals did their best to give it back. Billy Hamilton led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk; two pitches later, Ronald Acuña Jr. smoked a 455-foot bomb to left center to bring the Braves within two runs:

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Two batters later, Freddie Freeman one-upped Acuña with a monstrous, 460-foot rocket into the back of the pond in straightaway center to make it a one-run game. This was not at all the pitching performance the Cardinals were looking for from Carlos Martinez, who saved 24 games in the regular season.

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Sadly, that’s where the theatrics ended. Donaldson grounded out feebly, and then Nick Markakis was brutally frozen on a third-strike slider that came in chest high and over the fat part of the plate. For the first four-plus innings, this game was a fun duel between two gutsy pitchers who didn’t have their best stuff. The back half was an increasingly silly circus between two teams that seemed equally snake-bit and equally vulnerable in their bullpens. In the end Atlanta’s collapse was just longer and gnarlier than St. Louis’s, and that was that.

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