Oh, brother. You knew going in that things between the Braves and the Cardinals in a division series would be interesting, to say the very least. Especially knowing the set pits one precinct of fun police against another. Then you got reminded soon enough about being very careful what you wish for.
The Cardinals and the Braves put on a few shows for the price of one, before the Cardinals hung in to finish a 7-6 win Thursday afternoon. The Comedy of Errors, starring one of this season’s most vaunted defenses. The Late Show, starring both sides’ bombardiers Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Ronald Acuna, Jr. And Get Off My Lawn, starring Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez out of the ninth inning bullpen.
When the Show’s number three team for defense in terms of runs saved (95), the number five team for turning batted balls into outs (.705), and the number thirty team for allowing errors (a mere 66) allows three Game One runs on extremely playable grounders, you try to remind yourself the Elysian Field demigods do have a sense of humour, if you’re a Cardinals fan.
When your franchise youth settles for a long single in the seventh, after taking a leisurely stroll out of the batter’s box, and barely arrives at first when he might have pulled into second when the right fielder turned to throw in after playing the ball off the height of the fence, you try to see it from the youth’s perspective, if you’re a Braves fan.
When Cardinal fan’s relief ace—who’s renowned for making like Tarzan when he nails strikeouts or induces critical outs—calls out the same youth for having a ball when he does hit one that’s no questions asked out in the bottom of the ninth and has a blast running it out, demanding the boy wonder respect him, Cardinal fan has to remind himself or herself that Mama said there’d be moments and brain farts like that.
When Braves fan has to listen to venerable veteran Freddie Freeman call out Ronald Acuna, Jr.’s earlier stroll, he or she needs every ounce of restraint to keep from reminding Freeman—and any other Brave sharing Freeman’s thinking—that, all things considered, being at second where he belonged in the seventh might not have gotten them more in the end.
With all the foregoing and more it almost felt as though the Cardinals hanging tough, coming back, yanking far ahead with a four-run top of the ninth, and still beating the Braves, was a tough loss. And weren’t things weird enough without Braves reliever Chris Martin going down for the rest of the series after straining his oblique . . . while coming in from the pen assigned to work the eighth? Without throwing a single pitch?
“Every out, every pitch is important,” said the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, who didn’t start but who pinch hit in the eighth and dumped the quail off Braves reliever Mark Melancon in the eighth to tie things up at three. “There’s a lot of adrenaline involved, but that’s what you play for, that’s why you’re here.”
“We’ve played all season expecting to win those type games. You give up that kind of lead, it’s tough to swallow,” said Freeman, who shot one over the center field wall one out after Acuna yanked a two-run homer into the same real estate in the ninth, then watched Josh Donaldson ground out and Nick Markakis look at strike three to end the Braves’ afternoon a day late and a dollar short.
Those two homers were joined by Golschmidt in the top of the eighth. Off Luke Jackson, who had to go in after Martin’s in-from-the-pen oblique tweak and watch Goldschmidt send his second pitch over the left field wall. They were the only bombs on a day both teams seemed hell bent on proving small ball hadn’t yet gone the way of the Yugo. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn some things were supposed to have been outlawed in recent times.
Things like Cardinals center fielder Harrison Bader not just beating out an infield single in the fifth and moving to second on—the horror!—a sacrifice bunt by Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas, but stealing third for the first such theft in a measly two tries off Braves starter Dallas Keuchel all year long. Not to mention Bader tying the game at one when he scored on Dexter Fowler’s ground out to second.
Things like Donaldson pushing the first run of the game home on what should have been dialing Area Code 4-6-3 in the bottom of the first but for usually easy-handed Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong blowing his backhand toss to first leaving all hands safe and enabling his Braves counterpart Ozzie Albies—who reached on a walk in the first place—to score.
Things like the Braves taking a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth with only one hit—with Donaldson plunked with one out, Markakis doubling him to third, pinch hitter Adam Duvall handed first on the house, and, a pitching change and a strikeout later, Dansby Swanson motoring to beat an infield RBI single that turned into an extra run home when Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong’s throw to second bounced off Wong’s glove.
Except that most of the conversation turned around Acuna’s eighth-inning trot. Some of it came from Freeman, who knew how frustrating it was to lose a potential run in a one-run loss with a mistake that wasn’t the first such.
“But I think you have that conversation once,” the well-respected first baseman continued. “It’s kind of beating a dead horse after that if you keep having the same conversation over and over again. You have to know that was a mistake.”
“It could have been a double, but things happen,” was Acuna’s way of explaining it. “I didn’t speak with the manager about it. I just went out to enjoy the game. I always try to give my best, but these are things that sometimes get away from me. They are not things I want to do. As players, we always try to give our best effort, but we make mistakes, we are human.”
He’s right about players being human and making mistakes, of course; in this instance, he’d been there before this year and been benched briefly for it. So is Braves manager Brian Snitker right when he says, “He should have been on second. And we’re kind of shorthanded to do anything about it right there. You hate to see that happen.”
But it’s open to debate whether Alibes is right saying, “He probably scores in that inning if he’s on second base. It’s a big deal. He knows he needs to do better there.” Albies is probably right in his second and third sentences there. About scoring from second, not quite.
Because Albies followed Acuna immediately with a grounder that pushed Acuna to third, but Freeman got hit by a pitch immediately to follow and Donaldson’s immediate bullet liner—with Acuna likely to run on contact—would have been the double play it became regardless.
Then Martinez had to make all that look like the mere warmup for the main attraction, when Acuna had what Martinez believed a little too much of a ball around the bases after depositing a meatball practically down the pipe over the center field wall. “I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martinez fumed afterward. “Just play the game.”
Martinez even had ideas about chirping a lecture or three toward the Braves dugout before his veteran catcher Yadier Molina interceded and nudged him gently but firmly back to the mound. This was almost too rich for words in a game featuring a pair of teams only too notorious around the sport for being fun police units.
You almost can’t wait for the Braves to fume the next time Martinez goes into his Tarzan act if he ends a dicey inning with a nasty strikeout: “We want him to respect us as the National League East champions and not just a bunch of plug-ins who needed all 162 games to get here.”
If that’s the way the Cardinals and the Braves are going to be—as if playing a delicious Game One division series thriller and spiller just wasn’t quite enough—then let them suit up for Game Two in business suits, for crying out loud. Huffing “just play the game” after demanding “respect” tells me (and should tell you) that someone forgot about the “game” part. And, about throwing meatballs to power hitters.