Go easy, Braves Republic

Dansby Swanson, unable to elude Superman in a single step. Swanson tried to correct a mistake on the spot and got tagged and bagged for his trouble.

No sport’s history is as thick and hydra-headed as baseball’s, and that includes its chapters on heart-crashing loss. Few sports fans are as addicted as baseball fans to the idea that the other guys can’t win so much as the teams to which they plight their troths can only choke.

It’s one thing to marry your rooting passion to teams that seem forever mired in mediocrity. It’s one thing to marry that passion to teams that struggled to make the journey, finally got their periodic pass to the October ball, and found the queen of the ball laughing in their faces when they asked her to dance.

But marrying your passion to teams who get to the top of Mount Nebo as regularly as the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers and get kicked to the rocks below when they thought they’d cross to the Promised Land at last, just as regularly?

The Braves haven’t won the World Series since NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11. The Dodgers haven’t won it since the birth of Donald Trump’s fourth White House communications director (Hope Hicks). For a little perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Colorado Rockies have never yet reached the Promised Land.

The Braves have eighteen division titles since 1991, including that staggering (if you disallow the season disruption of the 1994 strike) fourteen straight, with five pennants and that one World Series win. The Dodgers have thirteen division titles since 1988, including the incumbent eight straight, with two pennants (back-to-back) and no World Series wins.

The demigods of the Elysian Fields being who they are, naturally the Braves and the Dodgers played for the pennant in this pandemically arrayed season almost straight out of Bizarro World.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired short irregular season inspired his too-far-expanded postseason experiment that actually allowed two teams with irregular season losing records (the since-vanquished Brewers and the Houston Astros with identical 29-31 records) to enter in the first place. Perhaps with exemplary and extraterrestrial justice, the World Series will feature nobody whose butts weren’t parked in first place at irregular season’s end.

But I digress. Too many teams lose because someone does what he knows is wrong and nobody else has the presence or the authority to stop him. Too many more teams lose because someone doing the right thing has it blow up in his face courtesy of the unexpected countermove or glitch.

Too many fans, too, cling tighter if their teams’ histories feature too deep a canon of falling short when it was time to stand the tallest. It’s never the other guys who were just that much better, it’s their guys who can only and always dissemble. Even if they didn’t dissemble. Even if the parallel to the law that somebody has to lose is that everybody gets to play again tomorrow or next year.

Braves fans are starting the choke memes already, if they didn’t start them right after Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley ran them out of a possible game-out-of-reach rally in the top of the fourth inning in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Well, maybe they waited until Mookie Betts fleeced Freddie Freeman with a staggering, solo home run-stealing catch that would have fattened a Braves lead back to two runs in the top of the fifth Sunday night. Maybe they waited until pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez tied the game at three with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the sixth.

Maybe they waited until Cody Bellinger broke the tie with a solo bomb in the bottom of the seventh and Julio Urias finished what he started, three innings’ shutout relief.

Maybe.

Swanson didn’t cut his Braves off at their own pass by going rogue, exactly. He tried turning a mistake into a virtue and learned the hard way that the other guys administer justice but not mercy.

When Nick Markakis grounded one sharply to Justin Turner right of the third base line, Swanson probably should have stood fast forcing Turner to take the sure out at first keeping two runners in scoring position. But he ran on contact.

Swanson tried for the textbook play when Turner threw home right on the button, getting himself into the rundown starting maybe fifteen feet from the plate, the better to leave Austin Riley—whose RBI single busted the tie to set up first and second, which became second and third on a wild pitch—room to take third and keep at least one insurance run ninety feet from the plate with two on and one out for on-deck batter Cristian Pache.

What Swanson didn’t expect was Riley at second hesitating before breaking for third. Maybe Riley saw no chance to advance at first no matter how well Swanson handled things on the rundown track. When Riley broke for third at last, Turner tagged Swanson with a Superman-like dive and threw from his knees to shortstop (and eventual NLCS MVP) Corey Seager hustling to cover third just before the dive.

Riley dropped into his slide the split second Turner threw. He was D.O.A. It turned out that so were the Braves from there, but they still had five innings to atone. They didn’t bargain on the Dodgers’ relief pitching keeping them to one measly walk the rest of the night.

Neither did they bargain on the Dodgers’ Game Six starter Walker Buehler flicking away the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning by striking out the next two batters before inducing an inning-ending ground out. Never mind Betts robbing Marcell Ozuna with that likewise back-to-the-wall-scaling, extra base hit-stealing catch in the fifth.

Neither did they bargain on their pitching staff that became a shutout machine in the earlier postseason rounds suddenly proving human, after all. Or, on the Dodgers shaking off manager Dave Roberts’ day-late/dollar-short lift of Clayton Kershaw with Game Four tied at one to win three straight elimination games for the pennant.

It would have been mad fun to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. The Scrum of the Southeast. But there wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee for the Braves. Not against a team that got out-hit by both the Empire Emeritus and the Houston hulks and still found ways to beat them both. Not against a team that hit .171 with men in scoring position all postseason long—and still won the American League pennant.

But I have a personal message for Braves Republic. Go easy on the choke label. The cumulative differences between the Braves and the Dodgers are half a pencil thin. The Dodgers only out-hit the Braves by nine points and only out-pitched the Braves by 1.26 in the ERA column. Makes perfect sense when you remind yourselves as the broadcasters did too often: including the NLCS, the Dodgers scored exactly one more run than the Braves all year.

Timing often has the bigger hand, unfortunately. That and, as good as you are, the other guys proving to be just that little bit better. It’s not as though the Braves were taken down by a fluke team. They didn’t fall to the 1944 St. Louis Browns, the 1945 and 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 1959 Chicago White Sox, or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels. It’s also not as though the Dodgers had to beat a bunch of pushovers to win the National League pennant.

Think about this, too, Braves Republic. What you have now is a team with at least one potential future Hall of Famer on the assumption that a 30-year-old Freeman isn’t on the threshold of his decline phase, and a lot of good-to-great-looking youth on the mound, at the plate, in the field. You have a steady manager and a smart enough front office.

What those fourteen-straight Braves division winners had was as many as four Hall of Famers at once—three top-of-the-line pitchers (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz) and the arguable number five third baseman of all time (Chipper Jones)—and still had only one World Series ring to show for it.

Even as this year’s Braves go home from this season that will be remembered as Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, well, Lucy, who got more splainin’ to do?

Ask not for whom the Bellinger tolls

You call that a bat flip??

If Cody Bellinger’s going to be the long distance October hero, he’s going to have to work on those bat flips. The billiards cue-like toss he offered up in the bottom of the seventh Sunday night would get him laughed out of the parlours of our Jose Bautistas and Willson Contrerases.

Hit what proves to be the pennant-winning home run in the bottom of the seventh? C’mon, bro, don’t hold back. Give us the real deal. Give us that flip that needs a meal and a stewardess on board. Show Contreras his upper deck-high flip was just a little ring toss by comparison. Trust us, Cody, it won’t hurt.

Especially not after Mookie Betts, who thought nothing of breaking into the happy dance after scaling back-turned up the right field wall to snatch a possible triple from Marcell Ozuna Saturday, forgot to bust a move or ten after he flat robbed Freddie Freeman of a home run with another running, back-scaling, up-the-wall catch in the fifth Sunday night.

It wouldn’t have hurt, annoyed, angered, or outraged anyone any deeper than the Atlanta Braves wounded themselves when they TOOTBLANned* their way out of a fourth-inning rally that might have put them beyond the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reach in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Bellinger’s eighth-pitch drive into the right field seats off Atlanta reliever Chris Martin was at least as dramatic as the seventh-inning blast he launched in Game Seven of the 2018 NLCS. It won’t supplant Kirk Gibson’s legless Game One-winning launch in the 1988 World Series. Bellinger has an entire World Series to come to show he has that kind of drama in him.

Nobody would put it past him. Yet. He picked the perfect moment to shake off a season during which he waged war with his own plate mechanics and an NLCS during which it looked like he’d spend his entire time running into the same kind of hard outs that drove Houston’s Alex Bregman out of his gourd in the American League Championship Series.

Be very afraid, Tampa Bay Rays. These Dodgers have a few boppers to match your own Randy Arozarena. They hit a staggering sixteen home runs as a team in the entire NLCS. That’s as many as some teams hit in an entire month.

Bellinger was preceded by Enrique Hernandez, pinch hitting for Joc Pederson to lead off the bottom of the sixth, against A.J. Minter, the rookie Brave who opened so magnificently in Game Five (striking out seven of nine batters). Hernandez worked Minter to an eighth pitch and sent it over the left center field fence to tie Game Seven at six.

You Rays may also need all of your band of defensive aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and human cannonballs to counteract one all-in-one Betts. The Dodgers can slap and flap the leather with the best in the business, but they’re not exactly the Flying Wallendas or even the 1969 Mets. Except for the guy wearing number 50 patrolling right field.

Who will offer absolution to the left side of the Braves infield that got themselves caught on the wrong side of a two-for-the-price-of-one baserunning mishap that may have been Sunday night’s true game-turner?

If it comforts Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley any, their fraternal flop didn’t exactly put paid to this NLCS the way Babe Ruth’s beyond-insane, out-by-five-miles stolen base attempt ended the 1926 World Series in the St. Louis Cardinals’ favour. Close enough but not quite the coffin nailer enough will try to secure it.

Swanson and Riley are the guys you really feel for after the Dodgers’ nerve-exposing 4-3 win. They picked the absolute wrong night to become two Lonnie Smiths for the price of one. No, I rescind that, right here and now.

In that 1991 World Series, inside the Richter-scale-busting racket of the old, gone, distinctly unlamented Metrodome, Smith got fooled just long enough by Minnesota Twins keystone Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne, catching Smith’s sight running from first and performing a pantomime double play . . . when Terry Pendleton ripped a rocket into the left center field gap that should have sent Smith home with a scoreless tie-breaking Game Seven run.

Corey Seager pronounces Austin Riley and the Braves’ fourth-inning rally DOA.

Unfortunately for Swanson, Riley, and the Braves, the Dodgers weren’t trying any trickery Sunday night. They were down 3-2 in the fourth and trying merely to hang in and find a way to revive and prosper. They weren’t even expecting Swanson and Riley to be on second and third in the first place.

They got there because Dodger reliever Blake Treinen—in to clean up a small mess left behind by Tony Gonsolin that resulted in the third Braves run—wild pitched them from their original first and second stations. And they’d gotten those courtesy of Gonsolin serving Ozzie Albies an RBI single.

Now Treinen got Braves left fielder Nick Markakis to ground one to Dodger third baseman Justin Turner playing well enough down the line. Turner fired home and caught Swanson dead about six feet from the plate. Catcher Will Smith threw back to Turner, who took a flying leap like Superman taking off in flight to tag Swanson—with Riley, perhaps insanely, trying for third anyway after initial hesitation.

The problem was Dodger shortstop Corey Seager backing up the Swanson rundown. Trying to take the base under guard that heavy might get you points for chutzpah but DOA otherwise. As Riley was when he got tagged and bagged. As the Braves were from that point forward.

“It was huge,” lamented Braves manager Brian Snitker post-game. “It’s hard to score runs in the postseason. The infield’s back so you see the ball up the middle. That’s where normally we’re a really good baserunning team. We just did the fundamental things wrong.”

How can you say the Braves died with a 3-2 lead? Center fielder Cristian Pache grounded out to shortstop to finish killing that fourth-inning rally. Then Dodger relievers Treinen in the fifth, Brusdar Graterol in the sixth, and Julio Urias in the seventh through ninth kept the Braves to one lonely baserunner (a sixth-inning walk to Albies) the rest of the game.

The Braves will too often note and too long remember that they slapped an early 3-0 lead out of Dodgers opener Dustin May and then Gonsolin. They’ll remember May walking Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Freeman on eight consecutive pitches and Marcell Ozuna singling Acuna home in the top of the first. They’ll remember Swanson greeting Gonsolin rudely by hitting a 1-1 pitch over the left field fence leading off the second.

But they’ll also remember the Dodgers solving starter Ian Anderson’s changeup early enough to lay off it and start hitting some hard balls around, just biding their time until they could pry through. They’ll remember Smith hitting Anderson’s inside curve ball for a two-run single in the third. They’ll never forget Hernandez and Bellinger ringing the bells.

“It’s just the mentality we have,” Seager said postgame. “Show up that day, win that day. This team does a very good job being in the moment. You gotta stay in that moment, be in the moment and let the chips fall where they may. Right now, they’re falling our way.”

Entering Game Seven the Braves scored one less run all irregular year long than the Dodgers scored. Exiting Game Seven and the postseason they still ended up scoring one less run overall—but six less in the NLCS. They may remember trading Game Three and Four blowouts and reaping the sweet fruits of Bryse Wilson shaking off an irregular season’s 4.02 ERA to pitch like a Hall of Famer starting Game Four.

They may also remember they’ve been pushed out of postseasons with far heavier blows than they took Sunday night. But they might also want to remember that they shook off that nasty 13-1 blowout by the Cardinals in last year’s division series to take a second consecutive possession of first place in the National League East, no matter how bizarrely truncated 2020 was.

The Braves will be back. Count on it. They may even have forged the beginnings of a beautiful postseason rivalry with the ogres from the National League West. It’ll just have to keep until next season. Sure it would have been lovely to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. Southeast rising.

But won’t it be a little more fun to think that the Tampa Bay Davids might have a shot at taking down the Los Angeles Goliaths? With or without these Dodgers’ recent snakebitten history, that ought to be fun, fun, fun—until or unless Daddy takes the slingshot away.

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* TOOTBLAN—Thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop. Invented originally for former Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot, whose baserunning skills were described politely as less than average.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

2019 NLDS Game 3 - Atlanta Braves v. St. Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright’s Sunday virtuosity ended up going for naught.

Adam Wainwright had every reason on earth to feel nothing but a powerful desire to arrange Carlos Martinez’s necktie party Sunday. So did every citizen of Cardinal Country. So did every last baseball fan who prayed for and got an impeccable pitchers’ duel, with the Braves’ Mike Soroka playing Dickey Betts to Wainwright’s Duane Allman for virtuosity.

The duel that ended with Martinez’s Spike Jones sneaking explosives into the drums and the Braves standing one win from a National League Championship Series engagement. It’s a good thing for Martinez that Wainwright is a forgiving soul. He had no intention after the staggering 3-1 Braves win in Busch Stadium of doing anything but giving Martinez a big hug.

“And Carlos will be ready tomorrow,” the 38-year-old righthander who may be approaching the end of a solid if injury-compromised career. “Let’s hope one moment doesn’t define his season, because I’d like to see him get another chance.”

Unfortunately, Wainwright and Cardinals manager Mike Schildt may be the only one with that wish. “He’ll be in that spot [Monday],” the skipper said, “and I’ll have full confidence in him.” He says that now, but . . .

Even Braves closer Mark Melancon had Martinez’s back after the game. “You’re not looking to see guys fail,” he told a reporter. “You want to do it the right way, big on big and beat somebody. We’ve all been there. I can’t say that I didn’t want to win, but Carlos is an incredible pitcher. We’ve got to come back strong tomorrow because he’s going to come back, I’m sure.”

After opening with a leadoff double but two straight strikeouts Sunday afternoon, Martinez surrendering back-to-back RBI hits that broke the Cardinals’ backs and Cardinal Country’s hearts for the bottom of the ninth means nobody’s really sure. “There were some pitches that didn’t go where they were supposed to go,” the righthander said afterward. “I didn’t have the best grip on the slider. I tried to get that pitch to do what it was supposed to do and I didn’t get to it.”

The single greatest exhibition of pressure pitching of Wainwright’s life was laid to waste right there.

With an enviable enough postseason pitching record as it is—he has a lifetime 2.79 ERA and 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate in October—Wainwright for seven innings couldn’t be stopped with a subpoena, never mind a S.W.A.T. team. Especially throwing the curve ball he calls King Charles, the way Mets legend Dwight Gooden’s curve was once known as Lord Charles.

If Wainwright wasn’t quite as masterly as the Astros’ Gerrit Cole the day before, he was close enough and too much so for the Braves’ discomfort. He nailed eight strikeouts, trusted his defenders just enough, didn’t let plate umpire Sam Holbrook’s microscopic strike zone faze him any more than Soroka did, didn’t let his own club’s lack of cash-in offense bother him, and made a 1-0 lead—acquired on a Marcell Ozuna double, a Yadier Molina ground out pushing Ozuna to third, and a Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly in the second inning—feel almost like a 10-0 lead.

Then, after Brian McCann popped out to the third base side near the plate to open the top of the eighth, Wainwright’s tank ran past E. Dansby Swanson shot one through the hole at short for a single. Soroka’s pinch hitter Adam Duvall lined out to third but Ronald Acuna, Jr. worked himself to a full-count walk, Wainwright’s first of the day. And Ozzie Albies walked on 3-1 to load the pads for Freddie Freeman.

Exit Wainwright, enter Andrew Miller, who hasn’t been the same as he was with the Indians thanks to their overworking him while he was hot and a couple of injuries to follow that have sapped his once-formidable repertoire if not his heart. The Cardinals needed it to be classic Miller Time in the worst way possible now.

And after a swinging strike to open, Miller got Freeman to fly out to Dexter Fowler in center field and strand the ducks on the pond.

The problem was, the Cardinals weren’t any better after pushing Soroka’s relief Max Fried in the bottom of the eighth. Fried walked Carpenter to open, with Schildt sending swift Harrison Bader out to run for the veteran. Bader distracted Fried enough to compel a walk to Tommy Edman before Paul DeJong flied out toward the right field line. Exit Fried, enter Darren O’Day.

Also enter Jose Martinez pinch hitting in Miller’s lineup slot. O’Day faked a throw over and Bader took off, only to get hung up between second and third before O’Day threw him out at third. Then Martinez hit a sinking liner to left that Duvall on his horse could only reach and trap. You could taste the RBI that wasn’t on a plate dipped in A-1 sauce.

Bader’s arrest for attempted grand theft loomed even larger after Sean Newcomb relieved Day and got Fowler to fly out to his center field counterpart Acuna for the side. Then Schildt put Bader into center field, moved Edman from right field to third base, shifted Fowler to right field, and called on Carlos Martinez.

Josh Donaldson might have ripped a double past the diving Edman at third and down the left field line into the corner for a leadoff double, but Martinez bagged Nick Markakis and pinch hitter Adeiny Hechevarria—who’d been 4-for-6 in that role since joining the Braves—back to back on swinging strikeouts.

The bad news was Donaldson’s pinch runner Billy Hamilton, whose road running on the bases is almost his only ability that enables him to play major league baseball, getting too much into Martinez’s head. So much so that when Hechevarria swung strike three Hamilton stole third without so much as a beat cop hollering “Stop, thief!”

“At the time you want to get to third with one out, so that was a bad break,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “But getting to third even with two outs, what if Martinez bounces one in the dirt? I could score. And maybe he has to pitch the next guy differently.”

Then, after Molina and Martinez confabbed at the mound with Molina obviously upset and Schildt joining them to settle them down and get back to business, McCann—the potential go-ahead run—was awarded first on the house and Rafael Ortega assigned to pinch run for the prodigal Braves’ catcher.

Swanson checked in at the plate 0-for-6 lifetime against Martinez. Every star aligned in Martinez’s favour. “The Cardinals start doing game management,” said McCann after the game, “and then Dansby came up clutch.”

Clutch enough to send one off the left field fence and send Hamilton home to tie it at one. “God blessed me with good hand-eye coordination,” the Braves’ shortstop said after the game. “In those situations, you just try and breathe and relax. It’s easier said than done.”

And Duvall dumped a quail into short center down for a base hit, scoring Ortega readily with Bader throwing home but well off and over the third base line, enabling Swanson to score the third run.

Only after walking Acuna did Martinez escape, getting Albies to line out to right. And after Freeman made a sensational extension to hold a wide throw from shortstop and keep his toe on first base to nail Kolten Wong opening, Paul Goldschmidt banked a double off the right field side wall off Melancon. But Ozuna looked at strike three on the inside corner and Molina flied out to center.

It gave the Braves their first postseason series lead in seventeen years and gave the Cardinals a reminder of what they might have really lost when Jordan Hicks, their originally assigned closer, having a solid season to that point, went down with Tommy John surgery in late June. Might.

Maybe a healthy Hicks keeps the Braves pinned in the ninth Sunday. Maybe he doesn’t. Two days after Martinez barely survived to keep a Cardinal win a win, he didn’t survive. And the Cardinals get to host the Braves for Game Four on the fiftieth anniversary of making the trade that helped change baseball.

It was 7 October 1969 when they traded center field mainstay Curt Flood to the Phillies. The trade Flood rejected for the reserve clause challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court before losing—yet pushing open the door through which Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter and then Andy Messersmith would escort free agency’s advent.

Fifty years ago, too, the Miracle Mets shocked the world with their division, pennant, and World Series triumphs. Their golden anniversary team couldn’t stay the distance even toward a wild card game spot. The Cardinals have bigger stakes to play for on the Flood trade’s golden anniversary.

And a lot to make up for to Adam Wainwright, who’d love nothing more than one more postseason start at minimum. He won’t say he’ll retire after the Cardinals’ season ends; he won’t say he won’t, either.

“(I)n my mind, I’ve got two more series to pitch through, you know?” Wainwright said Sunday evening. “We got the NLCS (and) the World Series pitch through. But first we got to win (Monday). That’s where my head’s at right now. But no, I never once felt like today was it. Either we’ve got more games to win, or I’ve got more games to pitch.”

If his injuries over the years keep him from thinking about the Hall of Fame, Wainwright at least thinks the way a Hall of Famer does. Against a group of Braves who don’t know the meaning of the word surrender just yet, that attitude needs to rub off a lot more on the Cardinals now.