NLCS Game Two: The mighty are falling

For the second NLCS game in a row, Freddie Freeman hits one out to start the Braves’ scoring.

Another entry from our Tales of the Unexpected Dept. The Atlanta Braves have a clean shot at shoving the Los Angeles Dodgers into early winter vacation without seeing Clayton Kershaw poke his nose out of his hole even once.

They were supposed to deal with Kershaw in Game Two of their National League Championship Series, until Kershaw’s back decided not so fast, bub. So there he was confined to leaning on the Dodger dugout rail and watching his mates under the thunder of the Braves’ stellar pitching. Again.

The spasms that scratched him from his scheduled Game Two start were the talk of Tuesday—at least until the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Three of the American League Championship Series pushed the Houston Astros to the elimination brink.

The Dodgers were counting on the resurgent Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer who became their best pitcher again this season and who’d been his future Hall of Fame self in two previous postseason gigs this time around. They needed him take the sting out of their Game One bullpen meltdown.

They needed him to find some way, any way of telling the Braves’ opportunistic and unsinkable hitters it was time to get sunk. When his back spasms told him and the Dodgers not to even think about it, the Braves must have thought Christmas came early and Santa’s sleigh was overloaded.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Tony Gonsolin his first-ever postseason start in Globe Life Park, Arlington, the Texas Rangers’ brand new playpen, the hangar that was supposed to be a hot tub for pitchers.

The Braves decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Gonsolin and every Dodger pitcher to follow their heads on plates, while pitching the Dodgers’ ears off the way they’ve been doing to every challenger all postseason long thus far.

Yet again, what the Braves have been doing pretty much all postseason long. Pitching the opposition’s ears off. Hitting the opposition’s pitchers as if discovering new and heretofore untapped human resources for batting practise. And, beating the Dodgers 5-1 in Game One and 8-7 in Game Two.

Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman who may well be this irregular season’s National League Most Valuable Player in all but the formal announcement and plaque presentation, decided it was too good to resist doing in Game Two what he did in Game One.

Monday—Freeman provided the first Atlanta hit and score when he took Dodger starter Walker Buehler into the right field seats with one out in the top of the first. Tuesday—Freeman provided the first Braves hit and score again, this time with Ronald Acuna, Jr. on board with a leadoff walk ahead of him, ending Gonsolin’s three-inning, three-and-three cruising, with a full-count blast about halfway up the right field seats . . . in the top of the fourth.

The Show’s government decided to let fans into the Globe Life stands on a limited and socially distanced basis for this NLCS. After a half summer of seeing nothing but cutouts in the seats, it was jolting to realise Freeman’s Game One launch was the year’s first live baseball souvenir.

Gonsolin lasted into the top of the fifth Tuesday night. He was lifted after Cristian Pache’s one-out RBI double and a followup walk to Acuna. In came Pedro Baez, the Dodger reliever who often threatens to hijack long-ago Cleveland first baseman Mike Hargrove’s nickname, the Human Rain Delay.

Up came Freeman again. He singled Pache home and set up first and third while he was at it. Baez then walked Marcell Ozuna to load the pads for Travis d’Arnaud, who walked right behind him to push Acuna home. Ozzie Albies then whacked a sacrifice fly to left to push Freeman home.

On a night Braves rookie Ian Anderson did what Max Fried and most company did well enough in Game One, the Braves didn’t have to play long ball to paint the scoreboard. About the longest ball other than Freeman’s fourth-inning flog from there looked to be Dansby Swanson bouncing d’Arnaud home with a ground-rule double in the seventh.

Then the Dodgers finally started making things extremely interesting in the bottom of the seventh. When they set up first and second right out of the tunnel against Braves reliever Darren O’Day and, after O’Day managed somehow to get a swinging strikeout out of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager hit one into the Braves’ bullpen behind the center field fence.

Suddenly the Braves advantage was cut to four runs. No wonder Ozzie Albies decided like State Farm to be the good neighbour in the top of the ninth, sending Adam Kolarek’s 2-1 service into the same bullpen.

Where Braves reliever Mark Melancon made a running catch of the ball, a little fancier than just standing there in Game One when Albies hit a two-run homer for which Melancon had only to raise his glove for the catch. In Game Two, the gags started pouring forth that the Braves could stick Melancon in for late-game defense when he wasn’t going to be a bullpen factor.

As it was, Melancon’s thoughts of a Game Two night off vaporised in the bottom of the ninth. He had an unexpected (we think) Dodger uprising to thank for that, when Seager slashed reliever Josh Tomlin for an RBI double and Max Muncy smashed Tomlin for a two-run homer. Unfortunately, Melancon’s ruined off-night opened in near-ruin in its own right.

An infield error allowed Will Smith aboard before Cody Bellinger sent one to the back of right field to triple him home. Leaving Melancon to deal with A.J. Pollock and lure him into grounding one to the hole at shortstop that Swanson picked off to throw him out and finish it with the Braves escaping to within an inch of their lives.

Melancon was less than thrilled when a Braves beat reporter named David O’Brien faced the righthander as though the team blew a lead. “We didn’t blow the lead,” Melancon said, slightly in shock, knowing the Braves won the game by a single run. “I don’t really understand your question.”

He didn’t really approve of it, either. And you couldn’t blame him.

“Can you still take something positive out of this?” O’Brien promptly asked. When a team survives an eleventh-hour uprising to take a 2-0 NLCS lead, do you expect them to take something negative about it? If I’d asked a question like that in my own newspaper and radio reporting days, I’d have been broiled, basted, and braised—and then my subject and my editors would have gotten mad.

O’Brien’s silliness spoiled Melancon’s jovial mood from talking about his bullpen home run catches, when another reporter reminded him he’d just caught more homers than he’d surrendered all year. “That’s more home runs than I’ve caught in my entire life, never mind  one season,” he said through a mischievous grin.

Don’t go thinking that late uprising means that vaunted Dodger firepower’s about to make mincemeat out of these exuberant, relentless Braves just yet. Four-game LCS winning streaks aren’t exactly easy to deliver against teams that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

Especially when you don’t know for sure whether Kershaw will recover in time for Game Four. And, when you may suspect in your heart of hearts that that late-Game Two uprising came a little too little, a little too late, against the weaker side of a bullpen that’s normally anything but generous with runs.

The Dodgers hit .220 when the Washington Nationals blasted them out of the postseason last year. They hit .180 in the 2018 World Series, .205 in the 2017 Series, and .210 in the 2016 NLCS. They’re hitting .206 in this LCS after hitting .287 to knock San Diego out in the division series.

This has been their burden during their National League West ownership. When the bigger of the big stages invite them, the Dodgers don’t look so fierce at the plate. Good pitching staffs can take them. These Braves, National League East owners, have a terrific pitching staff, and their own hitters don’t wilt on the larger stage. Yet.

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.