The Atlanta Braves couldn’t overcome a superstar not running hard out of the box on a deep fly to right field, a veteran outfielder not getting a ball in quick enough to keep a runner at second, a bullpen incapable of getting outs when desperately needed, and a manager who was both overly aggressive and far too passive at different times in the game. In the end, the first issue became the scapegoat. The other issues are more concerning, though.
Ronald Acuña Jr. is an amazing player – a generational talent who is still just twenty-one years-old. Acuña’s flashy ability is often turned into memes and GIFs that are retweeted thousands of times within minutes of being posted. He makes the game fun. But lapses in judgment on the basepaths Thursday evening overshadowed what was a great individual performance (3-for-4 including a monster two-run homer in the ninth inning).
To re-set the scene, with the score 3-1 in favor of the Braves, Acuña smacked a ball toward right field. It was high near the line. Either Acuña thought he got more of it than he did or believed it would be foul. Hopping and jogging rather than running, Acuña wasn’t able to advance to second after the ball clanged off the wall in right where it was fielded and immediately returned to the infield by the strong-armed Dexter Fowler. I have zero doubt in my mind he would have had a double if he was running hard. Acuña Jr. reached second base on a ground out by Ozzie Albies. Lefty Andrew Miller entered and plunked Freddie Freeman on the hip/rear to put a second runner on. Josh Donaldson ripped a liner to shortstop and Acuña Jr. was doubled off on the hard-hit ball to end the threat.
There are a few things here that should have universal agreement.
1. Acuña Jr. has to run out of the box. Yes, the ball could have been a huge homer or maybe a loud foul, but it wasn’t close to the no-doubter Ronnie would hammer in the ninth to cut into the Cards’ lead. Those moonshots can be pimped. The game was way too close and way too important. More – he has zero excuses after being removed from a game in mid-August for the same thing.
2. The event likely had no impact on the game. While it’s true that different things may have happened following the mistake (the way Albies was pitched may have been altered with a runner on second, for instance), let’s not get lost in the weeds here. If Albies grounded out, Freeman was hit by a pitch, and Donaldson lined out – like it actually happened – Acuña is likely sitting on third base with two outs and Nick Markakis at the plate against Miller. Markakis had a 71 wRC+ against southpaws this season. There is a good probability that nothing changes whether Acuña was on first or second to lead off the frame.
Yet, the post-game coverage largely focused on the event. Braves’ beat reporter, David O’Brien, has made a dozen tweets (not counting replies) since the end of the game as I write this. Half of them have focused on Acuña and five of those were quotes from his own teammates largely saying how disappointed they were in him. It’s not leadership to destroy your teammate in the press and it’s shocking to see this team do it. While nobody denies that Acuña messed up, he is also your most dynamic player. You don’t win in the postseason without him.
Of those 12 tweets from O’Brien, none have been about Nick Markakis, who’s lackadaisical charging after a ball hit in the 8th allowed Fowler to reach third base on a base hit by Tommy Edman. In all fairness, did this really matter? Like with Acuña, probably not. Mark Melancon seemed to pitch around Paul Goldschmidt next before giving up a second 0-2 base hit, this time a two-run double that broke a 3-3 tie. But nobody seemed to press teammates about Markakis’s laziness in right field.
The bullpen also had a night to forget. Shane Greene worked into a jam with a walk and a double but was able to navigate through it. After Max Fried tossed a perfect inning, he was lifted for Chris Martin. Why? Perhaps Snitker was worried about trying to get a second frame from Fried, who threw 14 pitches in his one inning, and how that might take him out of consideration for a Game 4 start. Fried’s spot in the order wasn’t due up for another five batters. Maybe Snitker also didn’t want Fried to face Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna, and Yadier Molina to lead off the 8th.
Whatever the reason, Martin entered, but tweaked his oblique before throwing the first pitch of the frame. Luke Jackson replaced him and immediately got destroyed against Goldschmidt. For what it’s worth, I don’t mind going to Jackson. He’s been, at times, the most effective reliever the Braves have. He wasn’t that effective Thursday night, though. After retiring Ozuna and Molina, Jackson gave up a base hit to Paul DeJong. Snitker could have gone to Melancon here or even Sean Newcomb against the left-hand hitting Kolten Wong, who isn’t completely inept against southpaws, but worse than he is against righties.
Snitker stuck with Jackson, who gave up a hard-hit single to Wong. Finally, Snitker went to the pen. Again, he was presented an option as the Cardinals went with Matt Carpenter – another left-handed hitter who showed a significant enough platoon difference. And again, Newcomb stayed in the pen for Melancon. I agree with this decision for what it’s worth. But as would become a theme, Melancon couldn’t get the strikeout he needed. Instead, Carpenter crossed up the defense with a soft fly ball to left field. It fell in, scoring DeJong. The speedy Wong was dead meat on a great throw to the plate from Adam Duvall.
In the ninth, Melancon’s struggles continued. He couldn’t put away Fowler, who singled on an 0-2 pitch. He couldn’t put away Ozuna, who doubled on an 0-2 pitch. With the score 5-3, the Braves walked Molina to get to DeJong, who mercifully did strikeout. That brought up Wong. Again, Snitker could go to Newcomb and get the platoon advantage. Again, he passed. And again, he got burned. Wong doubled to right, scoring two more runs – the second of which eventually became the winning run. Snitker finally bought in Newcomb – who struck out pitcher Carlos Martinez.
It seemed most of Snitker’s attempts at strategy backfired – including a curious decision to bunt with Dallas Keuchel while Brian McCann was on second. The same McCann that ranks among the slowest players in the league. It was already a bit of a move to go with McCann over Tyler Flowers after Keuchel had an ERA nearly two runs lower with Flowers than with McCann. Perhaps with Flowers, Keuchel gets a few strikes stolen that he doesn’t get with McCann. Then again, perhaps Flowers doesn’t double like McCann did or gets burned with a passed ball. Either way, McCann was an easy out at third after Keuchel’s bunt was fielded.
In the end, the Braves are now in seemingly a must-win situation Friday afternoon against Jack Flaherty – who has allowed just three runs in a game twice since July 3. That’s the game-high since that date, by the way. The Braves will counter with Mike Foltynewicz – not Mike Soroka, their best pitcher, who will likely only take the ball once during this series no matter how long it goes. That, too, was a confusing decision as the Braves, unlike the Cardinals, could have lined up their rotation to make sure that Soroka had an opportunity to start two games should the series go long. Instead, the Braves valued experience and Soroka’s home/road splits. Hopefully, in the end, that will work out. Personally, I’d rather lean on my only 4-fWAR pitcher.
Whatever the case – things aren’t looking up.
But at least Acuña gets to read about how his teammates are dogging him in the press.
The Braves have sadly been in the position far too often when October hits. This marks the ninth consecutive playoff series the Braves have failed in Game One. You have to go all the way back to the 2001 NLDS, when the Braves overcame the Houston Astros 7-4 to find the last time the Braves won a Game 1. To put that game more into perspective, Dave Martinez played as a Brave in it. Brad Ausmus homered off Greg Maddux. Ken Caminiti pinch-hit for Rudy Seanez!
Since that series, which ended in a sweep, the Braves have lost every postseason matchup. The last four times, they only could win one game. This doesn’t even include the 2012 Wild Card Game. Oh, thanks for scheduling Sam Holbrook for this series against the Cardinals, MLB. Real swell of ya.
The Braves have a lot of history going against them right now. A season that looked magical at times could end with an all-too-familiar choke if the bullpen doesn’t do its job, if Snitker’s decisions don’t start paying dividends, and if the starting pitching doesn’t handle the Cardinals lineup more efficiently. Oh, and it would be nice if Acuña runs hard out of the box, too. But it probably won’t be nearly as important as the Atlanta and baseball media think it should be.