After watching the Cardinals and Braves compete for four games, it seems fitting that the series would be tied up 2-2. In three of the four games, the losing team had a win expectancy of at least 80% while in the fourth game, Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty allowed just a single run in the first inning before a homer in the seventh gave the Braves a 3-0 lead that proved too much for a mostly struggling Cardinals offense. In a series this close, the team that blows the lead will inevitably lament the moments they let the lead get away, but in Game 4, the Braves lost not because of a lead they relinquished, but because of a lead they failed to solidify. The Braves refused to put the Cardinals away, or alternatively, the Cardinals relievers came up big when they needed to, and now the teams head to Game 5 for a shot at the National League Championship Series.
Before we get to those blown chances, we should briefly discuss how the Braves got the lead in the first place. The Cardinals were limited to one run off Dallas Keuchel in the first game of the series as Keuchel went off-brand, throwing just 24 two-seam fastballs in his outing. Though Keuchel walked three and struck out none in four and two-thirds innings, he did enough to keep the Cardinals off balance and induced 10 groundball outs, plus two more outs on a double play, and the other two outs on liners. In the first inning of Game 4, Keuchel went back to relying heavily on the two-seamer, but the Cardinals laid off the pitch, even as a strike. Paul Goldschmidt took two sliders for balls, then a two-seamer for a 3-0 count. After a 3-0 sinker for a strike, he hit a changeup out of the park. Up next, Marcell Ozuna took a first-pitch sinker for a ball and then crushed an inside cutter to put the Cardinals ahead 2-0.
Atlanta got a run back in the third before Ozuna hit another homer in the fourth off a slider to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead.
A word on Ozuna: The outfielder is having a fantastic series, with three doubles and two home runs among his eight hits in four games. He’s heading into free agency after what could be classified as a solid season. He put up a 110 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR at 28 years old. The free agent market for him remains murky, but it is possible his statistics this year underrate Ozuna’s performance. Based on exit velocity and launch angle, his .379 xwOBA is the 19th-best mark in the game. The 38-point gap between his wOBA and his xWOBA was the biggest in baseball among 135 qualified hitters. The five players directly above and below him include Alex Bregman, Josh Donaldson, Pete Alonso, and DJ LeMahieu. Ozuna isn’t heavily shifted against and isn’t an incredibly slow runner such that he should be expected to have a much lower wOBA, so his underperformance is mainly due to his home park — Busch Stadium is tough on righties — and bad luck. The 10 players closest to Ozuna in xwOBA averaged a 136 wRC+ and with neutral luck, we’d be talking about Ozuna’s five-win season this year.
Against the Braves, Dakota Hudson was having a Hudson-like outing with a few walks, a few strikeouts, and a bunch of groundballs until the top of the fifth, when the cracks started to show. Brian McCann led off the innings with a 97 mph lineout. Then Dansby Swanson hit a bit of a lucky double on a slow roller that bounced off third base. After Swanson advanced to third on a wild pitch, Adam Duvall hit a 103 mph shot to third base that ate up Matt Carpenter.
Tommy Edman, who had been at third base for much of the second half, moved to right field to get Carpenter in the lineup ahead of center fielder Harrison Bader. Carpenter would have had a play at home to get Swanson or an out at first if he had been able to field the ball cleanly. Ronald Acuña Jr. lined out for the third hard-hit ball of the inning. Hudson was set to face the switch-hitting Ozzie Albies, who hits much better as a righty. The Cardinals could have brought in another righty to face Albies, but left in Hudson, who does struggle more against lefties, to face Albies; the Braves’ second baseman hit a homer to put the Braves ahead.
Now, we can get to the Braves’ missed opportunities. What you see below are the most important plate appearances for the Braves in the game by leverage index:
|▲ 9||J Donaldson||C Martinez||2||__3||4-4||Josh Donaldson flied out to left.||4.39||63.50%||-.119|
|▲ 9||F Freeman||C Martinez||1||_2_||4-4||Freddie Freemangrounded out to second. Ronald Acuña Jr. advanced to 3B.||3.27||51.60%||-.075|
|▲ 6||A Duvall||J Brebbia||2||123||3-4||Adam Duvall struck out swinging.||3.04||38.90%||-.076|
|▲ 7||A Hechavarria||A Miller||2||123||3-4||Adeiny Hechavarria flied out to left.||3.01||35.60%||-.075|
|▲ 9||O Albies||C Martinez||0||_2_||4-4||Ozzie Albies flied out to shortstop.||2.65||44.10%||-.113|
|▲ 10||N Markakis||M Mikolas||0||___||4-4||Nick Markakisflied out to center.||2.3||55.80%||-.058|
|▲ 9||R Acuña Jr.||C Martinez||0||___||4-4||Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a ground rule double (Fliner (Fly)).||2.3||32.80%||.172|
|▲ 3||O Albies||D Hudson||1||1||2-0||Ozzie Albies hit a sacrifice fly to right (Fly). Dansby Swanson scored.||2.07||64.60%||.000|
|▲ 6||B McCann||G Gallegos||1||12||3-4||Brian McCann struck out swinging.||2.06||34.20%||-.046|
|▲ 7||N Markakis||A Miller||2||1||3-4||Nick Markakis walked. Josh Donaldson advanced to 2B.||2||28.10%||.020|
|▲ 4||N Markakis||D Hudson||0||1||2-1||Nick Markakis grounded into a double play to shortstop (Grounder). Josh Donaldson out at second.||1.91||67.60%||-.096|
|▲ 6||D Swanson||G Gallegos||2||12||3-4||Dansby Swanson walked. Nick Markakis advanced to 3B.Max Friedadvanced to 2B.||1.83||31.30%||.029|
|▲ 10||R Ortega||M Mikolas||1||___||4-4||Rafael Ortegaflied out to right.||1.78||60.20%||-.044|
|▲ 5||R Acuña Jr.||D Hudson||1||1||3-2||Ronald Acuña Jr. flied out to left (Fliner (Liner)).||1.7||68.00%||-.040|
|▲ 3||D Keuchel||D Hudson||0||1||2-0||Dallas Keuchel struck out swinging.||1.67||71.50%||-.038|
|▲ 7||F Freeman||A Miller||1||__3||3-4||Freddie Freeman struck out swinging.||1.66||31.10%||-.070|
|▲ 7||J Donaldson||A Miller||2||__3||3-4||Josh Donaldson was intentionally walked.||1.63||30.10%||.011|
|▲ 5||A Duvall||D Hudson||1||__3||3-1||Adam Duvall reached on error to third (Grounder). Dansby Swanson scored on error. Error by Matt Carpenter.||1.61||63.90%||.070|
|▲ 1||O Albies||D Hudson||0||1||0-0||Ozzie Albies reached on fielder’s choice to shortstop. Ronald Acuña Jr. out at second.||1.45||49.80%||-.033|
Twelve of those 19 plate appearances occurred after the fifth inning when the Braves took the lead. Look in the WPA column (the table is sortable) and note the impact on the game. There are 14 outs, one of which scored a run. There’s an error that scored a run, three walks, and one base hit. There’s a leadoff double by Acuña Jr. in the ninth. The Cardinals bullpen, between Giovanny Gallegos, John Brebbia, and Andrew Miller, kept the Braves off the board in the sixth and seventh after those walks (and some defensive misadventures in center field and third base) with both innings ending with the bases loaded. The lone hit, the leadoff double to Acuña, allowed Carlos Martinez to pitch during three of the five most-important plate appearances of the night, and he got three outs to keep the score tied. Except for the eighth, when Ryan Helsley shut the Braves down, Atlanta had multiple opportunities to break the game wide open or at least take the lead back. They didn’t, and the Cardinals eventually took advantage.
Of the Cardinals four highest leverage plate appearances, Yadier Molina was at the plate for two of them. First, he tied the game with a single just over the head of Freddie Freeman to drive in Paul Goldschmidt from second base in the eighth. Then in the 10th, after a Kolten Wong leadoff double and Marcell Ozuna’s hustling down the line to beat out a double play put Wong at third base, Molina’s deep fly to left field allowed Wong to sprint home and force a fifth and deciding game.
This hasn’t been a series where no lead is safe, but rather one where small leads have been precarious because they often are. These two clubs went back and forth in three of the four games. Game 5 promises a rematch of Game 2, which the Braves took wire to wire thanks to a great performance from Mike Foltynewicz. He bested Jack Flaherty last Friday in a series that has not gone as scripted for either club. Flaherty will get another opportunity to try to shut down the Braves’ offense, while the Cardinals’ offense, which has been mostly lifeless this series, will get another crack at solving Foltynewicz. Both clubs are certain to get their opportunities, and the team that takes advantage will celebrate on Wednesday night.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.