The early innings of Game 1 at SunTrust Park on Thursday evening — and for that matter, the late ones — served as a reminder that you can watch baseball all year long, and drill deep in analyzing and anticipating what might happen come the postseason, but sometimes, things simply unfold in ways that run counter to numbers and expectations. Depending upon where you sit, that’s the thrill and the agony of October baseball. For seven innings, the mistakes by a stellar Cardinals defense loomed large against the backdrop of a low-scoring affair, but then a late-inning slugfest produced nine of the game’s 13 runs against a pair of usually-solid bullpens. Ultimately, the Cardinals overcame a 3-1 deficit, scoring six unanswered runs in the final two frames and hanging on for a 7-6 victory.
In the regular season, the Cardinals made fewer errors than any other NL team (66), posted the league’s highest Ultimate Zone Rating (32.8), second-highest defensive efficiency rate (.706), and third-highest total of Defensive Runs Saved. That excellent work gave a pitching staff that produced a middling 4.27 FIP quite a leg up; the team’s 3.82 ERA ranked second in the league, and the 0.45 runs per nine gap between ERA and FIP was the majors’ largest. Without that defense — which Craig Edwards called the primary driver of their success just a few weeks ago — the Cardinals might well have wound up in the Wild Card game, or even outside the playoff picture instead of winning the division.
Meanwhile, a bullpen that lost closer Jordan Hicks to Tommy John surgery in late June wound up finding a silver lining in Carlos Martinez’s rotator cuff strain. As with last August, when he rehabbed his way back from a previous shoulder strain as a reliever, Martinez returned to the bullpen. He pitched very well if not dominant, posting a 3.05 ERA and 2.86 FIP while converting 24 of 27 save chances. He allowed just two home runs in 48.1 innings. On Thursday night, when it appeared the game was firmly in hand, he allowed two more and made things interesting.
We’ll get to that, but first, starter Miles Mikolas certainly could have used the help of that vaunted defense, particularly on a night when he was uncharacteristically off the mark, at least in the early going. Over the course of the past two seasons, only one qualified starter has posted a lower walk rate than the 31-year-old righty’s 3.9%. Yet Mikolas opened by walking leadoff hitter Ronald Acuña Jr. on seven pitches, the first time in the 31-year-old righty’s career that he had done that. Acuña, who missed the final six games of the season due to a left groin strain, then tried to steal second base but was mowed down by Yadier Molina. Mikolas then burned six more pitches while walking No. 2 hitter Ozzie Albies, just the second time all season he’d issued two walks in any inning, and only the ninth time in 33 starts that he walked multiple batters in a game.
The free passes would cost him. Freddie Freeman followed with a single to left field that sent Albies to third, and then Josh Donaldson hit a slow, check-swing grounder to second baseman Kolten Wong. It was a potential double-play ball, except that it dribbled out of Wong’s hand when he attempted to flip it back-handed to shortstop Paul DeJong at the bag, allowing Albies to score.
Wong led all second basemen in both UZR (5.2) and DRS (14), but he hadn’t played in a game since September 19, when he suffered a Grade 2 left hamstring strain. He apparently hadn’t shaken off all the rust, and the ball found him at the wrong time.
Mikolas did escape the inning, but not without throwing 27 pitches, just 13 of which were strikes, none of them swinging. He did settle down, working around a Brian McCann leadoff double in the second inning and retiring 11 straight hitters and 12 out of his final 13, never needing more than 15 pitches in any other inning. By that point, the Cardinals had tied the game against Braves starter Dallas Keuchel, chasing him in the process. Unable to break through in the first four frames despite two doubles, a single, and three walks (one intentional) — a pair of slick 5-3 double plays by Donaldson helped — they scratched out a run in the fifth with a junk-drawer assortment of soft stuff. Harrison Bader reached on a swinging bunt that Keuchel himself fielded and made a wild throw on, a play that was ruled an infield single. Mikolas sacrificed, then Bader swiped third (the first stolen base allowed by Keuchel all season) and scored on a Dexter Fowler grounder. When Tommy Edman followed with a double, Keuchel got the hook after just 4.2 innings.
Mikolas himself hit the showers after five innings, and in the sixth, lefty Tyler Webb pitched them into a jam. With one out, he hit Donaldson on the left hand with a pitch, and then Nick Markakis hit an 82.8-mph chopper that bounced over the head of Goldschmidt at first base, slowly enough to produce a double. Adam Duvall, pinch-hitting for Joyce, was intentionally walked to set up the double play, and then Giovanny Gallegos, the Cardinals’ top reliever, struck out pinch-hitter Francisco Cervelli on a questionable strike called on a checked swing. Dansby Swanson’s one-hopper to Edman at third base looked like an inning-ender, but the ball deflected off his chest and right to DeJong. What at first looked like a lucky break turned into a disaster when the shortstop short-hopped his throw to Wong; it caromed away as Donaldson and Markakis both scored.
Both Edman and DeJong were initially charged with errors, but the first one was later erased and changed to an RBI single for Swanson.
The Braves planned to turn their 3-1 lead over to righty Chris Martin to start the eighth inning. One of three relievers they acquired from other teams on July 31 — Shane Greene, who pitched a scoreless sixth, and Mark Melancon, who would arrive soon, were the others — Martin had posted eye-opening strikeout and walk rates (31.9% and 1.5%) in 17.2 post-trade innings. His performance, along with those of the other two arrivals, helped the Braves improve from a 4.77 FIP (12th in the league) to a 3.90 mark (second) over the final two months, though the unit’s ERA went in the other direction, from 4.15 (third) to 4.34 (seventh). Martin would enter, but he strained his left oblique while warming up and departed in favor of Luke Jackson, who served up a towering 446-foot homer to Paul Goldschmidt on his second pitch. Get some launch angle porn:
Jackson then got two outs before yielding back-to-back singles to DeJong and Wong. Melancon arrived and battled Matt Carpenter (pinch-hitting for Bader) for seven pitches before yielding another single; DeJong scored the game-tying run, but Wong was thrown out at home by Duvall, the result of a terrible send by third base coach Ron Warner.
The Braves didn’t score in the eighth, and the Cardinals came back to batter Melancon for four runs in the top of the ninth. With one out, five straight batters reached base, with Marcell Ozuna’s two-run double giving the Cardinals a 5-3 lead and Wong’s two-out double plating two more. As it turned out, St. Louis would need every one of those four runs. Martinez, who had struck out Swanson to end the eighth and then himself struck out to end the top of the ninth, walked Billy Hamilton on eight pitches, then gave up a 455-foot homer to Acuña, who apparently cheesed off the Cardinals by admiring the homer and trying to re-energize the SunTrust crowd as he rounded the bases:
Granted, Acuña might have been on more solid ground had he run harder out of the box on his seventh-inning drive, which instead of going out or becoming a routine double turned into a long single; he was later doubled off second base on a Donaldson line drive. One can dwell upon the base-math that would have put him at third base following an Albies groundout to second, with Freeman at first following a hit-by pitch — runners at the corners with one out for Donaldson — but to assume that the inning would have unfolded in exactly the same manner as it did with that one change is to fall prey to what Yankees play-by-play voice Michael Kay calls “the fallacy of the predetermined outcome.” We know Acuña made a mistake, and that mistake may have been big, but whethe rit was a difference-maker is unknowable. We can assume he’ll get a lecture from manager Brian Snitker over that sequence (Freeman and Albies voiced their frustrations post-game); he doesn’t need one from the opposing clubhouse.
With the Cardinals’ lead now 7-5, Martinez wasn’t yet done giving up titanic blasts; after retiring Albies on a grounder, he served up a 460-footer to Freeman. The pressure now on, he got Donaldson to ground out and struck out Markakis looking at an 88-mph slider. Behold his 1-0 record and 20.25 postseason ERA!
Martinez’s 29-pitch effort, as well as the 28 pitches by Melancon, should have ramifications for Game 2, in that neither will likely be available. Martin’s injury is severe enough that he’ll come off the roster, giving the Braves a fresh arm (they’ve added Julio Teheran). Maybe the Cardinals will try to uphold their self-appointed role as protectors of The Right Way to Play by throwing at Acuña, and maybe the Braves’ slugger will get his revenge as he did against the Marlins awhile back. Or maybe not. We can anticipate the script, but October baseball is bound to give us the unexpected.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.