After narrowly escaping his ineffectiveness in Game 1, the Carlos Martinez Octobercoaster caused St. Louis to yack up a pivotal Game 3 at home, and cede a 2-to-1 NLDS series lead to the Atlanta Braves. A three-run Braves’ ninth on the back of three hits and two walks spoiled a timeless, if sometimes harrowing, 7.2 shutout innings from 38-year-old Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, and sent 47,000 fans home in stunned silence.
Up until the twist, Planet of the Apes-y ending, St. Louis had maintained a loose grip on a 1-0 lead first captured on a second-inning Matt Carpenter sac fly, enabled by an earlier Marcell Ozuna double. Throughout the six innings that followed, the Cardinals survived several well-struck fly balls that momentarily stopped the collective heart of Busch Stadium, before they died at the warning track and fell harmlessly into the waiting glove of Dexter Fowler. A Ronald Acuña Jr. laser in the third (107 mph off the bat), a Nick Markakis golf shot (100 mph) in the fourth, and a hanging curveball to Matt Joyce (102.5 mph) in the seventh all amounted to nothing more than a few seconds of concern.
Then came the ninth inning. A leadoff double by Josh Donaldson (who was replaced at second base by human blur Billy Hamilton) immediately put the tying run in scoring position. Consecutive Martinez strikeouts forced Cardinals manager Mike Shildt to make a two-out decision. Either a) have Martinez face lefty-hitting catcher Brian McCann, or b) walk McCann so Martinez could face the right-handed Dansby Swanson, who had doubled off of Wainwright earlier in the game. Shildt chose to face Swanson, who obliterated a first-pitch hanging slider and tied the game on his second double. Adam Duvall followed with a less emphatic, but more significant, single that plated Rafael Ortega (who ran for McCann) and Swanson.
While he has an incredible changeup that helps him deal with left-handed hitters, Martinez’s career splits against righties (.220/.288/.306) are much better than they are against lefties (.260/.347/.402), making this Shildt decision appear sound despite the result. Doomed largely by poor breaking ball execution, Martinez now has a five hit, three walk, six earned run line in 2.1 innings pitched in this series, a line made uglier by multiple confrontations with Acuña, who Martinez hit with a fastball after Duvall’s single.
The walk to McCann may have cost the Cardinals an unforeseen out of their own in the bottom of the ninth. Because the Braves ran for McCann, perhaps baseball’s slowest runner, he was replaced in the final frame by the excellent pitch-framing catcher Tyler Flowers, whose sleight of hand stole a strike three call against Ozuna, who has been the Cardinals’ best hitter in the series, going 6-for-13, with three doubles and a walk. The strikeout helped to stifle a potential Cardinals’ rally kept alive by an earlier ninth inning Paul Goldschmidt double.
Lost in all the late-inning drama was a seven-inning pitcher’s duel between Wainwright and 22-year-old Braves righty Mike Soroka, who allowed just two hits. Soroka worked mostly 92-94 with his heavy sinker but garnered several swings and misses with his slider and changeup as well. It was a stellar playoff debut start for a young man who among the promising crop of pitching prospects that have helped get Atlanta to this place, is purportedly the most competitive and fiery.
Amid the handful of well-struck balls Wainwright allowed, he was excellent, working primarily with his arcing, mid-70s curveball throughout the outing, finishing with eight strikeouts in 7.2 innings, allowing just six base runners. He and lefty Andrew Miller, who got a lefty out to end the eighth, absolved Shildt of being asked more serious questions about sticking with Wainwright for too long. Leaving Waino in cost the Cardinals a bases-empty, one-out at-bat from a position player in the sixth, and caused considerable consternation when the Braves loaded the bases against him in the eighth. But that jam didn’t ultimately lead to runs, and allowing Wainwright to pitch the seventh and most of the eighth saved St. Louis’ bullpen for Monday’s Game 4.
Swanson went 3-for-4 with two doubles, which constituted two of the four hardest-hit balls in the game. His big game resume dates back to college and includes feats like hitting four homers in four games during an SEC tournament and a go-ahead dinger in the ninth inning of a Regional final, before a Jeteresque jump throw to prevent the tying run from hitting in the bottom of that inning. Perhaps he and Alex Bregman, picks No. 1 and 2 in the 2015 draft, are on a bragging rights collision course.
Atlanta’s Game 4 starter is still TBD as of manager Brian Snitker’s postgame presser. Righty Julio Teheran, who was added to the NLDS roster after Chris Martin’s Game 1 injury, is a strong possibility now that the Braves have a series lead. If not Teheran, lefty Dallas Keuchel may go on short rest. If Keuchel goes, he and opposing starter Dakota Hudson make for interesting opponents due to their ability to induce grounders. The two have the highest groundball rates among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, making the possible matchup appointment viewing for those who have grown tired of all the homers.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.