ATLANTA -- While the 10-run first inning endured on Wednesday was certainly embarrassing, the most destructive innings the Braves experienced during this National League Division Series occurred before this season-ending 13-1 loss to the Cardinals in Game 5 at SunTrust Park.
This year was supposed to be different. Atlanta United halted the city’s postseason curse, and the Braves cruised through a 97-win season that created reason to believe they would win their first postseason series since 2001. But those expectations evaporated during this best-of-five series, which was marred by two late-inning collapses and one of the ugliest innings in memory.
“This was a special group,” Freddie Freeman said. “We knew it from the get-go. We knew it from Day One of Spring Training. We had a really good team. We just didn’t put it all together in the five games that we needed to this year.”
Even if the Braves were still a year or two from becoming legit contenders to win a World Series, it wasn’t supposed to end this way, with Mike Foltynewicz becoming just the third starting pitcher in franchise history to record no more than one out. Of course, he would have recorded more than one had Freeman not added to his NLDS woes by mishandling Yadier Molina’s potential double-play grounder.
“I can’t believe they scored nine more runs after that,” Freeman said, echoing the disbelief felt by just about anyone who watched the inning.
Had Freeman been able to turn two, the Cardinals would have tallied just one run in that 10-run first. Instead they forced the unexpected early entry of Max Fried, who walked high school buddy Jack Flaherty with the bases loaded, allowed consecutive RBI doubles, then uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch on a strikeout to cap the highest-scoring first inning (tied for the most for any inning) in postseason history.
"I don't know that I've seen that many guys hit in the first inning that quick in my entire life," said manager Brian Snitker. "I don't know. It wasn't how we drew it up, I know that. I don't know. That thing just kept rolling, and we couldn't stop it."
The Braves might have been able to avoid this conclusion. The decision to save their top starter, Mike Soroka, for Game 3 on the road prevented them from using him more than once. The decision to bring back Dallas Keuchel to start Game 4 on short rest proved to be ill-fated when he was unable to get through the fourth.
“We had our windows, we just didn’t take advantage,” Dansby Swanson said. “I think it’s pretty much that simple. You can kick yourself all you want, or you can get back to work and be better the next time.”
As Flaherty did his thing by limiting the Braves to Josh Donaldson's solo homer over six innings, a sold-out home crowd held out hope for the improbable before facing the reality that the Braves have now lost 10 consecutive playoff rounds dating back to their sweep of the Astros in the 2001 NLDS. Atlanta has also now lost five consecutive winner-take-all postseason games dating back to 2002.
“We're a very good team,” Snitker said. “It didn't happen today. That's one of those things. I was hoping we would be on the other end of something like this, but that's just the way it is.”
Maybe things would have been different had Freeman not spent the final weeks of the regular season bothered by a bone spur in his right elbow. The MVP candidate said again on Wednesday night that he was healthy throughout this series, but his 4-for-20 showing at the plate leaves room for doubt. His inability to field Molina’s routine grounder showed he was anything but himself during this series.
“I think we’d all agree he takes ownership of his play, like we all do,” Swanson said. “But this doesn’t come down to one play. It doesn’t come down to one specific instance. We’re a team. We ride or die together. We win or lose together.”
Ronald Acuña Jr. solidified his superstar status by going 8-for-18 with five extra-base hits, and Swanson did his part by going 7-for-18. But the Braves weren't helped by the fact their veteran 3-4-5 hitters (Freeman, Donaldson and Nick Markakis) combined to hit .167. Freeman doubled in the eighth on Wednesday, but he also grounded out to end a bases-loaded threat that developed after Flaherty dotted Acuña’s left arm with a pitch in the fifth.
Asked how much blame he would place on his shoulders, Freeman said, “All of it.”
“I didn’t come through,” he continued. “I know everybody’s going to say what they want to say, but this one’s on me.”
But that doesn't temper the pain that he and his teammates feel as they bid adieu to a season that deserved a much different ending.
“Last year was, ‘Hooray, we proved a lot of people wrong,’” Freeman said. “This year we ... expected to win the division and go far in the playoffs, and we didn’t do it.”