ATLANTA -- The way this National League Division Series has gone, there just had to be a Game 5, didn’t there?
Two of the first four games were decided by one run, and the Cardinals needed extra innings to stay alive in Game 4. It took a dramatic ninth-inning comeback for the Braves to steal Game 3 at Busch Stadium. Game 2 was a classic pitchers’ duel between Jack Flaherty and Mike Foltynewicz, and we’ll get a rematch in Game 5.
So, yes, it’s fair to expect another heart-pounding affair when the Braves and Cardinals return to SunTrust Park for the decisive game on Wednesday night.
“This has been an unbelievable series,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “My God, both teams just banging at each other, and the close games and the late-inning heroics. It's been something.
“It's been exhausting, I know when you're a part of it. But it's been a heck of a series both sides. I guess it's only fitting that we're going to be going out there in a winner-take-all type atmosphere.”
With the season on the line, every pitch and every play matters. Details could be the difference between advancing to the NL Championship Series presented by GEICO and going home. With that in mind, here are three keys for the Braves as they seek their first NLCS berth since 2001.
1) Remember Game 2.
Considering what he did in the second half of the season, Flaherty appeared to be downright human on Friday at SunTrust Park. The Cardinals' right-hander allowed three runs on eight hits in seven innings in a Game 2 loss, though he also struck out eight and only walked one.
To put that in context, consider that Flaherty only yielded one run over his final three starts during the regular season. He had allowed three earned runs in a start exactly one time between July 2 and Atlanta’s 3-0 win in Game 2.
“He brings a plus fastball, good breaking stuff and command. He’s a good pitcher,” said Braves outfielder Adam Duvall, who might start in Game 5. “He’s going to compete. He’s going to try to execute his pitches. It’ll be our job to try to execute what we’re trying to do as well.”
It wasn’t exactly a prolific offensive attack last time, but it was enough. The Braves scored first, as they did in 75 of their 97 regular-season victories; Ozzie Albies reached on an infield single, took second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on Josh Donaldson's single. That quickly, momentum was on their side.
Then, Atlanta pounced as Flaherty neared the end of his 117-pitch outing, the third-highest pitch count of his career. Brian McCann knocked a single to center, and Duvall swung on a high fastball over the plate and clobbered it out to center field in the seventh inning.
2) Get the most out of Max Fried.
Fried didn’t pitch in Game 4, as Snitker didn’t feel comfortable having him pitch four times during a five-day stretch after spending the whole season on a starting pitcher’s every-fifth-day schedule.
But Fried will be rested and ready to go in Game 5, and he could play a pivotal part -- maybe even the multi-inning, Andrew Miller/Josh Hader-type role many envisioned after his dominant work in Games 1 and 2. If Foltynewicz doesn’t pitch as deep into Wednesday’s game as he did last time out, Fried might be the Braves’ bridge to the late innings.
“He’ll definitely be available for that now having two days off,” Snitker said. “I think we'll be versed, and we're going to have plenty of guys available to be able to get through that game tomorrow. And it will be a lot of matchup-driven, whatever their lineup is, things like that, too.”
In a winner-take-all game, it’s clichéd -- but nevertheless true -- to say that the Braves will have all hands on deck from a pitching perspective. Fried’s left hand might be the most important one at Snitker’s disposal.
3) Strikes and sliders from Folty.
Foltynewicz outdueled Flaherty in Game 2, striking out seven while allowing only three hits without a walk over seven efficient innings. A similar performance would put the Braves in position to celebrate in front of their home crowd on Wednesday night.
Strike-throwing was one of the biggest factors in the right-hander’s gem. He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of the 24 hitters he faced, and 71.6 percent of his offerings were strikes. His slider was particularly critical to his success.
Of the 81 pitches Foltynewicz threw in Game 2, 36 were sliders. The Cardinals swung and missed on 10 of them, took six for called strikes, fouled off six and put only five in play. For the most part, Foltynewicz was able to bury his best offspeed offering down and away from right-handed hitters while locating it down and in against St. Louis’ lefties.
When Foltynewicz was demoted to Triple-A during the season, the Braves sent him out with instructions to fix his slider. They knew it’d be important for moments like this.
“You go down there, and that was the main focus in the meetings and all that -- go down there, get your slider back,” Foltynewicz said. “It's just one pitch I knew I needed. It was a breakout pitch last year. It got me to where I am today, and I just know I needed it.”