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Late lead slips away from Braves in Game 1 loss

Martin's injury in 8th proves critical as bullpen can't close out Cards
@mlbbowman
October 4, 2019

ATLANTA -- Maybe it’s best many of the Braves are either too young or disconnected from Atlanta sports history to truly have a feel for the gravity of the frustration the franchise and city have felt during the postseason.

ATLANTA -- Maybe it’s best many of the Braves are either too young or disconnected from Atlanta sports history to truly have a feel for the gravity of the frustration the franchise and city have felt during the postseason.

Regardless, all of the Braves got another taste of October despair when they squandered a two-run lead in the eighth inning during a 7-6 loss to the Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday night at SunTrust Park.

Box score

“The bullpen did good, in my opinion,” closer Mark Melancon said. “It was me that did bad. I’m going to own that one. That’s on me. I felt like I gave that game away.”

Melancon surrendered a game-tying single with two outs in the eighth and then permitted four more runs in the ninth. Had he limited the bleeding during that final frame, Atlanta would have been celebrating the monstrous two-run homer Ronald Acuña Jr. drilled ahead of a Freddie Freeman solo blast that ended the scoring on this eventful night.

This wasn’t blowing a 28-3 fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl or squandering the five-run eighth-inning lead the Braves possessed before ending their 2005 season with an 18-inning loss to the Astros in Game 4 of the NLDS. This was just the first game of a still quite-winnable best-of-five series.

But it was hard to avoid thinking about those painful collapses after yet another postseason opened with a loss. The Braves have not won Game 1 in any of their past nine postseason series. Their last such win came when they swept the Astros in the 2001 NLDS, which is the most recent postseason series won by the club. Atlanta will enter Friday's Game 2 having not had a series lead in 30 consecutive postseason games. This is tied for the longest such streak in MLB history.

“We’ve got a really good team,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “We had this one [in the] late innings. You hope to come out with the win, and we didn’t. We’ve got to turn the page and we’ve got to come out tomorrow. We’ll be ready.”

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 3 STL 7, ATL 6 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 4 ATL 3, STL 0 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 6 ATL 3, STL 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 7 STL 5, ATL 4 (10) Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 9 STL 13, ATL 1 Watch

Now the Braves face the challenge of bouncing back in Game 2 against Jack Flaherty, who posted a 0.93 ERA over his last 16 regular-season starts. In the Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams winning Game 1 on the road took the series 28 of 40 times (70%).

“I like how we fought,” Braves starter Dallas Keuchel said. “I don’t think there is any drawback to losing Game 1. In the playoffs, there’s some weird stuff that goes on through the course of every game. You could sit back and dissect about 20 different things from the course of the first pitch to the last pitch. They just had a few more balls bounce their way."

Maybe a sense of uneasiness should have developed when a Kolten Wong error accounted for the only run Atlanta scored during Miles Mikolas' 27-pitch first inning. Acuña’s unsuccessful attempt to steal second base lessened the potential damage in that frame, and the decision to have Keuchel bunt with one out and McCann at second base killed the next inning’s scoring threat.

Still all seemed to be right for the Braves when Dansby Swanson's two-out infield single in the sixth with the bases loaded induced the second of St. Louis’ two errors, as two runs scored to give Atlanta a 3-1 lead. Max Fried struck out two in a perfect seventh and Chris Martin entered to face a string of right-handers in the eighth. But disaster struck when a left oblique strain prevented Martin from throwing a pitch.

Along with losing Martin for the remainder of this series, the Braves suddenly lost all momentum. Luke Jackson rushed into the game, promptly allowed Paul Goldschmidt's leadoff homer and then exited after allowing consecutive two-out singles. Melancon’s bid for a four-out save quickly vanished when pull hitter Matt Carpenter lofted a game-tying opposite-field single to shallow left field.

Martin's sudden exit knocks Braves off balance

“The way we played all season, you can almost expect to win those kinds of games,” Freeman said. “When you give up that kind of lead, that’s tough to swallow.”

Wong, who missed most of the regular season’s final two weeks with a hamstring strain, was thrown out attempting to score on Carpenter’s single. But he and Marcell Ozuna ripped two-run doubles off Melancon during St. Louis’ four-run ninth.

“We had the whole thing set up right where we wanted it [before Martin’s injury],” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It's exactly what we were working towards throughout the whole game was to get us to those two guys. And that was a big blow.”

Had Martin not been forced to exit, the Braves wouldn’t have once again had to roll the dice with Jackson. There’s also reason to wonder if Keuchel would have been allowed to pitch beyond the fifth had Atlanta taken advantage of its early scoring opportunities.

Acuña displayed his tremendous talents with the 455-foot homer he hit in the ninth. Yet he spent his postgame media session answering questions about the fact he stared at yet another long fly ball that resulted in a single in the seventh. Had he reached second base on the hit, there’s a good chance he would have scored and the Braves might have avoided the misery felt in yet another postseason opener.

Acuña's lack of hustle 'can't happen' in playoffs

“I know it's the postseason, but again it's baseball,” Snitker said. “We've been through this a lot. We've lost a lot of tough games, came back and rallied and had good runs, and we'll have to do the same tomorrow.”

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.