ST. LOUIS -- Maybe this Braves team truly is different than the many others that have too often tasted postseason despair throughout this century.
Maybe it is time to realize there is something special about the resilient nature of this team that was held scoreless before staging a two-out ninth-inning rally that resulted in a 3-1 win over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium.
This marked the second time the Braves won a playoff game after being down to their final out. The only previous instance was their memorable Game 7 win over the Pirates in the 1992 NL Championship Series.
“Our motto is ‘Relentless’ and that’s exactly what we were today,” said closer Mark Melancon.
Relentless stands as a fitting description for both Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall, the guys who delivered the consecutive ninth-inning hits with two outs that prevented the Braves from losing on a night when Mike Soroka surrendered two hits and allowed one unfortunate run over seven stellar innings.
Swanson now stands with Luis Polonia (1995 NLDS Game 3), Otis Nixon (1992 World Series Game 6) and Francisco Cabrera (1992 NLCS Game 7) as the only Braves to record a game-tying or go-ahead hit when down to the final out in the postseason.
The Braves went scoreless through their first 26 outs and then completed the three-run rally that put them a win away from advancing to the NLCS for the first time since 2001.
“I think that’s the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That was a roller coaster of emotions there at the end. That was unbelievable.”
Having won two of the first three games of this best-of-five series, the Braves lead in a postseason series for the first time since they won Game 3 of the 2002 NLDS against the Giants. They had played an MLB record 31 consecutive postseason games without a series lead.
“This team is different,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “We’re a complete team. We’ve got pitching at the top. We’ve got defense. We’ve got speed. We’ve got power. We have a bullpen. We have guys that love to play the game of baseball. We’re looking to make some noise.”
This had the makings to be the same kind of heartbreaking loss that was suffered in Game 1 on Thursday, when the Braves’ bullpen squandered a two-run eighth-inning lead and allowed six runs over the final two frames.
The lone run scored against Soroka was created by Marcell Ozuna's opposite-field bloop double that came off the bat at 62.1 mph. Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright matched Soroka’s excellence by limiting the Braves to four hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings.
After Freeman flied out with the bases loaded to end the eighth, Josh Donaldson created some excitement by beginning the ninth with a 110 mph double down the left-field line. Carlos Martínez struck out the next two batters and then intentionally walked McCann to set up a right-righty matchup against Swanson, who had been hitless in six career at-bats (including the postseason) against the closer.
“Everybody felt like that was the best matchup, including the guy on the mound,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Took our shot. Didn't make a pitch, and made him pay.”
Including the first two games of this series, McCann had produced a .591 OPS dating back to July 21. Swanson had a .552 OPS over his last 27 regular-season games. But he entered this plate appearance 4-for-10 in the NLDS and he’d produced a 100 mph-plus exit velocity on both of his hits against Wainwright.
“I personally would have been surprised if they would have pitched to Mac just because of his postseason experience and everything,” Swanson said. “So I was ready from the moment I started putting my batting gloves on in the dugout.”
After Swanson drilled his game-tying RBI double to left, Duvall handled an 0-2 slider and sent his decisive two-run single to center. The former All-Star spent most of this season at the Triple-A level. But his two-run homer in the Game 2 win and this game-winner have put him in the spotlight throughout this series.
“This is what we play for all year,” Duvall said. “So to come out with a win when you're down in the ninth, that's huge because every game's a must-win game from here on out. It's important to get every one you can.”