ATLANTA -- The National League Division Series’ opening act ended with Carlos Martínez on the mound to close out a 7-6 Cardinals win over the Braves in Game 1 on Thursday at SunTrust Park. Consider it the result and circumstance the Cards wanted, even if it wasn’t exactly the way they drew it up and wasn’t always pretty.
That’s the takeaway from a dramatic back-and-forth Game 1 with regards to Martínez, who recorded St. Louis’ biggest out of the night, made things uncomfortably close toward the end and wasn’t thrilled with the way Ronald Acuña Jr. went about chipping away at the Cardinals’ ninth-inning lead. All told, it was an eventful night wrought with challenges for Martínez in his first taste of October as the club’s undisputed closer.
And the Cardinals know Martínez will have to do better if they’re going to get where they hope to go.
Martínez took issue with how long it took Acuña to leave the batter’s box after his two-run homer in the ninth, the first of two home runs Martínez allowed in a three-batter span. The Cards entered the inning up four, thanks to their four-run rally in the top of the frame.
“I wanted him to respect the game and respect me as a veteran player,” Martínez said through team translator Carlos Villoria. “That’s it. Just play the game.”
The rally had broken open a tie game that Martínez preserved by striking out Dansby Swanson to strand the tying run on second in the eighth.
“That’s a big out on Swanson,” manager Mike Shildt said. “You got the go-ahead run at second base. He comes in and makes tough pitches to Swanson. That’s a big job he did right there.”
But things got dicey in the ninth. Pitching with a four-run lead, Martínez issued a leadoff walk to Billy Hamilton, then coughed up Acuña’s 455-foot two-run homer. Freddie Freeman added a 460-foot solo homer two batters later; his and Acuña’s rank as the third- and fifth-longest home runs, respectively, hit in the postseason since Statcast began tracking in 2015.
Acuña admired his a bit before dropping his bat up the first-base line. He also broke slowly enough out of the box to turn a 331-foot ball off the right-field wall into a single two innings prior. The ninth-inning homer brought Yadier Molina to the mound to make sure Martínez’s emotions remained in check.
“When Acuña hit a home run and Freeman hit a home run, I just tried to focus a little more and compete,” said Martínez, who explained he was dealing with the recent death of a close friend from the Dominican Republic. Martínez did not disclose that person’s name, but he said “she watched me grow up and she was like my mother to me.”
“I just tried to keep those two things separate,” Martínez said. “What happened on the field has nothing to do with what happened in my personal life and vice versa.”
Molina said: “Carlos is a passionate guy. He takes everything hard. I was just trying to calm him down during the homer.”
The three-run, four-out performance was one of Martínez’s shakier outings since inheriting the closer role full-time in June; he’d held opponents scoreless in 16 of his past 17 outings prior to Thursday.
The Cardinals probably wouldn’t mind less drama the next time they hand Martínez the ball, which could be as early as Friday’s Game 2, given the high-stakes stage of their season.
“Honestly, the only issue I had with the whole inning was the walk to Hamilton,” Shildt said. “You got a lead regardless of size and you go out and get the leadoff guy on. And he gave up a few homers. But the good news about Carlos was Yadi was right there with him. He wasn’t going to back down, made quality pitches and got great stuff.”