ATLANTA -- For seven innings, Game 1 of the National League Division Series went according to the Braves’ plan.
They secured an early lead, like they did in 75 of their 97 wins this season. Starter Dallas Keuchel only gave up one run in 4 2/3 innings, then manager Brian Snitker used his bullpen exactly the way he wanted. Darren O’Day finished the fifth, setup man Shane Greene neutralized the middle of the Cardinals’ lineup in the sixth, and Max Fried blew away the three hitters he faced in the seventh.
In the eighth, Snitker summoned right-hander Chris Martin, lined up to face the right-handed middle of St. Louis’ lineup: Paul Goldschmidt, Marcell Ozuna and Yadier Molina. But the game swung out of Atlanta’s control before Martin could throw his first pitch, as the righty reliever exited the game with a tight left oblique that will likely sideline him for the rest of the series.
By the end of the inning, closer Mark Melancon was on the mound earlier than expected, the Braves’ two-run lead was gone, and all their best-laid plans went to waste in a 7-6 loss to the Cards at SunTrust Park on Thursday.
“We had the whole thing set up right where we wanted it,” 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.”
Martin said he went through his normal warmup routine before trotting in from the bullpen to pitch the eighth. But he felt his oblique tighten up after throwing a warmup pitch, a two-seam fastball.
“That’s kind of a big moment in the game there,” catcher Brian McCann said.
Martin was scheduled to undergo an MRI to determine the severity of the injury, but he expected to miss the remainder of the NLDS. With Martin out, the Braves added Julio Teheran to the roster on Friday morning. By rule, with Martin replaced on the NLDS roster, he is also required to miss the NL Championship Series if Atlanta were to advance.
“It’s not a good position I put those guys in,” Martin said. “It’s tough to come in for an inning like that and have to rush to get ready in front of everybody, especially in a freakin’ playoff game like this. It’s tough. I feel really bad.”
The Braves aggressively deployed O’Day in relief of Keuchel, Greene against the heart of the order and Fried for one dominant inning. Snitker could have called on Fried again in the eighth, but he had Martin in mind for that part of the lineup no matter which inning the opportunity presented itself. If Goldschmidt had come to bat in the seventh, Martin would have come in to face him.
“It actually lined up just like I wanted it to,” Snitker said. “It's just a shame that he got hurt.”
Right-hander Luke Jackson entered the game, warmed up and allowed a home run on the second pitch he threw to Goldschmidt. That quickly, Atlanta's lead was down to one run.
“That's a big at-bat right there. When Martin went down, I just hoped that maybe Luke could get us through three outs and get the ball to Melancon,” Snitker said. “And the guy is so dangerous. You're always aware where he's at in the lineup, and it's big. Anytime you get something like that to get you a run closer, that's huge in a game like that.”
The Cardinals felt the momentum shift their way, too.
“Goldy gets into one, and you know you're a swing away. Definitely got some life back to us,” Cards manager Mike Shildt said. “I don't want to minimize that we didn't have life before that. But when you get down 3-1, next thing you know, boom, 3-2, and here we go. Big swing.”
After giving up a pair of two-out singles, Jackson gave way to Melancon with the Braves clinging to a one-run lead. Melancon, who recorded more than three outs in eight of his 66 appearances this season, said he wasn’t thrown off by his early entrance. But Matt Carpenter, pinch-hitting for Harrison Bader, immediately tied the game by smacking an outside cutter to left field for an RBI single.
“The bullpen did good, in my opinion. It was me that did bad,” Melancon said. “I’m going to own that one. That’s on me. I felt like I gave that game away.”
Melancon, who assumed the closer’s role within two weeks of the trade that brought him to Atlanta from San Francisco, couldn’t hold the line in the ninth. Dexter Fowler lined a two-strike single to left. Tommy Edman slapped a grounder through the right side, putting runners on the corners with Goldschmidt due up. Melancon pitched around the slugging first baseman, loading the bases for Ozuna.
Melancon got ahead of Ozuna, firing a first-pitch cutter for a called strike before getting Ozuna to whiff on a low curveball. Melancon’s next pitch wasn’t all that different, another curveball below the zone, but Ozuna hit it to left for a tiebreaking two-run double.
“They grinded their way, and I tip my cap because it was a good job by them,” Melancon said. “In my mind, those pitches have to be better.”
Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman blasted homers off Carlos Martínez in a three-run ninth, so the Braves might have been able to withstand Ozuna’s double if Melancon escaped without any further damage. But the 34-year-old right-hander had thrown 23 pitches by the time Kolten Wong came up with two outs in the top of the inning, and Wong gave the Cardinals some breathing room by swatting Melancon’s first-pitch curveball down the line for a two-run double.
“He was victimized by some balls that were hit just right. His leash is pretty good right there, kind of where we're at in our bullpen and how it's been set up,” Snitker said. “He's been our guy in the ninth inning, and it's those guys at this time of year are probably going to have a little longer leash than normal.”
Melancon took the blame, but at some point, the Braves will wonder what might have happened if Martin hadn’t walked off the mound.
“I’d have rather just been out there. It sucks,” Martin said. “I’ve never had that happen.”
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.