The Atlanta Braves entered the 2019 postseason full of hope and high on potential. In the regular season, the club posted its highest win total—97—since 2003. Its den of young stars, led by downballot MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. in the field and downballot Rookie of the Year candidate Mike Soroka on the mound, added an enviable blend of excitement and skills. And Atlanta was favored in its first-round series against the Cardinals as it searched for its first playoff advancement since 2001, when Acuña was 3 years old.
Most of the way through Thursday’s NLDS opener, the home Braves matched those hopes on the field. It wasn’t the club’s cleanest day—Acuña was caught for outs twice on the bases; starter Dallas Keuchel didn’t strike out a batter—but the scoreboard didn’t care. Entering the top of the eighth inning, Atlanta led 3-1 with its best relievers yet to pitch, and looked set to take the opening game.
And then, in the span of about half an hour, the Braves’ bullpen unraveled. The Cardinals scored six consecutive runs across the eighth and ninth innings, and even a late rally couldn’t help the Braves close that gap. St. Louis won Game 1, 7-6, and now has supreme ace Jack Flaherty—holder of a 0.91 ERA since the All-Star break—on tap for Game 2. Unless the Braves can mount an upset of the best pitcher in the series on Friday, their playoff dreams might be dashed before even fully unfurling.
Atlanta’s problems centered on the bullpen Thursday—a particular annoyance given the team’s efforts to address that area of the roster with aggressive deals during the summer. In July, the Braves added Shane Greene, Chris Martin, and Mark Melancon in separate trades, and all three looked promising heading into the postseason. That trio combined to pitch 27 innings in September, through which they struck out 25 batters, walked three, and collected a 2.00 ERA.
But on Thursday, after Greene threw a scoreless sixth inning and southpaw Max Fried threw a scoreless seventh, Martin entered for the eighth—and then left before throwing a single pitch. He reportedly suffered an oblique injury during warmups that necessitated his removal. So in came Luke Jackson, a holdover reliever who led the Braves with 18 saves in the regular season, and out went a 446-foot fly ball off the bat of Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. That second-deck blast cut the Atlanta lead to 3-2.
Jackson retired the next two hitters, but consecutive singles from Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong forced Atlanta manager Brian Snitker to call on Melancon for the four-out save. Pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter battled Melancon over the course of a full count, then dumped a single into left field, scoring DeJong to tie the game before Wong was thrown out at home.
Melancon fared even worse in the ninth. After one out, he allowed a single-single-walk sequence to load the bases. Then St. Louis gained its first lead of the game, courtesy of a two-run Marcell Ozuna double, and three batters later, Wong got in on the fun with a two-run double of his own. Atlanta rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth as Acuña and Freddie Freeman homered, but the Braves couldn’t plate the final tying run.
Had his bullpen done the job, Snitker would deserve applause for his adept management throughout the game. Keuchel didn’t have his sharpest stuff and allowed eight baserunners in 4 2/3 innings, so Snitker lifted him early despite the fact that only one run had scored. And until the final two innings, Atlanta’s procession of relievers kept St. Louis off the scoreboard. Overall, just two runs were scored while the first five Braves pitchers were on the mound—and five scored in Melancon’s time alone.
Martin’s injury, which forced an unexpected shuffle of relievers in the eighth, might end up swinging the series. After he departed and walked down the dugout steps toward the clubhouse while clutching his side, Atlanta’s worst problem arose at the worst time. Now the Braves must beat Flaherty or head to St. Louis down 2-0. They’re already in trouble, historically speaking: Under the 2-2-1 playoff format, home teams that drop the first game are just 10-26 in their respective series, and home teams that lose the first two games are a grim 2-13. (The two winners each produced iconic plays: the Derek Jeter flip in the Yankees’ 2001 ALDS win against Oakland, and José Bautista’s home run that lifted the Blue Jays over the Rangers in 2015.)
The series isn’t over, of course. No team can lose a best-of-five series after just one game, no matter how disheartening the first defeat. But the odd scenario of the Cardinals’ pitching setup makes this a tougher circumstance for the Braves: Because Flaherty needed to throw in the final game of the regular season to clinch the NL Central, he wasn’t available until Game 2, which turned Game 1 into a quasi-must-win for the home team. The Braves failed that test and squandered one prime opportunity to win a home game in this series. It’s unclear whether they’ll get another.