Baseball’s been around long enough that for the most part, there’s nothing new under the sun. Over thousands of games a year, for more than 100 years, everything that can happen pretty much has. That makes it particularly special when America’s oldest professional team sport spits out something truly novel, like the Cardinals putting up 10 runs in the top of the first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, en route to a decisive 13-1 win and series victory.
Even by the standards of the dramatic first week of the 2019 playoffs, the Braves-Cardinals NLDS had been particularly close: a combined margin of victory of seven runs in the first four games, with three of those contests decided by a comeback in the eighth inning or later. The one exception was Atlanta’s 3-0 win in Game 2, which featured a phenomenal pitching duel between resurgent Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz and Cardinals youngster Jack Flaherty, who’d been the best pitcher in the National League over the last two months of the regular season.
Game 5 was supposed to be a similarly cagey affair, and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt testified to that belief when he ordered second baseman Kolten Wong to lay down a sacrifice bunt on just the second play of the game. Little did anyone know at the time that the next nine Cardinals would reach base, and St. Louis would end the top of the first inning up 10 runs, the most ever scored in the first inning of an MLB postseason game and the joint-most scored in any inning of a postseason game.
The Braves were never really that close to being out of danger, but time after time they spurned opportunities to wrench the malfunctioning spigot closed. Freddie Freeman booted a ground ball to load the bases down 1-0, then Foltynewicz walked Matt Carpenter to force in a run. Tommy Edman’s double swerved just inside the first base bag like a Roger Federer forehand to score two more runs, and with one out and a four-run hole, Braves manager Brian Snitker called on Foltynewicz to walk eight-hole hitter Paul DeJong to load the bases, then called on lefty reliever Max Fried to face Flaherty in the hopes of preserving some chance of a comeback.
A four-run first-inning deficit, one that forces the visiting starting pitcher to pick up a bat before throwing a pitch, is a body blow, but not necessarily a fatal one, even against a pitcher like Flaherty. Fried, who played his high school ball at California’s Harvard-Westlake with Flaherty and White Sox righty Lucas Giolito, won 17 games out of the rotation this year and has been Snitker’s first arm out of the bullpen this series, with scoreless appearances to his name in the first three games of the NLDS.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Fried walked his old schoolmate on five pitches to force in another run, and the severe-but-survivable opening kick in the teeth turned into a genuine last-days-of-the-republic panic.
Dexter Fowler and Wong both doubled, and when Fried finally struck out Marcell Ozuna with two outs, the ball squirted away from catcher Brian McCann, who was, as it turns out, playing in his final MLB game. It took Ozuna a few beats to remember that he could run to first base in that situation. Even after that hesitation, McCann—who’s never been blessed with great quickness and at age 35 and with more than 13,000 career innings at catcher on his odometer has the get-up-and-go of a Victorian masonry structure—could not retrieve the baseball in time to throw Ozuna out and euthanize the inning. The Braves didn’t get out of it until the score was 10-0.
The entire ordeal took 26 minutes, which turns out to be more than enough time to appreciate how ironic it is that the Braves’ postseason social media hashtag is (or was, now) #RELENTLESS.
After the first inning, FanGraphs gave Atlanta about one chance in 50 of coming back for a win, which seems awfully generous. In MLB history, no team has ever overhauled a deficit of more than eight runs in a postseason game, and Flaherty had given up nine earned runs total since August 23.
That’s not to say the next few innings weren’t eventful in their own right. Carpenter might as well have left his glove at home—Shildt brought in late-inning defensive replacement Harrison Bader for the bottom of the first. The Cardinals eventually stretched their lead to 13-0, thanks to a second-inning double off the right field wall that left Nick Markakis splayed against the fence like an outline of Bugs Bunny, and a botched third-inning double play turn by Ozzie Albies. Flaherty batted and made outs with runners in scoring position in both the second and third innings, as for reasons passing understanding Shildt let his ace throw six innings and 104 pitches, all of them after the Cardinals offense put the game out of reach. One of those pitches hit Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. in the back, perhaps by accident, perhaps as a final stinger on the feud between Acuña and Cardinals closer Carlos Martínez.
But none of it mattered. After the top of the first, TBS could’ve gone back to airing reruns of American Dad! for all the drama that was left in what had to that point been the postseason’s closest series. Dark times for lovers of the Braves and garlic knots alike. Neutral fans looked on with a mixture of pity, fascination, and worry that the TBS scoreboard had somehow malfunctioned. The Cardinals, for their part, not only advanced but exacted revenge for the 1996 NLCS, in which they built up a 3-1 lead over Atlanta but couldn’t close it out, culminating in a 15-0 defeat in Game 7, the most lopsided postseason game in MLB history.
But the error, the walks, and the wild pitches made it clear that the Braves had lost this game more than the Cardinals had won it, insofar as that matters when the season ends on a 12-run loss. The disparity between preamble and performance was a shambles somewhere between the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII and Tenenbaum’s loss to Gandhi at Windswept Fields. Faced with the biggest game of the year, Atlanta not only lost but self-destructed, to tragicomic effect.