ATLANTA — And just like that, the Atlanta Braves can feel good about themselves again in the MLB playoffs, and, more importantly, have some mojo to take on the road as their best-of-five National League Division Series with the St. Louis Cardinals shifts venues.
The Braves exorcised some demons in their 3-0, get-even win over the Cardinals on Friday, tying the series at a game apiece. It began with right-handed starter Mike Foltynewicz, who dominated with his slider after having to go find it at Triple-A earlier this season.
“When they’re taking big swings like that on the first pitch, you know they’re going to be aggressive,” Foltynewicz said after the game. “It was one through eight [in the lineup]. They were pretty aggressive. The slider, I didn’t know I had seven strikeouts on that. That’s a pitch I went down to the minors to work on to get it back on track.”
Those seven strikeouts on his slider were the most in his career, as he threw just 27 fastballs over seven innings, the fewest of any start in his career. In doing so, he has set himself up for a Game 5 start, if it’s needed. And Friday’s seven shutout innings were exactly what the Braves needed after a bullpen meltdown the night before. Foltynewicz limited their relievers’ exposure in Game 2.
“Unbelievable by Folty,” closer Mark Melancon said. “That was just … special. That was a special game and he came through. So awesome.”
Melancon also needed a rebound performance Friday, after blowing the save and serving up four runs to the Cardinals in the ninth inning of Game 1. He allowed the tying run to get to the plate in Game 2, but then shut the door, striking out Yadier Molina and Kolten Wong to end it. There will be no change at the closer role for the Braves in this series.
“Those nights aren’t easy to sleep,” Melancon said. “When you can get back out there the next day, it’s always nice.”
That was because Braves manager Brian Snitker determined before the first pitch that he would go back to Melancon in Game 2.
“I just kind of thought Mark’s been closing for us all year,” the manager said. “He’s been doing a really good job.”
Snitker also will be able to sleep well, as he pushed all the right buttons in Game 2. After the bullpen blowup the day before, his decision to pull Foltynewicz for a pinch hitter — after only 81 glorious pitches — was the skipper’s first real test of the postseason. The crowd reacted accordingly with boos but changed its tune when Adam Duvall homered to turn a tight 1-0 game into a 3-0 Braves advantage.
“That’s a ‘boo-yeah’ moment,” Snitker said with a smile. “It’s tension (that decision). It’s stress.”
Think about how emboldened the manager is for his next big decision. Not only did he get rewarded in the moment for the move, but then both Max Fried (who pitched the eighth inning), and Melancon did their jobs as well. Pulling Foltynewicz wasn’t popular, but popularity doesn’t win championships.
“He did exactly what we needed him to do,” Snitker said of his starter. “And it was a hot day. It was an emotional day.”
And it was a winning day, topped off by Duvall’s home run to extend the lead. Duvall played 101 games at Triple-A this season after spending parts or all of five seasons in the big leagues. Talk about a confidence boost, he got a big one in taking Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty deep. It might have been the first time that he has been booed by his home crowd, as it wanted Foltynewicz to keep going.
“The fans let me know they wanted him to stay in, which we all did,” Duvall said. “I just wanted to have a good at-bat and go up there and try to make it worth it because he was grooving out there. It was impressive to watch and it was fun to watch, fun to be a part of.”
The home run brought Braves fans to their feet, as did Melancon when he got the final out. All of it happened because their manager showed faith in his players, faith in starting Foltynewicz in a playoff game, and faith in sending a player who had played in only 41 regular-season games to the plate to hit for him. And then some more faith in a closer who had blown a postseason game less than 24 hours earlier. It added up to a confident, spin-it-forward win for the Braves.
Even Ronald Acuna Jr. had his moment of redemption, as there was only hustle from him in this game. It allowed for a postgame free of awkward drama — the night before, he and his teammates had to answer for yet another lapse by the second-year player. Acuna declared then that would be it for him not running hard out of the batter’s box — a sign that bodes well for the Braves as the series continues.
“These guys come prepared,” Melancon said. “It’s start to finish. Everybody’s focused and ready to go, and obviously talent is off the charts.”
Game 2 serves as proof of that, as the Braves head to St. Louis with the series even.
Adam Duvall stresses the importance of a must-win mentality within the clubhouse as the Braves travel to St. Louis for Game 3 of the National League Division Series.