Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez melted down in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS against the Braves, and before he recorded three outs he turned a one-run St. Louis lead into a 3-1 deficit.  A clutch two-out double from Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson tied the game at 1-1 in the top of the ninth, and soon thereafter Adam Duvall notched a two-RBI single to give Atlanta its first lead of the game. 

Braves closer Mark Melancon made that 3-1 margin stand up in the bottom of the ninth (box score) -- with an assist from Freddie Freeman's acrobatic stretch to ensure a 6-3 putout of leadoff hitter Kolten Wong -- and the Braves' stirring comeback gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. 

Forgotten in the ninth-inning dramatics was the unlikely gem twirled by 38-year-old Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, who shut out the Braves for 7 2/3 innings. Wainwright's counterpart, Mike Soroka, was similarly excellent, as he allowed one run (on a sac fly) in seven innings while striking out seven against zero walks. At one point, Soroka retired 17 in a row. 

The story, though, was Martinez, who in that fated ninth allowed two doubles and a single with an intentional walk of Brian McCann mixed in among the scoring. Now the Cardinals are faced with staving off elimination in Game 4 on Monday, which will be back at Busch Stadium.

Why the Braves won

In large measure, Soroka's excellence kept the Braves within comeback range. The 22-year-old right-hander is likely to finish in the top five of the NL Cy Young balloting, as he pitched to a 2.68 ERA/169 ERA+ in 174 2/3 innings during the regular season. In that sense, his Game 3 gem wasn't a surprise. 

Soroka as usual threw four pitches and leaned heavily on his sinker. On the day, Soroka got eight ground outs from the Cardinals, and the deeper he got the better he was able to locate his sinker. Cardinal hitters rarely squared him up in Game 3. Tellingly, the average Game 3 exit velocities on his sinker, slider, and changeup -- which accounted for all his allowed balls in play -- all averaged in the low 80s. One of his sinkers was put in play at a Little League-ish 58.3 mph, and one of his changeups left the bat at 63.9 mph. A deep, commanded repertoire built on late movement will yield those kind of results. 

The way Wainwright was going -- he commanded his curve in vintage fashion and successfully attacked the top of the zone time and again -- Soroka had to be on to keep the Braves in range. Soroka was indeed on. 

And of course let's give a nod to the Braves' relentless efforts in the top of the ninth. Perhaps that discussion, however, is best framed around the St. Louis closer. 

Why the Cardinals lost

For a time in Game 3, the answer to this stated query felt like it was going to be "because Mike Shildt left Wainwright in too long." In the tense eighth (not as tense as the ninth, looking back), Wainwright got Brian McCann to pop but then yielded a single to Swanson. Following a loud out by pinch hitter Duvall, Wainwright, facing the Atlanta order for the fourth time, walked Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies to load the bases. Finally, Shildt gave Wainwright the hook following his 120th pitch, and Andrew Miller was able to tease an inning-ending fly out from Freddie Freeman. 

At that point, it felt like we'd be talking about how Shildt's slow hook wound up working, and in a sense it did. He handed his closer the ball with a one-run lead and three outs to go. Those three outs didn't happen until the script had been flipped in a surprising way. 

Martinez started off the inning by allowing a double to Josh Donaldson on a changeup on the inner third. Then came back-to-back strikeouts followed by an intentional walk of McCann, which brought Swanson to the plate. Swanson ambushed a first-pitch slider for a game-tying double. Was he sitting slider? Consider: 

From the looks of it, Swanson is staying back from the start, even though this is a pitcher who can touch high-90s with his fastball. Martinez, though, had started off every Atlanta hitter prior to Swanson with a first-pitch slider. Swanson surely knew this, just as he surely knew that Martinez in 2019 favored first-pitch sliders, especially against right-handed batters. So maybe Swanson went hunting for it. Whatever the case -- as you saw, said slider was also a bit of a hanger -- it worked for the Braves. 

During the regular season, Martinez put up strong numbers, but he wasn't drama-free. In 31 of his 48 appearances, he allowed at least one baserunner. Overall, he was a very good closer for St. Louis, but he was vulnerable. Martinez was of course especially vulnerable on Sunday. 

Highlight of the game

Speaking of Martinez and the ninth, things again got testy between him and Acuna, the Braves' young thunderclap: 

There's some recent backstory here going back to Game 1, when Martinez objected to Acuna's late-inning home run trot. Suffice it to say, Martinez was probably in a foul mood of his own making leading up to this somewhat strained moment. 

Up next

Game 4 is on Monday back in St. Louis. First pitch is scheduled for 3:07 p.m. ET. Dakota Hudson will likely go for the Cardinals. At this writing, the Braves haven't named a starting pitcher, but Julio Teheran is likely in the mix. If the Braves win, they advance to the NLCS. Speaking of that, teams up 2-1 in the best-of-five LDS have gone on to win the series 75 percent of the time.