Thursday afternoon the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals opened their best-of-five NLDS matchup with Game 1 at SunTrust Park. Despite some sloppy defense, the Cardinals came back in the late innings to win Game 1 on Thursday, 7-6. Here are nine takeaways from the first game of this NLDS matchup.
1. Mikolas was fortunate to escape the first inning
The first inning could've been really, really ugly. Miles Mikolas walked Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies to start the bottom of the first inning -- according to MLB's Sarah Langs, it was only the second time all year Mikolas walked two batters in one inning -- but Acuna was thrown out trying to steal second base, removing a baserunner. Yadier Molina still has a cannon.
Yadier Molina with a 1.89 second pop time on that 84.6 mph throw to get Ronald Acuña Jr.— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) October 3, 2019
It's his 2nd-fastest pop time on a CS at 2B this season.
(MLB average is 2.01).
After Freddie Freeman stroked a single to left to put runners on the corners with one out, Kolten Wong botched a potential inning-ending double play, allowing a run to score. The first four Braves hitters reached base (three safely). Rather than meltdown, Mikolas was able to coax fly ball outs from Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce to escape the inning down 1-0.
To Mikolas' credit, he settled down nicely following the rough first inning. He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced and was able to complete five full innings. After the first inning, Mikolas outlasting Dallas Keuchel seemed quite unlikely, but that's exactly what happened. The Braves missed a big opportunity in the first inning.
2. Keuchel had his ground ball pitch working
Pitches, really. Plural. The Cardinals had a lot of traffic on the bases against Keuchel but could only muster one run in 4 2/3 innings. The run scored without a ball leaving the infield too. Harrison Bader beat out an infield single, moved to second on a bunt, stole third, and scored on a ground ball to second.
St. Louis hit into rally-killing double plays in the third and fourth innings. Keuchel allowed 12 balls in play in Game 1 and 10 of the 12 were grounders. He didn't miss any bats (zero strikeouts) -- Keuchel needed a strikeout with Bader on third and one out in the fifth, but couldn't get it -- but ground balls work too. Look at his pitch locations:
That is staying out of the heart of the plate. Keuchel was consistently down in the zone -- his 60.1 percent ground ball rate led all pitchers during the regular season (min. 100 IP) -- and the result was weak contact. He got double play grounders when he needed them and avoided hard contact. One run in 4 2/3 innings works in October.
3. The Cardinals made two costly errors on one play
The Braves took an early 1-0 lead on Wong's first inning error. In the sixth, the Braves broke the 1-1 tie on a Tommy Edman misplay at third base (the play was originally ruled an error and then overturned). Atlanta loaded the bases on a hit-by-pitch, a double, and an intentional walk. After Francisco Cervelli struck out for the second out -- the check swing call was borderline at best -- Dansby Swanson hit this rocket to third base:
Shortstop Paul DeJong was given an error for the inaccurate throw to second base. That's a tough error on DeJong. The Edman mistake though? That was costly. Like the Wong error in the first inning, that's a play a major league infielder has to make.
St. Louis made the fewest errors in baseball during the regular season (66) and was third in baseball with 95 defensive runs saved. The Cardinals are a really good defensive team, but the infield came unglued at two critical moments in Game 1 on Thursday.
4. The comeback started in the eighth ...
The Braves took a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning and were set to give the ball to ace setup man Chris Martin. Martin suffered an oblique injury during his warm-up pitches, however -- he grabbed at his left side as he went down into the clubhouse -- forcing manager Brian Snitker to change plans. In came Luke Jackson and out went Paul Goldschmidt:
Goldschmidt has now gone deep in five of his nine career postseason games. Jackson then allowed back-to-back singles with two outs, and Snitker asked closer Mark Melancon for a four-out save. It would've been his first since 2016. Matt Carpenter, the first batter he faced, tied the game with a little dunk double to left field. Adam Duvall threw Wong out at the plate to keep the game tied.
According to Statcast, batted balls with a similar exit velocity and launch angle fall for a hit only 18 percent of the time. Carpenter managed to keep it fair to tie the game.
Was it a good send or a bad send on Wong? I say good send but it is up for debate. We're talking about the go-ahead run in the eighth inning of a postseason game, and the Cardinals forced Duvall to make a perfect throw on a difficult play. Running to get that ball along the line and firing a strike to the plate isn't easy. Give Duvall credit. He made the play.
Remember, the pitcher's spot was due up next and the pinch-hitter options at the time were Randy Arozarena, Yairo Munoz, and Matt Wieters. Better chance one of them gets a two-out hit to score the run, or that Duvall's throw is off-line? I know Wong just came back from a hamstring injury, but I'm cool with the send. Either way, the game was tied.
5. ... and was completed in the ninth
It's hard to say how much the Martin injury impacted Game 1, but it sure seems like it was quite a bit. Jackson had to rush into the game and Melancon was asked to get a four-out save, two things that may not have happened had Martin not gotten hurt during his warm-up pitches.
After allowing the game-tying double to Carpenter in the eighth, Melancon continued to implode in the ninth inning. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, then Marcell Ozuna doubled down the line to give the Cardinals a 5-3 lead. Wong followed with another two-run double for a 7-3 lead.
Wong's two-run double proved to be very important -- Acuna (two-run) and Freeman (solo) clobbered long home runs against Carlos Martinez in the ninth inning. Those insurance runs sure came in handy.
As for Melancon, he faced nine batters in Game 1 and retired two (he also got an out on Duvall's throw to the plate). That is bad. To be fair, the Cardinals have a thing for coming back in the late innings. They did it all season.
Cardinals had 10 wins when trailing at start of 8th inning, 2nd most in MLB in regular season.— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) October 4, 2019
According to FanGraphs, the Braves entered the eighth inning with an 85.7 percent chance to win Game 1. It was 50.0 percent by the end of the top of the eighth and 2.0 percent by the end of the top of the ninth. What a remarkable late-inning comeback by the Cardinals, and what a spectacular meltdown by the Atlanta bullpen.
6. Acuna had a bad inning on the bases
Back on Aug. 18,, turning an extra-base hit into a single. In the seventh inning of Game 1, he did it again. Acuna lifted a fly ball to right field and admired it, thinking it was a homer, but it stayed in the park and he settled for a single. He should've been on second base.
Later in the inning Acuna was doubled off second when he got caught leaning toward third on a low line drive. To be fair, I'm pretty sure he would've been doubled off with an average lead, but Acuna should've been on third at that point anyway. It was a really bad inning for the 21-year-old wunderkind, and Acuna's baserunning misadventures may have been costly given the final score.
7. Chipper caught a foul ball!
A foul ball found Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (who was on hand after throwing out the first pitch) in the ninth inning Thursday. He made the nifty catch behind the plate. Check it out:
Some guys just have all the luck, eh. Pretty cool moment though.
8. The Cardinals have an edge
Historically, the team that wins Game 1 of a best-of-five postseason series has gone on to win the series 74.3 percent of the time. That doesn't guarantee the Cardinals a series win -- the last team to win an LDS after losing Game 1 was the 2017 Yankees over the Indians -- but it does give them the upper hand going forward. The Braves need to win three of the next four games to advance.
9. Game 2 coming Friday
The Braves and Cardinals will continue their NLDS matchup Friday afternoon at SunTrust Park. First pitch is scheduled for 4:37 p.m. ET. Hard-throwing righties Mike Foltynewicz (8-6, 4.54 ERA) and Jack Flaherty (11-8, 2.75 ERA) are the scheduled starting pitchers.