Division championships and trips to the post-season should never be taken for granted. Getting there is really, really hard, and given the randomness inherent to the small sample sizes of the playoffs, in many ways winning a division is the true achievement.
Still, for the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals, reaching the post-season only to immediately flame out is an all too familiar routine, and at a certain point, it’s not good enough – you have to win. This is the ninth time the Braves have been in the playoffs since their last series victory in 2001; the Nationals, in their fifth trip to the post-season, are still seeking their first-ever series victory.
That’s some serious baggage to carry, and the Braves squandered a chance to shed it Monday, blowing a late lead in a 5-4, 10-inning loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals, meanwhile, gave themselves another chance to exorcise their demons, staving off elimination with a 6-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Two Game 5s on Wednesday will decide the National League Championship Series participants and the pitching matchups are, as Larry David might say, pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Mike Foltynewicz gets the ball for the Braves versus Jack Flaherty, while the Dodgers try to avoid the upset with Walker Buehler against Stephen Strasburg.
In Yadi the Cards trust
The Braves looked to have their first trip to the NLCS since 2001 – when they lost in five games to the eventual-World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks – in hand after a three-run fifth capped by Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer opened up a 4-3 lead.
But in a reminder of why swing-and-miss stuff matters so much, the Cards knotted things up in the eighth inning, Shane Greene surrendering a broken-bat bloop double to Paul Goldschmidt and a game-tying single that Yadier Molina flared off the top of first baseman Freddie Freeman’s glove.
Things stayed there until the 10th, when Kolten Wong doubled to open the inning off Julio Teheran, Goldschmidt was walked intentionally and after Marcell Ozuna beat out a potential double-play grounder, Molina delivered a game-winning sacrifice fly.
The Braves will have to shake off a number of regrets from this one, as they left the bases loaded in both the sixth and seventh innings and then stranded a Ronald Acuña Jr., leadoff double in the ninth. Embattled closer Carlos Martinez escaped that jam.
In all, Atlanta went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, squandering numerous chances to make this one a boat race.
Mad Max to the max
Midway through Washington’s Game 3 loss to the Dodgers, an antsy Max Scherzer sought ways to get into the ballgame. "Typical Max," says manager Davey Martinez. "He’s ready to pinch hit, he’s ready to pinch run, he said, ‘I could pitch an inning.’ And I said, ‘Hey, buddy, you know, if we had to, you might throw 140 pitches (Monday), so just get your rest. So he’s ready to go."
Scherzer did not throw 140 pitches Monday night, needing only 109 offerings to hold the Dodgers to a single run over seven outstanding innings. He allowed only four hits and three walks with seven strikeouts, leaving only six outs for Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson, the exact "in my perfect world" scenario Martinez laid out beforehand.
Justin Turner’s solo shot in the first was the only damage the Dodgers could muster against him, a deficit the Nationals erased in the third, on an Anthony Rendon sacrifice fly. More importantly, the Nats forced Rich Hill out of the game that inning, and while the Dodgers bullpen isn’t the barefoot-walk-through-glass-shards experience of the Washington ‘pen, it’s still a place to take some nicks.
That’s what happened in the fifth, when Julio Urias took the ball from Kenta Maeda, promptly surrendered Rendon’s go-ahead RBI single and left two runners on for Pedro Baez, whose second pitch, a 96.6 m.p.h. heater to Ryan Zimmerman flew over the wall in centre.
The Dodgers threatened, but Scherzer held, Doolittle and Hudson held, and a decisive fifth game looms.
The Miami Marlins helped shift the balance of power in the NL Central during the 2017-18 off-season, sending MVP candidate Christian Yelich to the Milwaukee Brewers in the higher profile deal, and dealing Marcell Ozuna to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Yelich immediately propelled the Brewers from also-ran to legit threat, while Ozuna lengthened the Cardinals’ lineup, but didn’t provide the type of high-powered impact they were expecting.
Still, he’s made an impact in this NLDS, adding a pair of home runs Monday to an already gaudy stat line. In the four games, he’s 8-for-17 with three doubles and a walk, knocking in four and scoring four. If the Braves are going to survive, they’ll have to find a way to cool him off.
Chop the chop, stat
Even in the early 1990s, when Braves fans first started doing it, the "Tomahawk Chop" was offensive and stupid. One of my favourite moments of the 1992 World Series came in the bottom of the ninth of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Game 3 win, when Roberto Alomar mocked the fan chant as he trotted home with the winning run in a 3-2 win. That was more, "hey, chop off," rather than "stand on the moral high ground" from Alomar, but point made nonetheless.
Incredibly, though, the chop still happens; more incredibly, it’s largely flown under the radar even as the Cleveland Indians have phased out the appalling Chief Wahoo logo; and even more incredibly than that, no one with the Braves has said, "Know what? We really should stop with this already."
Full credit, then, to Cardinals reliever Ryan Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, for recently discussing the matter thoughtfully after taking the mound in Atlanta while fans engaged in the chop.
"I think it’s a misrepresentation of the Cherokee people or Native Americans in general," Helsley told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Just depicts them in this kind of caveman-type people way who aren’t intellectual. They are a lot more than that. It’s not me being offended by the whole mascot thing. It’s not. It’s about the misconception of us, the Native Americans, and it devalues us and how we’re perceived in that way, or used as mascots. The Redskins and stuff like that.
"That’s the disappointing part. That stuff like this still goes on. It’s just disrespectful, I think."
On Sunday, the Braves issued a statement to the Post-Dispatch and Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said: "Our organization has sought to embrace all people and highlight the many cultures in Braves Country. We will continue to evaluate how we activate elements of our brand, as well as the in-game experience, and look forward to a continued dialogue with those in the Native American community once the season comes to an end."
This isn’t hard. Decide that the "Tomahawk Chop" isn’t an element of the brand that needs to be activated, don’t play the music that triggers fans to chop starting in Game 5, and go from there.