St. Louis Cardinals

3 things to look for as the Cardinals and Braves move on to Game 2

St. Louis earned a 7-6 come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Braves on Thursday in the opening game of the NLDS and look to take a 2-0 lead on Friday

Game 1 of the NLDS was an opportunity gone awry for the NL East champion Atlanta Braves.

Atlanta led St. Louis 3-2 with two outs in the top of the eighth inning at SunTrust Park before the Cardinals came back to tie and eventually take the lead in the top half of the ninth inning. St. Louis won the game 7-6 to take a quick 1-0 series lead on the Braves.

The teams don’t have long to wait to get back onto the field. Game 2 goes on Friday, with Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty taking on Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. But the best-of-five series may already have been decided in the final two innings on Thursday.

A young, untested Braves roster has to come back from Thursday’s disappointment and avoid falling into a 2-0 hole. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have to avoid getting ahead of themselves and focus on winning two more games in order to advance.

Here are three things to look for as both teams prepare for Game 2 on Friday.

1. The Cardinals not-so-secret weapon

Game 1 must have felt almost like a must-win game for the Braves, considering what awaits them in Game 2 on Friday.

Right-hander Jack Flaherty will take the mound for the Cardinals hoping to put Atlanta in a 2-0 series deficit. Based on how he’s pitched over the past two-plus months of the season, it’s a solid bet he’ll do just that.

The 23-year-old Flaherty has been the best pitcher in baseball since the All-Star break. Not only has he been nearly unhittable, he’s pulled off a stretch of dominance hardly ever seen in the modern era. He had a 0.91 ERA in the second half, the second-lowest mark of any pitcher in the last 50 years (Jake Arrieta had a 0.75 ERA in 2015). He’s given up more than two earned runs once since July 2. In six starts in September, Flaherty gave up four total runs over 44 innings.

He was spectacular in his final two starts of the season. On Sept. 24 in Arizona, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before giving up an infield single on a bad hop. Then, in Sunday’s season-finale, he clinched the division title for St. Louis by pitching seven innings of two-hit ball and shutting out the Cubs.

Flaherty ended the year, just his second full season in the big leagues, 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA, leading the NL in WHIP and fewest hits per nine innings.

The Braves have had little success against Flaherty both this season and in his career. Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies are both 1-7 against him, while Josh Donaldson is hitless in four at-bats. Freddie Freeman is the only Braves hitter with decent numbers, with three hits in eight at-bats including a home run. In his last start against Atlanta, back on May 26, Flaherty shut them out over six innings while giving up just three hits and striking out seven.

Atlanta needs to erase that history if they have any hope of getting back into this series. Only eight teams in the divisional round have come back from a 0-2 series deficit, most recently the Yankees in 2017 against Cleveland.

2. Can the “Baby Braves” recover from heartbreak?

The Braves found themselves four outs away from taking Game 1 on Thursday before letting the lead, and the game, slip away. Somehow this roster full of young superstars needs to regroup in time for Game 2 on Friday.

The Braves’ young core of Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies got their first postseason experience a year ago, but it wasn’t exactly a positive one. The 22-year-old Albies went 3-15 without an RBI in the four-game loss to the Dodgers in the NLDS. Acuna, meanwhile, went 3-16, although one of the hits was a grand slam in Game 3, the only game the Braves won in the series.

It was a learning experience for this emerging group, one that carried over into this season when they won 97 games, the most for the franchise since 2003. These playoffs were supposed to be a coming-out party for them, and for Acuna, at least, it was. The 21-year-old went 3-4 with a double and a 455-foot home run in the ninth inning on Thursday against St. Louis. He should’ve had two doubles but didn’t hustle out of the batter’s box on a ball off the right-field wall.

His efforts, though, weren’t enough, and the Braves will turn to starting pitcher Mike Foltynewicz on Friday to try to get them back into the series. After Foltyenwicz comes rookie Mike Soroka for Game 3. Soroka went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA, third in the NL, in his first full season as a starter. In a homer-happy league, he led the NL in lowest home run allowed rate, giving up less than one per nine innings. But he’s never pitched in the postseason before, and if the Braves can’t solve Flaherty on Friday (and no one has been able to the past two months), they will count on an untested rookie to keep their season alive.

The Braves had Game 1 stolen out from under them and now find themselves in a familiar position. The franchise has lost their last eight postseason series, with their last win coming in 2001. It was a shock to the club, and if their young players like Acuna and Albies don’t learn from what happened on Thursday, they’re in for another disappointing postseason run.

3. Cardinals playing small ball

The Cardinals are almost an antithesis of what a winning ballclub should be in 2019.

They don’t hit home runs, don’t get extra-base hits, and don’t get on-base that often. Their team batting average, on-base percentage and OPS were the worst among all the playoff teams. They ranked 24th in baseball with 210 home runs, the lowest rank of any team still alive (in a sign of just how many homers were hit in 2019, their total was actually an increase from last year, when they ranked 11th).

But somehow the Cardinals still find ways to win with pitching, defense, baserunning and timely hits. They got the pitching on Thursday—Miles Mikolas recovered from a shaky start to pitch five innings while giving up one run on five hits. Their defense, which led the league this season and set a franchise record for highest fielding percentage, wasn’t as good as two errors allowed three Braves runs to score.

But it was the last two categories, baserunning and clutch hitting, that were the difference in their comeback victory in Atlanta. Their first run was scored after Harrison Bader reached on an infield single, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt, stole third and came home on a groundout. Paul Goldschmidt hit a home run in the eighth, their only one of the game, but they also got three singles that same inning and tied the game with Matt Carpenter’s bloop single down the left-field line.

In the ninth inning, five consecutive Cardinals batters reached base and Marcell Ozuna and Kolton Wong both drove in two runs with doubles to put St. Louis up 7-3.

It wasn’t a display of power that was all too common among clubs this season, but it works for the Cardinals. If they keep it up on Game 2 and beyond they’ll not only win the series but prove wrong everything teams thought they knew about winning Major League games in 2019.

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