Adam Wainwright’s stellar pitching performance on Sunday brought the Cardinals to the verge of victory before it was snatched away in the ninth inning
For seven and two-thirds innings on Sunday afternoon, 38-year-old Adam Wainwright turned back the clock and got the St. Louis Cardinals to the brink of victory. But when the Cardinals went to closer Carlos Martinez, all of Wainwright’s work came undone.
The Atlanta Braves, held off the scoreboard until there were two outs in the ninth inning, rallied for three runs off Martinez to take Game 3 of the NLDS 3-1 and put them a game away from the franchise’s first NLCS berth since 2001.
Wainwright, the veteran making his 25th postseason appearance dating back to 2006, completely puzzled the Braves hitters for nearly eight full innings. He gave up just four hits, striking out eight and not allowing a run to cross home plate. Only twelve times in postseason history has a pitcher as old as Wainwright went at least seven innings while giving up no more than four hits and no earned runs. The last to do it was 41-year-old Kenny Rogers in Game 2 of the 2006 World Series, against the Cardinals; Wainwright, then 25, pitched in relief for St. Louis in that game.
Wainwright did it in a way that’s becoming rarer in today’s game, by using guile and finesse rather than power. Only one of his 120 pitches touched 92 m.p.h. on the radar gun. Instead, he threw Braves hitters a steady stream of curveballs, 57 of them. Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Tommy John are the only other pitchers to throw at least 120 pitches in a postseason game at the age of 38 or older.
But after Wainwright walked Ozzie Albies with two outs in the eighth inning, manager Mike Shildt decided to bring in lefty Andrew Miller from the bullpen to face Freddie Freeman. Wainwright hugged long-time battery mate Yadier Molina as he walked off the field to a raucous ovation from the Busch Stadium fans. Miller got Freeman to fly out, bringing St. Louis into the ninth inning three outs away from taking a 2-1 series lead.
In came Martinez, a former starter-turned-reliever who saved 24 games this season. The first batter he faced in the top of the ninth, Josh Donaldson, doubled down the left-field line. Martinez then got Nick Markakis and Adeiny Hechavarria to strike out, and Shildt made a move that came back to haunt his club: he decided to intentionally walk catcher Brian McCann (0-3 in the game and batting .250 in the series) in order to face Dansby Swanson, who already had two hits.
Martinez threw a slider to Swanson on the first pitch of the at-bat but hung it over the plate. Swanson didn’t miss, lining it off the wall in left to score pinch-runner Billy Hamilton with the tying run.
The next batter, Adam Duvall, drove in Rafael Ortega and Swanson with a single to put the Braves up 3-1. Braves closer Mark Melancon pitched around a double by Paul Goldschmidt in the bottom half of the inning to retire the Cardinals and instead give Atlanta a 2-1 series advantage.
It was a wasted effort by Wainwright, thanks to the type of rally the Braves haven’t done that often. Sunday’s come-from-behind win was only the second time in Braves franchise history they won a postseason game after trailing with two outs in the ninth inning, the other being Francisco Cabrera’s game-winning single in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.
The Braves got a great effort out of their starting pitcher, as well. Mike Soroka, a 22-year-old rookie, was making his playoff debut and gave up just two hits over seven innings. He retired 17 straight Cardinals at one point, with only Marcell Ozuna’s bloop double in the second inning leading to the Cardinals only run of the game. Soroka is the youngest pitcher to go at least seven innings giving up no more than two hits in the playoffs since Waite Hoyt with the 1921 Yankees.
St. Louis finished the regular season with the fourth-lowest bullpen ERA in the league and with 52 saves, the most in baseball. It’s the only they didn’t get on Sunday, however, that could be the difference in whether their season comes to a heartbreaking end on Monday.