For the first time since the 2001 NLDS, the Braves are currently 1-0 in a postseason series. Yesterday afternoon’s marathon game had all the usual hallmarks of what usually ends up being a crushing defeat for Atlanta. We didn’t even have to look hard for examples of the Braves losing game that went deep into extra innings — If you weren’t thinking of “The Joey Devine Game” from 2005, then you haven’t been hanging around long enough or you have a far rosier outlook on baseball than the rest of us do. The point is, the Braves winning that game yesterday was huge — not just from a standpoint of this series alone, but from a standpoint of a team that’s trying to get over a hump that’s been towering over them for 20 years now.
The easy story to write would be on the Braves finally making an offensive breakthrough in the bottom of the 13th, which gave Freddie Freeman the opportunity to try to and eventually deliver yet another base hit with runners in scoring position. He’s been doing it all year and while he may have let one RISP situation elude him earlier in the game, he wasn’t going to let two get away from him and it was enough for him to give the Braves a rare 1-0 series lead.
However, even though Freddie Freeman deserves all of the plaudits that are coming his way both now and in the future, the true star of yesterday’s show was the pitching staff. The bullpen in particular delivered what may have been their best performance so far in 2020. There was a level of confidence and composure emanating from each reliever that came out to pitch that we haven’t seen in a long time when it comes to the Braves. Whether they were retiring the Reds in order or they were taking the adventurous route to three outs, it didn’t matter. Atlanta’s bullpen was doggedly determined to make sure that the offense would have a chance to finally get it together.
Chris Martin’s appearance in the eighth inning was important if only because we now have tangible proof that he’s A-OK after that injury scare over the weekend. He quickly disposed of the three batters that he had to face and then Mark Melancon got the baton for the ninth inning. Outside of a streak in early-September where he was looking completely untouchable, Melancon has been prone to having a stressful inning. He gave up at least one hit in seven of his last eight appearances to end the season and it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it happen again. The Braves were already in the midst of a stressful 0-0 game at that point, so it would only make sense that Mark Melancon would add to that. Fortunately, Melancon didn’t get the memo on the narrative and followed up Martin’s one-two-three stint with a one-two-three stint of his own.
Then Will Smith was called upon to throw the 10th inning for the Braves, which was a decision that caused a stir on its own. Melancon may have his moments, but he usually gets the job done. Will Smith hasn’t seemed right all season — he’s been giving up homers at an unprecedented rate for his standards and it’s been the main contribution to what’s been a rough year for him on the mound. So naturally, Will Smith put all of those problems behind him for this particular outing and sat down four batters in a row before his time was done. If the postseason is a fresh start for the Fresh Prince’s name doppelganger, then we’ll absolutely take it.
Even when one reliever may have had a wobble, both the other relievers and their manager worked together to pick up the slack. When Darren O’Day left the house on fire in the 11th inning, Tyler Matzek entered the game and doused the fire by tossing a 98 mph dart to strike out Mike Moustakas with the bases loaded. When Matzek found himself in a sticky situation with runners on second and third in the very next inning, he stepped up and shut down the Reds by striking out the next three batters he faced. This season has been absolutely revelatory for Tyler Matzek and hopefully this is only the beginning of his coming-out party on the national stage.
When Shane Greene was unable to keep the Reds from clogging the basepaths again, A.J. Minter was called upon to make sure that the Reds stayed off of that scoreboard. Minter walked the first batter he faced, but then proceeded to strike out the next and break a bat while simultaneously inducing a harmless grounder to end the inning. That was how the top of the 13th inning ended, and we all know how the bottom of the 13th ended up going for the Braves. It took them 13 innings, but Atlanta finally got the run that everybody who’s sympathetic to the Braves’ cause was craving for around four hours.
All told, it’s an incredible achievement to hold any team scoreless for 13 innings. It’s an even bigger and better achievement when you do it in a postseason game where so much is at stake. Yet, that’s exactly what this Braves pitching staff did yesterday. The offense may have sputtered for most of the game (for mostly good reason) but Max Fried was as good as advertised. The bullpen may have been better than advertised. All they needed to do was make sure that they could keep the game tight until the offense eventually made a breakthrough. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this bullpen could have pitched into the evening and kept the Reds off the scoreboard — the Braves may have won a game, but they aren’t in October Legend territory just yet. I will say that the bullpen collectively lived up to the occasion and delivered six crucial innings for the Braves to help put them in a commanding position at the moment.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Braves will be heading into Game 2 of a playoff series without being on the metaphorical back foot. For a lot of the guys on this current Braves team, this is another chance for them to taste the glory of winning a playoff series. They let it fall from their grasp last season — in excruciating fashion in one game and in utterly embarrassing fashion in the next game. If the team collectively continues to show the composure and poise that the relievers displayed yesterday, then today may end up being a very happy day in Braves Country.