Mike Foltynewicz’s NLDS gem evens series against Cardinals

ATLANTA — In three fast-paced hours, Mike Foltynewicz rewrote the script for Atlanta’s 2019 NLDS hopes.

The 27-year-old right-hander responded to the organization’s Game 1 collapse and a high-profile matchup with the National League’s best pitcher in the second half, Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty, with a playoff performance for the franchise record books — a seven-inning NLDS gem to pull Atlanta back into a highly anticipated series.

“These games are pretty big, but at the same time it’s just the same game we’ve been playing all year,” Foltynewicz said. “I said that the other day and that’s kind of how I took it tonight. But really made sure to slow things down, to stay in my mechanics and make sure all my pitches were working like they were tonight.

“And it was smooth sailing.”

Foltynewicz weaved through the Cardinals lineup, a group which ran up seven runs on Thursday night, with just 81 pitches over seven shutout frames. He struck out seven batters without allowing a single walk. And on a night when everything Folty-related panned out for the Braves, his eighth-inning pinch-hitter, teammate and fellow Triple-A renaissance story Adam Duvall, hit the game-clinching home run. It was the eighth time in his career that Foltynewicz had pitched seven or more innings without allowing an earned run — but, quite apparently, the first with a playoff series potentially hanging in the balance.

As first baseman Freddie Freeman said, “That was probably his best start of his whole career.”

The last Atlanta Braves starting pitcher to truly take over in a postseason start — completing seven innings allowing one run or fewer — was Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who outpitched seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens in a 2005 win over the Houston Astros. A 21-year-old Brian McCann caught that game. That start, in front of a sold-out Turner Field crowd, tied up the 2005 NLDS at 1-1. If Atlanta was looking for its first postseason gem in nearly 15 years to deliver a similar outcome, Foltynewicz followed Smoltz’s lead.

This walk-free Foltynewicz outing put him into even more rarified air. Here is the list of Braves pitchers to toss at least seven shutout innings without allowing a single walk in a playoff game since the franchise moved to Atlanta:

Greg Maddux (1996 World Series)
Tom Glavine (1996 NLCS)
Mike Foltynewicz (2019 NLDS)

Two Hall of Famers and an ultra-talented pitcher who was demoted midseason due to performance issues stemming, at least in part, from a preseason bone spur in his throwing elbow. Think of the Braves pitching legends who didn’t make that cut. (For the record: John Smoltz walked just one batter on three separate playoff occasions while pitching at least seven lights-out innings, including his 1991 World Series Game 7 masterpiece against the Twins.)

Now Foltynewicz, who carried a 6.37 ERA through June this season, boards a plane to St. Louis knowing he kept his team away from the cliff that is an 0-2 series hole.

“It’s pretty cool to see for a guy that went through what he’s went through this year and where he’s come back from and the rough start that he had,” said Brian Snitker, who mentioned how Foltynewicz has now made the past two division-clinching starts and performed well in the NLDS elimination game against the Dodgers last season. “And to see him step up like that is something really special.”

McCann called for Foltynewicz’s slider — a pitch which gave him trouble early in the season — repeatedly against the Cardinals on Friday night. The duo linked up for 36 sliders on his 81 pitches, the second-highest single-game rate of his entire career behind only his Aug. 6 start against the Twins. Freeman mentioned how Atlanta’s hitters returned to the dugout after the first inning and mentioned to their pitching battery that breaking balls were difficult to pick up with the ballpark’s early-evening shadows.

Madduxian efforts aside, it’s not a complete surprise to see Foltynewicz, who was Atlanta’s best pitcher over the season’s final two months, be the arm Snitker & Co. desperately needed to step up.

Foltynewicz made no secret about his intention to push for the postseason roster following his post-trade deadline return to the majors. In 10 starts to help Atlanta clinch consecutive division crowns, including outings against playoff contenders Minnesota, Los Angeles and Washington, Foltynewicz struck out 55 batters with a 2.65 ERA — a top-10 mark in baseball after the trade deadline.

The Braves have now won 13 of Foltynewicz’s past 14 starts.

“You kind of envision this process, how it kind of played out because that’s what you kind of, your mindset needs to be about,” Foltynewicz said of making the postseason rotation. “But at the same time I was kind of a long way away from getting back to where I was. And I just kind of kept my head down and kept pushing, trucking and a lot of things worked out. I cleaned up my mechanics a little bit.

“But to see where I am at today, it was a little farfetched. But at the same time I kept that same goal and dream that I’m going to be with these guys no matter what it is bullpen, starting, when the playoffs come around.”

Now Atlanta turns to the owner of baseball’s best road ERA, Mike Soroka, to swing the series back in the Braves’ favor. Two losses in St. Louis would mean another playoff exit. Two wins in St. Louis would secure Atlanta’s first playoff series win since 2001. But just one win would mean the series heads back to Atlanta — and if we learned nothing else after watching one of this franchise’s best postseason performances in its pitching-rich history, it’s that the Braves will turn to Mike Foltynewicz if this series goes the distance.