Pressure mounts as Braves lose NLDS opener with Cardinals turning to dominant Jack Flaherty

The Braves have lost the first game of a postseason appearance for the ninth straight time, the longest such streak in MLB history.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — A taxed bullpen, saddled with a key injury that ripped away the Braves plans has the National League East champs in a precarious spot heading into Game 2 of the NLDS, as the Cardinals will turn to the game’s most dominant starter since the All-Star break.

“It hurts,” Freddie Freeman said. “You have a couple run lead heading into the final six outs. The way we’ve played all season, you can almost expect to win those kind of games.”

Atlanta showed fight late in 7-6 loss Thursday night, but the quest to deliver the franchise’s first postseason series win since 2001 just became an uphill climb.

Freeman hit a solo home run in the ninth inning, coming on the heels of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s two-run shot — a towering 455-foot blast — but the rally fell short as Atlanta lost the first game of a postseason appearance for the ninth straight time. That’s the longest such streak in MLB history.

The Braves got off to a strong enough start, with Dallas Keuchel — signed in June for exactly this moment — pitching to his resume.

Holder of MLB’s best ground-ball rate at 60.1 percent and the seventh-best rate of stranded runners (80.4) in the regular season, Keuchel retired the first four batters via ground outs, limiting the National League’s best offense over the last 30 days to one run on five hits through 4 2/3 innings.

The bullpen, which since Aug. 1 ranked fourth in MLB and second in the NL with a 3.81 FIP, was following suit. Darren O’Day, Shane Greene and Max Fried combined for 2 1/3 scoreless innings when Chris Martin — who along with Greene and Mark Melancon were all acquired at the trade deadline to bolster this group — emerged in the eighth.

It sent the relief corps into a tailspin, as Martin suffered an oblique injury during his warmup pitches and Luke Jackson was rushed out of the bullpen.

Suddenly, the plan of Martin turning things over to Melancon was gone and Jackson — who had a 35.6 strikeout rate in August and 47.4 in September — proceeded to give three hits to the five batters he faced, starting with a solo home run to Paul Goldschmidt that cut Atlanta’s lead to 3-2. Replaced by Melancon, a perfect 11 for 11 in save opportunities since being acquired from the Giants on deadline day, allowed four runs in the ninth.

“I felt like I gave that game away, and that’s on me,” Melancon said.

A relief corps that had allowed four or more runs four times in 52 games after being remade, was tagged for six in the postseason opener.

“We had the whole thing set up like we wanted it,” Snitker said. “It was exactly what we were working towards throughout the whole game, was to get us to (Martin and Melancon). That was a big blow.”

Now, the Braves will look to Mike Foltynewicz, the Game 1 starter against the Dodgers in last year’s NLDS and who rebounded from a 6.37 ERA over his first 11 outings by recapturing his mojo in Triple-A, to keep them from being on the brink of elimination as they head to St. Louis for Game 3.

Oh, and he’ll be opposed by Jack Flaherty, who owns a 0.90 ERA and .141 opponent batting average in the second half of the season. By comparison the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who may just claim his second straight Cy Young Award, had an ERA more than a half a run higher than that of the St. Louis right-hander since the break.

“We’re going to need a big start from Folty,” Freeman said. “We’re got to face their best tomorrow, so we’ve got our hands full.”

If there’s a positive to take away from Thursday night for the Braves, it’s in how they responded to a four-run deficit heading into their final at-bat. Acuña — who faced his criticism for not running hard out of the box on a seventh-inning single that he thought was gone — homered and Freeman followed with one of his own, more late-inning magic for a team that scored more runs than anyone (289) from the seventh inning on.

“Wish we had got started a little better earlier in the evening, but it’s good,” Snitker said. “We still came back and had the tying run at the plate when the game ended after getting down really good.”

The degree of difficulty has been ratcheted up. The consensus was that with the Cardinals, who used Flaherty in their regular-season finale, putting his start off until Game 2, the Braves had to capitalize.

Facing a deficit in the best-of-five series, the stakes are now clear Friday afternoon.

“It’s a must-win,” Freeman said. “We’ve got to win this game.”

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.