Starting pitching carries Braves to brink of NLDS win over Cardinals

Mike Soroka’s nervous moments arrived in the final two innings of his playoff debut. The 22-year-old rookie had already exited the game — another franchise history-challenging start from an Atlanta Braves starter in the books.

“Sitting there, eighth, ninth inning I was definitely much more nervous than I was out on the mound — heart beating out of my chest after being on nothing but caffeine and adrenaline most of today is a lot of fun,” said Soroka, who went toe-to-toe with Cardinals legend Adam Wainwright on Sunday night. “And seeing these guys rally and come back so many times over the last couple of years, even, knowing that it’s always a possibility and somebody’s — it’s likely going to be a new hero.”

Two heroes donned their capes with two outs in the ninth inning as Dansby Swanson and, once again, Adam Duvall drove in three runs to steal a win in St. Louis and push the franchise to within one win of the National League Championship Series.

The late hits off current Atlanta antagonist Carlos Martinez erased a forgettable night at the plate for the Braves and disguised an unfortunate trend through the first three October contests: Braves starting pitchers are carrying the team.

Atlanta entered the postseason with a top-seven scoring offense in 2019, spearheaded by a top half of the lineup bested in production only by Houston and New York among playoff teams. Brian Snitker’s lineup has remained consistent in terms of late-inning success — eight of Atlanta’s 12 runs scored this series have arrived in the seventh inning or later — but the group keeps spoiling opportunities and playing with fire. The Braves are 4 for 24 with runners in scoring position this postseason, which would feel like deja vu for the club following its 2-for-16 performance in the 2018 NLDS if not for the series lead.

Josh Donaldson, Nick Markakis and Matt Joyce are sporting sub-.500 OPS marks. Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman have provided a few key hits, but they’re nowhere near their regular-season rates, meaning Atlanta’s starting 2-5 hitters are now 9 for 56 this series. Three games is an extremely limited scope, but the postseason is structured around small sample size theater. Leadoff hitter Ronald Acuña Jr. and eight-hole hitter Dansby Swanson have been the team’s two best bats so far.

“It’s the mindset. And the mindset is guys try to do too much; everybody wants to be the guy,” Brian Snitker said of his team’s offensive issues. “You press. It’s one of those things that a two-out RBI here and there, a big hit can almost take the burden off of everybody and then it just flows.”

The Braves have avoided paying a punitive cost for those struggles solely due to its starting pitching. For a team built around offensive success for the better part of the 2019 regular season, it became readily apparent after the All-Star break that Atlanta had become more reliant on its arms, namely its starters, and that’s proven to carry over into the postseason.

Through 18 2/3 combined innings from Soroka, Dallas Keuchel and Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves have allowed just two Cardinal runs. That’s an 0.96 ERA for those counting at home. Atlanta’s starters have struck out 14 batters to just three walks. And most of those frames have come opposite of early-inning pitching duels with the likes of Wainwright and Jack Flaherty.

“I think our guys have done a really good job,” Snitker said. “Our bullpen’s just been nails. Soroka tonight was, my God, it was about as good as you can get. And we’ll continue to do our game plan and what we do against them. Hopefully the outcome will be the same.”

For an organization lacking takeover playoff starts since the waning days of the Big Three, Foltynewicz and Soroka have pitched like those days never ended. The two 20-somethings shoved their way into the national playoff conversation with dominant, walk-free outings. In Game 2, Foltynewicz joined exclusive statistical company alongside Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. The only thing preventing Soroka from entering the same franchise club was a softly hit double from Marcell Ozuna, who eventually scored the Cardinals’ lone run on a sacrifice fly.

Soroka instead had to settle for being the second-youngest pitcher to ever complete at least seven innings in the playoffs while allowing two or fewer baserunners. (The youngest, Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt, accomplished the feat in 1921.) He was in complete control from the start, capitalizing on having his best stuff working in any count.

“I will say it’s really the first time that nothing else matters but to get the win for your team,” Soroka said. “ … I think prior to that you make your debut, everything’s about going out there, throwing quality innings, all these kind of things and now that just doesn’t matter. None of the previous starts you made this season matter. It’s all about going out there and getting the win. Really just putting all that adrenaline to use and trying to put everything I had through my spots.”

Veteran catcher Brian McCann walked away even more impressed with his rookie teammate: “He’s as good as it gets. What he can do to the baseball, he manipulates it as good as anybody. He stays composed. He was lights-out. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

If this all feels throwback in the homer-happy modern era, then it should.

Without resorting to hyperbole over three games, these types of performances provided the foundation for the Braves’ dynastic run. These October moments are exactly what the Braves envisioned rebuilding toward five years ago.

Atlanta’s five World Series-bound teams from 1991 to 1999 won 15 playoff games in which they held opponents to one run or fewer, including Glavine’s 1995 championship-clinching gem. Low-scoring pitching duels used to be a fall ritual in Georgia. The 2019 postseason rotation is making it seem like those day never left.