Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2019

The Other Side Of Ecstasy

For every winner there is, necessarily, a loser. This is the grim and inescapable truth of our games. Oh sure, there are always situations in which a team or player does better than expected or can take some specific positive from an otherwise disappointing result. But measured by the ultimate outcome, our sports are zero sum games. That reality was brought home in especially brutal fashion Wednesday evening, when both of this year’s National League Division Series were decided, each in a climatic win-or-go-home Game 5. In the wake of an evening that both began and ended in dramatic fashion, joyous fans in St. Louis and D.C. are preparing for the Great Game’s next postseason round; in Atlanta and L.A. though, the emotions are very, very different.

There was virtually nothing in the first four contests between St. Louis and Atlanta to suggest what the capacity crowd at SunTrust Park was about to see as the scheduled time for Game 5 approached. Each of the previous games had been close. Two were decided by just a single run, and the most lopsided score, though the description doesn’t really apply, was Atlanta’s 3-0 shutout of the Cardinals in Game 2. In addition, while both teams were 1-1 on the road, the visiting team had not scored first in any game, with Atlanta’s 3rd inning tally in Game 4 two nights earlier the only run pushed across by the visitors through the first three frames in the entire series.

Against that backdrop it would not be surprising, even given Game 5’s import, if some fans were a bit slow to arrive at the suburban ballpark that took the place of downtown Turner Field in 2017. For the Atlanta faithful, perhaps being slow to find one’s seat was a blessing. That’s because before the home team even came to bat the Cardinals had opened a double-digit lead, scoring ten runs in the top of the 1st inning. Having barely begun, the decisive Game 5 was all but over.

What made the outburst even more painful for those Atlanta fans who were prompt was that their side contributed mightily to the onslaught. Much of the enormous hole in which their team found itself by the home half of the opening frame was dug by poor pitching and shoddy defense. In baseball’s year of the dinger, the Cardinals plated their ten runs without benefit of a homer. What St. Louis did have, courtesy of Atlanta, was four men on base by walks, one runner reaching on an error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, and a second safely aboard when a curveball that produced a swinging strike for what should have been the third out, instead got away from catcher Brian McCann, allowing Marcell Ozuna to race to first even as Kolten Wang trotted home with the Cardinals’ tenth run.

After that record-setting performance – most 1st inning runs in postseason history – the remainder of the game was played in front of a crowd that understandably would have been more boisterous had it been attending a funeral. But St. Louis wasn’t done, adding another score in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd to stretch the advantage to 13-0. The best Atlanta could do was avoid the final humiliation of a shutout, thanks to Josh Donaldson’s solo home run in the 4th.

If the Cardinals succeeded, like no playoff team before, in taking the home crowd out of a big game, the Dodgers’ partisans who filled the old stadium at Chavez Ravine were not similarly silenced by anything the Washington Nationals did in the early going of Wednesday’s second Game 5. Rather it was the home side that scored first in L.A. After Walker Buehler set the visitors down in order to get things started, Joc Pederson and Max Muncy greeted Washington’s Stephen Strasburg rudely, with leadoff batter Pederson lacing a ground-rule double to left that was initially ruled a home run, and Muncy following with a two-run blast to right center that didn’t need to be reviewed. When Enrique Hernandez led of the last of the 2nd with another homer, the Dodgers led 3-0 and many in the crowd were settling back for an enjoyable evening in southern California.

But as bad as the Nationals were in the first two months of the season, they were as good as any club in the majors over the final hundred-plus games. Strasburg found his groove, and Washington got on the board in the 6th on a double by Anthony Rendon and an RBI single by Wild Card Game hero Juan Soto. Perhaps a few L.A. fans had a moment of doubt when Clayton Kershaw was called upon to relieve Buehler with two outs in the 7th, since the big left-hander, for all his accomplishments, has often struggled in October. But Kershaw fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches, giving Dodgers manager Dave Roberts ample reason to send him back out for the 8th.

That’s when Kershaw was greeted by back-to-back homers off the bats of Rendon and Soto, erasing L.A.’s lead. But while the morning after analysts are having their way with Roberts for calling upon Kershaw, there was nothing in the moment to cast doubt on his management.

That’s less true about his later decision to have Joe Kelly pitch multiple innings. Signed in the offseason by the Dodgers, Kelly had a rough spring on the mound, but eventually proved reliable in one inning stints. Tuesday he quickly retired the Nationals in order in the 9th. But with the game now in extra innings, Kelly just as rapidly unraveled in the 10th. A leadoff walk to Eaton followed by a Rendon double, forced Kelly to intentionally walk Soto to set up a force play at any base. But Howie Kendrick made sure the only players touching the bases were wearing Washington uniforms by blasting a grand slam over the center field fence. In a matter of four batters and a few minutes, a taut tie was turned into a comfortable 7-3 lead for the visitors. Not long after, the stunned L.A. crowd watched their team’s season end.

A shocking beginning and a stunning finish. In the wake of both there will be pundits who point to the rosters of both Atlanta and the Dodgers and predict continued and even greater success for both franchises. Perhaps their forecasts will prove prescient, but that does nothing to ease the present pain. Atlanta and Los Angeles are warm weather cities, but winter has come early to both. For fans of the home teams, Wednesday proved a good day to arrive late and leave early.

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