ATLANTA — A one-run postseason loss is invariably defined by the burden of its what if, and Game 1 of the NLDS left the Braves with a lot.
If Max Fried had been left in for a bit more after protecting a two-run lead with a perfect seventh inning. If Chris Martin hadn’t suffered an oblique injury on a warm-up pitch that pulled him out before he’d even faced a batter. If St. Louis had seen a ball down the line curve into foul territory, or a weak flare go for an easy out instead of a hit, or otherwise had some small tweak of fortune that did not match so well with the idea of Cardinals Devil Magic. If Mark Melancon hadn’t unraveled in quite the way that he did. And, perhaps most conspicuously, if Ronald Acuña, Jr had finished with two doubles instead of one.
Acuña finished 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, a single, and a walk; it was an obviously monster performance, exactly what any club should be thrilled to see from such an electric talent. He contributed more than anyone else on the field, which is to say that he looked like exactly who he is—one of the best in baseball. But the post-game conversation was driven more by what he didn’t do than by what he did. With Atlanta up 3-1 in the seventh, Acuña launched a fly ball to the outfield, taking his time out of the box as he slowly jogged while watching it go… until it bounced off the wall. No home run. He was held at first.
While no one knew it at the time, this would statistically be the team’s closest brush with victory: Acuña put the Braves’ win expectancy at 90%, which would be the best that it would get. But with Acuña on first here with no outs in the seventh, Atlanta added another baserunner and stranded both, and then it watched the game spin out of control in a hurry (see: the aforementioned collection of if). The 3-1 lead became a 7-6 loss. And while any one of those if moments could reasonably be seen as more directly tied to the final score—the ‘pen, the injury, the strategy—Acuña’s was the one that drew the most heat.
This, of course, doesn’t come to pass in a vacuum. Acuña had been benched after a similar situation just in August, which positioned this as a potentially consistent issue rather than just a one-off, and that laid the foundation for the team to be candid about it in October. “It’s frustrating,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman. “It becomes kind of beating a dead horse if you keep having that same conversation over and over again.” Manager Brian Snitker said that Acuña should have made it to second, and he indicated that he’d have considered another bench move had circumstances allowed: “We’re kind of short-handed to do anything about it right there. You hate to see it happen.” And this vein of commentary wasn’t just from veteran presences. Fellow Baby Brave Ozzie Albies said that the 21-year-old “needs to do better there.” The message looked forward as much as back: This cannot keep happening.
Acuña’s game was more than this—again, 3-for-4!—and the Braves’ loss was more than this, too. This play was not necessarily, or even probably, the difference-maker. Hindsight does a lot here. (Acuña ultimately had one chance to advance from first, on a grounder, and while the inning certainly would have been different if he were on second, it would hardly have been guaranteed that he’d have an opportunity to score.) But it was an easy shorthand for the power of what if, the stakes of October, and the accumulative power of small chances in the narrow window of a postseason series.
“Ninety feet this time of year is everything,” said catcher Brian McCann.
It is. But that’s the way of October—anything can be everything.