In a Do-Or-Die Game, Who Has the Edge in Cardinals-Braves?

The Cardinals and Braves will play a decisive fifth game of the NLDS on Wednesday in Atlanta. Let's break down everything we know about the two clubs heading into the elimination game.
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It took an extra inning on Monday, but St. Louis forced a Game 5 against Atlanta in the NLDS. So what’s on deck for the winner-take-all contest? Here’s what you need to know.

The Pitching Matchup: Folty vs. Flaherty

This is a rerun of the matchup from Game 2, when Jack Flaherty entered as the favorite but Mike Foltynewicz won out in the end. It was Flaherty’s worst game in some time (eight hits, more than he had allowed in any game since June), but he’s set such a lofty bar there that his “worst” is, really, perfectly fine-ish (three runs in seven frames with eight strikeouts and one walk). For the most part, he looked like himself, just with the unfortunate additions of an unsettled performance in the first inning and an untimely home run in the seventh. But Atlanta did put his four-seamer in play more than most teams have been able to, and Flaherty ended up relying on his slider, ultimately throwing it more than the fastball in Game 2—which is unusual for him, as he did that only once in his historic second half. Still, that’s hardly a guarantee that Atlanta will be able to get the best of him in the same fashion once more.

As for Foltynewicz—7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 7 K, 0 BB in Game 2—it was his best game in some time, arguably since he returned from Triple A in August. “It was just being aggressive early, I was throwing my slider early, and once you see guys taking big hacks on it on the first pitch, you know that’s going to be a model for the whole team,” he said after the game. “I threw my curveball and my change-up just enough to keep them off-balance, but my slider was on point.” (It really was: Foltynewicz has been leaning on the pitch more heavily in his last few starts, St. Louis couldn’t do anything with it in Game 2.) Now he just has to pull it off again.

The ‘Pens

Both clubs will need a strong performance from their starters here, since neither ‘pen has covered itself in glory. Relievers have pitched 37% of innings in this series but have allowed 53% of the runs. St. Louis’ Carlos Martinez has allowed three runs in the ninth not once but twice. Atlanta’s seen blown saves from both Mark Melancon and Shane Greene; the team also found itself down a reliever in the first game when Chris Martin injured himself on a warm-up pitch and had to be replaced on the roster with Julio Teheran. While the ‘pen didn’t make sense as a crucial force for victory for either of these teams, it didn’t make sense as this kind of calamity, either—Martinez was quite solid up until October, and Atlanta’s first-half issues in this area were mostly fixed at the deadline—and yet here we are. It’s not a guarantee that there will be chaos if the starters can’t go deep for Game 5. It’s just… likelier than anyone would prefer.

Behold The Power of Ronald Acuña, Jr….

At the start of this series, Acuña seemed like a reasonable pick for the most talented player on the field. But, if there was any doubt, he’s proven it several times over by now. He’s 8-for-16 (!) with three doubles, a triple, a home run, three walks, and some pretty great defense, too. The 21-year-old has been not just good but electric (and sometimes polarizing), impossible to look away from. He’s a one-man advertisement for this year’s MLB postseason motto of “We Play Loud”—a standout for not only his power and his speed, but his style, too—and whatever he does in Game 5, it’ll be worth watching.

...And Of The Cardinals’ Franchise Icons

It’s been 13 years since Yadier Molina received the pitch from Adam Wainwright that won the 2006 World Series; that’s a small eternity in any modern baseball life, and, for both men, almost a third of their actual life. It feels like a little anachronistic glitch in the fabric of the game that it’s still possible for them both to be playing, both to be playing for the Cardinals, both to be playing at such a level that they’re able to drive the fate of the series in any way. But here they are. Wainwright’s Game 3 performance was just about as good as anything he could deal in his prime. (It was, of course, blown by Carlos Martinez, but that’s neither here nor there.) Molina drove in the run that tied Game 4 and sacrificed for the run that won it.

It’s but one feature to marvel at in a series that’s delivered with heroics and drama (the thrill of shaky relievers!) and devil magic. Bring on Game 5.