Playoff wins are all alike; every playoff loss stands out in its own way. Which is to say that when the Braves fell out of the postseason in disastrous fashion last year, giving up a record 10 runs in the first inning of Game 5 of the NLDS, they could at least be comforted by the fact that they should never experience this particular sort of loss again. An equally painful loss? Yes. Another incredible blowout? Sure. But 10 runs in the first inning in October? No. This specific kind of playoff agony is meant to be felt only once.
And the Braves’ agony on Wednesday was, in fact, different. It looks similar from a distance. But it is its own animal—an absurdist twist on last season’s disaster. It reads like a weird stab at an obvious riddle or an uncomfortably bad joke: What’s the only thing worse than giving up 10 runs in the first inning in the NLDS? Giving up 11 runs in the first inning of the NLCS! And here they are, batter by batter, in all their miserable glory:
First Batter: Mookie Betts
The first pitch of the game does not carry any special meaning. Had this been a single on the second pitch of the game, rather than the first, it would not have looked significantly different. A leadoff hit is a leadoff hit. It’s still a leadoff hit even when it is originally ruled an out until the call on the field is overturned, as this one was. It is one pitch and one challenge and one reversal. It is neither shadow nor omen nor death sentence.
But doesn’t it feel like all of the above? Just a little?
Second Batter: Corey Seager
Result: Double, run scores, no outs, 1-0
This, too, came on the first pitch of the at-bat. Which lends a little credence to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there was supposed to be a lesson in the first pitch of the game. You might note that the pitches were almost exactly the same, 94.8-mph sinker, 94.6-mph sinker, just the slightest variation on a theme that has already started to sour. But you might also note that Kyle Wright usually chooses a sinker for his first pitch, and it usually is fine, and, anyway, these are just two pitches. That’s nothing. You can allow yourself to believe that it is nothing, and you won’t even have to lie to yourself, not really.
Third Batter: Justin Turner
Result: Groundout, one out, 1-0
See? Nothing. (And Wright’s first pitch here was a slider.)
Fourth Batter: Max Muncy
Result: Groundout, two outs, 1-0
It is so easy to picture the end from here—two quick outs after two quick hits, with the next one just around the corner, surely. A one-run deficit? Easy. You can imagine the postgame press conference: Wright talking about recovering after that slightly rocky first inning, sailing on with five scoreless frames to follow, bolstered by what will surely be a fine night for the offense, not asking too much from the bullpen. It’s so close. Easy.
Fifth Batter: Will Smith
Result: Double, run scores, two outs, 2-0
Goodbye to everything you just imagined.
Sixth Batter: Cody Bellinger
Result: Walk, two outs, 2-0
Here is where it starts to feel like a true jam, where it starts to feel uncomfortable, where it starts to feel like maybe this is going to be the whole game. Here is where it is beginning to get just a little bit hard to breathe.
Seventh Batter: Joc Pederson
Result: Three-run home run, two outs, 5-0
And here is where the pain begins to include a shade of embarrassment. Not by much—just the first blush, a little tinge, but still. This is bad, it is experiencing new dimensions of badness, and it has flipped the switch from “gradually” to “all at once.”
Eighth Batter: Edwin Rios
Result: Home run, two outs, 6-0
The last home run hurt. A first-inning home run is always going to hurt; a first-inning playoff home run, more so; a three-run first-inning playoff home run… you get the idea. It hurt! But this? A follow-up home run? On the very first pitch of the at-bat? Rudely shoving aside any idea that the freshly empty bases might have meant that this could end soon? Awful. Worse.
Ninth Batter: Chris Taylor
Result: Walk, two outs, 6-0
This is where the starter gets pulled. This is where you think about all the terrible wordplay that can come from a name like Wright: right stuff, wrong stuff, al-wright, all wrong. And also, just a pair of vowels away, “wrought.” What hath God wrought?
Tenth Batter: Mookie Betts
Result: Walk, two outs, 6-0
A new pitcher is not going to make this situation better, necessarily, but you can hope that he will not make it any worse. Here, Grant Dayton has made it worse.
Eleventh Batter: Corey Seager
Result: Single, run scores, two outs, 7-0
Twelfth Batter: Justin Turner
Result: Hit by pitch, two outs, 7-0
This one is prickly. “Hit by pitch” is the characterization in the official play-by-play, but it looked as if Turner might have leaned in to touch the pitch with his foot, and Braves manager Brian Snitker came out to argue the call. He did not win. Which… what are you going to say to that? “But he leaned in to kick the pitch with his team up by seven in the top of the first”? It’s just an objectively embarrassing sentence—which is not to suggest that it’s inaccurate, but by now, how can it matter?
Thirteenth Batter: Max Muncy
Result: Grand slam, two outs, 11-0
This is what makes it historic. This is what sets the record—breaks their own record—and dials up the jokes and squeezes an unseemly second digit into the single frame on the box score. It hurts worse than anything yet, and it sets off a new stage of emotional management. There was some denial earlier, probably some anger, but now? There is just bargaining. Anything to make it stop. (Please?)
Fourteenth Batter: Will Smith
Result: Strikeout, three outs, 11-0
It is easy to say that this is the least painful at-bat of the inning for the Braves. This ends it! It cannot get any worse from here. There is no ambiguity; the situation is bad, it is so bad it cannot get any better, this is the invitation to move on. But it isn’t any less painful. It’s just painful in a different way. Because this isn’t mercy—this is just the beginning.
On to the bottom of the first.