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ATLANTA — Where do you even start?
Of all the sports heartbreaks that the city of Atlanta has suffered in its five-plus decades as a major league town, Wednesday night’s decisive NLDS Game 5 — where the Braves surrendered 10 runs in the first inning to the Cardinals en route to a 13-1 defeat — has to rank among the most pathetic, most embarrassing, most burn-every-ATL-item-you-own that this beleaguered, beaten-down fan base has ever suffered.
Strap in, folks. This one’s going to be a ride.
Let’s start with the scoreboard, that cold, pitiless tally of futility. Ten runs. Ten runs! In the first (censored) inning! How does that even happen?
It happened the way Hemingway described how bankruptcy happens: gradually, and then suddenly. The Cardinals played a bit of small ball to start the game — get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in — but before long, they were racing around the bases like Olympians running laps.
Mike Foltynewicz — born the day after the Worst-to-First Braves clinched the National League West way back in 1991 — lasted exactly 23 pitches, lofting up batting-practice beach balls that the Cardinals laced to every angle of the field like they were using laser pointers. They broke Folty, and they broke his replacement, Max Fried, tagging them for a combined seven hits and 11 runs over two innings.
When the smoke cleared, the Cardinals had posted the best first inning in playoff history, and had tied the mark for best postseason inning ever. Since the deluge came before the Braves even got a chance to swing a bat — Atlanta got one pity run on a Josh Donaldson homer in the fourth — you could make a convincing statistical argument that this was, for the home team, literally the worst half-inning of postseason baseball ever played.
That’s going to leave a mark that won’t go away for years.
If there’s any solace Braves fans can take, this was like getting your arm lopped off with one stroke of a sharp axe, rather than getting it gnawed off by a badger. Thank heaven for small comforts.
On a broader scale, The Most Brutal Half-Inning Beatdown In Baseball History happened because this city is flat-out cursed. It’s true. You know the numbers: one championship in more than 170 seasons across the four major sports. Two teams fled, three others flail.
Read this stat and tell me there’s no curse: The Falcons, as you may have heard, blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Game 5 happened two years, eight months and three days after that Super Bowl collapse. This city doesn’t avoid Fate; oh no, Fate owns a nice piece of property and an SUV in the Atlanta suburbs, all the better to pay visits to the local teams every year.
Sure, other teams have ghosts. Blown saves, walk-off losses, heartbreaking errors. But the Braves? The Braves, my friend, have a cemetery. Those 19 postseason pennants since 1991 adorning light posts above right field? Those aren’t honors, man. Those are tombstones.
Look, kids! There’s 1991, where Lonnie Smith ran the Braves right out of a possible World Series Game 7 win! Check out 1996, where Mark Wohlers hung a slider that Jim Leyritz hit so hard that the Braves haven’t won a World Series game since! Or hey, how about 2001, where the Braves ran into the pitching firestorm of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling … and haven’t won a postseason SERIES since! Scoot a little down the line and there’s 2010, where Brooks Conrad committed three errors in one NLDS game! And then there’s 2012, where an “infield” fly that dropped somewhere north of Alpharetta cost the Braves a chance against these same Cardinals. So many memories!
Lord. They need to sink the 2019 banner in the depths of Lake Lanier and never speak of this season ever again.
After the game, with the scent of cheap Champagne from the Cardinals’ locker room wafting down SunTrust Park’s back hallways, the Braves’ postgame clubhouse was funeral-home quiet, the only sound the pop of backslaps and hugs as players embraced one another and said their goodbyes. Tarps that would have been unrolled for a Champagne celebration — the first in 18 years — remained curled up atop the lockers.
Nobody broke any chairs. Nobody shouted any curses. They’d all had, in effect, three hours to process the thrashing, so the emotional wounds weren’t quite so raw. But the enormity of what they faced after that first inning — a mountain, dropped right there in your path — well, they were still struggling to come to terms with that.
“Stuff happens fast,” Foltynewicz said. “It seemed like I was just trying to make my pitches as best I could and it just went the wrong way.”
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Adam Duvall, who saw his NLDS MVP vanish along with the Braves’ season. “ I go into the dugout and I still think we have a chance to win. We have nine innings of baseball left, nine innings of offense left. We were talking about, ‘let’s do something that’s never been done before.’”
“We all know we had a good enough team to win the whole thing,” said Freeman, answering every question with a single sentence. “This is a tough one because we had a really good group.”
Blaming the players is the obvious route here — Freeman, for instance, could have held the Cardinals to one run in the first had he not misplayed Yadier Molina’s liner, and he knew it — but in another way, it’s like blaming a swimmer for getting thrown around by the tide. This is bigger than any player, bigger than any season, bigger than any one team.
“You’re in the moment,” McCann said. “You’re trying to get outs and you’re trying to …” His voice trailed off, but with good reason; he had other things on his mind, announcing his retirement just moments later.
“I went to high school here. I grew up here. I got to play nine years to start my career here,” McCann said. “I grew up with some of my heroes growing up, and got to come back and play with the new generation. I’d say that’s a success.”
McCann’s the latest in a line of (now) retired Braves stretching back from Chipper Jones to John Smoltz to Tom Glavine to Dale Murphy, bound by both the uniform and the utter, relentless, no-hope-on-the-horizon frustration of being a Brave. It’s almost enough to make you think this team and this town are, well, cursed.
A few lockers away from McCann, Dansby Swanson brushed off that idea.
“There’s no such thing as a curse,” he said, and nothing more.
You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe him.
But here’s the thing. Right when you’re ready to take bulldozers and jackhammers to Atlanta’s glittery new stadiums, fire all those high-priced corporate seats into the sun, and salt the earth so that no team ever hurts this battered, broken city again …
… right at that moment, you look around and you see the tiniest slivers of hope.
Braves fans spent most of the 1990s and 2000s getting waves of grief from the national media for not showing up to playoff games. There were extenuating circumstances, of course — traffic, terrible first-pitch scheduling — but the heart of the issue was that fans were already sick of October failure. Your heart can’t be broken if you don’t give it away.
Wednesday night, though, these fans did something remarkable — they stuck around. The stadium was still at least three-quarters full late into the game. And as they were leaving, the mood in the crowd was — well, it wasn’t “happiness,” exactly, but it wasn’t the slow march to the grave that I’ve seen after so many other Atlanta postseason losses. (Trust me. I’ve seen a lot of them.) Children laughed. Bros whooped. The sun would rise again tomorrow, and on the 2020 season soon enough.
Maybe that’s how you take this team: for what it is at any given moment, not for what it could be at the end of the year. You enjoy Freddie Freeman’s clock-punching professionalism and Ronald Acuna’s this-is-all-a-game attitude, you cheer for whichever young phenom steps up and slings some gorgeous heat in every warm month, and you steel yourself as Labor Day rolls around, knowing that like Christmas Day and summer breaks and birthday parties, this is all going to end so much faster than you’d like.
Plus, owning the worst collapses in the history of two different sports … well, at least that’s something.
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