After the Rays beat the Astros on Tuesday night, we have been blessed with three Game Fives in the divisional round. Later today, the Braves and Cardinals will conclude a back-and-forth series, and the Nationals will try to upset the Dodgers. If the beginnings to these series are any indication, Wednesday is going to be wild.
Cardinals at Braves, 5:02 EST
Winner-take-all games always include one team frustrated they couldn’t put things away in the previous game, but the Braves have to feel especially annoyed that they haven’t moved on to the NLCS already. In Monday’s Game Four, Atlanta had multiple opportunities to blow the game open but squandered each one. The Braves loaded the bases in the sixth and seventh innings but couldn’t bring anyone home. That seventh inning even featured a leadoff triple by Ronald Acuña Jr. (with an assist by Dexter Fowler and the sun). Acuña did his best to ruin the Cardinals season with a ground rule double to start the ninth, but his teammates stranded him yet again.
Ultimately, the Braves were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and the Cardinals were similarly punchless. They were 1-for-10 with RISP, and they had just enough devil magic left to get the tying run home with two batted balls slower than 70 mph. Yadier Molina’s 63.4 MPH looping liner should have been caught by Freddie Freeman, but it instead paved the way for Molina to walk it off and hurl his bat into right field.
Game Four may have been sloppy, but Game Five figures to be a tight pitchers duel. Jack Flaherty and Mike Foltynewicz will face off in a rematch of Game Two in which Foltynewicz outpitched Flaherty, striking out seven in seven shutout innings with just three baserunners allowed. Foltynewicz even retired the last 11 batters he faced.
It’s been quite the journey for the righty. After ditching the sinker and subsequently enjoying a breakout season in 2018, Foltynewicz’s year was derailed by bone spurs in his throwing elbow. He missed most of April, and when he returned to the rotation, he looked out of sorts. Foltynewicz made 11 starts before getting sent to Triple-A Gwinnett. In that time, Folty posted a 6.37 ERA and 6.15 FIP, but he returned and now Brian Snitker and the Braves are entrusting him with their season.
He lost a tick of velocity this year and Tony Wolfe at FanGraphs found that his slider wasn’t moving horizontally at the beginning of the year but he re-found his feel for the pitch after being brought back up. The velocity on the fastball is still down (he averaged 93.8 mph on Friday, but in his last start of 2018, he averaged 96.5 mph), so the slider will be the key to his success. If he establishes the pitch early, the Braves could be well on their way to their first NLCS since 2001.
Flaherty, though, is no pushover. Flaherty’s only mistake in Game Two was leaving a fastball at the belt to Adam Duvall. Even then, Flaherty had already thrown 100+ pitches and perhaps Mike Shildt should have given the ball to his bullpen. Otherwise, Flaherty looked every bit as impressive. Flaherty struck out eight in those seven innings while racking up 23 strikeouts.
Like Foltynewicz, Flaherty relied heavily on his slider, throwing it more than any other pitch. The slider had only been his most-used weapon in one other start this season, so it will be interesting to see how he approaches the Braves lineup a second time.
If this game is like the others in the series, it will come down to the final innings, and the closers for both teams have looked shaky. Mark Melancon’s meltdown swung the outcome of Game One, and Carlos Martínez has only had one clean inning in three attempts.
Nationals at Dodgers, 8:37 EST
The Dodgers are one of the best teams to ever take the field. Their third-order winning percentage has only been outmatched by the 2001 Mariners and the 2019 Astros. There’s a strong chance they’ll be bounced in the divisional round.
After they failed to break through against Max Scherzer, the Dodgers will have to get past the major league leader in DRA: Stephen Strasburg.
So far this postseason, Strasburg has thrown a combined nine shutout innings, three of them coming in the Wild Card game and six coming against the Dodgers in Game Two. In six innings Friday, Strasburg struck out 10 batters while heavily relying on his curveball.
Strasburg is an excellent first line of defense, but he might be the only line. After throwing 109 pitches in Game Four, Max Scherzer likely isn’t available. If he is, it would be hard to expect him at the height of his powers. We saw what short rest did to Justin Verlander in Tampa Bay. Dave Martinez could turn to Patrick Corbin to get outs, but his slider hasn’t been working against the Dodgers in quite the same way. Anibál Sánchez could have been an unlikely hero in Game Three, and he may get another shot in Game Five. His changeup and splitter befuddled hitters en route to a nine-strikeout appearance.
The Dodgers are running out Walker Buehler and if he’s behind Strasburg, it’s not by much. The Nationals couldn’t touch Buehler in Game One of the series as his fastball approached triple digits. After Buehler, Dave Roberts has said that everyone is available. Clayton Kershaw will probably be the first out of the bullpen, and if not him then Hyun-jin Ryu who might finish in the top-three for Cy Young voting.
The Nationals aren’t just battling one of the three best teams ever. They’re battling their own history. The Nationals are no stranger to Game Five. This will be the fourth Game Five the Nationals have played since 2012. They fell to the Cubs in 2017. Clayton Kershaw emerged from the bullpen to take them down in 2016. They went without Strasburg in 2012 and were defeated by an 88-win Cardinals team. Including their time as the Montreal Expos, the only time the Nationals won a postseason series was in 1981 when a midseason strike split the season in two.
Reaching the NLCS has been long overdue for Washington, and if they can take down Los Angeles, the victory will be well-deserved.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.