ATLANTA — Every once in a while, the best-laid plans are exceeded ... by a lot.
Coming into Game 5 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta on Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals had scored a total of 13 runs in the National League Division Series against the Braves.
They proceeded to put up ten runs in the first inning, knocking out Game 2's winner, Mike Foltynewicz. The Braves starter shut St. Louis down through seven innings on Friday, but could only collect a single out this afternoon.
By the end of the game, 13 runs — the same amount scored in the first four games — were put on the board by St. Louis. The final was 13-1. A complete destruction. Who would have guessed?
It was a slow-building ambush. Dexter Fowler walked, Kolten Wong bunted him over, and Paul Goldschmidt singled. Marcell Ozuna poked a single to right, Yadier Molina reached on an error and Matt Carpenter walked to drive in another run. Tommy Edman pushed the knife in with a two-run double and Paul DeJong was intentionally walked. After Foltynewicz left, the Cardinals dropped a barrage of doubles on Atlanta.
Before a Braves reporter could calculate how full the stadium was and tweet it out, the Cardinals had added a field goal to their run total, going ahead 10-0.
Jack Flaherty, who had walked in that record-setting first inning, had as much run support as he had allowed in the second half of the season. That's right, Flaherty allowed just 10 earned runs after the All-Star break in 99.1 innings. The young phenom was usually given a run or three, at most, of support in the past couple months, but here he was with 10 to start.
Things cruised from there. Flaherty went six innings, exiting to gather rest for the impending National League Championship Series against the Washington Nationals or Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cardinals scored a few more runs just to make up for lost time and stress spent in the past week. St. Louis would not go down in order until the fifth inning, when Atlanta Brave faithful were already checking the Falcons' schedule and their fantasy football teams.
On the same day where the Atlanta Braves front office announced it would stop handing out the foam tomahawks to incoming fans, the Cardinals chopped the Braves up into little pieces. There was no drama between Ronald Acuna Jr. and Yadier Molina, and Carlos Martinez wouldn't exit the pen for a save opportunity. Mike Shildt inserted Harrison Bader into the game in the bottom of the first inning after Carpenter pulled a hard day at the office, watching a few pitches go by and taking a free base.
After four pulse-pounding games that left Cardinals' fans exhausted and often frustrated, St. Louis held their sneak attack until Game 5. Watching it was a surreal experience. You kept wondering if this was real, or somehow imagine during a pregame power nap.
For anyone who was fearing a Braves comeback, akin to the one St. Louis pulled on Washington back in 2012, that was snuffed out due to the guy on the mound.
Flaherty, with his mother and one of his old baseball coaches in attendance, shut down the Braves for six innings. He offered them baserunners, enraged their souls a bit by plunking the fiery Acuna Jr. and giving the stadium a few chances to make noise, but it was mostly for naught.
The Acuna Jr. hit-by-pitch was a fun moment. Flaherty hit him in the middle of the back, and the young Braves outfielder had words for Flaherty, who just delivered a stone-cold look of vengeance back towards home plate. Why lose your cool when 12 runs separate the box score?
In more ways than one, Wednesday was Redbird revenge, decades old. Think back to 23 years ago when the Braves dropped a series-clinching 15-0 on the Cardinals, dismantling Donovan Osborne like a broken action figure.
In a way, this entire second half could be described as an extended dream sequence.
The resilience of a Cardinals team that was counted out in July and again in August now moves on to challenge for the pennant, which should be interesting no matter who the opponent is. If it's the National League-best Dodgers, it's another chance to deny Clayton Kershaw access to a World Series trophy, possibly making him drop his hands to his knees for a third postseason.
If it's Washington, former Missouri Tiger and St. Louis native, Max Scherzer, will bring his multi-colored eye wrath to Busch Stadium. The Nationals, in their first season removed from Bryce Harper, would play in their first NLCS.
If it's Los Angeles, the Cards start on the road, playing four of seven at Dodger Stadium. Washington would bring the Cardinals home at Busch for the majority of the series.
Regular Season Records Versus each team:
Los Angeles: 4-3.
Before Game 5, I responded to a tweet on Twitter that I was satisfied with the Cardinals' performance in 2019. Going from three straight seasons of missing the postseason to winning 91 games, taking the division, and competing in the NLDS represented a big enough step in the right direction.
This season has been anything but easy. The pitching side has suffered setbacks, beginning with Martinez running into shoulder issues and never making a start. Alex Reyes, whose return was hyped once again, barely made a dent, making headlines for punching a locker. Austin Gomber suffered shoulder fatigue and was gone before midseason. Michael Wacha tumbled down, going in and out of the rotation. Miles Mikolas and Flaherty got out to rough starts.
Matt Carpenter had a very disappointing season, and Paul Goldschmidt had his worst season, statistically speaking, of his career. Paul DeJong had a robust April, but struggled afterward. Harrison Bader's batting average shrunk below the Mendoza line, and Tyler O'Neill all but disappeared.
However, the defense and baserunning improved drastically, and the Cardinals made less mistakes overall in the field. They were a smarter team, if one prone to making things extremely close. Far too often, they couldn't sustain a run or just ran into unsuspecting trouble.
Tomorrow, they wake up with a spot in the National League Championship Series, one step closer to a World Series return. Four wins to be exact.
Can they do it? I'd flip a coin. It's hard to rule this team out or bet too heavy on them, because they are erratic and entertaining at the same time. They needed all 162 games to clinch the division, and were five outs away from being eliminated on Monday. But here they are, one of three National League teams remaining in the running.
The more you think about it, the similarities between the Cardinals and their neighbor St. Louis Blues increase. Two teams picked to succeed, who nearly failed, yet ascended at the right moment.
When the Cardinals clinched the division on Sept. 29, Mike Shildt said there would only be three more "team meetings:" after the NLDS, NLCS, and World Series.
One down, two to go. Fill your flasks, Cardinal Nation, because it's time to fly forward.