Baseball is a game of inches. You’ve heard this before of course. It’s a popular saying. An inch in a different direction, everything changes. One diving catch is a game-winning hit if it’s an inch to the left. This is especially important in the postseason, when runs are at a premium and every decision, every play matters. Sometimes, an inch can be the difference between winning or losing.
An inch did not make a difference in yesterday’s game, to say the least. The Cardinals scored 10 runs in the first inning, added to their lead in the next two innings, and then sat back and relaxed while Jack Flaherty and the bullpen did their thing. It was a lead so comically large so comically early that it really put to test the idea that “no lead feels comfortable when you’re watching a playoff game.” Jack Flaherty was pitching and the score was 10-0 in the 1st inning. It is literally no possible to construct a more comfortable scenario than that, at least a realistic one since the Cards are the only team in postseason history to drop 10 in the first.
However - and I hope to god no Braves fans are reading this, because I’m sorry this is going to be a torturous post for you guys - there were several moments in the first inning that would have changed the outcome of the inning and probably the game. I don’t think it’s possible for a team to score 10 runs in one inning and not have the defensive inning truly screw up at some point, and the first inning last night was certainly no exception.
Again, I said that an inch did not make a difference in yesterday’s game, which is absolutely true. But, several different moments where an inch would have made a difference combined and pretty much every single one of them went the Cardinals way in the 1st inning. That’s how it goes sometimes.
Dexter Fowler almost strikes out
Brian McCann announced his retirement after the game, so I don’t want to pile on the guy, but he didn’t have a very good game for his last ever professional game. It started early. Mike Foltynewicz didn’t look nearly as bad as his line suggests, but he caught a bad break early. Pitch #1 was a perfect pitch, a pitch on the upper corner of the strike zone, but it was called a ball. Pitch #2 was a fastball lower in the zone that Fowler weakly hit foul. Pitch #3 wasn’t great, a fastball that caught a lot of the zone, but Fowler popped it foul.
I can’t find any video of it online, but on a 1-2 count, Folty threw a slider that mostly fooled Fowler. Fowler got a very tiny piece of it, but McCann could have and probably should have caught it. If the ball goes in a slightly more favorable direction, and we’re probably talking less than an inch here, McCann catches it and Fowler strikes out. Folty then threw two better looking sliders, but much more out of the zone and a fastball that missed location for a walk. Now, Kolten Wong ended up trying to bunt his way on and if Fowler strikes out, it’s possible Wong singles anyway, but that was the first difference.
Paul Goldschmidt’s infield single
With Fowler on second, Goldschmidt hit a ball between Dansby Swanson and Josh Donaldson. Swanson made a diving stop on it, and then struggled to make the transfer from glove to right hand. Admittedly, Swanson would have needed to make the transition smoothly and make a great throw to nail Fowler but it was absolutely possible. Perhaps the ball hits the glove in a slightly different way that makes the transfer go more smoothly. This one is a stretch, but Swanson wasn’t fully extended diving for it, so maybe the ball is an inch further to his right, and he knows he has no shot at third and goes straight to first instead. Swanson has a strong arm and the ball was hit reasonably hard so I think it’s possible, if unlikely.
Freddie Freeman booting Yadier Molina’s grounder
Well this was a big turning point in the inning. After a Marcell Ozuna single that I could not possibly create a fake scenario where it would work out for the Braves, Freeman’s E3 is a much different story. Simply put, Freeman guessed where the ball would be and just an inch in a different location and he fields it cleanly. Instead, he guessed wrong and everyone was safe. If he fields it cleanly, it’s a double play ball and the Braves escape the inning with one earned run. Again Folty was not nearly as bad as his line suggests. He walked Carpenter with the bases loaded, but it was on a slider that I think maybe 5% of MLBers will not swing at, because it was pretty close and had late movement.
Tommy Edman double down the line
I’m not sure the difference between fair and foul is literally an inch - it was close, but there was a never a doubt it was fair. But obviously, move that ball a little to the right and it’s 0-2 on Edman. While it doesn’t guarantee he’d get Edman out, being up 0-2 on Edman is clearly a more favorable scenario for Folty than the double he allowed.
Jack Flaherty takes ball one
The first pitch Max Fried threw was a strike. It hit the lower inside corner of the zone perfectly. Problem was that wasn’t where he was trying to throw it. So McCann caught it awkwardly and the ump saw how McCann caught it rather than where the ball crossed the plate and called it a ball. An inch more in the strike zone - there’s no way he calls that a ball. He eventually walks Flaherty with the bases loaded, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say he would not have walked Flaherty if he got that strike one call.
Dexter Fowler double down the line
This one is a little different than the Edman double, because unlike Edman, Fowler would have had a 1-1 count. But the result was the same, a ball that stayed fair while straddling the foul line. I have little doubt that Braves’ fans are absolutely sick of doubles down the foul line, but I for one welcome more.
Ozuna’s strikeout RBI
I don’t think Ozuna actually got an RBI for this one, but I just like the idea of a strikeout RBI. Anyway, boy McCann, really I’m not trying to pick on you here, but whew. He probably wasn’t that far away from blocking it better or even catching it off the ground. Instead it rolled to the wall. You want to know the saddest part of this play? McCann had no idea that Ozuna was walking back to the dugout. That’s why he reacted the way he did. He thought he had less time. Once the ball bounces off of him, he rightfully ignores Ozuna and runs straight to the ball. And every action he made from that point was based off Ozuna running out of the box. By the time he realized he had a shot at Ozuna, he had already fallen on the ground and had zero leverage to make a good throw.
In a 13-1 game, it’s kind of astonishing how many moments would have changed the outcome of the inning. Granted, most of these moments would have limited to the Cardinals to a “big inning” and not historically the most runs ever scored in the 1st inning. I mean it could have been 1-0 after the 1st. With Flaherty pitching, and the way the Cardinals hit following the potential double play, I’m pretty sure they’d still win, but it would probably be a lot closer. Anyway, THE CARDINALS ARE GOING TO THE NLCS!