October 6, 2019 will go down in Braves’ folklore as one of the most dramatic yet symbolic games in Braves’ playoff history. Game 3 of the NLDS encapsulated the resilience of this incredible 2019 season for the Braves and was a microcosm of what has made this season so special. A team that has fought against the odds since Spring Training defied them once again but this time on the biggest stage. Moreover, they did it with a cast of heroes that has overcome adversity as they have all season.
Who can forget the chatter and expert opinions coming into the season? The Braves were picked by nearly no one to repeat as NL East champions after their divisional foes were aggressive in spending on and improving their rosters. There was a sense in much of the baseball media that what the Braves did in 2018 was a cute story but that they wouldn’t be able to hang with the Phillies and Nationals in 2019. The Braves used that as fuel.
We now know that the Braves beat those odds and proved the doubters wrong, but it’s the how they did it that was on full display last night. For starters, the heroes from Game 3 each overcame significant adversity to become central characters in Braves’ playoff history.
Soroka’s road to his Game 3 start was not without its potholes. The young Canadian was shut down for the rest of the 2018 season last June with soreness in his throwing shoulder. Shoulder problems are one of the last things you want to hear about a young pitching prospect. Then in Spring Training, Soroka was shut down again with a shoulder issue and started the season on the Injured List. The concern was legitimate that Soroka could be yet another pitching prospect that would not reach his potential due to injury. But Soroka would go on to have a stellar 2019 campaign and become an all-star at age 21. Even after his early success, though, it was fair to wonder whether Soroka’s shoulder could withstand the rigors of pitching a near-full season and into the postseason, which would require him to pitch far more innings than he had ever pitched professionally.
Further, there was the question of how the rookie hurler would perform in his first playoff game – on the road, no less. Just as Soroka has done all season, he answered all questions with an exclamatory response. Seven innings, two hits, one run, no walks, and seven strikeouts.
Then there were the Game 3 offensive heroes, namely Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall. Swanson has had his own struggles in his career and this season leading up to his ninth inning at-bat. Drafted first overall in the 2015 draft, Swanson has dealt with high expectations his entire professional baseball career. At least offensively, Swanson had not lived up to those expectations, posting a career wRC+ of 76 before the 2019 season.
But 2019 would be different for Swanson. He looked the best he had looked offensively in his career, posting career highs in nearly all statistical categories. But in the midst of his best season, he was sidelined for what seemed at the time like a minor heel injury but would keep him out for over a month. Compounding his frustrations at the end of the season, Swanson did not look like the same hitter upon his return for the IL. His .253 wOBA and 51 wRC+ after returning stirred questions of whether Adeiny Hechavarria, who the Braves signed in Swanson’s absence and hit extremely well for the team, would get some innings at shortstop in the playoffs.
But down to the final out in Game 3, Swanson would rip a double off the wall that plated the game-tying run and reward the Braves for their confidence in him. Swanson’s emotions after the double were like a catharsis of all of the frustrations and joys, ups and downs, and twists and turns of his season and career.
With Game 3 tied and two runners in scoring position with two outs, Duvall, who spent most of his season in Triple-A Gwinnett, would step to the plate. Duvall is only a couple seasons removed from back-to-back 30+ home run seasons, but he struggled mightily after coming to the Braves in the middle of the 2018 season, so much so that he did not make the 2018 playoff roster. Duvall started the 2019 season in the minors and went about his business to improve his game. He never complained or demanded a trade. He honed his craft at the plate and had a tremendous season in Triple-A that commanded a midseason call-up. His offensive production and good defense after his promotion earned him what he could not attain in 2018 - a postseason roster spot. Then on a 0-2 count with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 3, Duvall lined a slider into the outfield that scored the game-winning runs, becoming an unlikely hero for the second straight game.
The redemption stories have been boundless for the the Braves this season, and they have played a huge role in the Braves’ success in 2019. Players like Austin Riley, Rafael Ortega, Hechavarria, Charlie Culberson, and Francisco Cervelli have also donned the cape and played the role of hero at various points in the season. The postseason has been a natural continuation of the Braves’ regular season in this respect.
The other overriding theme that the Braves carried into Game 3 was their ability to turn on the switch late in games. There never seemed to be a doubt inside that Braves’ dugout, even when they were down to their final out. And given how they performed in the late innings all season long, it was understandable that the Braves would feel the game was theirs for the taking, no matter what the score or situation. The Braves’ offense was the best in baseball from the seventh inning on – their 289 runs scored in the seventh inning or later was the most by any team this season.
Braves’ offense in seventh inning and later
There was good reason that the Braves felt no panic going into the ninth inning down a run after hardly being able to muster any offense all game – the late innings were just the start for this team. All that had transpired earlier in the game – the veteran Wainwright pitching masterfully, the missed opportunities on offense, the breaks that hadn’t gone their way – had no relevance to the task that was in front of them.
As impressive as the Braves’ late-inning prowess was in the regular season, it has been even more dramatic in the postseason. The Braves have scored eight of their 12 runs in the seventh inning or later in the NLDS.
As Swanson stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth, the Braves only had a 16.2% win expectancy, per FanGraphs. Swanson was 0-for-5 against Carlos Martinez in his career, and the Cardinals liked the matchup against Swanson so much that they intentionally walked Brian McCann to get to him. Swanson needed only one pitch to overcome the odds - just as the Braves have done all season.