If you woke up this morning frustrated, dumbfounded, disappointed, and perhaps even still angry, I completely get it. I have experienced all of those emotions on multiple occasions over the past 20 hours. The Braves should have won yesterday, but on more than one occasion, just simply could not get the job done. Now, the series against the Cardinals returns to Atlanta in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday afternoon.
Veterans in the series:— Brad Rowland (@BTRowland) October 7, 2019
Freeman 2-16, 1 BB
Markakis 3-17, 1 BB
McCann 2-13, 1 BB
Donaldson 2-15, 2 BB
While the Braves and their fans have had many frustrating situations to experience and likely have been at a loss of words for the lack of offensive execution throughout the series, the reason for the consistent struggles is pretty easy to find. The middle of the Atlanta order, filled with former All-Stars and playoff veterans, is a combined 9-61 with five walks through this series, as fellow TCer Brad Rowland points out above. Add in Matt Joyce’s production, and the Braves third-through-seventh-place lineup starters are 10-70 in this series. Furthermore, they have been responsible for only three of the 16 Atlanta runs over the past four games, while combining to leave 29 men on base.
If anyone in the heart of the Braves’ order was having a good series, there is a decent-to-better chance it would be over by now. A big reason why the Braves are heading to a Game 5 is due to how productive the heart of the Cardinals’ order has been. Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuña Jr., and Ozzie Albies have carried Atlanta’s offense over the past four games. While the hope is that those three certainly continue their hot hitting, it is at least somewhat likely the Braves are going to need a contribution from the middle of their order in Game 5 to advance to the NLCS. The source of that contribution could be from the player that has been the most surprising, yet arguably the most important offensive piece for the Braves in this series so far.
Through extending the lead in Game 2 and putting the Braves ahead for good in Game 3, Adam Duvall has been absolutely sensational this series. Even in Game 4, though it was the result of an error, Duvall still put the ball in play and created an opportunity that resulted in an Atlanta run. Off the bench, he has provided more production than anyone could have imagined. And, in my opinion, has made a strong case as to why he should start Game 5 over either Joyce or Markakis, due to their struggles. However, with the Braves insistence on keeping Markakis in the lineup in the regular season and this series, Joyce seems to be the more logical option to sit.
With Jack Flaherty on the mound for the Cardinals tomorrow, going with a platoon matchup makes sense. During the 2019 regular season, Matt Joyce had a .871 OPS versus right-handed pitching versus Duvall’s .761 OPS. He also had his lone hit of this series against Flaherty in Game 2. However, the idea of starting Duvall over Joyce goes beyond just their individual offensive contributions.
So far, in each of the four games this series, the Braves have ended the game with Adam Duvall in left field, Ronald Acuña Jr. in center field, and Nick Markakis in right field. That outfield alignment has been the Braves’ go to setup when this series has experienced its most critical moments. For the series, 16 of the 29 total runs both teams have scored have come in the seventh inning or later, including 14 of the 20 scored in the first three games. Besides Game 2, the eventual winner had to come from behind in the eighth inning or later. The point to take away is that the Braves have consistently trusted Duvall over Joyce in the most important moments of this series.
A logical reason is due to defense. From left to right, an alignment of Duvall-Acuña Jr.-Markakis offers more defensive upside than an alignment of Markakis-Acuña Jr.-Joyce. That defensive upside has already come into play in an few instances this series (Kolton Wong being thrown out at home in Game 1, for instance.) Atlanta’s defense has played a critical role in making it difficult for the Cardinals to score. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ defense has been a big reason the Braves have scored more runs than they probably should have so far. If the Braves can continue to feature their defensive supremacy by actually improving it through starting Duvall, it could be an astute move by Atlanta that provides a significant advantage in Game 5.
Offensively, Duvall potentially gives a struggling Braves lineup more balance. For one, the Braves will be inserting one of their best current hitters in the part of the order that is struggling the most. Secondly, in the Game 2 win versus Flaherty, Duvall delivered the biggest hit of the night. While that does not guarantee future success, it should provide confidence that Duvall can produce against ST. Louis’s ace. Finally, the alternating handiness of Freeman, Donaldson, Markakis, Duvall, and McCann will make it hard for the Cardinals to pitch around multiple batters with the same pitcher if the game gets into the bullpens.
Another big key is that the rotating door of pinch-hitters moves from the sixth spot in the order to the ninth spot. This means the Braves will avoid having to use less talented offensive options in a lineup spot that has a better chance of seeing one extra at-bat in the game. This also means that more bench options could be available to utilize in the late innings or if the game goes into extra innings.
As for the continuity of the success that has come from Swanson and the lineup turning over to Acuña Jr., the Braves still have the pieces to remain successful. Whether it is Flaherty or another right-handed reliever, you can now insert Joyce’s bat in that situation and have a good chance for success. Even beyond that specific situation, having a left-handed bench bat you can trust against a staff that is mostly right-handed is a nice asset in an elimination game. It could disrupt the Cardinals plan for bullpen utilization if they have to use a reliever earlier than they might like.
Overall, I can certainly understand the perspective that others may have of “why change what is working.” Duvall’s late game heroics have been one of, if not the biggest, reason the Braves have won their two games. Furthermore, in most games, inserting Duvall over Joyce as a starter likely makes a minimal impact in the grand scheme of things. However, in terms of defense, the Braves’ bench depth, and simply featuring the more productive player, it seems starting Duvall over Joyce should be a priority to give the Braves the best chance to win their first playoff series in 18 years.