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Onus is squarely on Freeman, Donaldson, and Markakis as Braves face Cardinals in Game 5

The top of the lineup has produced. The bottom of the lineup and pinch-hitters have produced. The middle of the order must come alive. There’s no other option.

Divisional Series - St Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So here we are. The Braves now have their backs to the walls and will be playing the Cardinals in a win-or-play golf scenario. We could sit here and curse the baseball gods for once again smiling on St. Louis as their two best hitters dragged them kicking and screaming into extra innings, where a good old-fashioned manufactured run gave them the win. We could lament any sort o bad luck or cosmic forces that somehow kept the Braves from clinching when they were tantalizingly close to the NLCS.

However, we know exactly what the problem is. It’s Josh Donaldson currently sitting on a .478 OPS. It’s Nick Markakis sitting on a .458 OPS. It’s Freddie Freeman sitting on a .535 OPS. If even one of those three was hitting at the level that they did during the regular season, this series is probably over by now. If even two or all three of them didn’t hit a massive slump at the worst possible time, this maybe could have even been a sweep.

Yet here we are. We’re currently in a reality where those three normally reliable hitters have not been anywhere near where we’d expect them to be during the NLDS. It’s especially not ideal when these three players are situated right in the heart of the order. They’ve gotten production from the very top of the order and they’ve had guys like Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall pick up the slack. Outside of a horrendous inning from Mark Melancon in Game 1 and Dallas Keuchel giving up two homers on short rest in Game 4, the pitching has been good. The Braves have done enough to win.

But once again, the team is now gearing up for the biggest game of the year with their season on the line. There’s no two ways around what has to happen today. Mike Foltynewicz will have to give the Braves at least something close to what they gave them in Game 2. He won’t have to keep the Cardinals completely off the board again and that’s going to be a very tough task since both Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna are doing their best to carry their team, but he’s got to limit their offense and also go as deep as he possibly can. The bullpen has proven itself to be capable — again, the aforementioned Melancon inning and Luke Jackson getting rocked a bit back in Game 1 was their only real serious misstep.

This is a unit that can be relied upon and now since it’s an elimination game, Brian Snitker will basically have all capable hands on deck on the pitching staff at his disposal. He’s got to make smart decisions with his pitchers and this will probably be one of the biggest facets of the game. If Folty can’t repeat his performance, then his manager and the pitching staff will have to pick up the rest of the team. The bullpen is capable and they will have to be ready to perform like they have through most of this series.

This is very likely going to come down to whether or not the middle of the lineup can finally come alive and make a significant contribution to the cause. Whether they shake up the lineup and bring in a couple of new faces or they ride with the same lineup like they’ve usually done, the onus is clearly on the regular 3-4-5 hitters to start pulling their weight. From Acuña to Swanson, the polar parts of the lineup have consistently done their part. The performance of the aforementioned trio will decide a lot of things — it’ll determine if the Braves can catch Jack Flaherty slipping, it’ll be the case if the Braves can finally get some hits with men on and it’ll play a huge factor in whether or not the Braves will be playing in the NLCS for the first time in nearly 20 years.

While this entire game is not going to be on the broad shoulders of those three, it’s absolutely imperative that they get going. Even if the Braves pull off a victory and they do advance, you’re still going to need them to come alive at the plate. If the regular season version of those three show up, the Braves can win this game going away. If they continue to struggle, then we’re going to be in for another nailbiter.

Even if Freddie Freeman is playing through pain, if he’s insisting that he’s healthy enough to play and Brian Snitker continues to play him and put him in the third spot, he’s got to start contributing to justify being given his spot. It’s definitely not ideal that we have to discuss one of the most vital cogs of the lineup being in a position where he’s got to “work himself out” of a slump, but here we are. He’s very likely going to play, he’s even likelier to hit third in the lineup and he’s going to get his fair share of chances to do something and he’s got to do it now. It’s basically now or never as far as this year is concerned.

As far as the other two, we may see a lineup shakeup of some sort. Kevin McAlpin seems to think that Adam Duvall will get a start and Swanson will also get moved up in the lineup.

This should coincide with Markakis moving down in the lineup. If Nick Markakis must play,he can’t hit fifth anymore. Donaldson at least has the potential to blast his way out of a slump at any moment. Markakis is clearly seen as a weak link of the lineup as evidenced by the Cardinals giving Donaldson a free pass in the seventh inning of Game 4 so that Andrew Miller could face Markakis. If that’s going on and you have better options, he’s got to be moved down and we could very well see that happen today.

Either way, it’s very clear what needs to happen. The Braves are at home and you could argue that the Cardinals have needed a lot of good fortune to even get to this point. This isn’t to say that the Cardinals don’t deserve to be in the postseason and that it’s just going to be a cakewalk — it’s to say that if the Braves play like we know they can, they should be the better team and celebrate a series victory in front of their home fans.

The onus is on the trio of Freeman, Donaldson and Markakis to finally come alive and for the rest of the offense to continue doing what they’ve been doing. A spot in the NLCS is once again within their grasp. It’s a very winnable game. So why not just go out there and win it?

Game Info

Game Date/Time: Wednesday, October 9, 5:02 PM ET

Location: SunTrust Park, Atlanta, GA


Radio: ESPN Radio, 680 AM / 93.7 FM The Fan, Rock 100.5, Braves Radio Network

Hype Level: The moon. It’s on the doggone moon.

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