When Arodys Vizcaino walked Justin Turner to put runners on first and second with nobody out in the ninth inning of Game 3, technically the Braves were still the favorites to win. A team with a one-run lead is still in a better position than a team that’s down by a run with two on and no out. That’s not me making this up; there’s science behind it.
Except, I’m going to have to give those nerd stats a swirlie. Win expectancy is fine, but it doesn’t account for the ninth inning of a postseason game. It doesn’t account for a team about to be swept out of the postseason. It doesn’t account for Max Muncy, Manny Machado, and Brian Dozier coming up. It doesn’t account for the nerves of a team that hasn’t been to the postseason in years, especially when they’re matched up against the nerves of a team that was in the World Series last year.
Then Muncy worked a 3-0 count, and it was definitely over. Congratulations, Dodgers.
There’s so much to unpack, but it all points to the same conclusion: The Braves were hosed. The Dodgers had the momentum, they had the players, and they had the perfect situation. The best-case scenario for the Braves in that ninth inning had the Dodgers tying the game, and I don’t think that’s a controversial opinion. Give a Braves fan a tie in that situation, and only a tie , and they would have taken it.
After falling behind to Muncy, 3-0, Vizcaino threw 11 pitches. Nine of them were strikes. Eight of them were swinging strikes. Five of the swinging strikes were way-too-fast fastballs and three of them were way-too-sliding sliders. He struck out the side to preserve the game and the season in one of the most down-to-your-last-hit-point-against-the-final-boss performances you’ll ever see from a closer.
It’s a perfect jumping-off point to remember that, wait, Arodys Vizcaino is still on the Braves, and he’s thriving. Which is the perfect jumping-off point to remember that this Braves team has a lot more going for it than a robust farm system and developmental pipeline.
I’ll be honest, that pipeline is all I’ve been focusing on. The Braves were in the postseason again because of Ronald Acuña, Jr. and Ozzie Albies and a dozen electric arms. This was the only thread to follow if you wanted to knit a narrative. Develop, weaponize, and deploy: The Story of the 2018 Atlanta Braves.
Vizcaino makes that quick and easy tale seem short-sighted, though. It’s not just the young kids who are doing wondrous things for the Braves. Consider a few things that have gone right for this year’s team:
- Kurt Suzuki was 30 before he posted his first above-average OPS+, and he looked like he was heading for the old catcher’s tavern in the sky when the Twins let him walk after 2016. Now he’s a legitimate two-way threat in limited time.
- Nick Markakis couldn’t keep up his All-Star form from the first half, but he’s still be a tremendous asset all season
- Anibal Sanchez went from “Couldn’t pitch for the Tigers” and “released by the Twins” to a worthy postseason starter
And Arodys Vizcaino, something of an elder statesman on this team, is still pumping fastballs by hitters who usually don’t miss them.
This isn’t to suggest a common thread among the veterans — they span different front offices, and it’s not like their individual histories are remotely similar — but to point out that no postseason team can be reduced to something as simple as “They had prospects, then those prospects panned out. The Aristocrats!” Every postseason team should have help from all over the place, expected and unexpected.
If you need a primer for Vizcaino’s story, go back to when he was Acuña’s age and making his major-league debut in 2011. He was a top-50 prospect in baseball, part of the haul the Braves got for Javier Vazquez, and one of the brightest lights in the next wave of dominant Braves pitching. How was he even going to find innings on a team with pitchers like Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy, Tommy Hanson, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Randall Delgado, and Julio Teheran? What a fantastic conundrum for a team to have.
And then Vizcaino broke, as young pitchers do — especially those young pitchers — except he broke in a most spectacular way. He didn’t have one of those easy Tommy John surgeries, where he comes back in 16-18 months fully formed and ready to pick up where he left off. His promise was great enough that he could be traded in the middle of rehabbing for Tommy John, but it wasn’t a clean recovery. 2012 came and went without him pitching, and 2013 was the same thing.
The Cubs grew impatient and dealt Vizcaino back to the Braves, who hadn’t forgotten about his promise. Then he settled into a relief role and, eventually, helped his team stay alive in an elimination game. This was a change from the original expectations he was saddled with, which was to anchor a rotation until 2017 or so, but it was still extremely helpful.
Again, just focus on that save. Joc Pederson led off the inning with one of the better at-bats of his life, a 10-pitch death struggle that ended up with him absolutely crushing a ball. Justin Turner followed with a great plate appearance of his own that turned into a walk, and suddenly the world was on fire. Max Muncy had a 3-0 advantage, and even if he didn’t have the green light, you knew he was going to be murder on a 3-1 count.
Instead, he waved through Vizcaino fastballs. Which happens, considering those are some pretty sweet fastballs.
And it’s a reminder that every postseason team is a composite of different ideas and solutions. It’s someone thinking that an aging outfielder is worth a lot of money for a rebuilding team, a scout who got a good report on the older backstop who just left the Twins, and someone who still believes in the prospect they dealt away years earlier. And, yes, it’s the prospects, all of the prospects.
Even if the Braves don’t last beyond Monday, they’ll still have that moment when their once-and-future ace battled his way through a hellacious jam to keep the season alive. It makes you appreciate that he was there in the first place. It makes you appreciate the reason they’re all there.