Cardinals, Braves enter Game 5 of NLDS carrying polar opposite playoff histories

There are no sure things in baseball, but there are certain things that sure seem like safe bets. The NLDS between the Cardinals and Braves provides two such examples.

St. Louis and Atlanta enter their winner-take-all Game 5 on Wednesday with polar opposite recent postseason histories. The short way to say it: The Cardinals win. The Braves don’t.

Since 2001, no team has won more playoff rounds — 15 — than the Cardinals. And no team has lost more playoff rounds — nine — than the Braves. Neither stat has any bearing on what happens in Game 5, but it’s a striking contrast. What causes one playoff team to consistently come up big and another to consistently come up small?

FAGAN: Cards, Braves both lucky to make it to Game 5

The more you think about it, the more questions arise: Are the Cardinals always the better team, or do they just play better? Do the Braves just get beat or do they beat themselves? Are there other factors at play? For both teams, the truth is probably a mix of everything. But it’s the consistency — regardless of rosters, managers or opponents — that I find fascinating. 

Curses and devil magic aren’t real, so what’s behind it? Spoiler: There’s no real answer, obviously. It just is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to discuss and debate.

I’ve often wondered, in a chicken-and-egg way, whether teams playoff histories are the way they because each has laid that particular foundation. Do wins beget wins and losses beget losses, even amid organizational turnover? Is there such thing as an October-specific team culture, even if on a subconscious level? Is there a mental component at all?

I’m no psychologist, so maybe those are unanswerable questions. Baseball is always weird and unpredictable, except when it’s not.

Players, of course, always say they don’t think about stuff like this. 

“History, we don’t really play into that. This is now,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson told reporters after Game 3, which the Braves won in comeback fashion, something Braves teams have seldom done in October since 2001. “The one thing that we’ve talked about all year and that makes this team so special is we come out and we play tomorrow’s game. We don’t worry about what happened tonight; we’re not worried about what’s happening in the future.”

In the Braves’ case, the future saw them squander a Game 4 lead, numerous scoring opportunities and a chance to win their first playoff series in 18 years, as the Cardinals forced Game 5 behind heroics from catcher Yadier Molina. Both things were extremely on brand for each team, as they both found ways to keep the narratives alive.

“I don’t know what it is, but my concentration level is up there,” Molina said of coming through in big moments, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I just like those.”

Though Molina isn’t always big in October, he does have plenty of big moments on his resume. And that creates a certain expectation — both with him and his teammates.

“Some guys thrive in the big moment under pressure,” Matt Carpenter said, per ESPN. “Yadi is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen at that. There’s no question when that situation came up in the 10th (in Game 4), he was going to get it done somehow, whether it be walk, hit, homer or sac fly.”

There’s probably something to be said for an expectation of postseason success that’s cultivated over a long period. And, because the game is played by humans, there’s probably something to be said for the flip side of that equation. 

But the Cardinals and Braves aren’t the only teams with notable postseason legacies this century. We just saw the Twins lose their 16th straight postseason game, which is one of those things that sounds almost impossible. Meanwhile, the A’s are now 1-15 since 2000 when they have a chance to eliminate an opponent in the postseason (The Braves are zero for their past six in that category, by the way).

It seems like there should be a reasonable explanation for it all — in the Twins’ case, they might have something to say about the Yankees — but these teams’ best efforts to fix their perceived problems have never seemed to matter once the playoff switch flips. It’s fascinating — and maddening.

If you polled Cardinals and Braves fans ahead of Game 5 of the NLDS, and they were honest, Cardinals fans are probably more confident than their counterparts in Atlanta. In both cases, their postseason observations have conditioned them to be that way. Overall narratives and histories aside, both fan bases have plenty of specifics from which to draw conclusions.

Cardinals fans remember the team being down to its last strike — twice — in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the Rangers, only to somehow win that game and force Game 7, which St. Louis also won. Braves fans might think of the 2010 NLDS, when a dramatic Eric Hinske pinch-hit homer gave Atlanta an eighth-inning lead against the Giants in Game 3, only to have Brooks Conrad’s defense and a questionable pitching change sink things in the top of the ninth. Emphatic precedents are hard things to shake in the world of fandom. 

Home teams are 56-58 in winner-take-all games throughout postseason history. The Braves are 0-3 all time in elimination Game 5s. All three losses occurred at home. The Cardinals are 3-1 in that situation, with two of those wins coming on the road. But, again, none of that has any bearing on what happens Wednesday. Nothing is pre-ordained.

The beauty of baseball, at least in theory, is that both sides have a real chance to surprise us. 

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