Column: Foltynewicz and Duvall, in minors this summer, save Braves postseason in October

During the dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz woke up 43 mornings as a minor leaguer, as recently as Aug. 5. Adam Duvall spent 136 days in the minors, as recently as Sept. 5.

But come October, on a hot Georgia night that felt like those same dog days of summer, Mike Foltynewicz and Adam Duvall may have saved the Atlanta Braves’ postseason.

The pair of former All-Stars played to their full capability Friday night, leading the Braves to a crucial 3-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals to even the NL Division Series at one game each.

Foltynewicz pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits. When Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the bottom of the seventh, he hit a two-run home run to stretch a 1-0 lead to 3-0, giving the Braves some huge insurance runs.

With the win, the Braves avoided the ominous fate of a 2-0 series deficit in the best-of-5 series ahead of the next two games in St. Louis.

Foltynewicz entered the season as the Braves’ top starting pitcher, but his season was delayed by injury, then plagued by ineffectiveness. On June 22, with a 6.37 ERA after 11 starts, he was optioned to AAA Gwinnett less than a year removed from his 2018 All-Star appearance.

The right-hander worked on both the execution of his pitches and the harnessing of his emotions, both of which were part of the early-season problems, and on Aug. 5 he was recalled to the major leagues after a successful run of starts.

In the 10 starts since his recall, Foltynewicz regained his 2018 form, pitching to a 2.65 ERA; the Braves won each of the first nine of those starts.

In Friday’s game, he made arguably the best start of his career, becoming the first Braves starter to throw seven or more shutout innings in a playoff game since Tom Glavine in the 2001 NLDS. In doing so, he outdueled the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, the NL Pitcher of the Month in both August and September, all on the heels of a poor performance in last year’s playoff-series loss to the Dodgers.

“(It’s) pretty special,” Foltynewicz said. “(I) keep talking about it, the kind of year I had, just for the Braves to have trust in me. And I kind of proved what I went down to work on that I’m still the pitcher that I was last year.”

Foltynewicz was so strong that some fans at SunTrust Park booed when Duvall pinch-hit for Foltynewicz in the seventh inning. With two out in the inning, Braves manager Brian Snitker was trying to give his team the best chance to add on some runs, especially considering that Foltynewicz is a light hitter even by a pitcher’s standards. The trade-off was that Foltynewicz was out of the game at 81 pitches.

But Snitker had pushed the right button — Duvall’s home run gave the Braves some much-needed breathing room as the game was turned over to a bullpen which had struggled the night before in Game 1.

Duvall, a 2016 All-Star while with the Cincinnati Reds, had seasons of 33 and 31 home runs in 2016 and 2017, but struggled mightily at the plate after being traded to Atlanta in mid-2018. He hit .132 with no home runs in 53 at-bats, and was left off last year’s playoff roster.

Entering 2019, the Braves were hopeful that Duvall could regain his own form, but simply didn’t have a roster spot for him out of spring training. So he began his age-30 season at Gwinnett, waiting for an opportunity, and all he did was hit: 32 home runs and 93 RBIs in 101 games.

That opportunity did eventually open when the Braves experienced some injuries, and Duvall hit five home runs in the first six games after he was promoted back to the big leagues. He totaled 15 extra-base hits in 41 games, and this time around earned a playoff-roster spot as a right-handed-hitting reserve.

“This guy’s a former All-Star, he’s getting Gold Glove votes … last year didn’t go the way he wanted it to,” Snitker said. “Out of Spring Training, we optioned him down and he went down and hit I don’t know how many homers, and stayed the course and worked. I have so much respect for a guy like that.”

Duvall earned a hit and a walk in Game 1, then Friday did what he does best: hit a Flaherty fastball 423 feet to center field, landing in a raucous red-draped crowd.

After Foltynewicz went deep on the mound and Duvall went deep at the plate, the last six outs were earned by pitchers with noteworthy routes to Game 2 in their own right — Max Fried won 17 games as a starter, second most in the NL, but is being utilized as a reliever in the postseason; Mark Melancon was 12-for-12 in saves in the regular season but blew the save in Game 1, only to find redemption in Game 2 — and the Braves had evened the series.

Who could’ve known, in the 100-degree heat of Lawrenceville, Ga. during some mundane Gwinnett Stripers game in July, that the two most integral players in the Braves’ first 2019 playoff win would come from that team and not the more acclaimed one 30 miles away in Atlanta?

As disappointing as Game 1 was for the Braves — and as much as they could be leading the series 2-0 — Friday’s must-win was won and the team’s postseason aspirations were, at least for now, saved.

All because a couple of guys who were playing in front of a couple thousand people in July got the job done in October on the postseason’s grand stage.

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