By HAL McCOY
The St. Louis Cardinals, normally defensive dandies, tried their darndest to give away a game Thursday night.
Early in Game One of the National League Division Series, the Cardinals played defense as if they didn’t know the definition if they had a dictionary in their hands.
Lax defense gave the Atlanta Braves three early runs and it look as if the Cardinals had kicked one away.
But they recovered. And they recovered big-time.
The Cardinals broke a 3-3 tie in the ninth inning with four runs off Atlanta closer Mark Melancon for a 7-6 victory in Sun Trust Park.
And they needed all four. The Braves came back in the bottom of the ninth with three runs on home runs by Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman.
But they fell one run short.
The Cardinals decisive ninth inning started when Dexter Fowler drove an 0-and-2 pitch for a single. Tommy Edman singled and Melancon wanted no part of Paul Goldschmidt. He walked him on four pitches to fill the bases.
Once again Melancon went to 0-and-2, this time on Marcell Ozuna. He drove the third pitch inside the third base bag for a two-run double.
Yadier Molina was walked intentionally, refilling the bases and Kolten Wong drove on inside the first base bag for another two-run double and a 7-3 lead.
To err is human, to make two mistakes on one play and an error on another is fatal. Usually. The Cardinals saved themselves by scoring six runs in the final two innings to overcome a 3-1 deficit, three runs given to the Braves by defensive ineptitude
Atlanta scored its first three runs when the Cardinals treated the baseball like a hot tamale.
The Braves scored one in the first when they had runners on third and first with one out. Josh Donaldson hit a double play ball to second baseman Kolten Wong and he booted it like a field goal kicker as a run scored.
It got worse.
With the score tied, 1-1, in the sixth, the Braves loaded the bases. Dansby Swanson hit a ball that took more twists and turns than a pinball.
He hit what could have been a double play ball at third baseman Tommy Edman. The ball, though, took a bad hop and hit him in the chest.
The ball took a right turn to shortstop Paul DeJong. He had a chance to get an out at second, but his throw was in the dirt and the ball skittered away from second baseman Kolten Wong.
Two runs scored for a 3-1 lead. At first, the officials gave two errors on the play — one to third baseman Edman and another to shortstop DeJong.
He later changed it to an infield hit for Swanson and kept the error charged to DeJong. Nevertheless, the two runs, plus the one in the first, enabled the Braves to win and take a one-game lead in the best-of-five series.
After Wong’s error gave the Braves a 1-0 lead, St. Louis tied it in the fifth on Harrison Bader’s single, a sacrifice bunt, a steal of third by Bader and a ground ball by Dexter Fowler.
After the funky play by the Cardinals in the sixth gave the Braves a 3-1 lead, the Cardinals scored twice in the eighth to tie it, 3-3.
The Braves brought in relief pitcher Chris Martin but he injured his left oblique warming up on the mound. He was replaced by Luke Jackson.
Jackson was permitted to take as many warm-up pitches as he needed. He should have taken two more than he took. His second pitch to Paul Goldschmidt was tracked by air traffic controllers at Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport, a long home run.
The Cardinals then put two on with two outs. Pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter blooped a 3-and-2 pitch down the left field line, easily scoring the first runner to tie, it 3-3.
But Kolten Wong tried to score from first and left fielder Adam Duvall threw him out at the plate from here to eternity, maintaining the 3-3 tie.
Then came the Cardinals — two in the eighth and four in the ninth and the defensive doldrums were wiped away.
After falling behind, 7-3 in the top of the ninth, the Braves didn’t die quietly. Pinch-hitter Billy Hamilton walked on a 3-and-2 and Ronald Acuna blasted a 455-foot home run off Martinez, cutting the lead to 7-5. And with one out, Fred Freeman cleared the center field wall with a home run, cutting the margin to 7-6.
Martinez, who had given up only two home runs all season, gave up two in one inning. But he retired Josh Donaldson on a ground ball and struck out Nick Markakis to end it.