On the first night of the National League Championship Series, in a close game in a big ballpark, a team that hadn’t yet lost a postseason game pitched relentlessly in the strike zone, turned so many at-bats into the sort of silent blows that won’t leak blood until later, then won when those wrought late and decisive swings, born of patience, persistence and not a small amount of dancing.
The Los Angeles Dodgers may have been surprised when it wasn’t them.
“It was only a matter of time,” Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “You knew it was kind of inevitable in the ninth inning.”
Well that’s something.
For going on a decade the Dodgers have sorted out what they are and who they want to be, so that come October they’re not such a mystery to themselves. Certainly for the past five years they’ve come closer to something that would be deserving of a championship, though not, apparently, entirely deserving.
Along came 2020 and the kind of season that would reward near bottomless depth almost as much as it would superstar-type talent, which was great for the Dodgers, seeing as they had both. Then it would be a matter of steering through October, this time pitching relentlessly in the strike zone, turning at-bats into silent — and, actually, deafening — blows, and finishing games with wear-them-down flourishes. They won because there was hardly a weakness. In fact, what they were best at was learning what the other team was worst at, then poking at that until it broke.
Along came the Braves, who, for a night, were significantly better at finding what the Dodgers were worst at than revealing what they may lack, then jabbed, jabbed, jabbed until they had themselves a 5-1 win.
In the top of the ninth inning, where, frankly, is where Dodgers’ troubles so often begin, the score was 1-1. In a home game, which qualified for the Dodgers on Monday night at Globe Life Field, that’s often a place for the closer, which the Dodgers don’t really have. This is not a wholly new situation for the Dodgers. It is a situation they are trying very hard to survive while paying adequate respect to Kenley Jansen. So Blake Treinen pitched, with the apparent soft landing of No. 9 hitter Austin Riley up first, then potential trouble.
Riley homered. Not only did he homer and likely win the game right there, but he initiated a move toward tough at-bats, almost as though the Braves had been lying in wait for just this inning, and then laid in wait within each of the at-bats that followed.
It was artful. What Freeman would call “inevitable.”
Against Treinen, who faced 120 batters until Monday night and allowed one home run, Riley fell behind, no balls and two strikes, took a slider for ball one, then smoked a sinker 448 feet.
That was 0-and-2 count No. 1, taken to the woodshed.
Next up, Ronald Acuña Jr. fell behind, 0-and-2. He maneuvered around three more pitches, got to 2-and-2, then doubled to left.
That’s No. 2.
After Freeman flied out (on a one-strike pitch), Marcell Ozuna fouled off the first two pitches from Treinen. The count was 0-and-2. He took the next three pitches, all balls, fouled the next, then singled home Acuña.
So, 0-and-2 count No. 3, two runs in and a 3-1 lead for the Braves.
The Dodgers changed pitchers, to lefty Jake McGee, who retired Travis d’Arnaud on a (two-strike, of course) pop-up and then threw two fastballs by Ozzie Albies. On the next pitch, 0-and-2 count No. 4, Albies homered into the Braves bullpen, where Braves closer Mark Melancon paused between warm-up pitches to actually catch that baseball.
After those four bear-down, come-from-behind, pitcher’s-count at-bats, the score was 5-1, an amazing display of the sort of at-bats for which the Dodgers had become known. Except the Dodgers scored once in six innings against Max Fried, didn’t put a runner on base after the fifth inning, struck out 11 times against four Braves pitchers and then had ahead of them more of the same staff that has four shutouts and one one-run game in six postseason wins.
“At the end of the day, we came up short because we didn’t put at-bats together and we didn’t get runners on base and we weren’t able to pass the baton like we did in the last series,” said Kiké Hernández, whose home run against Fried accounted for all the Dodgers had on Monday.
So this is where it gets interesting, starting with Clayon Kershaw against Ian Anderson on Tuesday, because for all the Dodgers did through 60 games of summer and five games of fall, turns out the Braves were having a similar time of it. They can pitch, end to end. They can push an at-bat until it gets uncomfortable. They will poke, poke, poke until you bleed. And they can dance.
“A good ballgame,” Braves manager Brian Snitker called it. “That was somethin’ else.”
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