Short of the pitching mound erupting into the world’s smallest volcano, Arodys Vizcaino’s first postseason save could not have been more tumultuous.
There was so much going on at the close of the Braves’ 6-5 National League Division Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday night: A heretofore enchanted Braves season on the brink; the top of a powerful Dodgers lineup coming at him with bad intent; consequences larger than any Vizcaino has faced before; a sold-out SunTrust Park primed to either spew joy or blame.
Oh, and one other thing, Vizcaino and his catcher were close to a serious communication breakdown.
“That’s not really how you draw it up, first and second, no outs with the heart of the order coming up,” said the catcher in the ninth-inning drama, Kurt Suzuki, setting the stage. “Nothing’s been easy for us – that’s kind of the story of our season. But we keep going.”
The Dodgers were obliged to return for a Game 4 Monday, as Vizcaino struck out the side after allowing the first two he faced to reach, saving this one-run game. That's the short version. The wonder is in the details.
Where to begin?
At the top of the Dodgers order, where first Joc Pederson and then Justin Turner opened the ninth with two of the most stubborn at-bats of the night. Vizcaino exhausted 17 pitches trying to get them out, succeeding neither time. Pederson finally singled, and Turner moved him into position to tie the game with a hard-won walk. No outs.
The Braves closer had dealt with his share of tough times this season, twice going on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, which certainly put his late-season status in question. “There’s always doubt,” he said afterward through an interpreter, “but fortunately I was able to stay positive.”
But the 27-year-old had never been in a position like this, a swing away from the Braves first postseason game at SunTrust Park – and their first playoff appearance in five years – ending in abject disappointment.
Up to the place came the Dodgers’ Max Muncy, he of the 35 home runs this season and two in this series, including one earlier this very night.
“I just focused on not letting (the two Dodgers who reached) get to my head. Once you let your emotions get the better of you that’s when you get in trouble. I was really focused on the guy at the plate and attacked the strike zone,” Vizcaino said.
Well, eventually he attacked it, after getting behind Muncy 3-0. He got him looking for strike one. Muncy then fouled off strike two and swung and missed on a 97-mph fastball.
With one out, now he had to deal with Manny Machado. Vizcaino had a plan.
“I faced him in Los Angeles (in a one inning appearance in a scoreless appearance in Game 2) and I threw three sliders at him the last at-bat,” Vizcaino said. “I think he came up looking for slider when he came to the plate and it kind of helped me. I was able to use my fastball, use that to my advantage and finish him off with the slider.”
Three ugly swings and Machado was gone.
But on the last swing, the ball got away from Suzuki allowing the baserunners to move up to second and third, with two out. As Suzuki was trying to change up signs with a runner looking in on them from second, confusion had broken out between him and his pitcher. And the Braves had exhausted their allotted mound visits.
And now here was Suzuki at this pivotal point “kind of messed up between the signs.”
“And my Spanish is not the greatest, and he couldn’t really hear me yelling.”
As Suzuki explained his predicament at the time: “It’s not like you can sit on the heater and adjust to off-speed like a hitter. I did that with Machado and the ball went by me. I tried to do hand signs. I didn’t know what he was shaking to. So, Ok, let’s just see what we got.”
“I got crossed up, to be honest,” Vizcaino said. “I’m grateful Kurt was able to realize what was happening, and kind of get us on the same page.
“Everything worked out. Fortunately, we were able to get out of a mess and kind of do our thing. I’m grateful for that.”
With Dodgers on second and third, up strode Brian Dozier, positioned to put L.A. ahead with a base hit. Using the same sequence he had applied on Machado, Vizcaino got ahead of Dozier with the fastball and then finished him off – and the game as well – with a hard slider.
“It’s an unforgettable experience. It’s a game I’m never going to forget,” Vizcaino said. Throwing 31 pitches Sunday, his availability for Monday’s Game 4 is doubtful.
There was one last question for Vizcaino after putting together those three consecutive strikeouts in the most pressurized appearance of his young life, prolonging the Braves season for at least another day.
What did he learn about himself?
This one he didn’t need translated to him.
In his native tongue he instantly responded, “I’m a fighter.”
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com