Manager Brian Snitker hasn’t lost any faith in Smith, however, and said he won’t hesitate to use the southpaw in a similar spot in Game 6.
“I have nothing but confidence in him,” Snitker said. “He’s been so good and so reliable and he wants the ball. It happens. It’s baseball. We’ll give him the ball probably in the same situation tomorrow.”
Smith already was the Braves' fourth pitcher of the contest. They opted for a bullpen game because of their lack of starting options. Huascar Ynoa and Bryse Wilson covering four and six innings, respectively, over the past two nights positioned the Braves to use their well-rested bullpen for the fifth contest.
The night couldn’t have started better for the Braves. Left-handed reliever A.J. Minter, who was the first pitcher to make his first career start in the postseason, struck out seven of 10 hitters he faced over three scoreless innings in his first major-league start.
Minter, who last started at Texas A&M in 2015, tied the NLCS record with five consecutive strikeouts to end his outing. He was the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out at least seven batters in an appearance of three or fewer innings. He allowed one hit – a Justin Turner double – and nothing more. He got the best of former MVP Mookie Betts twice.
“I surprised myself a little bit,” said Minter, who last pitched three innings in his final collegiate start for the Aggies at Minute Maid Park in Houston. “Coming into the game, I just wanted to set the tone, attack one guy at a time and not worry about pitch count. Just come out and be aggressive and get us off to a good start.”
Snitker added: “Minter did an unbelievable job. He emptied the tank in that last inning. It was an inning, an inning-and-a-half more than I thought we’d get out of him. ... That was remarkable what he did."
The 27-year-old passed it off to his bullpen colleagues for the rest of the evening. The Braves used Tyler Matzek, Shane Greene, Smith, Webb and Josh Tomlin to get through the game. Smith and Webb allowed five of the seven runs, four of which came via home run. All Braves relievers will be available for Game 6, Snitker said.
An odd stat: The Braves have surrendered 12 homers in this series, two shy of tying the NLCS record, yet they hold a 3-2 advantage. They’ve allowed four home runs across their three wins and eight in the two losses.
At the plate, it started with Freddie Freeman. He slapped a one-out double off Dodgers starter Dustin May and advanced on a passed ball. Following Marcell Ozuna’s walk, Travis d’Arnaud hit the ball to the deepest portion of right field, scoring Freeman for the game’s first run.
The Braves added another run in the second when Cristian Pache – who hasn’t looked any bit like a rookie with only four plate appearances under his belt entering the postseason – singled home Dansby Swanson.
Pache added a defensive gem in the eighth, when he robbed Max Muncy of a homer at the center-field wall. The 21-year-old wasn’t supposed to be such a prominent part of the NLCS, but when Adam Duvall went down, Pache stepped into a role in which he’s excelled. The Andruw Jones comparisons aren’t farfetched.
The robbery didn’t affect the result because the Braves couldn’t manufacture enough offense. After chasing May in just two innings, they couldn’t solve the Dodgers' bullpen that they’d been hammering for much of the series. Six Dodgers relievers held them to four hits and one run over seven innings.
An Ozuna gaffe might’ve been the turning point. The Braves opened the third frame with consecutive singles from Ozuna and d’Arnaud. Ozzie Albies grounded into a force out that gave the Braves runners at second and third with one out. Swanson flew out to Betts in right field, and it appeared Ozuna scored the team’s third run. It was determined upon review that Ozuna didn’t tag up. It became an inning-ending double play and prevented the Braves from extending their two-run lead.
Ultimately, the Braves shouldn’t be too concerned. They deployed a bullpen game Friday knowing that Max Fried and Ian Anderson were slated to start the next two contests, if necessary. The Braves remain one win from the World Series. The Dodgers would need to defeat both the Braves' aces to earn the pennant.
Game 6 will be a rematch between Game 1 starters Fried and Walker Buehler. Fried, a Southern California native, held the Dodgers to one run over six innings in that matchup, which the Braves won 5-1. Buehler allowed one run over five innings. Both pitchers will be on a normal schedule.