HOUSTON — Ian Anderson becoming the Braves' best postseason starter was unthinkable in February. Or in July, when MLB returned from its virus-induced hiatus with a 60-game schedule and expanded postseason. Or even Aug. 26, when Anderson outdueled Gerrit Cole in his MLB debut.
Amid all the unpredictability of the past few months, Anderson’s blink-of-an-eye ascension from touted prospect to playoff ace ranks among the Braves' more unexpected on-field developments of this bizarre season.
And because of it, the Braves have withstood months of rotation losses to sit one victory from the National League Championship Series.
With an opportunity to take command of their best-of-five NL Division Series, Anderson shut out the Marlins across 5-2/3 innings and the Braves won 2-0 on Wednesday. Dansby Swanson and Travis d’Arnaud provided the offense with solo home runs off Miami starter Pablo Lopez, who hadn’t allowed multiple homers in a start before Game 2.
It was the Braves' third shutout in four postseason games. That’s been achieved only twice previously, by the 1905 Giants and 1966 Orioles. The Braves are 4-0 in the playoffs, sweeping Cincinnati in the two-game wild-card series and besting the Marlins in the first two games of the NLDS. It’s the first time they’ve won four consecutive postseason games since 1999, when the team earned its most recent NL pennant.
The game was held in Houston as part of MLB’s 2020 postseason bubble. The Braves need one win to advance to the NLCS, which will be held about four hours north in Arlington, where they would face the winner of the best-of-five Dodgers-Padres series.
The Braves are on the cusp of advancing thanks to Anderson. The rookie right-hander, making his eighth career start, struck out eight and walked one, keeping the Marlins' offense quiet as the Braves slugged a pair of solo homers to take and extend the lead.
“I had more nerves today (than my last start),” Anderson said. “I don’t know if it was the different sight and seeing the playoff stuff around the stadium, but I had some more nerves. I was able to calm down, get into the groove of the game and execute pitches. It helped early on getting a couple guys on and getting out of that, feeling a little more comfortable.”
Anderson could’ve pitched deeper had his pitch count not climbed early. He required 24 pitches to get through the first inning, pitching around two base runners. He retired eight consecutive Marlins before Brian Anderson laced a one-out double in the fourth. Ian Anderson coaxed two fly outs to finish the inning.
He retired 15 of 17 to conclude his outing. Anderson’s change-up was exceptional, generating 22 swings (nine whiffs) on 30 pitches. His four-seamer drew 14 called strikes or whiffs on 49 pitches, and his 14 curveballs prompted eight swings and two called strikes.
“The change-up was really good,” manager Brian Snitker said. “I thought the ball was coming out of his hand really well, too. They didn’t have really good swings at him. There’s a lot to worry about this kid when he’s facing you.”
Snitker continued, lauding Anderson’s maturity.
“The game doesn’t unravel on him," Snitker said. "He keeps the game at a good pace. His clock is really good. How he holds the ball when guys are on with the ability to steal. He can hold and make a quality pitch. You don’t see that in young pitchers. Things start speeding up with guys on, he has the ability to slow things down when it starts getting rough on him.”
The Braves ran into trouble in the sixth when they lifted Anderson at 94 pitches with two outs and a runner on. Darren O’Day, who epitomizes “solid” in the Braves' bullpen, hit Brian Anderson and walked Garrett Cooper to load the bases. Matt Joyce grounded out to first base on the first pitch he saw, however, and the Braves – and Ian Anderson’s pitching line – escaped a rocky inning unscathed.
“I had all the faith in Darren to come in and shut it down,” Anderson said. “That’s what our bullpen’s been doing all year. I had all the confidence in the world in them.”
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Anderson’s postseason numbers through two starts: 11-2/3 innings pitched, 17 strikeouts, three walks. He’s held the opposition to five hits and no runs. The Braves were confident Anderson was up to the postseason challenge, but he’s thrived under the spotlight.
The 22-year-old is the third pitcher in franchise history with back-to-back scoreless starts in the postseason, joining Steve Avery in 1991 and Lew Burdette in 1957. He’s the seventh pitcher in MLB history to begin his postseason career with consecutive scoreless starts (and the second Brave to do so, joining Avery).
“His approach to the game is the same each day,” Swanson said. “His poise and everything is tremendous. He just goes up there and pitches. He believes in what he’s doing, and he executes his pitches. We’re blessed to have him on our team.”
D’Arnaud added: “I see it every day when we show up to the field. Even on his off-days, he’s always locked in, paying attention to every hitter and how he thinks he’d get him out. Does his homework. He’s always been like that since I’ve seen him up here.
"I think he’s going to continue to do it for the rest of his career. It’s something that should be noticed and put out there.”
Following O’Day, the rest of the Braves' bullpen gave the Marlins few opportunities. The group has allowed one run over four postseason games. Outside O’Day’s appearance, the only time Miami threatened was in the eighth against Will Smith, when Corey Dickerson reached on Swanson’s error.
The Braves caught a break in the next at-bat, when Jon Berti dropped a bloop hit in front of right fielder Nick Markakis, who had enough time to get the force out at second. Smith retired the next two, and Berti was stranded at second.
Mark Melancon pitched a 1-2-3 ninth. The bullpen has a 0.52 ERA across 17-1/3 innings this postseason. Considering how the offense has mostly struggled in three of the four contests, the Braves - who slugged their way through the regular season - have needed it.
Ronald Acuna, one day after tweeting that the Marlins “have to hit me because they don’t get me out,” went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall likewise went hitless. The five former All-Stars combined to go 0-for-17 with six strikeouts. Yet the Braves won behind two big swings and stellar pitching.
The Braves' greatest weakness, the back end of their rotation, hasn’t come into play thus far. Max Fried and Anderson have been their only starters, and that’s been enough for four wins. Kyle Wright will make his first postseason start Thursday, and a victory would prevent the Braves from dipping into the most uncertain portion of their club.
“I honestly think we have a lot of room to continue to get better,” Swanson said. “I think we can consistently put together at-bats and get the offense rolling even more. The pitching’s been tremendous. The defense has been really good. If we keep working at it, we have a chance to do something special, but the only thing that matters is tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Wright will face Sixto Sanchez, who pitched five scoreless innings in Miami’s Game 2 series-clinching win over the Cubs last weekend. The Braves would earn their first NLCS berth in 19 years with a win.