To this day, Austin Riley can still recall the specifics of an iconic moment in his young career.
In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2021 NLCS, he stood in the batter’s box opposite Blake Treinen. Ozzie Albies was at second base. Riley was sitting on Treinen’s slider. Riley only wanted a base hit – nothing more.
During that at-bat, Riley glanced to his left, toward third base coach Ron Washington.
“I remember very vividly looking down at Wash and he’s like, ‘Hey, don’t do too much. All we need is a hit. All we need is a base hit.’”
Riley then added: “That’s all I was trying to do. Very fortunate enough to put a barrel with just enough on it to get it over the third baseman’s head and down the line.”
Albies scored. The Braves mobbed Riley.
“I blacked out completely,” Riley said. “If you see the video, me screaming, I never do that. I definitely blacked out.”
Riley’s walk-off hit was a memorable moment that began a seismic series in which the Braves dethroned the mighty Dodgers, who were the reigning World Series champions and baseball’s Goliath. In the series, the Braves proved that maybe – just maybe – they were ready to step onto the sport’s elite tier.
As the Braves and Dodgers meet in Atlanta this week, the Braves are no longer the pesky up-and-coming club with hopes to break through. No, they are, in the eyes of some fans, baseball’s most talented team. The Dodgers, on the other hand, didn’t have their usual spending spree in the offseason and have, like the Braves, withstood a barrage of injuries.
All of this has led to the same point.
The first-place Braves entered this series at 29-17, the first-place Dodgers at 29-19. Atlanta led the second-place Mets by five games in the NL East, and the Dodgers were a game up on Arizona while holding a nice lead over everyone else in the NL West.
Since 2019, the Dodgers have won 366 regular-season games, and the Braves have won 321 over that same span. The Dodgers won the World Series in 2020, then the Braves knocked them out and won it all in 2021.
Can you even call this potential rivalry “budding?”
It might simply be a rivalry, if for no other reason than both teams might be the sport’s best examples of stability. Both clubs perfectly dance the line of sustainability and winning now. Both have been among the most successful in recent seasons.
“I think it’s just what both front offices do,” Riley said. “They bring in good core guys. And they know how to develop. A lot of young talent on both sides. I think being able to develop and then strategically go out and get key pieces at the trade deadline or in the offseason, and then just being able to put that together every year, I think they do a good job of that.”
Added Travis d’Arnaud, who played one game with the Dodgers in 2019 before going to Tampa Bay: “We do things the right way, both organizations. We don’t get too high, don’t get too low. If we lose, we know there’s tomorrow. If we win, we also know there’s tomorrow. I think it has to do with the coaching staffs on both sides. We’re all led the right way and I think that’s why we’re both successful teams.”
To Riley, a turning point came in 2020, when the Braves took a 3-1 lead over the Dodgers in the neutral-site NLCS.
We’ll spare you the details. You know how the rest of that series unfolded.
“If you ask anybody that was on that 2020 team that was with us in 2021, we felt like got punched in the gut in ‘20, especially after going up and them coming back and taking it,” Riley said.
Credit: Curtis Compton / firstname.lastname@example.org
Credit: Curtis Compton / email@example.com
The Braves remembered the feeling.
“I think was more inside in ourselves, we knew we had the chance and, ultimately, kind of tripped ourselves,” Riley said. “Getting back to that moment in ‘21, it was like, ‘How can we stay as level-headed and maintain that poise going through that and not let the emotions get to you?’”
The Braves beat the Dodgers. They eventually held a parade in Atlanta.
Both teams feature stars. The Braves have Riley, Albies, Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson, Max Fried (though he’s on the injured list) and others. The Dodgers have former Brave Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts.
Perhaps the more impressive part: The organizational pipelines.
The Braves rely on Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider. Jared Shuster is in their rotation and Dylan Dodd has pitched for them. Vaughn Grissom debuted last season.
Rookie outfielder James Outman has played a role for the Dodgers. Gavin Lux was supposed to be the starting shortstop until he tore his ACL. Years ago, Los Angeles had a young wave that included Cody Bellinger (now with the Cubs), Julio Urías (on the injured list) and Will Smith.
“Just looking from the outside, they always have good young players that they bring up,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “To me, they do a great job in their organization as far as their drafting and developing. They always have really good young players. As successful as they’ve been, their scouting and player development is really good because they always have players to bring up.”
Despite a farm system that hasn’t been highly regarded by national outlets in the last couple years, the Braves have had enough intriguing prospects to swing big trades for Olson and Sean Murphy. And their farm system has also helped provide cover for this injury-filled beginning to the season.
This season, nine Braves who were projected to be on the opening-day roster have been on the injured list. This includes Kyle Wright and Raisel Iglesias, who began the year on the injured list.
But the Braves have continued rolling.
The Dodgers’ situation is brutal: Lux is out for the season. The Dodgers are also arrived in Atlanta missing multiple starting pitchers. They’re having to dip into their depth a lot.
As of this writing, the Dodgers have 11 players on the injured list. The Braves currently have seven on the injured list.
“As we’re seeing, especially this year, that depth in your organization – meaning the pipeline that you have and the organizational strength that you have – is huge,” Snitker said. “That scouting and player development is a huge element to making the whole thing work.”
Yes, it is only May. This series won’t determine much. It can be a measuring stick for the fans of both teams, but players and coaches don’t often admit it if they do think like that.
But it’s still two top teams going at it.
“Any time you play the Dodgers,” Riley said, “it’s going to be a fun series.”
About the Author
Credit: Family photo
Credit: Channel 2 Action News