“It’s important to win Game 1 of any series,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It’s important to get Game 1 of a regular season series. On this stage right here, what we’re doing, this was huge for us. This was a tough game, man. This was two really good ballclubs going at it. That was something else.”
The Braves handed the Dodgers their first loss since Sept. 23. This was the third time the Dodgers had been held to one run this season and the least they’ve scored this postseason. Their previous low was three.
The Braves are 6-0 this postseason after defeating the only other team with a previously unblemished record. Monday marked their first NLCS win since Game 2 in 2001, when Tom Glavine and the Braves defeated the Diamondbacks, 8-1, for their only win of the series. This is the first time they’ve won the first game of an NLCS since defeating the Mets 4-2 in 1999, the last time the Braves won the NL pennant.
Riley was largely responsible for this win with the most important swing of his young career. There wasn’t much indication it was coming: Aside from his poor postseason production leading into the inning, Riley had only two homers in his final 23 regular-season games (93 at-bats). Riley, who’s proven to be a streaky hitter, had only two homers since Sept. 1 after homering five times in August.
“I didn’t feel my legs when I was running around the bases," Riley said.
Riley was left off the Braves' postseason roster last season when he slumped to the finish line. Just over a year later, he produced a swing that will be remembered fondly in Braves postseason history - and one that will loom large in what’s expected to be a long, evenly matched series.
“You never want to think you’re off the roster, but I think everybody knows I wasn’t playing to my ability (last season)," Riley said. “There wasn’t a spot on there for me. I took it to heart and told myself that going into next year, I’m not going to panic when things aren’t going my way. I started off slow this year, but keep at it and keep at it, and to finally come through is a good thing.”
Game 1 was the first MLB game to host fans this season. Paid attendance was announced at 10,700 – a sellout – and a good chunk of the attendees were Braves fans, whose cheers and chants could be easily heard throughout the night. Limited fans will be permitted during the NLCS and World Series, which will also be held in Arlington.
Before the late explosion, it was a tight game in which both teams squandered opportunities. The Braves struck first on Freddie Freeman’s solo shot to right field in the first inning. He blasted a 97-mph four-seamer for the Braves' against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, which fired up the loud contingent of Braves fans present, especially those to the immediate right of the press box.
“I really noticed all the Braves fans,” Snitker said. “It was kind of cool. It was neat to see people back in the ballpark. I’m happy for the people here who were allowed to come in and experience this whole this. It’s a really neat thing. It’s a great step in the right direction. I applaud Major League Baseball for all of us and what we’ve been through. People have to be happy with the product they saw tonight. There were about 11,000, but it sure sounded like more. People were into it. Good for them to be able to go to a ballgame and see one of this caliber.”
The Braves’ lead held until the fifth, when Enrique Hernandez hammered Max Fried’s 0-2 hanging curveball over the left-field wall. Fried retired the next six of seven Dodgers to limit the damage at one.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud, who was the Braves' best player in last round’s sweep of the Marlins, led off the sixth with a hard-hit single. Albies followed with a soft single that chased Buehler at 100 pitches with none down in the inning.
Enter hard-throwing right-hander Brusdar Graterol, who in six pitches induced a shallow popup from Dansby Swanson, struck out Cristian Pache and caught a comebacker from Nick Markakis that swiftly ended the Braves' best scoring chance to that point.
The Braves offense did an excellent job working Buehler and forcing him out after five innings. Despite striking out seven times, they drew five walks off the righty, a career most. Yet they couldn’t score off the bases on balls or consecutive hits that finished Buehler’s night.
Ozuna seemed to have positioned the Braves with a lead-off double to start the eighth against Dustin May. D’Arnaud and Albies were retired, but Swanson was intentionally walked to bring up Pache. The Dodgers turned to lefty Victor Gonzalez while the Braves switched Pache out for Pablo Sandoval, who was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Markakis, who was 4-for-24 this postseason, was subbed out for former Dodger Charlie Culberson. In his first plate appearance since Aug. 21, Culberson struck out swinging to end the inning. And it felt like missed chances would doom the Braves again, just as they did in Game 4 against the Cardinals in last October’s NLDS.
Ultimately, that wasn’t the case, but the Braves need to be more opportunistic moving forward. They were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position until Ozuna singled home the first insurance run in the ninth, made possible by Acuna’s one-out double. Albies' ensuing homer gave them a cushion.
“In the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, we seem to have some magic,” Freeman said. “It was no different tonight. It’s a tough lineup to navigate. We left some opportunities out there throughout the game, too. It could’ve been a different story but with a 1-1 game headed to the ninth, we cashed in. That’s what’s so good about this team. Even if we don’t get those opportunities, we’re going to create some more later in the game and we were able to come through in the ninth.”
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
The Dodgers went just 0-for-2 with runners at second and/or third. It was fair to wonder how Braves' pitching would fare against a team drastically better than the Reds or Marlins, but the staff looked no different than the previous five games. The Braves shut out their opponent in four of those contests, and they limited the Dodgers - the only team that outscored and out-homered them this season - to one run resulting from a mistake pitch.
Fried labored early, throwing 28 pitches in the first inning. He settled in with a 12-pitch third and 12-pitch fourth to provide the Braves needed length. Fried struck out nine Dodgers and held former MVPs Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger to a combined 0-for-6 with two strikeouts. Neither player reached base in the game.
Fried’s six innings spared the Braves' bullpen from covering a larger chunk of innings, which is crucial in a best-of-seven series without any off days. Relievers Chris Martin, Will Smith and Mark Melancon each pitched a perfect frame to end the game. The Braves used the ideal formula that’s proven flawless in these playoffs: six innings from the starter followed by their best three relievers.
This Game 1 was far different from the last playoff meeting between these NL powers, when the inexperienced Braves looked overwhelmed in the 2018 NLDS. This time, the Braves matched the Dodgers and even created more opportunities for themselves.
Missed opportunities didn’t haunt them because they did to the Dodgers what they’ve done to other opponents all season: Assemble a late offensive onslaught that flips a coin-toss game into their favor. If one believes in setting the tone for a series, the Braves sent a clear message Monday night.