Braves script has been unpredictable. Will it include the unlikeliest ending?

Braves leftfielder Eddie Rosario reacts after hitting the walk-off hit that scored shortstop Dansby Swanson in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. The Braves won 5-4 to take a 2-0 series lead. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves leftfielder Eddie Rosario reacts after hitting the walk-off hit that scored shortstop Dansby Swanson in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. The Braves won 5-4 to take a 2-0 series lead. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

LOS ANGELES — In “City of Stars,” a signature piano-centric ballad from “La La Land” (2016), an ambitious couple named Mia and Sebastian – played by Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling – ponder their futures together in Los Angeles with a duet.

Reads one verse: “Who knows? Is this the start of something wonderful and new? Or one more dream that I cannot make true?”

The Braves arrived in Tinseltown on Monday humming a similar tune. They’re two wins from the World Series, having the Dodgers on the ropes for the second straight October. Last year was the dream they couldn’t make true: They blew 2-0 and 3-1 leads, losing to the eventual champions in seven games.

ExploreMark Bradley: 2-0 lead feels different this time around

They built their National League Championship Series lead in a different way this time around. Third baseman Austin Riley provided the walk-off hit in Game 1. Outfielder Eddie Rosario’s single won it in Game 2. The Braves haven’t played near their best; it hasn’t mattered.

The series is certainly following a Hollywood script thus far, presenting a different hero each night as the Braves try to take down the big, bad Dodgers, a film’s quintessential antagonist. The background sets the stage for the Braves’ payback after botching their leads in the same series a year ago.

“We were up on them 2-0 last year, so it’s like one of those things where you can’t stop now, you got to continue to apply the pressure and come out every day and get after it,” Riley said. “It’s in the back of your mind. They’re a really good ball club, they’re never out of it until the last say.”

At this point, the Braves are hard to bet against. They’ve overcome myriad challenges to sit where they are today. The adversity is well documented: Mike Soroka’s Achilles, Ronald Acuna’s ACL, Marcell Ozuna’s injury and domestic violence charge, Travis d’Arnaud’s finger ligament, Huascar Ynoa’s punch, Ian Anderson’s shoulder.

ExploreRiley's walk-off hit gives Braves win in NLCS Game 1

As a team, the Braves didn’t cross the .500 mark until August. They didn’t take over first place until later in the month. They once alternated 18 wins and losses, an MLB record. It was a maddening team that was saved by general manager Alex Anthopoulos’ decorated July in which he swung six trades to reshape a decimated roster.

While the Braves won just 88 games – the lowest total among postseason qualifiers – they’d hit their stride in the weeks leading into the postseason. They then outpitched the pitching-rich Brewers in the NL Division Series, upsetting 95-win Milwaukee in four games.

Los Angeles topped San Francisco, its archrival, in five games on the other side of the bracket. The Dodgers, despite 106 victories, were a wild-card team because the Giants won 107 contests. The Braves should send the Giants a nice thank you card. San Francisco’s winningest regular season led to the Braves owning homefield advantage, of which they took full advantage.

The Braves should be encouraged by the first two games. They own a 2-0 lead despite falling short of their best play. They’ve built a margin for error – they know how thin that is against Los Angeles, of course – whereas the Dodgers have none. Los Angeles must win Game 3 to avoid dropping into a hole that only one team in MLB history has overcome (the acclaimed 2004 Red Sox).

ExploreRosario provides big hit as Braves win NLCS Game 2

Veteran Charlie Morton, renowned for his postseason pitching, will try to bury the Dodgers in Game 3 (the Braves won’t be relying on Kyle Wright, Bryse Wilson and A.J. Minter for starts in this NLCS). A silver lining for Los Angeles: The Braves are 11-26 at Dodger Stadium since 2010. They haven’t won at Chavez Ravine since June 2018. But these Braves haven’t followed the formula, so even that track record might prove obsolete.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and the front office are under fire for how they’ve handled the first two games. Their bullpen game in the first contest largely worked, but their offense failed them. They built a 2-0 lead just two hitters into Game 2, then held a 4-2 lead in the eighth, and still couldn’t win.

It’s uncharacteristic of the reigning champs. The Braves have exacerbated their troubles. The Dodgers are 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position, including a 1-for-10 mark in Game 2. Roberts has already used closer Kenley Jansen, among other key relievers, twice in the losses.

Starter Max Scherzer rose eyebrows when he mentioned a “dead arm” after his Game 2 outing. Lefty Julio Urias, set to start Game 4, questionably was called upon in Game 2 and squandered a late lead.

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Fans react as Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) is removed from the mound during the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Fans react as Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) is removed from the mound during the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Fans react as Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer (31) is removed from the mound during the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves, on the other hand, have seen the reigning NL MVP go cold. First baseman Freddie Freeman is 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Anderson, off to a phenomenal start to his postseason career, lasted only three frames in Game 2. The bullpen has needed to cover nine innings so far. The Braves are 3-for-8 with runners in scoring position, only having two such opportunities in Game 1.

In Game 1, the Braves struck out 14 times. In Game 2, they issued nine walks, none of which translated into a run. The series is a microcosm of their season. It hasn’t always made sense but it’s effective.

“I think if you look at both clubs, as far as usage and leverage uses (with pitching), they’re in the same position we are,” Roberts said. “But the thing is that they have a two-game lead in the series. So I think for us, (starter) Walker (Buehler) is ready to go. He’s got an extra couple days. So certainly for Game 3 we’re going to lean on him.

“But this is kind of how the series has played out and I think that both teams are in the same situation outside of the most important factor that they have a 2-0 lead.”

And that’s the bottom line. Regardless of what’s worked against them, the Braves walked off the mighty Dodgers twice. The busy bullpen hasn’t allowed a run. Anderson only allowed two; it could’ve been much worse. Freeman will eventually wake up, logic says.

Caption
Braves rightfielder Joc Pederson reacts after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves rightfielder Joc Pederson reacts after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of  Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Braves rightfielder Joc Pederson reacts after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021, against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

In the meantime, others have filled the void such as outfielder Joc Pederson, the ex-Dodger who helped bury the Braves in 2018 and 2020, and Rosario. Even relievers Jacob Webb and Chris Martin, who haven’t had the seasons they hoped, came through Sunday.

“It’s unbelievable for the team,” Rosario said. “We all have that dream, that desire to get to the World Series.”

Spoiler alert: In “La La Land,” Mia and Sebastian end up achieving their dreams. They just didn’t take the routes they’d planned. And they didn’t do it together.

This wasn’t the path the Braves expected to take back in spring training. It wasn’t the team the Braves thought they’d put on the field in October, either. Usually, the best stories are those that don’t unfold the way one would expect or even hope.

Watching this team that was patched together throughout the season, one can’t help but wonder if this script includes the unlikeliest of endings.

The NLCS is far from over. It can’t be stressed enough that the Braves were in this position a year ago. Everyone knows what happened. But the sequel has a different feel than its predecessor. Years of heartbreak, as recently as 2020, don’t matter in the coming days.

This time, the Braves arrived in La La Land believing that this is the start of something wonderful and new.

National League Championship Series

(All games televised on TBS)

Game 1: Braves 3, Dodgers 2

Game 2: Braves 5, Dodgers 4

Game 3: Braves at Dodgers, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 5:08 p.m.

Game 4: Braves at Dodgers, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 8:08 p.m.

Game 5*: Braves at Dodgers, Thursday, Oct. 21, 8:08 p.m.

Game 6*: Dodgers at Braves, Saturday, Oct. 23, 5:08 p.m.

Game 7*: Dodgers at Braves, Sunday, Oct. 24, 7:38 p.m.

* — If necessary

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