A wild NLCS returns to the home of the Braves

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Apologies in advance, but we’re going to do the if-I’d-told-you-when-this-started thing. Here goes:

If I’d told you when the National League Championship Series began that the 88-win Braves would be leading the 106-win Dodgers with Game 6 – and Game 7, if needed – set for Truist Park, would you have taken it?

Here’s where I answer for you: Yes, you would have.

On that other hand, if you were the Dodgers and you were trailing 3-1 in games and 2-0 after three batters in Game 5 and your sort-of-starting pitcher was walking off with a sore arm, would you have been delighted with a Game 6 anytime anywhere?

Again: Yes, you would have.

Understatement of the century: This has been a strange series. Starting pitching is supposed to be a big deal in October. Here’s how many of these five games have been won by starting pitchers – none. The Braves are 1-2 on nights when Max Fried and Charlie Morton started; they’re 1-0 when Jesse Chavez starts. The Dodgers are 1-1 in “bullpen” games. They’re 0-2 when Julio Urias, who just became the first 20-game winner in the majors since 2016, pitches as starter or reliever.

The series has seen Fried, Morton and Ian Anderson start four games. None has been especially effective. The series has also seen Urias, Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler start three games. None has been especially effective. The stars of this show have been Eddie Rosario and Chris Taylor, Tyler Matzek and Alex Vesia. The Dodgers have deployed 13 different pitchers a total of 35 times. (That’s seven per game.) The Braves have deployed 12 different pitchers a total of 27 times. (That’s 5.4 per game.)

Average game time has been three hours, 38 minutes, meaning the NLCS has assumed the glacial pace of an American League game. Rosario’s OPS is 1.609. Taylor’s is 1.776. Freddie Freeman’s slugging percentage after two games was .000; three games later, it’s 1.104. Games 1-3 were decided by a total of three runs, which is the minimum. Games 4 and 5 were decided by 16 runs. See a pattern? Me neither.

Both teams are thrilled they’re still playing. The Dodgers were supposed to win in five (or so) games. If not for the home run by Cody Bellinger on a pitch that would have been over Shaquille O’Neal’s head, L.A. would have been swept. The underdog Braves have led in every game, though they’ve been outscored by one run and outhit by one hit.

Reasons to like the Braves’ chances: They’re ahead, and they’re playing at home. Reasons to like the Dodgers’ chances: They haven’t been eliminated, and they’re the Dodgers. Generally speaking, the longer a series goes, the more apt the presumed better team is to prevail. After these five games, who knows anything? The Dodgers have won seven consecutive elimination games over the past two Octobers; four of those have come against the Braves. This will continue or it won’t.

Much has been made over the Dodgers having Scherzer for Game 6 and Buehler for a Game 7 on full rest. Scherzer said after being pulled in Game 2 that he had a dead arm. Buehler hasn’t quite been himself this postseason. And did we not mention that starting pitching has, in this series, been as much of a non-factor as starting pitching can be?

The Braves weren’t shocked by the loss of Game 5. They’ve come to know the Dodgers well. They saw that getting blown out in Game 4 allowed L.A. to rest its better relievers – Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol and Kenley Jansen – for Game 5. Those three worked a total of five innings Thursday, yielding one base runner.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves are accustomed to picking themselves up after being knocked down. From July 16, the first game after the All-Star break, through Aug. 3, the third game after the trade deadline, the Braves didn’t win or lose consecutive completed games. (The suspended game with San Diego was interspersed.) We took it as proof that this team was doomed to spend its season running in place. Then Alex Anthopoulos’ reinforcements showed up.

Having already declared these Braves the 2021 World Series champs, I’m not changing. But here’s a caveat: Much of postseason baseball is beyond human understanding. It used to be that we could dust off the Earl Weaver line and declare with some confidence that momentum in baseball is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. These are different times. Momentum now is the next inning’s reliever. And the next, and the next …