Just like last year, the Braves lead the Dodgers 2-0 in the National League Championship Series. But there’s a chance — a very good chance — this year is not like last year. These Braves look much less likely to waste a lead. As for the regal Dodgers … well, they just blew a lead. They aren’t the team they were a year ago.
Eddie Rosario, of whom few Atlantans had heard before the Braves added him at the trade deadline, had four hits in Sunday’s Game 2, the last coming off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and going unfielded by shortstop Corey Seager. It was scored a game-winning single, but on another night Seager makes that play. He didn’t this time. For the second consecutive night, the Braves won on a ninth-inning walk-off hit.
Said Rosario: “When I saw Seager in the middle, I went ‘oh.’ But he missed the ball.”
Without Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna, the Braves aren’t the team they were a year ago, either. Somehow they’re better. They believe they’re as good as the Dodgers. They might well be right. They trailed 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth. They won 5-4. They held the Dodgers to four hits on a night when the Braves’ starter lasted three innings.
Freddie Freeman doesn’t have a hit in the series, having struck out seven times. His team leads 2-0. Said Joc Pederson, the improbable catalyst: “When we’re all pulling on the same string, things happen. No person feels like it’s on his shoulders to have to get the job done. It’s a different guy every night.”
Braves 5, Dodgers 4 (box score)
Max Scherzer is among the best pitchers of this century, but the Braves have seen him a lot — he spent 6-2/3 seasons with Washington of the National League East — and his ERA over 27 games against Atlanta was 3.88. That’s not anywhere near awful, but it’s not Scherzer-like. His career ERA: 3.16. The Braves knew Sunday wouldn’t be an easy night. They also knew they weren’t apt to see anything they hadn’t seen a dozen times already.
Ian Anderson didn’t have it Sunday. It happens to everybody. It’s the first time it has happened to him over two postseasons. (Remember, he started Game 7 against the Dodgers last October.) He fought his changeup, his money pitch. He did well to get through three innings. L.A. generated six baserunners, three on walks.
Mookie Betts led off with a blooper Dansby Swanson couldn’t snare. Corey Seager slugged the next pitch, a curve, over the fence in right-center. The thought occurred that the Dodgers were miffed at losing Game 1, but here again we cite pesky facts: These teams have played nine postseason games over 13 months; the Braves have won five. They aren’t Vanderbilt — though Swanson is an alum — to L.A.’s Alabama.
We also wonder if, like the contemporary Alabama, these Dodgers aren’t a lesser version of themselves. They’re missing Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer and Max Muncy. Justin Turner didn’t start Game 2, having developed a stiff neck. After opening Game 2 with a single and a home run, the Dodgers managed two hits over the next eight innings, one against the Braves’ seven relievers. By the bottom of the fifth, L.A.’s lead was gone. So was Scherzer.
Austin Riley drew a walk, Scherzer’s one and only, in the fourth. Up stepped the man who has touched off a run on second-hand stores, everyone scrounging for a strand of pearls, or facsimiles thereof, to wear to the ballpark. The man himself believes we in the media have made too much of his fashion sense. Having worked previously near Hollywood, Pederson knows full well there’s no such thing as a story we can’t overblow.
The drive Pederson launched off Scherzer cannot be understated. The wearer of pearls turned on a curveball that hung just enough for him to drive it 451 miles. (OK, 451 feet. Still, this was crushed.) “Got the boys back in it,” Pederson said, and that’s the thing: These Braves are never not in it.
Said manager Brian Snitker: “If you leave early, you’ll hear it on your car radio and miss the best part of the game. These guys play a tough 27 (outs).”
In the fifth, Scherzer threw two fastballs to Swanson, the second of which was scorched up the middle for a single. Those four-seamers were clocked at under 93 mph. When the night began, Scherzer was topping 94 mph. Manager Dave Roberts lifted the famous pitcher in the fifth, Scherzer having needed 79 pitches to record 10 outs.
Snitker pulled Anderson after three innings. TBS cameras caught the manager speaking at length to his pitcher, Snitker having seen what everyone else saw. Anderson’s grit kept a game that started poorly from going way wrong, but Anderson’s grit wouldn’t be enough for the Braves to win. They needed another banner effort from their bullpen. They got it.
Said Snitker: “We planned for everything but a short start, and it still worked out.”
Tyler Matzek entered with two out in the sixth and Chris Taylor on third base. Jacob Webb had opened the inning by walking Taylor, but he induced Cody Bellinger to fly out and AJ Pollock to whiff. Matzek struck out Albert Pujols to hold the tie, making one of the sport’s all-time greats look feeble.
The seventh began with Betts walking and stealing second. Matzek fanned Seager and Trea Turner. Snitker summoned Luke Jackson to face Justin Turner, pressed into pinch-hitting duty. Jackson plunked J. Turner with a slider, loading the bases. Taylor drove a four-seamer clocked at 96.9 mph into center field. Guillermo Heredia, who’d just entered as half of a double switch, couldn’t glove it.
Two runs scored. For a moment, it appeared more would, the ball having skipped past Heredia. That the ball died, forcing J. Turner to hold at third, proved monumental. The Braves tied it in the eighth off Julio Urias, who last year closed Game 7 of the NLCS and who won 20 games as a starter this season. Rosario singled against the shift, moving to second on Freeman’s fly ball. Rosario scored on Ozzie Albies’ single, also against the shift.
“I did a really good job on the slide,” Rosario said, and he did. But Steven Souza, inserted into right field after striking out as a pinch-hitter, made a lousy throw. Sense a theme? The Braves are making plays. The Dodgers aren’t.
Albies scored on Riley’s double to left-center. Tied again. Trea Turner led off the ninth by hitting a fly ball off Will Smith that Rosario caught at the wall. Smith struck out the next two Dodgers, his namesake included. Last October, the NLCS turned on the Game 5 homer by L.A.’s Will Smith off Atlanta’s. This time the bearded Will had his way.
Bottom of the ninth. Travis d’Arnaud broke his bat but singled up the middle off Brusdar Graterol. Swanson put down a poor bunt that led to pinch-runner Cristian Pache being thrown out at second. Heredia grounded to third, pushing Swanson to second with two out. Jansen entered and threw one pitch. Rosario smacked it at, and past, Seager.
Six nights earlier, the chants at Truist Park were “Fred-die!” This time Braves fans dropped the “Fr.” They had yet another new hero. This team is headed west knowing it can’t lose the series in L.A. I’m thinking this team won’t lose it anywhere.