Riley hits. Albies runs. The Braves grab Game 1 in a walk-off

Braves players celebrate with third baseman Austin Riley after winning Game 1.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Braves players celebrate with third baseman Austin Riley after winning Game 1. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

The 2021 National League Championship Series came to Cobb County and served up an autumn delight. Lots of people pitched. A few people hit. Game 1 ended with Austin Riley swinging and Ozzie Albies flying around third base and coming home with the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

Braves 3, Dodgers 2. That is, you’d have to say, one heck of an opening act.

The Braves aren’t supposed to take this series, same as they weren’t supposed to win the 2020 NLCS, in which they led 3-1 but stumbled at the final hurdle. The only team doing the stumbling this night was the lordly Dodgers, who saw a misstep by Chris Taylor undo them. The Braves, not ones to look a gift horse in the mouth, needed only a few minutes to send everybody home.

Said Braves manager Brian Sntiker: “It shows how these guys are growing and maturing. The moment isn’t too big for them because they’ve played in it.”

The Braves won on a night when they were outhit 10-6; when they struck out 14 times against eight pitchers; when they drew no walks; when Freddie Freeman, whose previous at-bat at Truist Park was a triumphant home run, struck out four times. They won anyway. They’re getting really good at winning anyway.

The Dodgers announced this would be a “bullpen game.” Label that truth in advertising. Right-hander Corey Knebel started, yielded a first-inning run – Eddie Rosario singled, stole second, moved to third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch – and was seen no more. Knebel was replaced by righty Phil Bickford, who struck out two in a 1-2-3 second, struck out Dansby Swanson to open the third and was himself removed.

Lefty Justin Bruihl entered and struck out Max Fried. (That’s correct. The Dodgers changed pitchers to pitch to a pitcher.) Bruihl got through the third, struck out Freddie Freeman to begin the fourth and … well, you guessed it.

Enter righty Tony Gonsolin, whom manager Dave Roberts seemed to indicate was the key man in this pitching turnstile. Gonsolin’s lavish mustache is reminiscent of Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. This reliever’s arrival sounded a discordant note. Albies lifted a fly ball to right. That marked the first time since Rosario’s leadoff single that a Brave had hit a ball out of the infield. The next man up, Riley, smacked a fastball over the left-field fence to tie matters at 2-2.

Fried had been nigh-unhittable over six innings in Milwaukee seven days earlier. He was hittable this night. The Dodgers managed at least one base runner in each of Fried’s six innings. That’s if you count Dodgers catcher Will Smith, who drove an 0-2 fastball over the wall in left to give L.A. a 2-1 lead in the fourth, as a base runner. (Technically, he did run around the bases.)

The pitch Smith hit was measured at 93.4 mph, which isn’t top Fried speed. The best pitchers, though, can work through an off-night without leaving their team in the lurch. That’s what Fried did. He threw more sliders. He escaped the sixth, his final inning, by leaving Justin Turner stranded at second. Fried induced Albert Pujols to pop out to pitcher – Fried enjoys fielding his position – and then watched in admiration as Albies snagged AJ Pollock’s liner.

Fried handed a tie game to his bullpen. This wasn’t vintage Fried, but in its scuffling way it was almost as impressive. He did his job. Tyler Matzek took the ball and worked the usual Tyler Matzek inning. He fell into immediate duress. Chris Taylor opened with a bloop double and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt. (Wait a second. Don’t analytic-driven teams eschew the bunt?) Mookie Betts popped to Freeman. Trea Turner struck out on a staple Matzek slider. Still tied.

Now it was bullpen against bullpen, though the Dodgers had run through six pitchers over seven innings. We can’t say the tactic hadn’t been effective: The Braves had managed two runs and four hits while striking out 12 times against the sextet. Kenley Jensen, nominally their closer, took his turn in the eighth. He worked a clean inning.

The Braves’ Will Smith entered in the ninth. He didn’t work a clean inning, but he emerged unscathed. Taylor walked on a 3-2 pitch with two out. Cody Bellinger ripped a single into right field. Taylor overran second, tried to stop, fell and became the kind of third out nobody should make with two out in the ninth of a tied October game. Joc Peterson threw to Swanson, who threw to Riley, who threw to Swanson, who tagged out Taylor. Whoa, Nellie.

Dodgers center fielder Chris Taylor, right, gets caught in a run down by the Braves during the ninth inning.  Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Said Snitker: “A huge, huge out.”

And then it was over. Albies lofted a polite single that dropped over Cory Seager and in front of Taylor. Albies stole second. Riley pulled a Blake Treinen slider down the left-field line. Albies scored. The Braves had out-bullpenned the bullpenning Dodgers.

For the second year running, they took a 1-0 NLCS lead over the team everybody expects to win the World Series. For the second year running, Riley delivered the winning hit in Game 1 off Treinen. Last year it was a home run in the ninth. This year it was a simple single.

Said Albies of the burgeoning third baseman: “He’s the big boss.”

Said Snitker: “You can see his confidence. He has really taken the next step forward.”

Yes, it’s only one game. But with Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias set to work Games 2-4, this would have been a rough one to lose, especially at home. The Braves didn’t lose. They won on a walk-off. They won on a night when the Dodgers, who supposedly think of everything, made their 27th out in the silliest of ways.

Remember how, all summer, we kept saying, “This isn’t the Braves’ year”? Keep this between us, but I’m starting to think it is.

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