Ten outs from the World Series, the Braves trip and fall

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger (center) and Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Joc Pederson (31) celebrate with the team after their victory in Game 5 Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, for the best-of-seven National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Well, it wouldn’t have been a Braves October without an excruciating loss. The jarring 2020 installment arrived on a night when the Braves were 10 outs from the World Series. Their moment of triumph was put on abrupt hold when a pitcher named Will Smith sought to throw a 3-2 fastball past a batter named Will Smith, and the latter hoisted the delivery over the wall in left-center.

Because we’re Atlanta, every really bad thing has a grim antecedent. The Dodgers' version of Will Smith smacked the most galling three-run homer we around here have seen since – you know it already, don’t you? – Jim Leyritz in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. That Fall Classic remains the worst of all the Braves' postseason collapses. These Braves still have a chance (or two) to put things right.

The Dodgers won Game 5 of the NLCS 7-3 on Friday night, though it was almost Saturday morning Texas time before the indignity ended. The Braves had led 2-0 after two innings, and for a minute or so they led 3-0. Then a replay review ascertained that Marcell Ozuna had left third base a full second before Mookie Betts gloved Dansby Swanson’s sinking liner to right. A sac fly became the third out of the third inning.

By the time the Braves scored again, they trailed 7-2 and their first chance to clinch a World Series berth had passed. Their series lead was sliced to 3-2. They could and probably should still win this thing, but it’s always cringe-worthy when you get as close as the Braves were in Game 5 and wind up deferring your celebration until another night. Because who knows what tomorrow holds?

ExplorePhotos: Braves fall to Dodgers in Game 5

There’s really no other way to put this, so here goes: Until Betts triggered the delayed double play to take a run off the board, the Dodgers were looking for a place to collapse. A night after being bested by Bryse Wilson, who’d started seven big-league games, they were helpless against a pitcher who’d started no big-league games. The career reliever A.J. Minter, whose last start came in 2015 when he was a Texas A&M junior, was charged with trying to give the Braves an inning or two. He gave them three gorgeous ones.

“I had no idea he’d go that long,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That was remarkable, what he did.”

The Dodgers managed one hit off Minter. Seven of them struck out. The final five hitters to face him went: strikeout swinging, strikeout swinging, strikeout looking, strikeout looking and strikeout looking. At least Betts, the last batter to fail against Minter, could say he got fooled by a changeup. The two before him, Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor, had stared at fastballs. Had the proud Dodgers given up?

Answer: no. The first batter after the Braves' lead shrank from 3-0 to 2-0 was Corey Seager. He greeted Tyler Matzek, Minter’s replacement, with a home run to center. Cristian Pache came close to pulling it back, but not close enough.

The score held at 2-1 until the sixth. Betts legged out an infield single. One out later, Justin Turner bounced into an odd fielder’s choice, Betts being tagged out after getting caught between second and third. Shane Greene was pulled so Will Smith, lefty pitcher, could face Max Muncy, lefty hitter. Smith threw five sliders. Muncy took all five. The count full, Smith threw a fastball. It missed. Two on, two out. Up stepped … er, Will Smith.

The hitting Smith took the same course. He took the first five Smith pitches. Again he threw a fastball on 3-2. The hitting Smith dropped the head of his bat on it and changed the game.

Said Snitker of his Will Smith: “I have every confidence in him. It happens. It’s baseball. We’ll give him the ball maybe the same situation tomorrow.”

Suddenly in front, the Dodgers moved further ahead, albeit oddly. With two out in the seventh, plate umpire Dan Iassogna ruled that Jacob Webb’s pitch had struck Taylor’s hand. Replay proved it hadn’t. Taylor then drove a double into left field. Betts singled to right to make it 5-2. Seager homered yet again for two more. The night had gone south, not to mix geographic metaphors, in a New York minute.

This marked the first time in 10 playoff games the Braves had led without winning. That it came on what was shaping up to be a night of deliverance deepened the hurt. But there’s another game to be played, and it was scheduled to begin 15 hours after Game 5 ended.

Friday night was a bummer. If nothing else, though, the Braves had made it through the two bridge games – the ones requiring starts by Wilson and Minter – with a split. They still lead the series. They still have two chances to win once. And with Max Fried and Ian Anderson, both on full rest, available to start them, you still have to like those chances.

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