It was a sinker that didn’t sink. Blake Treinen’s 98-mph pitch left Austin Riley’s bat at 110 mph. It traveled 448 feet before smacking off the façade of the stands beyond the center-field fence. More hits and runs would follow, but this was the moment. The Braves had seized the lead in a National League Championship Series they aren’t supposed to win.
“Didn’t feel my legs running around the bases,” Riley said of the ninth-inning home run that won Game 1 of the NLCS. “Pretty good feeling.”
If the first eight innings hadn’t proved to the imperial Dodgers that they’re in for a fight, Riley’s mammoth blast hammered home the point. They were outscored 5-1. Their starting pitcher was outpitched. Their bullpen got out-bullpenned. They played their game and were beaten at it.
“Huge for us,” was Braves manager Brian Snitker’s postgame pronouncement, and so it was. The team that went 19 years without getting past Round 1 is 6-0 this postseason. It’s three wins from the World Series. We’ve grown accustomed to this club disappearing by Columbus Day, but darned if these guys don’t look as if they could keep this up until Christmas.
Freddie Freeman served early notice, launching Walker Buehler’s fifth pitch over the right-field wall. For the fifth time in six playoff games, the Braves wouldn’t trail. Max Fried lasted an inning longer than Buehler. The Braves' relievers again gave the opponent nothing – three innings this night, no hits, no walks. And then the thing that has happened so often these past three seasons happened again.
The Braves scored four runs in the ninth. Riley led off with a homer. Ronald Acuna doubled down the left-field line. Freeman moved him to third. Marcell Ozuna drove him home. Ozzie Albies removed all doubt, lifting a home run off Jake McGee that settled in Braves closer Mark Melancon’s glove. (He was warming in the bullpen.) All four hits in the ninth came after Braves hitters trailed 0-2 in the count.
Said Freeman: “You guys have been seeing us the past two, three years. We seem to have some magic in the ninth inning.”
Said Snitker: “We’re like an NBA game. You don’t want to leave – it comes down to the last third. (His players) keep doing their thing. It’s a pretty neat trait to have.”
Disclaimer time: This NLCS isn’t nearly over. These Dodgers lost one series this irregular season. They went 43-17 for a reason. But Game 1 showed this mighty team isn’t invulnerable. Big-hitting lefties Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger were helpless against the left-handed Fried, going 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. The Dodgers' run came when Fried showed a third consecutive curveball to eighth-place hitter Enrique Hernandez in the fifth. L.A. managed one base runner thereafter, its final 13 at-bats yielding nothing approaching a hit.
The Dodgers have reached the NLCS four times in five years. This is the Braves' first trip since 2001. And yet: On the field in Arlington, Texas, there seemed no difference between the sides. These were two good teams. The better team on the night prevailed. This series might well end up with the Dodgers winning, but it won’t because the Braves were overawed or overmatched.
Over the 60-game season, the Dodgers led the majors in scoring, but they outscored the Braves by one measly run. The loss of Adam Duvall to a tweaked oblique – he suffered it while swinging through a pitch in the second inning – will force the Braves to adjust what has been a stable batting order, but this team has many guys who can change the scoreboard. Said Freeman of Riley: “Pretty nice having a ninth-place hitter like that.”
Tuesday’s Game 2 is now essential for the Dodgers. Their starter was to Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation. The Dodgers just announced that Kershaw, because of back spasms, won’t go. They’ll turn to Tony Gonsolin, one of L.A.'s many hybrid starter/relievers. The Braves will counter with Ian Anderson, who has made, counting playoffs, eight career starts. He hasn’t yielded a run in October.
Don’t look now, but the Braves have a shining chance to go up 2-0, which nobody would have expected 24 hours ago. There’s no doubt they’re happier of the two teams. They’re playing without pressure. If they don’t win again this year, they’ve already won more playoff games than any Braves team since 1999. They’re having fun. In the latter innings Monday, the Dodgers seemed again to feel the weight of great expectations. If they don’t win the World Series, they’ll again have failed. Postseason baseball is a vicious animal.
Said Snitker: “You can’t replicate this. We hope we’re going to be playing playoff games for a long time. This is why you want to keep running those young guys out there.”
His young guys are unbeaten in postseason. They’ve outscored opponents 27-6. They can play a little, too. If the Dodgers didn’t know that before, they do now.