Unlike other Braves’ losses, this was defeat with honor

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves manager Brian Snitker praises rookie starter Ian Anderson for his resilience and poise in Game 7 of NLCS.

They’ll be known as the team that pushed the lordly Dodgers to the brink of the elimination but didn’t deliver the shove that sent them over the edge. They’ll be known for not winning an NLCS they led 3-1. They’ll be known as yet another Atlanta team that couldn’t close a deal in Texas.

And here’s where I say: Ahem. This was not 28-3. This was not the unfielded onside kick. This was a fairly epic seven-game series between two excellent teams. Someone had to lose. That someone was the Braves, who fell to the Dodgers 4-3 on Sunday night in a careening Game 7.

This was a mighty effort that fell one run short. The Braves led Game 7 early and didn’t trail until there were two out in the seventh. In the end, they were bested by a slightly deeper team that turned Sunday’s game over to Julio Urias, who closed the show by retiring all nine Braves he faced. In a series that exhausted almost all available arms, Urias was the shining exception.

Said Braves manager Brian Snitker: “You don’t lose your entire starting rotation and get within a game of the World Series. This was nothing to hang our head about. This was an unbelievable run.”

Said Freddie Freeman: “We were there to the very last out in this game. We heard all year that the Dodgers were the best team. We gave them a little heart murmur. We gave them all they could handle.”

More than a few folks were surprised that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts chose Dustin May over Arias as his Game 7 opener. May had been similarly deployed in Friday’s Game 5, and he yielded a run in each of his two innings. Two nights later, May immediately set his team in arrears. He walked Ronald Acuna and Freeman on eight pitches. Marcell Ozuna drove May’s 10th pitch, a curve, into center field. Three batters in, the Braves led 1-0.

May was gone after an inning. Dansby Swanson greeted Tony Gonsolin in the second by crushing the right-hander’s third pitch, a slider, 434 to left-center. Six batters in, the Braves led 2-0.

Ian Anderson didn’t yield a run in his first three postseason starts. He wasn’t nearly the same in Game 7. He was touched for six hits, two walks and two runs over his three innings, the Dodgers tying the score on Will Smith’s two-run, two-out single in the third.

The Braves nosed back in front in the fourth. Gonsolin walked Ozzie Albies and Swanson to open the inning — most every pitcher seemed weary in Game 7, and little wonder, given the stress and length of this series — and Austin Riley, after falling behind 0-2, lined an RBI single into center field.

So: One run in, two men aboard, nobody out. Big inning upcoming, right? Nope. Nick Markakis grounded into as weird a fielder’s choice double play as you’ll see. On third, Swanson broke for the plate on contact. The was the first of two bad moves.

Swanson was tagged by a diving Justin Turner, who popped up and threw to Corey Seager, who was covering third and who tagged the onrushing Riley. Score it 5-2-5-6. The Braves ran themselves out of their big inning.

Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) is out at third base after the tag by Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager following a rundown during the fourth inning  Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

By now the game had become the all-in bullpen affair we’d figured. Mookie Betts rose above the right-field wall to haul down what would have been a Freeman home run off Blake Treinen in the fifth. Come the sixth, the Braves turned to A.J. Minter, the career reliever who’d struck out seven as a starter in three Game 5 innings. Two nights later, Minter reappeared and had nothing.

He immediately fell into a protracted battle with Enrique Hernandez. The pinch hitter fouled off three 2-2 pitches — fastball, cutter, curveball. Minter returned to his fastball. Hernandez sent this one flying 424 feet over the wall in left center. Tied at 3.

Minter was lucky to hold it there. Chris Taylor doubled. He advanced to third on Betts' flyball. Up stepped Corey Seager, owner of five homers this series. He sent a grounder caroming high the pitcher’s mound. Albies grabbed it and threw out Taylor at the plate. Still tied.

Into the seventh. The Braves hadn’t had a hit since Riley’s fourth-inning single. Chris Martin, who replaced Minter, had cooled the Dodgers' jets, striking out Max Muncy and Smith to start the seventh. Next was Cody Bellinger, who was 4-for-25 in the NLCS with nine strikeouts. He also fouled off three 2-2 pitchers — sinker, cutter, cutter. Then came a sinker that stayed belly-button-high. It landed in the right-field seats.

For the first time this long night, the Dodgers led. The Braves, who’ve made a living off late-inning lightning, had nothing left this time. They managed one baserunner over the final five innings, that on a walk. In the end, the Dodgers were just a bit better. They got a big swing from a former National League MVP and a lockdown effort from one of their many splendid pitchers. They were deserved winners.

Which technically makes the Braves losers, which seems a harsh description of a team that won a third consecutive NL East title and, for the the first time since 2001, a playoff series. Then they won another. They positioned themselves to make the World Series, a place they hadn’t been since 1999. They were tied with baseball’s best team after six games and 6-1/2 innings, and then they lost.

Said Freeman: “There’s a lot of positives to take from this … We changed the narrative for sure that’s gone on the last 19 years here.”

A lost series? In the end, yes. But a losing effort? Not this time. These 2020 Braves did us proud.