Braves grind before ‘inevitable’ late power flurry beats Dodgers

Max Fried was dominant in his first NLCS game as a Brave, allowing only one run with nine strikeouts in six innings.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Max Fried was dominant in his first NLCS game as a Brave, allowing only one run with nine strikeouts in six innings.

The Dodgers plan to run through the best Braves pitchers in the NLCS until they get to the lesser arms. That makes sense. The Braves are short on quality starters. The Dodgers are a power-hitting team that doesn’t strike out much. They can grind.

The Braves did it better in Game 1. They wore down Dodgers ace Walker Buehler until finally getting to the bullpen. Then the Braves kept stranding baserunners until finally blowing the game open in the ninth inning with their signature big bats.

Austin Riley’s lead-off homer in the ninth broke a tie. Ronald Acuna followed with a double and scored on Marcell Ozuna’s one-out single. Ozzie Albies hit a two-run homer with two outs. Those sudden and decisive blows sent the Braves to a 5-1 victory Monday night in Arlington, Texas.

This was the kind of victory the Braves can deliver. They can create big innings with their power. They regularly produce late comebacks. Their lineup is deep. No. 9 hitter Riley went deep off Blake Treinen, who’d given up one homer in 25-2/3 innings of the season and none in in eight during the postseason.

“We believe in every single guy,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Austin was the guy tonight.”

Freeman’s first-inning homer was the only run the Braves managed in the first eight innings. They stranded 10 baserunners. They couldn’t score on reliever Brusdar Graterol in the sixth after producing two baserunners with no outs. Ozuna’s lead-off double against Dustin May in the eighth went to waste when the Braves loaded the bases and couldn’t score.

Finally, Riley’s homer sent the Braves to their sixth postseason victory in as many chances. The Braves didn’t let young lefty Max Fried’s fine night go to waste. He saved their rotation when injuries decimated it during the season. After an off performance in his last start, Fried held the best lineup he’s seen this year to a run over six innings.

“All season long we needed to win Max’s start,” Freeman said. “It’s the same in the playoffs. When you have your No. 1 going you most likely have to win.”

Fried outshined Buehler and foiled the Dodgers' plan to make him throw a lot of pitches. The Dodgers will try the same against right-hander Ian Anderson in Game 2 and Kyle Wright in Game 3. The Braves' rotation is iffy after those three.

There are no off days during this series. Braves manager Brian Snitker may not always have his best relievers available. Using them a lot early in the series would complicate the use of so-called bullpen games after his top three starters take their turns.

But those potential scenarios seem less daunting after the Braves won the series opener. Their bullpen was perfect in Game 1. It was Dodgers relievers who wilted. After Treinen allowed the homer to Fried and the RBI single to Ozuna, Albies homered against lefty Jake McGee.

“This offense is so good, top to bottom, it’s hard to get through it,” Freeman said. “You knew it was kind of inevitable in that ninth inning.”

The Dodgers couldn’t keep up. Kike Hernandez homered against Fried in the fifth inning but, once Fried made it through six, the Dodgers had to face the back end of the Braves’ tough bullpen. The Dodgers couldn’t produce a base runner against Chris Martin, Will Smith and Mark Melancon.

There’s risk in the Dodgers’ plan to make the Braves throw a lot of pitches. They’ll regularly face unfavorable counts if Braves pitchers can throw strikes. Fried did that in Game 1. Dodgers hitters tried to be patient against Fried out of the gate but he was getting the better of them.

Their first two batters, Mookie Betts and Corey Seager, fell behind in the count before striking out. Fried got Betts looking with a fastball on the outside corner and made Seager swing for strike three on a looping curveball. Justin Turner hit Fried’s 17th pitch for a two-out single.

Fried walked the next batter, Max Muncy. He’d need 17 more pitches to get out of the inning. The Dodgers didn’t score but they had put their long-term plot in motion against Fried.

“After the second inning I was thinking if we get four innings out of him we’ll be lucky,” Snitker said.

Fried eventually became more economical with his pitches. He was throwing his big curveball for strikes. Fried’s fastballs had life. The Dodgers had to start swinging or they’d be trying to catch up to Fried all night.

Fried faced five batters in the second inning but needed just 17 pitches to finish it without allowing a run. Fried retired the next six Dodgers hitters in order. Their lead-off hitter in the fifth, Hernandez, pulled Fried’s hanging curveball over the left-field wall.

It was one of Fried’s few mistakes. He had his least effective start of the year in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Marlins. The Dodgers are much deeper in hitters than Miami. Fried held them to a run over six innings with nine strikeouts, four hits and a walk.

While Fried got more efficient, the Braves made Buehler work. That was key. Buehler has dealt with a blister on his throwing hand. He’d pitched just four innings in his past three starts, including two in the postseason. The 95 pitches Buehler threw against the Padres last week were his most of the year.

Braves third baseman Austin Riley (27) celebrates his solo home run with center fielder Ronald Acuna. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

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

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

Buehler’s pitch count was up to 38 after two innings against Braves. He ended up with 100 pitches over five-plus. The Braves produced baserunners against Buehler in every inning except the fifth, but only Freeman could tally.

The game was setting up for another Braves rally. They opened the playoffs by beating the Reds on Freeman’s RBI single in the 13th inning. They won the deciding Game 2 of that Wild Card Series with four runs in the eight. The Braves beat the Marlins in Game 1 of the NLDS after breaking a tie with six runs in the seventh inning.

This was the best Braves comeback of them all because it was against the favored Dodgers.

“You have been seeing us the last couple years in the seventh, eighth, ninth inning we seem to have some magic,” Freeman said. “It’s a tough lineup to navigate. ... That’s what’s so good about this team is even if we don’t (score) on those opportunities (early) we are going to get some more late.”

The Braves swept the Reds and Marlins because their pitching was so good. The Dodgers hit a lot more than those clubs and are deeper in pitching. But the Braves were better than the Dodgers in every way in Game 1. It took a while for their hitters show it. Once it finally happened, the Braves couldn’t be stopped.

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