Right calls, bad results for Snitker in Braves bullpen game

Atlanta Braves center fielder Cristian Pache catches a long drive by the Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy in the eighth inning in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Braves manager Brian Snitker rightly decided to save Max Fried for a Game 6 start in the National League Championship Series, if necessary. It will be necessary. The Braves tried to clinch the best-of-seven series by deploying a series of relief pitchers in Game 5 Friday night. It just didn’t work.

The Dodgers avoided elimination with a 7-3 victory. But the Braves were set up for Game 6 when right-hander Bryse Wilson dominated the Dodgers on Thursday. Now No. 1 starter Max Fried will pitch on regular rest Saturday with a chance to send the Braves to the World Series.

“In this situation this is the guy we want pitching Game 6 for us,” Snitker said. “Absolutely.”

Snitker ended up using six pitchers from his bullpen in Game 5. He didn’t have much choice. The Braves don’t have a fifth starter. Starting Fried on short rest would have been risky given the history of pitcher performance in that circumstance.

Better for Snitker to rely on a deep bullpen full of veterans rather than send out his young starter in a potentially disadvantageous situation. For a while it appeared the Braves might win with that strategy.

A.J. Minter opened and was great. Tyler Matzek followed Minter and allowed a solo homer and nothing more. The Braves led 2-0 after three innings (Marcell Ozuna’s baserunning blunder cost them a prime chance in the third). The Dodgers cut the deficit to one on Corey Seager’s home run against Matzek to begin the fourth.

They took the lead for good in the sixth on catcher Will Smith’s three-run homer against Braves reliever Will Smith. The Dodgers poured it on by scoring three runs against Jacob Webb with two outs in the seventh.

The Braves signed Smith in December for $40 million so they can use him in moments like this. He had a career-worst season after testing positive for COVID-19 in July. Home runs were his main issue. But Smith had better results in September and had allowed one run in six postseason appearances (5-2/3 innings).

Smith is accustomed to pitching in pressure situations. Dodgers catcher Smith just got the best of him. He took five pitches without swinging for a full count before pulling Smith’s low fastball out to left field.

“I’ve got every confidence in him,” Snitker said of Braves pitcher Smith. “He has been so good and he’s so reliable. He wants the ball. It happens. It’s baseball. We will give him the ball probably in the same situation tomorrow.”

The Braves were still were within striking distance until the Dodgers got to Webb. He didn’t allow an earned run in eight games (10 innings) this season and two previous postseason appearances. That changed when Seager homered again after Chris Taylor doubled and Betts singled with two outs.

Credit the Dodgers for scoring runs against relief pitchers who don’t surrender many. Four of six Braves pitchers were charged with a run or more. With one exception, Dodgers hitters got just one crack at each of them and they eventually broke through.

Snitker decided to open the game with Minter. He’s one of several good pitchers in the bullpen. Snitker reasoned that Minter was among the freshest.

“I don’t know that there was a right or wrong answer in doing this,” Snitker said before the game. “We knew it was a bullpen game. Everybody is available. We will let the game dictate, but we will go over scenarios before we start and have a tentative plan and then see where the game takes us.”

Minter pitched three scoreless innings with one hit and seven strikeouts. It wasn’t a shocking result because Minter is a swing-and-miss pitcher with two fastball variations that move a lot. But he’d never pitched more than 1-1/3 innings in 14 games as a professional (postseason included).

Minter was so good in Game 5 that he only faced one sticky moment. Justin Turner hit a two-out double with the bases empty in the first inning. Minter stuck out Max Muncy to end the inning. Five of the next Dodgers batters struck out.

“It was hard to take him out,” Snitker said. “He was really efficient. He emptied the tank that last inning.”

Matzek replaced Minter for the fourth and gave up the lead-off homer to Seager. Maztek didn’t allow a homer to the 38 right-handed batters he faced this season. Centerfielder Cristian Pache nearly snagged Seager’s shot as it cleared the wall.

Matzek retired the next four batters and gave way to Shane Greene with one out in the fifth. Greene gave up a one-out single to AJ Pollock but got Joc Pederson and Chris Taylor to hit into force outs. Mookie Betts singled to begin the sixth inning and stole second. He got caught in a rundown on Justin Turner’s grounder.

In came Braves lefty Will Smith to ace lefty hitter Muncy. Smith walked Muncy before L.A.'s Smith homered. The Dodgers went on to win and keep their season alive.

Now the Braves will try to clinch again with Fried in Game 6. They’ll also will have closer Mark Melancon and Chris Martin available after they didn’t pitch in Game 5. If the Braves don’t win Saturday, Ian Anderson is in line to start Game 7 on Sunday.

Fried held the Dodgers to a run over six innings in Game 1 with nine strikeouts and two walks. Fried found the breaking ball command that abandoned him in his previous start. How will he approach the rematch?

“Just more of the same,” Fried said. “Not trying to overdo too much. Not try to overthink. I know this this team is hungry and I have my work cut out for me but overall it’s going to be a good battle.”

No matter how this series ends, the Braves know their rotation has tremendous potential. They’ve pitched well in the playoffs without ace Mike Soroka, who was lost to injury in his third start. It’s possible they wouldn’t have won the NL East in a 162-game season with their collapsed rotation. But they did it over 60 games and all the young pitchers came alive in the playoffs.

Kyle Wright’s poor Game 4 performance was the outlier. Fried, Anderson, Wright and Wilson have combined to make nine starts in these playoffs. Seven of those starts were effective. Four of them were at least six innings with no runs allowed.

Fried, 26, is the oldest among the starters. Wright is 25. Anderson and Wilson are 22. Veteran reliever Martin has marveled at how the young pitchers have responded to high-pressure situations so early in their careers.

“Honestly, I have no idea (how they do it),” Martin said before Game 5. "The Braves are doing a good job of finding these guys. I’ve been very impressed with these guys coming up. I know I wasn’t that way.

“They aren’t fazed, they are confident in what they can do and they go out there and show it.”

Fried will get another chance in the NLCS after the Braves' bullpen game didn’t work out.

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