This Braves team feels different this time

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, left, and left fielder Eddie Rosario celebrate their 9-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com
Caption
Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, left, and left fielder Eddie Rosario celebrate their 9-2 win against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

LOS ANGELES — The Braves couldn’t get their record above break-even until early August. They ended up winning their fourth straight division title, but the National League Championship Series is another level. The Braves are up against the mighty Dodgers, who are deeper in every area and have owned them in L.A. The Braves don’t have their best hitter, Ronald Acuna, or last year’s team leader in postseason hits, Marcell Ozuna.

Yet the Braves are one victory away from their first World Series since 1999. They beat the Dodgers 9-2 in Game 4 on Wednesday night and lead the NLCS 3-1. The Braves will have up to three chances to clinch the series, with Game 5 on Thursday at Dodger Stadium and two weekend games at Truist Park if necessary.

ExploreAJC photos: The Braves roll in Game 4

Yes, the Braves were up 3-1 on the Dodgers in last year’s neutral-field NLCS and couldn’t finish. The Dodgers started a streak of six straight victories in elimination games that’s still going. This series isn’t over, but the rematch feels different. That’s not just because the Braves blew Game 3 at Dodger Stadium, where they hardly ever win, and came back to dominate the home team the next day.

The Braves have more pitching now. The 2021 Braves are deeper in hitters than last year’s team. And after four straight postseason appearances without making it to the World Series, the core players on this Braves team now are playoff regulars.

“I think we’re a more mature team,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We got a bunch of young guys that have been through these wars before and now they’re through them again and I think that bodes well for us.”

The Braves won their latest skirmish against the Dodgers with a so-called bullpen game. Six pitchers held the Dodgers to two runs and four hits, all singles. For Game 6 the Braves will send out lefty Max Fried, who had MLB’s best ERA after the All-Star break. They began Game 6 of the 2020 NLCS with reliever A.J. Minter.

The Braves have a longer lineup for this postseason. Acuna is an MVP-caliber player, but he didn’t hit much during the 2020 postseason. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos transformed the team by trading for four outfielders before the deadline. Those moves still are paying off in the postseason.

Joc Pederson hit a two-run homer off Max Scherzer in Game 2. Eddie Rosario and Adam Duvall hit back-to-back homers to put the Braves ahead for good in Game 4. Rosario also had another homer and a triple Wednesday. Duvall added a sacrifice fly, and Pederson delivered an RBI single.

Freddie Freeman drove in the other run with a solo homer off starter Julio Urias. That was more than enough cushion for the six Braves pitchers who took the mound. Snitker had to piece together pitching because right-hander Huascar Ynoa was scratched hours before the game with shoulder inflammation.

Said Freeman: “Bullpen games are, in my opinion, extremely hard to navigate, especially when you have a wrinkle thrown before the game even started. Just another obstacle for this team to overcome, like we’ve done all year.”

Caption
Braves relief pitcher Drew Smyly delivers to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the fourth inning. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves relief pitcher Drew Smyly delivers to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the fourth inning. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com
Caption
Braves relief pitcher Drew Smyly delivers to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the fourth inning. Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Snitker decided to open with right-hander Jesse Chavez. He hadn’t allowed an earned run in nine consecutive appearances (11 innings total). That streak included three games as the “opener” to end the regular season and four games out of the bullpen in the postseason.

Chavez gave the Braves one perfect inning, and lefty Drew Smyly followed with two more. Smyly walked Corey Seager with one out in the fourth before Trea Turner lined out and Will Smith struck out. When Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger his back-to-back singles off Smyly with one out in the fifth, Snitker called Chris Martin from the bullpen.

Martin retired Chris Taylor, but pinch hitter AJ Pollock followed with a two-run single. Now the crowd was revved up. Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts was up next with a runner on base. The Dodgers had a 5-2 deficit, same as the margin they overcame in in the eighth inning to win Game 3.

Martin quickly ended the drama by getting Betts to ground out to second baseman Ozzie Albies. The Dodgers went on to produce one base runner over the final four innings. The Braves beat them with a bullpen game.

The Dodgers countered with Urias. That should have been an advantage. Urias produced a 2.96 ERA in 32 starts during the regular season and held the Giants to a run over five innings in the Division Series. The Braves topped that run total in the second inning.

Rosario and Duvall’s back-to-back homers were the first in the postseason for the Braves since Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla did it Oct. 3, 2002, against the Giants. The Braves squandered a 5-2 lead in the eighth inning of Game 3 when Bellinger homered to tie the score, and Betts hit an RBI double to put the Dodgers ahead for good.

The quick-strike scores early in Game 4 were evidence that the Braves were over that loss.

“They turned the page,” Snitker said.

Smyly replaced Chavez for the second inning and retired the Dodgers in order. Duvall helped him by leaping to catch Gavin Lux’s fly ball at the center-field wall. Then Freeman led off the third inning with another homer off Urias. Rosario tripled with two outs, and Pederson scored him with a line drive that dropped in front of center fielder Lux.

Braves 9, Dodgers 2 (box score)

The Braves led 4-0. Dodgers fans seemed stunned. They probably expected their team to carry over the momentum from the dramatic Game 3 victory. They had to feel good about Urias vs. Braves relievers. If the Dodgers lose this series, the team’s supporters might blame manager Dave Roberts for spreading his pitching too thin.

Urias pitched four innings out of the bullpen Thursday against the Giants in the NLDS. Three days later he blew the save against the Braves. Three days after that, Urias started in Game 4. Roberts had to lean hard on Urias because he used eight relievers in Game 1, six in Game 2 and eight in Game 3.

That’s a lot of pitchers to use even for the Dodgers, who have several good ones. It’s why Urias hit in the third inning Wednesday with the Dodgers trailing 4-0. Roberts had little choice but to keep riding Urias even though the Braves were hitting him hard. Urias gave up five runs over five innings, with Duvall scoring Albies on a sacrifice fly in the fifth.

“Felt good physically,” Urias said via an interpreter. “I just have to give them credit for what they did today.”

The Braves piled on in the ninth with Freeman’s RBI single and Rosario’s three-run homer. They wouldn’t blow the 9-2 lead in the place they’ve long struggled to win. The Braves ended an eight-game losing streak at Dodger Stadium, including playoffs. They won here for only the second time in their past 13 games and fifth in 26.

Now the Braves are one win from the World Series. They’ve been in this situation before against the Dodgers and couldn’t finish, but this time, it feels different.

“I feel like we’re a pretty complete team,” Freeman said.

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