Ugly loss ‘counts as one game’ but will it linger for Braves in NLCS?

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson discusses the team's ability to "flush" 11-run first inning and Game 3 loss in NLCS to Los Angeles Dodgers.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

This wasn’t a recurring nightmare for the Braves. Yes, the numbers say their 15-3 loss to the Dodgers on Wednesday night in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series objectively was worse than their Game 5 loss to the Cardinals the 2019 NL Division Series. But the Cardinals sent the Braves home. The Braves still are in control of the NLCS.

“At the end of the day it counts as one game, right?” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson said.

That’s true so long as there are no lingering effects. Those could include rediscovered vigor for Dodgers hitters and doubts among the Braves about whether they have enough pitching to win this series. The Braves lead the best-of-seven series 2-1, but the way they lost Game 3 and the potential ramifications make it seem like much more.

Now the Dodgers plan to start Clayton Kershaw, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, in Game 4 on Thursday. The Braves will hope for an effective start from rookie Bryse Wilson. The Dodgers are on the come. The Braves must try to regroup.

The Braves had a relatively easy time while winning their first seven postseason games. That ended after 32 minutes Wednesday. That’s all the time the Dodgers needed to bury the Braves with an unprecedented offensive assault.

ExplorePhotos from the Braves' Game 3 loss

The Dodgers scored 11 runs in the first inning. That’s a postseason record for runs in any inning. The Cardinals tied the previous record with 10 runs against the Braves in the opening frame of their NLDS Game 5 last year.

The Dodgers had three home runs, five extra-base hits and 18 total bases in the inning. All those numbers tied MLB postseason records. Max Muncy hit a grand slam. His four RBIs in one inning tied another MLB playoffs record.

Braves starter Kyle Wright gave up two homers and seven earned runs. He was finished after recording only two outs. Left-hander Grant Dayton spelled Wright and gave up the grand slam to Muncy. The Dodgers tallied four more runs and two more homers against Dayton over the next two innings.

With the Braves down 15-1, manager Brian Snitker’s focus quickly shifted from winning the game to saving his regulars.

Snitker unofficially surrendered when he subbed out first baseman Freddie Freeman and catcher Travis d’Arnaud for the fourth inning. Ronald Acuna took a seat later. This one was so bad that not even the big-hitting Braves had a chance to come back.

At least Snitker should have all his top relievers available for Game 4. Huascar Ynoa helped out by following Dayton with four scoreless innings.

“Quite honestly, we are in better shape if we had grinded out a 7-5 loss,” Snitker said. “These last four hours weren’t a lot of fun, but looking back, if we have to lose the game this is probably the best possible way.”

Braves third baseman Johan Camargo (left) avoids collision with left fielder Austin Riley as he makes a catch to get out Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Joc Pederson during the sixth inning Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

The Braves had little choice but to try to find some good in the bad loss. But now the Dodgers have a chance to regain control of the series with their pitching depth. Game 1 starter Walker Buehler was just OK and Tony Gonsolin didn’t make it through five innings in Game 2. Jose Urias gave up just one run over five innings Wednesday, and now Kershaw is on deck.

He’s a three-time winner of the NL Cy Young Award. If Kershaw is feeling right, he likely will make it tough on Braves hitters to generate much offense. Kershaw had a 2.16 ERA over 10 starts this season, with 62 strikeouts and eight walks over 58-1/3 innings.

Kershaw has had some uneven postseason results in recent years. This year he’s allowed three runs over 14 innings with 19 strikeouts and one walk, though he did surrender two home runs in six innings to the Padres in Game 2 of the NLDS. It was a blow to the Dodgers when Kershaw couldn’t start Game 2. It’s a good situation for them if he’s able to pitch with a chance to even the series.

Give the Dodgers credit. They’ve flopped as heavy favorites in recent postseasons and the Braves put pressure on them by winning the first two games. The Dodgers responded by making quick work of the Braves in Game 3.

The Dodgers said their late rally in Game 2 would carry over. After doing little against Max Fried and Ian Anderson, they said they planned to score more against lesser Braves starters. The Dodgers backed up their talk. They scored seven runs over the final three innings of Game 2 then kept the momentum going at Wright’s expense.

Wright was great against the Marlins in the deciding Game 3 of the NLDS. The Dodgers aren’t the Marlins. Their lineup is filled top to bottom with star sluggers and good hitters. Nearly all of them got a piece of Wright.

The big first inning may not have happened if Mookie Betts needed a tick longer to get to first base. Betts, the leadoff man, hit Wright’s first pitch on the ground to third baseman Johan Camargo. Camargo’s throw arrived in first baseman Freddie Freeman’s mitt at about the same time as Betts touched the bag.

Umpire Dan Iassogna ruled Betts out. The Dodgers challenged the call, and replay review officials overruled it. The next batter, Corey Seager, doubled to score Betts. Wright got Justin Turner and Muncy to ground out, but those were the only outs he recorded in 28 pitches.

“That call gets overturned, then (Wright) was one out away from getting back to his rhythm and flow and it just didn’t happen,” Swanson said.

This was reminiscent of the Braves' first inning against the Cardinals in that Game 5 last year. Starter Mike Foltynewicz was charged with six runs. Fried gave up four. An error by Freeman opened the door. The difference was that, unlike the Dodgers, the Cardinals did big damage in the inning without hitting a home run.

The Braves won the NL East again in this truncated season. They returned to the postseason as a better ballclub. They proved it by sweeping the Reds in two games, the Marlins in three and taking the first two against the Dodgers. Their weakness, starting pitching, proved to be a strength when Fried, Anderson and Wright all had strong outings during that streak.

The good pitching ended with Wright’s career-worse outing. The Braves' Game 4 starter, Wilson, has a thin resume. There are no off-days during this NLCS, so if Fried starts Game 5 he’d be doing so on three days' rest instead of the usual four. Snitker said the decision on Fried depends on how Game 4 goes.

The pressure is on Wilson to go long. Doing so would allow Snitker to avoid using all his best relievers to cover multiple innings. He could then use them in Game 5 to patch together a so-called bullpen game or cover multiple innings following Fried if he starts.

Wilson still is considered a rookie after pitching only 42-2/3 innings over the past three seasons. Like Anderson, Wilson will be making his postseason debut. Unlike Anderson, Wilson has only one effective start of more than six innings on his resume. The Braves are in trouble if he wilts in the spotlight as Wright did.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has a lot of good options. Snitker’s starting pitching choices aren’t strong beyond Fried and Anderson. The Braves are still leading the series. The question is whether the effects of the ugly Game 3 loss will linger beyond Wednesday.

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