This time, Dave Roberts got it right. It didn’t hurt that his Los Angeles Dodgers behaved like Dodgers when they absolutely had to in National League Championship Series Game Five, either.
Meaning they ironed up when they were down in the fourth inning, with eighteen outs between them and yet another winter full of recriminations.
All it took was someone reminding them there come times for the band to break into “Symphony for Shoestrings.” Someone like Mookie Betts in the third inning.
The Atlanta Braves didn’t have a Dodger managerial lapse through which to shove a tank yet. They’d scratched their first two runs out while their youthful opening pitcher, A.J. Minter, setting precedent by making his first major league start in a postseason game, struck out seven in his three innings including the side in the third.
“I surprised myself a little bit,” Minter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Coming into the game, I just wanted to set the tone, attack one guy at a time and not worry about pitch count. Just come out and be aggressive and get us off to a good start.”
He got them off to a very good start. What happened after he was lifted for Tyler Matzek to start the fourth wasn’t his fault. The Dodgers bumped, ground, and swung their way back to a 7-2 win while their own company of opener Dustin May and six further relievers made sure the Braves couldn’t even think of an overthrow.
Roberts managed his pitching just right all night long and neither pushed a panic button nor fell asleep at any switch. His Dodgers also ran, if you add as you should Betts’s staggering catch and double play in the third to stop a third Braves run. Just don’t ask Betts about it.
If you want him to tell you which moment changed the game in the Dodgers’ favour, it was first baseman Max Muncy hanging in to walk against Braves reliever Will Smith to set up first and second in the sixth—after Betts himself had his leadoff beat-it-out single turned into a one-out force eliminating him at second base—for Dodgers catcher Will Smith.
You read it right. Your eyes didn’t play tricks. Will Smith versus Will Smith. The first time namesakes faced each other in postseason play. The Braves’ Smith and the Dodgers’ Smith wrung their way to a full count, Smith not taking the bat off his shoulder once. Then, Dodger Smith swung on what some umps might have called ball four. And hit it about six or seven rows into the left field seats.
“Last night hurt,” Dodger Smith said post-game, referring to the late-enough Clayton Kershaw hook that opened the gates for the Atlanta tanks to barrel in. “We got back on the same page, a little motivation, I guess. We were coming out tonight hungry and ready to go.”
He didn’t deny that facing his namesake in the postseason was exciting. “I faced him once last year in the regular season,” he told MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, “but yeah, [this] was a big swing for us.”
“He battled his ass off the whole time,” said Friday night’s two-bomb Dodger shortstop Corey Seager of his and their Smith.
“He put together a really good AB, took some really tough pitches, then put a good swing on a pitch inside and got the head to it and clipped me,” said the Braves’ Smith post-game. “Oh, well.”
“Oh, well” isn’t going to work when the two combatants square off for Game Six. The Braves still have the 3-2 NLCS lead but they’ve been reminded these Dodgers aren’t exactly pushovers just yet. Not even if the Game Six pitching match to begin will be Max Fried against Walker Buehler. The Braves won’t just take for granted that there’s yet another too-classic postseason Dodger dissipation on the horizon.
Sure the Smith smash overthrew what was then a 2-1 Braves lead for keeps, so sure it was one game changer. But Betts doesn’t give himself enough credit. He only stopped any momentum the Braves might have had left for the night three innings earlier with his legs, his glove, and his arm.
He ran in when Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson with second and third and two outs hit a soft sinking liner to shallow right and caught it on the shoestring, firing home in a bid to bag Marcell Ozuna at the plate. Ozuna slid across the plate just as the throw reached Dodger Smith—but oops! Dodger bench coach Bob Geren called for a review. He’d seen Ozuna tag a hair too soon as Swanson’s sinker hit the web of Betts’s glove.
Side retired. Inning-ending double play. “If you’re talking about momentum shifts,” Roberts said post-game, “that’s the play of the year for me. I just thought there was no way he’d make that play. He’s just kind of the straw that stirs us.”
“A big play like that, a big moment, changes everything for you,” Seager said. “You go into the dugout with some energy, you scratch some runs and the whole thing changes.”
Betts isn’t buying it. So far as he’s concerned, it’s everyone with a job to do and he’s just one of the crew. “Our backs are against the wall,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck, and we’re showing emotion and helping each other out.”
Seager didn’t waste any time leading off the bottom of the third against Matzek. He caught hold of a 2-1 fastball and drove it over the center field fence to cut that early, scratchy 2-0 Braves lead in half in the first place. Four innings later, after struggling Chris Taylor doubled with two outs and Betts promptly singled him home against Braves reliever Jacob Webb, Seager turned on the first pitch and yanked it into the right field seats.
“That guy is something else,” marveled Braves manager Brian Snitker. “He’s one of those guys who never gives an at-bat away. It’s very impressive. He’s a dangerous, impressive hitter.”
By the time youthful Braves outfielder Cristian Parche robbed Muncy blind of an eighth-inning home run, it was too little, too late for the Braves in Game Five. Even the much-maligned Dodger bullpen held fort when they absolutely had to hold it. Right down to much-embattled closer Kenley Jansen handed that four-run lead for the ninth and striking out the side to finish.
Sometimes it takes just one gig with a little extra oxygen to hit the reset button the right way. Doesn’t it?
Most eyes will be upon San Diego Saturday night, where the Tampa Bay Rays will learn once and for all whether they can hold the Houston Astros off to go to the World Series or the Astros will finish what they’ve started, becoming the Show’s second team ever to win a pennant after being down 3-0 in their LCS.
NLCS Game Six may seem like a modest afternoon opening matinee by comparison. But the Dodgers and the Braves have no intention of playing it that way.