The bullet bites the Dodgers

Corey Seager

Seager couldn’t stop the unstoppable smash hit in the bottom of the ninth.

It didn’t cost anyone a World Series they were one strike away from winning. It didn’t cost anyone a pennant. It was only Game Two of the National League Championship Series, and one team has a 2-0 disadvantage that actually can be overcome and overthrown in a best-of-seven set.

Corey Seager’s inability to stop Eddie Rosario’s two-out smash up the pipe in the bottom of the ninth Sunday night, and thus stop Dansby Swanson from scoring the winning Braves run, stands to be a candidate for the worst individual moment in Dodger postseason history. Unless the Dodgers can perform that overthrow.

How many years have you mused how readily one player can go from hero to goat in the same game—if not the same inning? But how often does it happen in a game—and a set so far—in which his team seems to see men in scoring position as allergies above opportunities?

Twice on Sunday, Seager played the hero, once in the top of the first and once in the bottom of the ninth. Within minutes of the second play, he stood shriven and the Dodgers stood halfway toward the end of their season, and all he’d been asked to do in that harrowing moment, in effect, was to try what amounted to catching a speeding bullet with his teeth.

Seager opened the Dodger scoring in the top of the first with Mookie Betts aboard on a jam-shot pop single to shallow left. He turned on Braves starter Ian Anderson’s first service and hammered it over the right center field wall. In two blinks he put Anderson and the Braves into a 2-0 hole.

In a four-all tie in the bottom of the ninth, Seager hustled from defensive shift positioning well behind second base to take Dodger reliever Brusdar Graterol’s slighly offline throw to second to erase pinch-runner Cristian Pache on Swanson’s would-have-been sacrifice bunt. That’s the way to make the Braves waste a precious offensive out even worse.

After Braves center field double-switch insertion Guillermo Heredia grounded out to push Swanson to second, Dodger manager Dave Roberts lifted Graterol for Kenley Jansen, with Rosario checking in at the plate having a 3-for-4 night and counting.

A ground out pushed Swanson to second, Graterol was lifted for Kenley Jansen with Rosario coming up, having gone 3-for-4 thus far—and having scored the Braves’ third run when third base coach Ron Washington waved him home daringly on an eighth-inning Ozzie Albies base hit, diving behind the plate just eluding Dodger catcher Will Smith’s tag.

All Jansen did now was throw Rosario one nice little cutter heading for the inside part of the plate. All Rosario did was fire it right back up the pipe at a reported 105.4 miles per hour. Seager had little choice behind second but to turn down to his right to try backhanding the bullet. It blasted off his downstretched glove and into shallow center field.

Swanson shot home with the winner in a 5-4 Braves win, the second walk-off-winning run in two NLCS games for these Braves, who must be feeling as though they’re living charmed lives so far. The bullet bit Seager and the Dodgers. With 32 teeth.

But if you’re going to pound the goat horns into Seager’s forehead, or even demand Dodger manager Dave Roberts’ immediate execution over one or two of his pitching decisions, you really should consider this:

How come the team that led this year’s National League in runs scored, and had a team .806 OPS with runners in scoring position, couldn’t go better than 2-for-18 with four walks and a hit batsman in 24 chances to get runs home so far in this set?

How come the two hits each came from Chris Taylor, with one of them a Game Two bloop misplayed by Heredia into a tiebreaking two-run double in the top of the seventh? Where have all the other Dodger bats been when they manage to get somebody on second base or beyond?

Go ahead and second-guess Roberts’ pitching moves all day long if you must. Argue as you must how foolish it was to send Max Scherzer out to start when Scherzer by his own postgame admission had a dead arm going in.

When Roberts lifted Scherzer for Alex Vesia in the fifth, this time there was no objection from the gassed marksman. Max the Knife was probably lucky that the worst damage in four and a third innings was former Dodger Joc Pederson—now a Brave, by way of the Cubs’ trade deadline fire sale—hitting a two-run homer well above the Chop Shop behind Truist Park’s right field seats in the third.

Argue as you must, too, that Roberts’ real weakness handling his pitching staff isn’t so much playing it by any analytical script as it is relying far too heavily on the more highly-revered members of his pitching staff, instead of paying close attention to which arms have which hot hands regardless of star power.

This time, it was using his 20 game-winning starter Julio Urias in an oft-familiar role—moving him between postseason starting and relieving, a role he’s normally thrived in performing—only to see it backfire spectacularly enough in the Braves’ two-run, re-tying eighth.

Argue as you must that Roberts could well have Graterol for the seventh—after Joe Kelly got rid of the Braves in order in the sixth—and saved Blake Treinen and Jansen to start clean eighth and ninth innings. Or, that he could have given Graterol the night off and used  Treinen and Jansen over the final three innings to divide the last nine outs between them. Or, that he could have brought lefthanded Justin Bruihl in to handle the lefthanded Braves due to swing in the eighth.

Roberts said postgame that in weighing every option the lefthanded Urias was the best arm he had to bring in for the eighth. There’s nothing but positive when you reach for what you think is the best available arm when there’s a two-run lead to protect. That’s what a smart manager does. But even Urias is only human, not Superman.

Sometimes, even in the worst possible moment, the other guys are just a little bit better. The goat hunters too often like to forget that when they’re prowling for a head onto which to plant the horns.

Roberts is no stranger to calculated gambling. If the Urias gambit worked, he’d have resembled a Stengelian genius. When he said postgame that the postseason is the time of year when “careful” isn’t an option, he was dead right. “Careful” wasn’t exactly an option for the Braves, either, when Washington waved Rosario home and left room for Game One walkoff conqueror Austin Riley to send an RBI double to the back of center field.

Since the Braves managed to stand the Urias gambit onto its own head with a little risk taking of their own, it may force Roberts into even deeper such gambling, since Urias was originally his projected Game Four starter but now may be compromised going into that game if he’s still on the slate.

But offer succor to Seager, not sulfuric acid. The Braves didn’t walk Game Two off because Seager did what he wasn’t supposed to do or what he knew better than to do. He’d done his level best to send his team toward a win as the game opened. He’d done his level best to keep them alive and toward extra innings.

Now, Seager did his level best again to keep his team alive but failed to stop the unstoppable bullet. The Dodgers have nine Game Two goats to hold to account. Those batters who couldn’t and didn’t hit with six more Dodgers in scoring position after Seager’s homer and before Taylor’s double.

There’s a reason a smash hit is called a smash hit. Often as not, it’s just too unstoppable.

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