NLCS Game Six: The Braves’ new world

Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario hits the three-run homer that proved the game/set/NLCS winner for the Braves. (TBS screen capture.)

You thought Yordan Alvarez was the force the Red Sox couldn’t stop in the American League Championship Series? Have a good, long look at Eddie Rosario, the force the Dodgers couldn’t stop in the National League Championship Series.

There should be some interesting showdowns in the forthcoming World Series. When each LCS Most Valuable Player threatens to throw every round of ammunition they have, including cruise missiles, at each other’s pitching and defenses. If Alvarez and Rosario stay as they just were, they’ll make World War II resemble a snowball fight.

Rosario’s three-run homer off Walker Buehler in the bottom of the fourth Saturday night, and the Braves bullpen—especially AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek—throwing five one-run, ten-strikeout, one-walk innings, sent the Braves to the World Series with a 4-2 win. The regular season’s least-winning division winner buried the season’s second-winningest team.

Maybe the Astros don’t resemble such overdogs after all? Maybe this year’s Braves resemble not on-paper favourites but a miracle team?

Wrestled by the Dodgers out of last year’s short-season, ghoulash-playoff National League pennant. Buried a game under .500 at this year’s All-Star break. Then spending the second half playing .611 baseball while most of the rest of the National League East—which wasn’t all that powerful in the first place—dissipated. The Astros were .604 at the break but .563 in the second half.

Now the Braves stand as National League champions with a legitimate shot at taking the Astros down. They manhandled the Dodgers when it mattered most Saturday night. They didn’t let a little thing like getting blown out 11-2 in Game Five to lose twice in three games in Dodger Stadium bother them all that much.

“We’re up 3-2, and we’re going home,” said Braves first baseman and franchise face Freddie Freeman after Game Five. “It’s a great position to be in.” The guy whose eighth-inning division series Game Four blast off Brewers relief ace Josh Hader made the NLCS possible for the Braves in the first place sounded like an incurable optimist then. After Game Six, he sounds like a prophet.

But he put any prophetic powers he had to one side in the middle of the Braves’ postgame celebration. “I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” he said. “It really is. I really don’t, it hasn’t hit me at all. I don’t really know how to feel.”

Rosario know exactly how to feel, especially after he caught hold of Buehler’s dangling cutter with Travis d’Arnaud (two-out walk) and pinch hitter Ehire Adrianza (two-out double) on second and lined it a few seats inside the right field foul pole. “It’s truly a great moment,” Rosario said amidst the celebration, “not just in my career, but in my life as well, but I want more. I want to win the World Series.”

He was one of three mid-season trades Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos delivered when the Braves resembled the walking dead. They’d lost young superman Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the year to a torn ACL. They’d lost young pitching comer Mike Soroka to an Achilles tendon blowout after nine months rehabbing its original tear. They’d lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence issues and administrative leave.

Only one man around or observing the Braves decided there was still something worth saving. Anthopolous brought in Rosario from the Indians plus former Dodger Joc Pederson from the Cubs, Adam Duvall from the Marlins, and Jorge Soler from the Royals.

Pederson made himself enough of a pain in the rump roast casting a string of pearls before swine against his former team with his NLCS heroics at the plate. But even Anthopolous couldn’t have predicted Rosario—traded from the Indians for faded early-season pinch-hitting wonder Pablo Sandoval; the guy who came to the Braves injured and unable to play until 28 August—would steal the show and the set in the end.

“It’s still not lost on any of us that we didn’t accomplish our goal,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts postgame. “But for me, I’m giving credit to the Braves, because they outplayed us, plain and simple.”

The Dodgers knew going in that winning Game Six Saturday night would be on wings and prayers almost regardless of the opponent. Especially after Max Scherzer’s wing still remained dead enough to keep him from starting the game. Especially having to put the ball into Buehler’s wing on three days’ rest for only the second time in his young and promising career and this postseason.

They couldn’t afford a bullpen game so close to the one that hoisted them while they blew the Braves out in Game Five. But for three innings Buehler looked more than capable of keeping the Braves at bay, other than Austin Riley’s ground rule RBI double in the bottom of the first.

“I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired,” Scherzer said after his Game Six scratch. The concern is “arm fatigue.” Historically, “arm fatigue” or “shoulder fatigue” have proven too often that they’re euphemisms for more serious issues. Late Saturday we learned Max the Knife said he’d be good to go for starting Game Seven.

Could it be our boy’d done something rash? The Dodgers still had to get there first. So much for that idea.

Scherzer’s trade deadline acquisition from the Nationals along with shortstop Trea Turner helped secure the Dodgers’ postseason arrival in the first place. Now, no matter what Buehler had starting Saturday night, the Dodgers’ streak of seven straight postseason elimination wins started Game Six close to final jeopardy.

Even allowing their injury quotient, they’d played like minor leaguers in most of the first four NLCS games. Chris Taylor almost singlehandedly yanked them back to the majors with his three-bomb Game Five.

Even if they managed to make the Braves look somewhere between silly and foolish in that game, by way of a bullpen worn down to their own winging prayers, and a jack-of-most-trades who’d hit about half his own weight down the final season stretch but who suddenly resembled what used to be his Hall of Famer-in-waiting teammate Albert Pujols.

These Dodgers couldn’t afford much of anything entering Saturday. They entered the postseason without first baseman Max Muncy thanks to his dislocated elbow and without longtime pitching ace Clayton Kershaw thanks to an elbow strain, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery.

They’d lost reliever Joe Kelly to an injured bicep and third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury during the NLCS. Both were considered gone for the rest of the postseason, however long it might last for the team that won 106 regular-season games—but still had to win the wild card game before the division series triumph that put them here at all.

Dodger fans approaching Game Six wanted to think, “They have us right where we want them,” even in Atlanta. It turned out the Dodgers had the Braves right where the Braves wanted whatever remained of Los Angeles’s Blue Man Group.

It didn’t have to be a plunge. It had only to be Minter relieving starter Ian Anderson and pitching four-strikeout, three-up/three-down ball in the fifth and the sixth. It had only—and especially—to be Matzek, walking into a second-and-third, nobody-out Dodger fire, after A.J. Pollock doubled the second and final Dodger run home . . . and striking out the side on eleven pitches. Including the Mookie Monster on three straight, ending the last serious Dodger threat of the night.

The night before, Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi bulled his way out of a bases-loaded jam in Houston by striking out the side. The difference was that Eovaldi stuck his landing while his offense remained sound asleep. Matzek stuck his landings with a two-run lead to protect and hand off.

He dispatched the Dodgers three-and-three in the eighth, handed Braves reliever Will Smith the two run lead, and watched with a packed Truist Park as Smith struck out the first two before getting Pollock to end it with a ground out to shortstop.

Once upon a time, Matzek was a Rockies washout who had to re-invent his pitching career with the independent leagues’ Texas AirHog. Now he’d blown what air was left out of the Dodgers’ tires. With his room for error about the size of a linen closet.

“My job is simple,” the beefy lefthander said after the game. “It’s go ahead, get out there and just try to strike guys out . . . I can’t let a pop up or a ground ball go through. I am looking to get those guys out and strike them out. It’s a simple job. Just go out there and throw my best stuff and I was lucky that my best stuff worked tonight.”

Just about all the Braves’ best stuff worked Saturday night. Just about none of the Dodgers’ did.

Especially against that mid-season pluck from the Indians who just nailed a 1.647 OPS for the entire NLCS, with a posteason series record-tying fourteen hits, nine runs driven in, three home runs including two in Game Four, two four-hit games, plus the base hit that walked a second straight Braves win off in Game Two.

This is a National League champion who didn’t even reach the .500 level until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest .500 reach by three days. The previous record holder was a team that went on to win the pennant and sweep the World Series. You may have heard of them: the 1914 Miracle Braves.

Sometimes things that happen to be in your franchise DNA take awhile to manifest. For the not-so-miraculous Astros awaiting the World Series showdown, that may not prove to be a good thing. It may well depend upon which half of Yordan and Eddie Tonight proves the bigger performer.

They may not have the Hall of Fame power (pitchers Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz; third baseman Chipper Jones) of the last Braves World Series team. But there shouldn’t be anyone calling this year’s Braves flukish now.

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