All Betts were on

Betts in the happy dance after his fifth-inning aerobatics.

Max Fried watched Justin Turner’s first-inning launch leave the yard Saturday. He looked for all the world like a man who’d come home to find his house cleaned out by burglars. With no idea how the hell they got past the gates, vault doors, barred windows, and armed guards. Or where they found the stones to return to the scene of the crime laughing.

Turner launched exactly three pitches after Corey Seager hit a 1-0 service over the right field corner fence. On a Saturday afternoon during which Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler found his best side when the Dodgers needed it in the worst way possible, all that was the next-to-last thing Fried and his Atlanta Braves needed when they were one win from the World Series.

The last thing they needed, of course, was the Dodgers winning National League Championship Series Game Six, 3-1, and with maybe the key Dodger aid being That Catch in the top of the fifth.

If you thought Fried looked shocked in the first, don’t ask how he looked after Mookie Betts—who’d just cut Freddie Freeman’s two-liner to right center off to stop it from becoming extra bases—ran back on Marcell Ozuna’s deep drive, leaped with his back turning against the high Globe Life Park fence, and one-handed it before it might have struck either the yellow line or a hair’s width beneath it.

There wasn’t a soul on earth who blamed Betts for the berserk happy dance into which he broke from the split second his feet returned to the ground. He saved a certain run and probably signed the Braves’ Game Six death warrant while he was at it. Not to mention provoking a hyperbolic outcry from a longtime stalwart of Red Sox Nation.

Hey LA!” tweeted self-described Boston Globe sports columnist emeritus Bob Ryan. “See that catch? You’d better damn well treasure Mookie. Worst mistake we made since selling The Babe to the Yankees.” Referring, of course, to the platinum-rich Red Sox refusing to even think about handing Betts what the Dodgers eventually did after they landed him in last winter’s blockbuster trade.

The catch will cling tighter to the memory if the Dodgers manage to win Game Seven on Sunday. At that, they’ll call it the one that turned the whole NLCS around and not just the one that signed, sealed, and delivered the Braves’ Game Six fate. They’re certainly calling it the one that makes Betts’s Game Five catch—the running shoestringer off Ozuna that turned into an inning-ending double play off Ozuna’s early-tag baserunning mistake—resemble a measly warmup.

In a pandemically-rearranged postseason loaded with fielding shows, including but not limited to the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays’ acrobatic aerialists, Betts blew all of those into near-oblivion. Even Manuel Margot’s pole-vaulting catch in Game Two of the ALCS.  “That’s an unbelievable play by an unbelievable player in a big moment,” Seager said post-Game Six.

“A tick behind last night’s play, but it just shows the athleticism,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Right there, Walker was kind of stressing a little bit. And so to make that play to get out of it . . . was huge. [Betts] just impacts the game in so many ways.”

Second understatement of the day about the play. Since becoming a full-time right fielder in 2016, Betts had 104 defensive runs saved at that position. That’s only ten times any other right fielder in the entire game.

“I didn’t know he’d got it that good,” Betts told MLB Network’s in a field interview. “I just kind of kept going and, you know, I got to the wall, I could have got to the point of no return, I got to jump and go for a catch and come down with it. ”

Buehler wasn’t the only Dodger finding and delivering his best side in National League Championship Series Game Six. Oft-maligned manager Roberts didn’t suffer a single brain vapour. His oft-maligned bullpen—which seems to trigger “Danger, Will Robinson” warnings the minute Roberts reaches for it this postseason—didn’t waver, never mind melt.

Even embattled closer Kenley Jansen, whose issues really are bound more to his physical changes than his mind or his repertoire, got two outs on two pitches to open the ninth before needing four pitches to put pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval and the 3-1 Dodger win into the safe deposit box. It was as though the Braves made the once-powerful Sandoval a sacrificial lamb just to be done to play one more day.

You’re going to face the best hitters in the world and you can’t lose confidence,” said Jansen, who ended the game at the expense of a Kung Fu Panda who’s not even close to the younger teddy bear who homered three times in the first game of the 2012 World Series. “If you’re going to lose confidence then just quit.”

Saturday’s play began with the distinct possibility of both pennants being taken on the same day. It ended with the Dodgers living to play a Game Seven, the Braves frustrated that they’d have to play a Game Seven, and the Rays finally finishing what they started and sending the Houston Astros home for the winter.

NLCS Game Six also left the Dodgers 32-8 for the year in games where they scored first and the Braves 11-20 when the other guys score first. It also left Buehler—who stood with his right arm extended up and his hand in a fist saluting Betts’s hair-raising catch—the proud owner of a lifetime 18-0 won-lost record in games where he’s staked to a 3-0 lead.

The only reason Roberts lifted Buehler after six was the righthander beginning to tire after scattering seven hits and striking out six without walking a single Brave. After Betts saved the bacon of Buehler, the Dodgers, and every Dodger fan in creation, Blake Treinen coming in for the seventh saved his own hide after a leadoff triple (Nick Markakis) and a one-out RBI double (Ronald Acuna, Jr.) by striking Freeman out swinging and convincing Ozuna to fly out to Betts a little less dramatically.

Fried at least kept the Braves in the game until the bottom of the seventh. He’d outlasted the Dodger starter who’d outpitched him, but his mates couldn’t find other ways to pry open a Dodger bullpen that’s known as much for keeping the crash carts on white-hot alert as for driving the opposition into the ground with its speedy sinkers and hard breakers.

Loading the bases with nobody out in the top of the second? Two strikeouts and a ground out left the ducks on the pond. Going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position all day? Not the way to overcome that early Dodger attack, that ironed-up Dodger pitching, and that Betts taking a flying leap to end the fifth.

“When you throw a letter-high curveball to Seager, he’s going to do what he did to it,” said a humbled Fried post-game. “A fastball right down the middle to Turner, he did the same. I felt like I was searching for it, instead of going after guys and hitting spots.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker finally decided Fried did all he could with his 109 pitches and brought Darren O’Day in with two out and one on. O’Day needed shortstop Dansby Swanson to keep Will Smith’s nasty one-hopper from turning into a nastier base hit, Swanson backhanding it on the run and throwing over to second to force Turner for the side.

Fried did at least spare the Braves from dipping too deep into their own rising bullpen. They may well need it if the Dodgers find ways to puncture Game Seven starter Ian Anderson Sunday night. “We’re in a good spot,” said Snitker to reporters. “I like the guy that we’re going to pitch. The bullpen, everybody can pitch. Everybody’s available tomorrow. We’ll see what we do.”

They may have to think about having Betts kidnapped just to be on the safe side.

Symphony for shoestrings

Maestro Betts.

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.

NLCS Game Two: The mighty are falling

For the second NLCS game in a row, Freddie Freeman hits one out to start the Braves’ scoring.

Another entry from our Tales of the Unexpected Dept. The Atlanta Braves have a clean shot at shoving the Los Angeles Dodgers into early winter vacation without seeing Clayton Kershaw poke his nose out of his hole even once.

They were supposed to deal with Kershaw in Game Two of their National League Championship Series, until Kershaw’s back decided not so fast, bub. So there he was confined to leaning on the Dodger dugout rail and watching his mates under the thunder of the Braves’ stellar pitching. Again.

The spasms that scratched him from his scheduled Game Two start were the talk of Tuesday—at least until the Tampa Bay Rays in Game Three of the American League Championship Series pushed the Houston Astros to the elimination brink.

The Dodgers were counting on the resurgent Kershaw, the future Hall of Famer who became their best pitcher again this season and who’d been his future Hall of Fame self in two previous postseason gigs this time around. They needed him take the sting out of their Game One bullpen meltdown.

They needed him to find some way, any way of telling the Braves’ opportunistic and unsinkable hitters it was time to get sunk. When his back spasms told him and the Dodgers not to even think about it, the Braves must have thought Christmas came early and Santa’s sleigh was overloaded.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Tony Gonsolin his first-ever postseason start in Globe Life Park, Arlington, the Texas Rangers’ brand new playpen, the hangar that was supposed to be a hot tub for pitchers.

The Braves decided Game Two was the perfect time to hand young Gonsolin and every Dodger pitcher to follow their heads on plates, while pitching the Dodgers’ ears off the way they’ve been doing to every challenger all postseason long thus far.

Yet again, what the Braves have been doing pretty much all postseason long. Pitching the opposition’s ears off. Hitting the opposition’s pitchers as if discovering new and heretofore untapped human resources for batting practise. And, beating the Dodgers 5-1 in Game One and 8-7 in Game Two.

Freddie Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman who may well be this irregular season’s National League Most Valuable Player in all but the formal announcement and plaque presentation, decided it was too good to resist doing in Game Two what he did in Game One.

Monday—Freeman provided the first Atlanta hit and score when he took Dodger starter Walker Buehler into the right field seats with one out in the top of the first. Tuesday—Freeman provided the first Braves hit and score again, this time with Ronald Acuna, Jr. on board with a leadoff walk ahead of him, ending Gonsolin’s three-inning, three-and-three cruising, with a full-count blast about halfway up the right field seats . . . in the top of the fourth.

The Show’s government decided to let fans into the Globe Life stands on a limited and socially distanced basis for this NLCS. After a half summer of seeing nothing but cutouts in the seats, it was jolting to realise Freeman’s Game One launch was the year’s first live baseball souvenir.

Gonsolin lasted into the top of the fifth Tuesday night. He was lifted after Cristian Pache’s one-out RBI double and a followup walk to Acuna. In came Pedro Baez, the Dodger reliever who often threatens to hijack long-ago Cleveland first baseman Mike Hargrove’s nickname, the Human Rain Delay.

Up came Freeman again. He singled Pache home and set up first and third while he was at it. Baez then walked Marcell Ozuna to load the pads for Travis d’Arnaud, who walked right behind him to push Acuna home. Ozzie Albies then whacked a sacrifice fly to left to push Freeman home.

On a night Braves rookie Ian Anderson did what Max Fried and most company did well enough in Game One, the Braves didn’t have to play long ball to paint the scoreboard. About the longest ball other than Freeman’s fourth-inning flog from there looked to be Dansby Swanson bouncing d’Arnaud home with a ground-rule double in the seventh.

Then the Dodgers finally started making things extremely interesting in the bottom of the seventh. When they set up first and second right out of the tunnel against Braves reliever Darren O’Day and, after O’Day managed somehow to get a swinging strikeout out of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager hit one into the Braves’ bullpen behind the center field fence.

Suddenly the Braves advantage was cut to four runs. No wonder Ozzie Albies decided like State Farm to be the good neighbour in the top of the ninth, sending Adam Kolarek’s 2-1 service into the same bullpen.

Where Braves reliever Mark Melancon made a running catch of the ball, a little fancier than just standing there in Game One when Albies hit a two-run homer for which Melancon had only to raise his glove for the catch. In Game Two, the gags started pouring forth that the Braves could stick Melancon in for late-game defense when he wasn’t going to be a bullpen factor.

As it was, Melancon’s thoughts of a Game Two night off vaporised in the bottom of the ninth. He had an unexpected (we think) Dodger uprising to thank for that, when Seager slashed reliever Josh Tomlin for an RBI double and Max Muncy smashed Tomlin for a two-run homer. Unfortunately, Melancon’s ruined off-night opened in near-ruin in its own right.

An infield error allowed Will Smith aboard before Cody Bellinger sent one to the back of right field to triple him home. Leaving Melancon to deal with A.J. Pollock and lure him into grounding one to the hole at shortstop that Swanson picked off to throw him out and finish it with the Braves escaping to within an inch of their lives.

Melancon was less than thrilled when a Braves beat reporter named David O’Brien faced the righthander as though the team blew a lead. “We didn’t blow the lead,” Melancon said, slightly in shock, knowing the Braves won the game by a single run. “I don’t really understand your question.”

He didn’t really approve of it, either. And you couldn’t blame him.

“Can you still take something positive out of this?” O’Brien promptly asked. When a team survives an eleventh-hour uprising to take a 2-0 NLCS lead, do you expect them to take something negative about it? If I’d asked a question like that in my own newspaper and radio reporting days, I’d have been broiled, basted, and braised—and then my subject and my editors would have gotten mad.

O’Brien’s silliness spoiled Melancon’s jovial mood from talking about his bullpen home run catches, when another reporter reminded him he’d just caught more homers than he’d surrendered all year. “That’s more home runs than I’ve caught in my entire life, never mind  one season,” he said through a mischievous grin.

Don’t go thinking that late uprising means that vaunted Dodger firepower’s about to make mincemeat out of these exuberant, relentless Braves just yet. Four-game LCS winning streaks aren’t exactly easy to deliver against teams that don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

Especially when you don’t know for sure whether Kershaw will recover in time for Game Four. And, when you may suspect in your heart of hearts that that late-Game Two uprising came a little too little, a little too late, against the weaker side of a bullpen that’s normally anything but generous with runs.

The Dodgers hit .220 when the Washington Nationals blasted them out of the postseason last year. They hit .180 in the 2018 World Series, .205 in the 2017 Series, and .210 in the 2016 NLCS. They’re hitting .206 in this LCS after hitting .287 to knock San Diego out in the division series.

This has been their burden during their National League West ownership. When the bigger of the big stages invite them, the Dodgers don’t look so fierce at the plate. Good pitching staffs can take them. These Braves, National League East owners, have a terrific pitching staff, and their own hitters don’t wilt on the larger stage. Yet.