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.