Go easy, Braves Republic

Dansby Swanson, unable to elude Superman in a single step. Swanson tried to correct a mistake on the spot and got tagged and bagged for his trouble.

No sport’s history is as thick and hydra-headed as baseball’s, and that includes its chapters on heart-crashing loss. Few sports fans are as addicted as baseball fans to the idea that the other guys can’t win so much as the teams to which they plight their troths can only choke.

It’s one thing to marry your rooting passion to teams that seem forever mired in mediocrity. It’s one thing to marry that passion to teams that struggled to make the journey, finally got their periodic pass to the October ball, and found the queen of the ball laughing in their faces when they asked her to dance.

But marrying your passion to teams who get to the top of Mount Nebo as regularly as the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers and get kicked to the rocks below when they thought they’d cross to the Promised Land at last, just as regularly?

The Braves haven’t won the World Series since NASA lost contact with Pioneer 11. The Dodgers haven’t won it since the birth of Donald Trump’s fourth White House communications director (Hope Hicks). For a little perspective, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Mariners, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Texas Rangers, and the Colorado Rockies have never yet reached the Promised Land.

The Braves have eighteen division titles since 1991, including that staggering (if you disallow the season disruption of the 1994 strike) fourteen straight, with five pennants and that one World Series win. The Dodgers have thirteen division titles since 1988, including the incumbent eight straight, with two pennants (back-to-back) and no World Series wins.

The demigods of the Elysian Fields being who they are, naturally the Braves and the Dodgers played for the pennant in this pandemically arrayed season almost straight out of Bizarro World.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired short irregular season inspired his too-far-expanded postseason experiment that actually allowed two teams with irregular season losing records (the since-vanquished Brewers and the Houston Astros with identical 29-31 records) to enter in the first place. Perhaps with exemplary and extraterrestrial justice, the World Series will feature nobody whose butts weren’t parked in first place at irregular season’s end.

But I digress. Too many teams lose because someone does what he knows is wrong and nobody else has the presence or the authority to stop him. Too many more teams lose because someone doing the right thing has it blow up in his face courtesy of the unexpected countermove or glitch.

Too many fans, too, cling tighter if their teams’ histories feature too deep a canon of falling short when it was time to stand the tallest. It’s never the other guys who were just that much better, it’s their guys who can only and always dissemble. Even if they didn’t dissemble. Even if the parallel to the law that somebody has to lose is that everybody gets to play again tomorrow or next year.

Braves fans are starting the choke memes already, if they didn’t start them right after Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley ran them out of a possible game-out-of-reach rally in the top of the fourth inning in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Well, maybe they waited until Mookie Betts fleeced Freddie Freeman with a staggering, solo home run-stealing catch that would have fattened a Braves lead back to two runs in the top of the fifth Sunday night. Maybe they waited until pinch hitter Enrique Hernandez tied the game at three with a leadoff solo home run in the bottom of the sixth.

Maybe they waited until Cody Bellinger broke the tie with a solo bomb in the bottom of the seventh and Julio Urias finished what he started, three innings’ shutout relief.

Maybe.

Swanson didn’t cut his Braves off at their own pass by going rogue, exactly. He tried turning a mistake into a virtue and learned the hard way that the other guys administer justice but not mercy.

When Nick Markakis grounded one sharply to Justin Turner right of the third base line, Swanson probably should have stood fast forcing Turner to take the sure out at first keeping two runners in scoring position. But he ran on contact.

Swanson tried for the textbook play when Turner threw home right on the button, getting himself into the rundown starting maybe fifteen feet from the plate, the better to leave Austin Riley—whose RBI single busted the tie to set up first and second, which became second and third on a wild pitch—room to take third and keep at least one insurance run ninety feet from the plate with two on and one out for on-deck batter Cristian Pache.

What Swanson didn’t expect was Riley at second hesitating before breaking for third. Maybe Riley saw no chance to advance at first no matter how well Swanson handled things on the rundown track. When Riley broke for third at last, Turner tagged Swanson with a Superman-like dive and threw from his knees to shortstop (and eventual NLCS MVP) Corey Seager hustling to cover third just before the dive.

Riley dropped into his slide the split second Turner threw. He was D.O.A. It turned out that so were the Braves from there, but they still had five innings to atone. They didn’t bargain on the Dodgers’ relief pitching keeping them to one measly walk the rest of the night.

Neither did they bargain on the Dodgers’ Game Six starter Walker Buehler flicking away the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning by striking out the next two batters before inducing an inning-ending ground out. Never mind Betts robbing Marcell Ozuna with that likewise back-to-the-wall-scaling, extra base hit-stealing catch in the fifth.

Neither did they bargain on their pitching staff that became a shutout machine in the earlier postseason rounds suddenly proving human, after all. Or, on the Dodgers shaking off manager Dave Roberts’ day-late/dollar-short lift of Clayton Kershaw with Game Four tied at one to win three straight elimination games for the pennant.

It would have been mad fun to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. The Scrum of the Southeast. But there wouldn’t necessarily have been a guarantee for the Braves. Not against a team that got out-hit by both the Empire Emeritus and the Houston hulks and still found ways to beat them both. Not against a team that hit .171 with men in scoring position all postseason long—and still won the American League pennant.

But I have a personal message for Braves Republic. Go easy on the choke label. The cumulative differences between the Braves and the Dodgers are half a pencil thin. The Dodgers only out-hit the Braves by nine points and only out-pitched the Braves by 1.26 in the ERA column. Makes perfect sense when you remind yourselves as the broadcasters did too often: including the NLCS, the Dodgers scored exactly one more run than the Braves all year.

Timing often has the bigger hand, unfortunately. That and, as good as you are, the other guys proving to be just that little bit better. It’s not as though the Braves were taken down by a fluke team. They didn’t fall to the 1944 St. Louis Browns, the 1945 and 2006 Detroit Tigers, the 1959 Chicago White Sox, or even the 2002 Anaheim Angels. It’s also not as though the Dodgers had to beat a bunch of pushovers to win the National League pennant.

Think about this, too, Braves Republic. What you have now is a team with at least one potential future Hall of Famer on the assumption that a 30-year-old Freeman isn’t on the threshold of his decline phase, and a lot of good-to-great-looking youth on the mound, at the plate, in the field. You have a steady manager and a smart enough front office.

What those fourteen-straight Braves division winners had was as many as four Hall of Famers at once—three top-of-the-line pitchers (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz) and the arguable number five third baseman of all time (Chipper Jones)—and still had only one World Series ring to show for it.

Even as this year’s Braves go home from this season that will be remembered as Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Inner Sanctum of the Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone, well, Lucy, who got more splainin’ to do?

Ask not for whom the Bellinger tolls

You call that a bat flip??

If Cody Bellinger’s going to be the long distance October hero, he’s going to have to work on those bat flips. The billiards cue-like toss he offered up in the bottom of the seventh Sunday night would get him laughed out of the parlours of our Jose Bautistas and Willson Contrerases.

Hit what proves to be the pennant-winning home run in the bottom of the seventh? C’mon, bro, don’t hold back. Give us the real deal. Give us that flip that needs a meal and a stewardess on board. Show Contreras his upper deck-high flip was just a little ring toss by comparison. Trust us, Cody, it won’t hurt.

Especially not after Mookie Betts, who thought nothing of breaking into the happy dance after scaling back-turned up the right field wall to snatch a possible triple from Marcell Ozuna Saturday, forgot to bust a move or ten after he flat robbed Freddie Freeman of a home run with another running, back-scaling, up-the-wall catch in the fifth Sunday night.

It wouldn’t have hurt, annoyed, angered, or outraged anyone any deeper than the Atlanta Braves wounded themselves when they TOOTBLANned* their way out of a fourth-inning rally that might have put them beyond the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reach in National League Championship Series Game Seven.

Bellinger’s eighth-pitch drive into the right field seats off Atlanta reliever Chris Martin was at least as dramatic as the seventh-inning blast he launched in Game Seven of the 2018 NLCS. It won’t supplant Kirk Gibson’s legless Game One-winning launch in the 1988 World Series. Bellinger has an entire World Series to come to show he has that kind of drama in him.

Nobody would put it past him. Yet. He picked the perfect moment to shake off a season during which he waged war with his own plate mechanics and an NLCS during which it looked like he’d spend his entire time running into the same kind of hard outs that drove Houston’s Alex Bregman out of his gourd in the American League Championship Series.

Be very afraid, Tampa Bay Rays. These Dodgers have a few boppers to match your own Randy Arozarena. They hit a staggering sixteen home runs as a team in the entire NLCS. That’s as many as some teams hit in an entire month.

Bellinger was preceded by Enrique Hernandez, pinch hitting for Joc Pederson to lead off the bottom of the sixth, against A.J. Minter, the rookie Brave who opened so magnificently in Game Five (striking out seven of nine batters). Hernandez worked Minter to an eighth pitch and sent it over the left center field fence to tie Game Seven at six.

You Rays may also need all of your band of defensive aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and human cannonballs to counteract one all-in-one Betts. The Dodgers can slap and flap the leather with the best in the business, but they’re not exactly the Flying Wallendas or even the 1969 Mets. Except for the guy wearing number 50 patrolling right field.

Who will offer absolution to the left side of the Braves infield that got themselves caught on the wrong side of a two-for-the-price-of-one baserunning mishap that may have been Sunday night’s true game-turner?

If it comforts Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley any, their fraternal flop didn’t exactly put paid to this NLCS the way Babe Ruth’s beyond-insane, out-by-five-miles stolen base attempt ended the 1926 World Series in the St. Louis Cardinals’ favour. Close enough but not quite the coffin nailer enough will try to secure it.

Swanson and Riley are the guys you really feel for after the Dodgers’ nerve-exposing 4-3 win. They picked the absolute wrong night to become two Lonnie Smiths for the price of one. No, I rescind that, right here and now.

In that 1991 World Series, inside the Richter-scale-busting racket of the old, gone, distinctly unlamented Metrodome, Smith got fooled just long enough by Minnesota Twins keystone Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne, catching Smith’s sight running from first and performing a pantomime double play . . . when Terry Pendleton ripped a rocket into the left center field gap that should have sent Smith home with a scoreless tie-breaking Game Seven run.

Corey Seager pronounces Austin Riley and the Braves’ fourth-inning rally DOA.

Unfortunately for Swanson, Riley, and the Braves, the Dodgers weren’t trying any trickery Sunday night. They were down 3-2 in the fourth and trying merely to hang in and find a way to revive and prosper. They weren’t even expecting Swanson and Riley to be on second and third in the first place.

They got there because Dodger reliever Blake Treinen—in to clean up a small mess left behind by Tony Gonsolin that resulted in the third Braves run—wild pitched them from their original first and second stations. And they’d gotten those courtesy of Gonsolin serving Ozzie Albies an RBI single.

Now Treinen got Braves left fielder Nick Markakis to ground one to Dodger third baseman Justin Turner playing well enough down the line. Turner fired home and caught Swanson dead about six feet from the plate. Catcher Will Smith threw back to Turner, who took a flying leap like Superman taking off in flight to tag Swanson—with Riley, perhaps insanely, trying for third anyway after initial hesitation.

The problem was Dodger shortstop Corey Seager backing up the Swanson rundown. Trying to take the base under guard that heavy might get you points for chutzpah but DOA otherwise. As Riley was when he got tagged and bagged. As the Braves were from that point forward.

“It was huge,” lamented Braves manager Brian Snitker post-game. “It’s hard to score runs in the postseason. The infield’s back so you see the ball up the middle. That’s where normally we’re a really good baserunning team. We just did the fundamental things wrong.”

How can you say the Braves died with a 3-2 lead? Center fielder Cristian Pache grounded out to shortstop to finish killing that fourth-inning rally. Then Dodger relievers Treinen in the fifth, Brusdar Graterol in the sixth, and Julio Urias in the seventh through ninth kept the Braves to one lonely baserunner (a sixth-inning walk to Albies) the rest of the game.

The Braves will too often note and too long remember that they slapped an early 3-0 lead out of Dodgers opener Dustin May and then Gonsolin. They’ll remember May walking Ronald Acuna, Jr. and Freeman on eight consecutive pitches and Marcell Ozuna singling Acuna home in the top of the first. They’ll remember Swanson greeting Gonsolin rudely by hitting a 1-1 pitch over the left field fence leading off the second.

But they’ll also remember the Dodgers solving starter Ian Anderson’s changeup early enough to lay off it and start hitting some hard balls around, just biding their time until they could pry through. They’ll remember Smith hitting Anderson’s inside curve ball for a two-run single in the third. They’ll never forget Hernandez and Bellinger ringing the bells.

“It’s just the mentality we have,” Seager said postgame. “Show up that day, win that day. This team does a very good job being in the moment. You gotta stay in that moment, be in the moment and let the chips fall where they may. Right now, they’re falling our way.”

Entering Game Seven the Braves scored one less run all irregular year long than the Dodgers scored. Exiting Game Seven and the postseason they still ended up scoring one less run overall—but six less in the NLCS. They may remember trading Game Three and Four blowouts and reaping the sweet fruits of Bryse Wilson shaking off an irregular season’s 4.02 ERA to pitch like a Hall of Famer starting Game Four.

They may also remember they’ve been pushed out of postseasons with far heavier blows than they took Sunday night. But they might also want to remember that they shook off that nasty 13-1 blowout by the Cardinals in last year’s division series to take a second consecutive possession of first place in the National League East, no matter how bizarrely truncated 2020 was.

The Braves will be back. Count on it. They may even have forged the beginnings of a beautiful postseason rivalry with the ogres from the National League West. It’ll just have to keep until next season. Sure it would have been lovely to see the Braves tangle with the Rays in the World Series. Southeast rising.

But won’t it be a little more fun to think that the Tampa Bay Davids might have a shot at taking down the Los Angeles Goliaths? With or without these Dodgers’ recent snakebitten history, that ought to be fun, fun, fun—until or unless Daddy takes the slingshot away.

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* TOOTBLAN—Thrown out on the bases like a nincompoop. Invented originally for former Chicago Cubs infielder Ryan Theriot, whose baserunning skills were described politely as less than average.

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.

Misteroberts’ neighbourhood

Too little, too late: Dave Roberts (masked) lifts Clayton Kershaw an inning late and what the Braves made ten dollars short.

The roll of managers who got their teams into hot water by doing what they shouldn’t have done, or failing to do what they should have done, is thick enough. Dave Roberts made it thicker after National League Championship Series Game Four Thursday night.

At the worst possible moment for his Los Angeles Dodgers, the day after the Atlanta Braves nuked them in Game Three, Roberts couldn’t bring himself to do what he had to do and get Clayton Kershaw the hell out of there. Fast. Before his lefthander left room for another Braves uprising.

It married Roberts to Charlie Dressen, John McNamara, Grady Little, Mike Matheny, and Buck Showalter on the roll of skippers who overthought, overmanaged, undermanaged, or brain-vapoured their way into big trouble if not big postseason infamy.

Kershaw’s postseason calamities are only too well known. They’re the only blemishes on a certain Hall of Fame career. It won’t make him a Cooperstown outlier—Bob Feller, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez don’t have sterling overall postseason resumes, either.

But Game Four is the one into which Kershaw’s manager walked him eyes wide shut and the Braves into the real beginning of a 10-2 triumph and one game from going to the World Series.

For five innings Kershaw stood his ground against Braves starter Bryse Wilson, who had only four more major league starts than Kershaw has Cy Young Awards. Wilson actually out-pitched Kershaw, but at the end of five the game was a one-all tie thanks to Alex Rios hitting one into the right field seats in the third and Marcell Ozuna hitting one into the left field seats in the fourth.

Roberts shouldn’t think about hitting the casinos any time soon. He knew Kershaw’s back might still have been a little balky after spasms forced Kershaw to be scratched from his scheduled Game Two start. He got five solid innings out of Kershaw on Thursday and should have been more than content with that.

But no. Roberts had to send Kershaw out for the sixth. “I just thought Kershaw was throwing the baseball really well,” the skipper told reporters after the game, “and there was no reason [to lift him]. I felt really good about it.”

How good did Roberts feel when Ronald Acuna, Jr. opened the Atlanta sixth with a hopper back to the mound but over Kershaw’s head that the evening’s Dodger second baseman, Kike Hernandez, coming from shortstop in the infield shift, threw past first baseman Max Muncy to allow Acuna to second?

How good did Roberts feel after Freddie Freeman promptly shot one right past first baseman Max Muncy into right for an RBI double?

How good did he feel after Ozuna shot one into the left center field gap for an immediate RBI double?

How good did he feel after relieving Kershaw with Brasor Graterol two hitters two late, seeing Travis d’Arnaud line out to right, but then watching Ozzie Albies single, Dansby Swanson shoot one down the left field line for a two-run double, and Austin Riley cue an RBI single up the middle?

How good did he feel after lifting Graterol for Victor Gonzalez and watching him walk Hector Camargo before Cristian Pache singled Riley home? Not to mention Ozuna leading off the seventh with another solo bomb, this one off Dylan Floro? Freeman and Ozuna whacking back-to-back RBI singles off Jake McGee in the eighth?

With nothing else out of the Dodgers offense but the bases loaded and one out in the seventh and only Rios’s sacrifice fly to show for it?

“I’m not going to take Clayton out after a weak ground ball and another ground ball off the bat of Freeman,” Roberts said. “I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time.”

Once upon a time an ancient Dodger manager named Charlie Dressen felt really good about spurning his curve ball specialist Carl Erskine in favour of fastballer Ralph Branca with Bobby Thomson—still less comfortable facing curve balls—coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of a third pennant playoff game.

Thomson and his New York Giants felt great about the Shot Heard ‘Round the World—until the final published evidence affirmed decades later what those Dodgers suspected down the stretch: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

John McNamara felt good about leaving his ankle-vaporised first base warrior Bill Buckner in the field for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, too. He wanted his shattered soldier out there when the Red Sox finally won the World Series again. How did that work out for him?

Grady Little felt good about taking Pedro Martinez’s heart at its word and ignoring his Hall of Famer’s fuel tank crying “empty!” The Yankees listened to the fuel tank and sent Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS to extra innings—and Aaron Boone’s eventual pennant-winning date with stout Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Mike Matheny felt great refusing to close The Book in Game Five of the 2014 NLCS and bring his closer Trevor Rosenthal into the bottom of the ninth—because it wasn’t even a St. Louis Cardinals lead, never mind a save situation. Travis Ishikawa felt even better turning on rusty Michael Wacha’s weak fastball and sending it to the top of Levi’s Landing. (This time, the Giants didn’t steal the pennant! The Giants didn’t steal the pennant!)

Buck Showalter felt comfy refusing to reach for his closer Zack Britton—with Britton’s 0.54 ERA/1.94 fielding-independent pitching/0.84 walks/hits per inning pitched—because the bottom of the ninth in the 2016 American League wild card game wasn’t a “save situation,” either. It left Edwin Encarnacion comfy enough to hit the three-run homer that sent Rogers Centre batshit nuts and the Toronto Blue Jays to the division series.

Boone himself felt cozy enough not to put Jose Altuve aboard with a free pass—with two out, George Springer on first, a gassed Aroldis Chapman somehow ahead of Altuve 2-0, and a spaghetti bat named Jake Marisnick on deck.  Altuve felt even cozier, blasting a two-run homer with the pennant attached off the back wall of Minute Maid Park.

Casey Stengel failing to set his 1960 World Series rotation so his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford could pitch three and not just two games? Gene Mauch panicking the Phillies out of the 1964 pennant? Darrell Johnson lifting Jim Willoughby in the 1975 World Series? Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee down the 1978 stretch?

Roberts may be paying for all of their sins.

It didn’t begin with Thursday night, unfortunately. He brought badly spent Brandon Morrow into a 2017 World Series game and watched Morrow surrender four runs on six pitches. He brought a previously shellacked Ryan Madson into a third 2018 World Series turn with the Dodgers leading Game Four 4-0—and watched Mitch Moreland hit a three-run homer to start the Red Sox’s comeback win.

And, he forgot 2019’s Joe Kelly was too vulnerable when pitching past a single inning, left Kelly in for a second inning in Game Five of last year’s division series, and watched him  load the pads for Howie Kendrick to slice salami and cut the Dodgers’ season off at the blast.

There was no defense for Dressen’s Dodgers, Little’s Red Sox, Matheny’s Cardinals, or Boone’s Yankees against a pennant winner; or for Showalter’s Orioles against a wild card game winner. The Dodgers haven’t lost the pennant yet, but Misteroberts’ neighbourhood is a nebulous one over which to guide neighbourhood watch.

Maybe we wouldn’t talk this way if Roberts’ Dodgers and those other teams found ways to win despite the mental lapses. Maybe we’ll stop talking this way for awhile if his Dodgers iron up and manage to win this NLCS. Maybe.

Maybe if the Dodgers remember how to hit when it matters in Game Five, we’ll stop talking about Roberts as a compromised bridge commander and the Dodgers as something of a deception. They’re lucre rich, farm-system sound, and as front-office brainy as it gets, but their continuing postseason futilities despite owning the National League West for eight seasons straight makes them resemble paper tigers.

They’ll have to make things happen in Game Five. If these Braves let them, that is. These Braves may seem like nice fellows, but they’re not inclined to be that generous.

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.