Austin Riley Lifts the Braves to a Game 1 Victory

For eight innings, the Dodgers’ impromptu bullpen game was going nearly to plan, with their cavalcade of relievers holding the Braves to two runs on just four hits. With the game tied heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts brought in his eighth pitcher of the evening, Blake Treinen, hoping to force extra innings. It proved to be a bridge too far for his relief corps. A one-out bloop single by Ozzie Albies followed by a stolen base put him in position to score the winning run. Austin Riley delivered the big hit, his second of the night after a game-tying home run in the fourth inning:

It was a bit of déjà vu for both Riley and Treinen. These same two teams met in the NLCS last year and it was Riley who wound up hitting the game-winning home run off Treinen in the ninth inning of Game 1. In this case, it was a line drive single to left field that easily scored Albies from second base. It was the first walk-off hit of Riley’s career and just another high point in a breakout season for the 24-year-old.

After a promising debut in 2019, Riley made some adjustments to his approach in an attempt to address his 36.4% strikeout rate. Those changes worked — his strikeout rate dropped to 23.8% in 2020 — but he struggled to maintain contact quality as good as it had been during his debut. This year, he put everything together, sustaining his plate discipline gains while also producing fantastic contact quality. It led to a 135 wRC and 4.2 WAR, a season that should produce some down-ballot MVP votes.

For the Dodgers, starting off the series on the back foot was always a possibility after Max Scherzer was deemed unavailable to start following his ninth inning appearance in Game 5 of the Division Series. The ZiPS Game-by-Game odds shifted more than five points in the Braves favor after Corey Knebel was named the starter, though Los Angeles was still favored to win, 51.3% to 48.7%. The game didn’t start off exactly to plan either. Eddie Rosario led off with a hard-hit single down the right field line, stole second, advanced to third on a ground out and finally came around to score on a wild pitch.

After Knebel, six other Dodger relievers combined to keep the game close until the ninth. The only other hiccup was Riley’s game-tying solo shot off Tony Gonsolin in the fourth inning. Combined, the Los Angeles relief corps struck out 14 Atlanta batters, didn’t walk anyone, and held them to just four hits before Treinen allowed the deciding two hits in the final frame.

Dodgers Bullpen, Game 1
Pitcher IP BF H R K Pitches
Corey Knebel 1 4 1 1 2 16
Phil Bickford 1.1 4 0 0 3 15
Justin Bruihl 1 3 0 0 2 15
Tony Gonsolin 1.2 7 2 1 1 28
Alex Vesia 1 4 1 0 2 15
Joe Kelly 1 3 0 0 2 12
Kenley Jansen 1 3 0 0 1 8
Blake Treinen 0.1 3 2 1 1 7

The only relievers who didn’t make it into the game were Brusdar Graterol and Evan Phillips. With Knebel called on as the opener, many expected Gonsolin to handle more of a bulk role. And while he did have the longest outing of the night, he was only needed for just five outs. The rest of the Dodgers relievers had normal workloads and should be available for Game 2 without much hesitation. That’s a nice silver lining for a pitching staff that’s been stretched thin during the playoffs.

Even though the Braves got out to an early lead in the first, it quickly evaporated after the Dodgers struck back in the second. After getting two quick outs, AJ Pollock ambushed a first-pitch curveball from Max Fried and lined it into the left-center gap for a double. Chris Taylor singled him home off another curve that was badly hung in the middle of the strike zone. Allowing back-to-back hits off that pitch was pretty uncharacteristic for Fried. During the regular season, opposing batters hit just .160 off his breaker with a wOBA of just .198.

Fried dealt with base runners all evening long. He allowed eight hits in six innings with at least one hit coming in each of those frames. He managed to keep most of those runners from coming around to score with some timely strikeouts and excellent defense behind him. It certainly seemed like Los Angeles had a unified game plan against Fried; of the 25 batters he faced, just eight of them saw more than three pitches in a single at-bat. The Dodgers were swinging early and often, which helped Fried keep his pitch count under control despite dealing with so much traffic on the basepaths. He gave way to the bullpen after completing six innings, having thrown just 81 pitches.

The Dodgers took a brief 2-1 lead in the top of the fourth after Will Smith took Fried deep on a 0-2 fastball that caught just a little too much plate. After the fourth inning, they had just two runners advance to second base or further through the end of the game despite collecting hits in every single inning. Following Riley’s blast, the Dodgers’ best chance to retake the lead probably came in the seventh inning. Taylor led off with a bloop double down the first base line. A sacrifice bunt put him on third base with one out but a foul pop out off the bat of Mookie Betts and a Trea Turner strike out quickly quelled that threat. In the ninth, Taylor reached again with a two-out walk but a huge baserunning gaffe ended the inning after he overran second base on a Cody Bellinger single.

On the other side, the Braves’ speed on the basepaths made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. Between Rosario’s first inning circuit around the bases and Albies’s ninth inning stolen bag, Atlanta put two runners into scoring position with aggressive baserunning. During the regular season, Smith threw out a quarter of the runners attempting to steal against him, just a hair above the league average rate of 24.3%. Atlanta wasn’t particularly active on the base paths during the regular season, attempting just 78 steals with a 75.6% success rate. They obviously saw an opportunity to take advantage of Smith’s arm and the Dodgers relievers.

Albies has been a prolific base stealer throughout his career and set a career-high this year with 20 swipes. Once he reached first in the ninth inning, nearly everyone in the stadium knew that he’d be trying to make his way towards second during Riley’s at-bat. Rosario isn’t the speedster that Albies is but he swiped 11 bases this season tying a career-high that dates all the way back to his rookie year in 2015.

With their first win in the bag, the Braves will now turn to Ian Anderson in Game 2. The Dodgers will look to even up the series behind Scherzer.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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8 months ago

Curve balls and stolen bases. The giants should learn from the braves how to beat the dodgers. Sigh.

8 months ago

Braves are hitting. Giants did not. Simple.