Braves Stun Dodgers, Take 2-0 Lead by Ben Clemens October 18, 2021 Did you know that the Dodgers are carrying nine relievers for their NLCS matchup against the Braves? It’s true — Phil Bickford, Justin Bruihl, Brusdar Graterol, Kenley Jansen, Joe Kelly, Corey Knebel, Evan Phillips, Blake Treinen, and Alex Vesia all made the roster. That’s enough relievers that it’s hard to imagine how to move them all — the team made a concerted effort to add pitching options after their draining series with the San Francisco Giants. With Vesia, Kelly, and Treinen already used tonight, Dave Roberts looked at that roster and chose none of the above. He called in Julio Urías, who threw 59 pitches on Thursday night, to come in on two days rest for his throw day and take the eighth inning. In a 4-2 ballgame, the Dodgers needed six outs of status quo to go home with the series tied, and Roberts preferred Urías, throw day and all, with a cluster of lefties coming up for Atlanta. From one point of view, Urías was just fine. He threw 14 pitches — 10 curves and four fastballs. He had his usual velocity — both pitches were within 0.2 mph of their season-long velocity averages. He coaxed four whiffs in only 14 pitches. Great move, Roberts. In all the senses that mattered tonight, though, Urías was the exact wrong pitcher to bring in. He gave up a single to Eddie Rosario, a flared single to Ozzie Albies, and then an absolutely crushed double to Austin Riley in the first six pitches he threw. Atlanta came in swinging, Urías scuffled slightly with location, and thanks to some very aggressive baserunning, the game was tied. Urías recovered to strike out the next two batters on four pitches each, but the damage was done. That brief hiccup undid a game’s worth of grinding offense by the Los Angeles lineup. For eight innings, they had doggedly attacked Braves pitching. Throw a ball? The Dodgers took it. They drew nine walks — three intentional, oof — and Justin Turner was hit by a pitch. That’s how you chew through an opposing pitching staff, and Atlanta had already used seven pitchers. The levy broke in the seventh, with the intentional walks coming home to roost — Will Smith, given a free pass with Mookie Betts on second and two outs, scored on a bloop double that gave the Dodgers a 4-2 lead. That’s usually how Dodgers games have gone this year. Grind down the opposition, score some runs, and let a stifling pitching staff and defense do the rest. They allowed 3.46 runs per game this year, the best in the majors by a ton. Their offense scored more than any other NL offense. The Dodgers cudgel you with their hitters, and then they don’t let you back in it. That’s just how it works. After Urías’s fateful six pitches, the game wasn’t like that. Instead, it came down to one inning for all the marbles — with more available, of course, if things weren’t settled. The Dodgers did what they usually do — work counts and hit balls hard. Trea Turner hit the first pitch he saw to the warning track, 105 mph off the bat. Smith and Austin Barnes both took a lot of pitches, and both struck out swinging. In a lot of innings, that’s what the best offense in the National League looks like — one inning is just not that much. The Braves made the most of their opening. They put together a rally exactly the way you’d draw it up — if you had never seen a baseball game before. Graterol broke Travis d’Arnaud’s bat with a 101 mph sinker — bloop single to center. Dansby Swanson bunted into a force out at second — an absolutely terrible bunt that Graterol nearly chucked into center field. Guillermo Heredia swung at every pitch he saw, never once making good contact — but he managed a dribbler that advanced a runner to second with two outs. That brought in Jansen, though Graterol had been impressive — he threw nine pitches and got these results: two balls, two broken bats, a poor bunt, and nothing hit harder than 80 mph. But the game was on the line — a ball that landed in the outfield grass would end things. Roberts brought his best reliever into the game to maximize his chances of sending the game to extra innings. Rosario had other ideas. He’d been on fire all game — three singles and a frankly wild trip around the basepaths that ended with a bang-bang play to make the game 4-3. He was up there to swing, and that’s what he did on the first pitch he saw from Jansen, a belt-high cutter. He hit a laser directly at Corey Seager — and, as it turned out, directly through Seager. The ball hit the aforementioned outfield grass, Swanson scored, and just like that, the Braves had a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series against the odds-on World Series favorite. Starting things in the eighth inning focuses the action on the plays that determined the game, but it glosses over an otherwise engrossing contest. The 2021 playoffs have been heavy on quick pitching hooks, and neither starter made it through five innings tonight. Ian Anderson was the first to depart — down 2-0 in the bottom of the third, Brian Snitker opted to pinch hit when Anderson’s spot came up with one out and none on. It wasn’t a wildly quick hook — Anderson had walked more batters than he’d struck out and given up a home run — but it did mean the whole bullpen would be pitching tonight. While that bullpen held the line, Max Scherzer faltered. He was mostly magnificent tonight — seven strikeouts against only one walk, only four hits, and 14 whiffs in 79 pitches, a solid mark. He made a mistake to Joc Pederson, though, and Pederson has made a name for himself by punishing mistakes in October. A middle-middle 77 mph curveball? That’s asking for a home run trot, and Pederson hit it 454 feet. To make matters worse, Scherzer’s one walk — to Riley, who took some tough pitches to get on — had immediately preceded the home run. That erased the Dodgers’ early lead, and set up the late heroics on both sides. Scherzer got good results tonight, but he was pitching on borrowed time. He closed Thursday night’s series-clinching win in San Francisco, and didn’t have his usual stuff. Every pitch he threw was down from its seasonal velocity average — his fastball took the worst hit, at 0.7 mph. His location wasn’t sharp — his four-seamer leaked low in the zone more often than usual and his slider was scattershot. When the top of Atlanta’s lineup came up for a third time, Roberts went to the bullpen, and Scherzer said in his post-game press availability that he was fully onboard with the decision, for perhaps the first time in his career. The Dodgers’ regular relievers put in yeoman’s work tonight. Vesia was excellent. Kelly threw a clean inning. Treinen pitched in with a scoreless frame of his own. Atlanta’s relievers mostly matched them. Jesse Chavez, A.J. Minter, and Jacob Webb all held Los Angeles scoreless in the middle innings. This game was a reminder that random pitchers you’ve maybe heard of once or twice are good, even against two of the best offenses in baseball. Those overlooked parts of these two star-studded rosters held things close long enough for the dramatic ending this game so richly deserved. It might seem like I’m not giving the Braves enough credit in this game. They won it, after all, and here I am framing it as a referendum on using Urías. Well… I do kind of think that. The Dodgers won plenty of games just like this all year without relying on crazy gimmicks like starters on throw days. They won games without quick hooks on a cruising pitcher. They won 106 games in the regular season, after all, and they weren’t managing every single game like there was no tomorrow. Roberts got too cute tonight, and I think it hurt them, though of course Atlanta had to take advantage of the opportunity that Roberts’ managing gave them. For his part, Snitker also managed like there was no tomorrow, but weirdly so. The Braves made a ton of questionable decisions that were all washed away. Those three intentional walks were mostly a mess. Walk Will Smith to face Gavin Lux? Maybe! Walk Smith again to face Justin Turner? I’m less into it. Walk Cody Bellinger to load the bases with Luke Jackson, he of the career 10% walk rate (11.1% in 2021!) on the mound? Thanks, I hate it. Rosario’s aggressive baserunning was even weirder. With the Braves down 4-2 in the eighth, he tagged at first base on a fly ball to left field and was nearly thrown out at second. He then went home on an Albies single and was safe by fractions of a second. It didn’t matter at all — Riley smashed a subsequent pitch off the center field wall to tie the game, and Rosario would have scored anyway. But putting the pedal to the metal on baserunning decisions while down two runs is not exactly clean baseball. Swanson also bunted — probably a call from the dugout. Less of that, please! This series will start up again on Tuesday night, with the Dodgers in a big hole. They’ll have to overcome a two-game deficit despite playing the Braves roughly to a standstill over two nights in Atlanta. But it feels, to me at least, like this series is still a referendum on the Dodgers. That’s not how baseball works. Both teams have a huge amount of agency in any given game, and Atlanta’s successes have been every bit as important as Los Angeles’s failures. But woof! What a messy, and thrilling, Game Two — one that pushes the Braves ever closer to a World Series berth that has eluded them for more than two decades.