Braves Take Back Control of NLCS With 10-2 Victory in Game 4

If you watch a lot of scary movies, you learn to anticipate when the big jump-scare is about to happen. The music, after ominously trickling along throughout the scene, suddenly stops. The camera does a painfully slow pan around a corner or abruptly whips across the room. You learn to brace yourself when a woman is quietly observing her reflection in a mirror, or when a child peeks through around the door of his clearly-haunted wardrobe. There is a rhythm to these movies, and it mirrors that of Dodgers postseason baseball.

Game 4 of their National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves had all the familiar cues. There was Clayton Kershaw, heading out for the sixth inning of what had been a perfectly solid postseason start. There was manager Dave Roberts, leaving Kershaw in to face the toughest lefty in the opponents’ lineup. There was Roberts — gulp — leaving him in to face another hitter, even after he failed to get the first two out. And there was the Dodgers’ bullpen, searching for water to douse the flames but finding only gasoline, until yet another incredible season was just a game away from turning to ash.

The Braves defeated the Dodgers, 10-2, at Globe Life Field on Thursday to take a 3-1 lead in the NLCS. Atlanta is one win away from clinching its first World Series appearance since 1999, and a shot at winning its first title since 1995. Los Angeles, meanwhile, is on the verge of failing to reach the World Series despite owning the NL’s best regular-season record for a second-straight year and continuing a championship drought that has persisted since 1988.

Braves right-hander Bryse Wilson turned in the best game of his young career, tossing six innings of one-run ball while allowing just one walk and striking out five. The one hit he yielded came on a solo home run by Dodgers designated hitter Edwin Ríos in the third. Despite being a rookie who started just twice during the regular season, Wilson made it difficult for the future Hall of Famer in the other dugout to keep up. For five innings, though, Kershaw did just that. He allowed just one run on a solo homer by Marcell Ozuna, who was DHing, and otherwise scattered three hits and a walk while striking out four. He’d thrown just 71 pitches, making Roberts’ decision to send him back to the mound for the sixth inning a seemingly easy one, even if the Braves were turning the order over for a third time.

And yet, it became another decision that may haunt the Dodgers’ skipper for an entire winter. Ronald Acuña Jr. bounced a ball just out of reach of Kershaw, and reached first as Enrique Hernández fired his throw wide of the base. As the ball sailed into the dugout, Acuna stumbled over the bag and landed awkwardly on his left wrist, causing play to stop momentarily as trainers examined him. Acuña stayed in the game, though, as did Kershaw to face the left-handed-hitting Freddie Freeman. Freeman, like Acuña, hit a ball on the ground. His, however, rolled all the way to the outfield fence for a go-ahead double.

Kershaw had allowed the Braves to take the lead with back-to-back hits to start the inning, and the right-handed Ozuna — who had already homered in the game — was due up. Roberts stuck with his pitcher anyway. After running a full-count, Ozuna lined a double to left-center to score Freeman, bringing an end to Kershaw’s night.

If you think this is where the Dodgers’ strife ended, you must not be familiar with this particular genre of film. Fireballing right-hander Brusdar Graterol, who entered Thursday having allowed just one baserunner in four career postseason appearances, was summoned to pick up the pieces, but instead allowed the inning to descend into chaos. After a hard fly-out by catcher Travis d’Arnaud, second baseman Ozzie Albies dropped a single into shallow right field. Then shortstop Dansby Swanson did just what Freeman had, turning on a groundball with enough heat on it to not only sneak through the infield, but elude the Los Angeles outfielders until two more runs had touched home.

Another run-scoring single by left fielder Austin Riley chased Graterol from the game, with left-hander Victor González entering as the third pitcher in an inning that still had just one out. González succeeded in finishing the frame, but not before he allowed another run-scoring single to center fielder Cristian Pache. In an inning that took more than 30 minutes to complete, the Braves had turned a 1-1 pitching gem into a 7-1 rout.

It was the kind of knockout punch the Dodgers had surely expected to deliver to Wilson at some point in the evening. Atlanta had just tried using a rookie to start the previous game, and that ended in disaster — Kyle Wright gave up seven runs without finishing the first inning, and his replacement allowed four more to dig the team an 11-0 hole before it even got a turn to bat. If Los Angeles were capable of inflicting that kind of damage on Wright, what would be so difficult about handling Wilson — a 22-year-old with just 42.2 big league innings and a 5.91 career ERA to his name?

It turns out, quite a bit. Wilson peppered hitters with his fastball, which he threw for his hardest average velocity (96.8 mph) of any appearance this season. Dodgers hitters were aggressive in trying to attack him early in counts, but Wilson responded by being just as aggressive himself. After surrendering the homer to Ríos in the third inning, he faced 13 more hitters before the night ended. He began all but one of those plate appearances with a strike.

Wilson’s replacement in the seventh didn’t have that same command, however, and it nearly precipitated a rally big enough to get Los Angeles back into the game. Left-hander Will Smith surrendered a base hit to third baseman Justin Turner, then sandwiched walks to first baseman Max Muncy and center fielder Cody Bellinger around a flyout by left fielder Joc Pederson to load the bases with one out. Right-hander Chris Martin then entered and allowed Ríos to drive in one run with a sacrifice fly, but a scalding line drive by Will Smith — the, uh, one who catches for the Dodgers — found the glove of Albies, and the threat was ended.

After that, Los Angeles was more or less finished, even if the Braves were not. Ozuna led off the seventh inning with a home run against right-hander Dylan Floro. Floro sat down the next three in order and nearly retired the side in the eighth, but an inexplicable error by late-game substitution Matt Beaty at first base gave Atlanta extra chances with two outs. It pounced on the opportunity, with Acuña drawing a walk and Freeman and Ozuna producing back-to-back RBI singles. Ozuna finished the day 4-for-5, and recorded more hits with exit velocities above 104 miles per hour (four) than the Dodgers did total hits (three).

There will be stories written about how this game fits into Kershaw’s broader career arc during the postseason, just as there are every year, as he continues to add more and more scenes to this unpleasant flick. He and his manager will have this loss placed at their feet, though as is often the case, it’s difficult to know who should actually take the blame.

Kershaw’s numbers were great through five innings, and his pitch count was low. Of the 13 balls put in play against him to that point, however, nine had been hit at least 90 mph or harder. He wasn’t really fooling hitters, which had to have been apparent to Roberts in the dugout. From Roberts’ perspective, however, he’d already had to use his bullpen aggressively to this point in the series. His starters in Games 1 and 3 exited after five frames, and his Game 2 starter was done after just 4.1 innings. If he also cut Kershaw’s day short at five innings, that would mean either bringing in Dustin May — who he planned to start in Game 5 as opposed to giving Walker Buehler the ball on short rest — or Graterol and the rest of a bullpen that had been worked harder in the past few days than it had in weeks.

In Roberts’ defense, the relievers he went to quickly justified his desire to get more from Kershaw. Seven of the Braves’ 10 runs touched home when Kershaw wasn’t on the mound. Combine that with the offense getting muzzled a day after it exploded for 15 runs, and it’s difficult to envision a scenario where the Dodgers don’t lose this game, regardless of how long Kershaw remained in the game or how effective he was in the later innings.

Perhaps that’s the biggest reason for Dodgers fans to have a bad feeling in their stomachs moving forward. It isn’t as though this team has been snakebitten, with a couple of unlucky breaks or managerial choices here and there that would flip what should be a successful series. In three out of four NLCS games, they’ve simply been outplayed, and often rather soundly. The lineup, with the exception of the final three innings of Game 2 and the first three frames of Game 3, has been unable to piece much of anything together, and the relievers they rely on to shut things down haven’t shown any teeth.

There is still hope for things to turn around. The Dodgers didn’t just stumble into a 43-17 record, after all. This offense is still capable of doing very real damage, and their pitching staff is still deep. May, the 23-year-old rookie who has looked so impressive all year, will start in Game 5, and there’s no reason to think the team won’t have all hands on deck behind him.

But as we’ve learned by now, Atlanta is a very good team as well. They may be looking at something resembling a bullpen game on Friday after committing to not using Max Fried again until Game 6, but their offense is still going to be a lot to handle. The Dodgers, for as much of a slam-dunk World Series pick as they seemed to be throughout this season, now needs to win three in a row just to make it there. As far as twist endings go, this one feels unnervingly familiar.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

I make $1200 a month Barving at home and you can too.
(Also, I tend to dismiss scouting reports that say anything about temperament but the bulldog thing with Wilson really does seem true, and SSS appears to matter)

3 years ago
Reply to  dukewinslow

Sorry Tony that this dumbass made it here first. You wrote a very well written article!