Dodgers Save Season With Late-Inning Dramatics in Game 3 Win

In a postseason defined by pitcher usage, Game 3 of the NLCS between the Braves and the Dodgers was supposed to be the exception. We weren’t going to see each team use seven relievers (and maybe even some starters) out of the bullpen, and certainly not with Charlie Morton and Walker Buehler starting. Both had gone at least six innings in their first playoff starts, and while each delivered fewer than five in their followups, those came on three days rest; this game provided double that. On a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, both teams likely expected a minimum of 15 outs from each, with a hope for 18 or maybe more. It all felt very old school.

By the end of the first inning, all of those expectations were dashed. And by the end of the ninth, the Dodgers had pulled off a dramatic 6–5 comeback victory that quite possibly saved their season.

The game diverged from the narrative within the first few minutes, with back-to-back singles against the shift by Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman. Things temporarily went back to normal when Ozzie Albies hit a line drive to center fielder Gavin Lux that carried more than Rosario thought it would, with Lux catching it and quickly firing to second base for a crushing double play. A strikeout of Austin Riley got Buehler out of the jam, and he escaped it with just 13 total pitches; the pitcher’s duel was still on.

Morton failed to keep his part of the bargain in the bottom half of the frame, walking Mookie Betts and giving up a mammoth home run to Corey Seager on a curveball. In a rare occurrence, the veteran righty got around on the pitch, losing downward bite and instead delivering a horizontal spinner that broke into Seager’s bat at the top of zone. One swing, 109 mph and 444 feet later, the Dodgers had an early 2–0 lead thanks to the first Morton breaking ball hit for a homer in his lengthy postseason career.

The home run pitch to Seager was a harbinger of things to come. Just when it looked like Morton had rebounded with two quick outs, his ability to harness his big-moving stuff abandoned him, as he began to yank both his fastball and off-speed pitches to both sides of the plate, leading to three straight walks to load the bases. A Chris Taylor flair to Dansby Swanson ended an inning that could have been much worse, but the damage was done, both on the scoreboard and to Morton’s pitch count, now at a massive 34. Even if he could find his command and pitch efficiency once again, getting a long start out of him on the day before a planned bullpen game quickly looked like a pipe dream.

Buehler, meanwhile, was cruising, needing just 31 pitches to get through two more scoreless innings, but like Morton, he lost the feel for his breaking ball and was forced to lean on his fastball and cutter to get him through. And just as Buehler started to wobble, Morton suddenly found his groove, needing just 25 pitches in the second and third frames, though he still sat at 69 pitches through three; the odds weren’t high he would out-last his opposite number.

Then the wheels fell off for the Dodgers. Able to ignore Buehler’s breaking stuff, the Braves began to sit on velocity. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals didn’t do Buehler any favors; nor did his fielders, who once again proved the importance of defense in the playoffs. With Freeman on first and one out, Riley hit a 96-mph fastball hard but got under it, with a 107-mph exit velocity but a 39-degree launch angle, for what looked like a deep but playable fly out to center. Unfortunately, and partly due to the unavailability of Max Muncy, the Dodgers have an out-of-position Lux patrolling center. The second the broadcast switched to him, it was clear that something bad was going to happen: He never looked comfortable heading toward the wall and ultimately let the ball clank off his glove — a clear E-8 was scored a double — to give the Braves their first scoring threat since the first inning.

Riley’s plate appearance should have ended in an out, and that it didn’t is on the Dodgers. Joc Pederson’s plate appearance that followed should have ended in an out, and that it didn’t is on Meals, who missed a clear third strike call. The fourth strike resulted in a screaming line-drive single to right, and the Braves were on the board. From there, Buehler simply lost it, giving up a single to Adam Duvall to tie the game at two, a walk to Travis d’Arnaud, and then a single to Swanson on a hard line drive that went off Seager’s glove and gave Atlanta the lead. As with Rosario’s game-winning hit in Game 2, a better shortstop makes that play.

Braves manager Brian Snitker made a curious decision at the point. With a shot at an even bigger inning and still just one out, he elected to let Morton hit. Maybe it was the righty’s increased sharpness after that ugly first inning, or maybe it was the fact that Game 4 would likely be a bullpen game for Atlanta. Morton’s highly predictable strikeout, though, was mitigated by a bases-loaded walk by the quite-hard-to-walk Rosario. That gave Atlanta a 4–2 lead and ended a clearly gassed Buehler’s night in one of the stranger innings we’ve seen in this year’s postseason.

Sticking with Morton ended up looking like a sound decision, especially in lieu of Atlanta’s plans for Wednesday, as he got through five innings; after the third straight walk that loaded the bases in the first, he went 4.1 scoreless with just two hits, two walks, and four strikeouts on 65 pitches. He almost blew the game in the first inning and instead turned into the hero when Buehler went from carriage to pumpkin in the blink of an eye. Much of that lies on the Taylor at-bat that ended the first. With the bases loaded and Morton at 31 pitches, it’s reasonable to think that any non-out would have not only extended the Dodgers’ lead but also ended his night, forcing Snitker to tax his bullpen the day before he would be asking them for 27 outs. Instead, the Braves got four more innings out of their starter and turned the game on a dime three frames later.

Once Atlanta took the lead, the middle innings became a contrast in managerial styles. Dave Roberts, who has already exceeded his postseason minutes plan on the bullpen phone, managed like someone who washed down a pregame triple-shot espresso with a couple of Red Bulls. From Buehler’s exit in the fourth to Joe Kelly’s strikeout of Albies to end the sixth, Roberts used five relievers, with no one in the quintet recording more than two outs; five pitchers, 50 pitches, seven outs. You want over-managing? You got it in the fifth, when he swapped out right-hander Corey Knebel for fellow righty Phil Bickford against Duvall with runners on first and third and one out, hoping that the latter could generate a ground ball. By doing so, Roberts lost a strikeout pitcher against a strikeout hitter; Bickford ultimately got the desired inning-ending double play, but only after Duvall hit an RBI single to push the Braves’ lead to three runs.

Snitker, on the other hand, was calm throughout the day and into the early evening; maybe it was the comfort of a 2–0 series lead, but he gave his relievers a longer leash. He handed A.J. Minter the sixth and let him stay on to pitch to lefty-crusher Albert Pujols with a runner on and two outs and was rewarded with a strikeout. He turned to a dominant Tyler Matzek in the seventh against the top of Los Angeles’ order with no worries about lefty-righty matchups and got a 1-2-3 inning in return. Even when Luke Jackson allowed a pair of runners to reach with one out in the eighth and the lefty-swinging Cody Bellinger up, the bullpen didn’t stir, as the righty was given the opportunity to clean up his own mess.

Up 1–2 in the count, Jackson decided against trying to get a chase outside with his plus breaking ball. Instead, he tried to beat Bellinger with velocity, throwing a 96-mph fastball elevated out of the zone to try to get him to swing under it. But he didn’t elevate it enough, and suddenly the player who hit .165 this year looked like the 2019 NL MVP, tying the game with a 399-foot blast.

A single by Taylor finally got Snitker to make a change, but oddly, he went to Jesse Chavez, who was warming up as early as the second inning. Chavez is a solid, rubber-armed reliever who’s a good bullpen safety net, but having him get high-leverage outs against a modern-day Murderer’s Row is not the most efficient use of his services. The go-ahead run crossing the plate for the Dodgers felt inevitable at this point, and Betts turned those premonitions into reality two batters later with a double to make it 6–5.

Predictable, reliable and undebatable bullpen moves are not Roberts’ norm, but with a one-run lead and three outs to go, he made just that choice and went to Kenley Jansen. Los Angeles got the good, nay, great version of the closer, who struck out the side to preserve the victory and made it look easy while doing so.

While the crisis is adverted for the Dodgers, the challenge is far from over. Roberts certainly didn’t expect to use eight relievers, but it happened, and he goes into Game 4 with an already taxed bullpen and a starter in Julio Urías who can not be expected to give them the length they desperately need after he came out of the bullpen for a messy appearance in Game 2. Meanwhile, Snitker will have to take a page out of Roberts’ book and manage a bullpen game against a lineup that can put up a crooked number in any inning.

After seven innings on Tuesday, it felt like this series was very much over, and that the Dodgers would have to answer questions about their at-times controversial in-game decisions. But over the last two innings, the stars came through when it mattered, and with two more games to come in Los Angeles, the series quickly went from foregone conclusion to something quite different.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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Kenley is back and it feels so good. Throwing 94-95, now with two (2) offspeed pitches!