Unlikely Heroes Put Braves in the NLCS Driver’s Seat

After watching Dodgers manager Dave Roberts make 21 pitching changes in the first three games of the National League Championship Series, Wednesday night was Braves manager Brian Snitker’s turn, with Game 4 a planned bullpen game for Atlanta.

Snitker’s first pitching change of the game actually came in the afternoon, when planned starter Huascar Ynoa reported a shoulder issue before on-field warmups began. Even with the game already announced as a ‘pen effort, realistically, Snitker was hoping for Ynoa to go once through the order. Instead, he had to turn to Jesse Chavez, who threw 16 less-than-great pitches the night before during the eighth-inning rally that gave the Dodgers their first win of the series.

Roberts, meanwhile, went with a traditional starter in Julio Urías, but after coming out of the ‘pen in Game 2, it was hard to expect the left-hander to go deep in this one. But with a bullpen game of his own scheduled for Game 5, Roberts’ hand was forced, making seven pitching changes — his series average entering the night — untenable. Urías was going to have to stay in this game for a while. In the end, “a while” meant five innings and they weren’t an especially sharp five, as the Braves whittled away at the Dodgers starter for five runs, cruising to a 9-2 victory to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the series.

I used to write paragraphs like the first two of this introduction before the game started, just to get in front of the work of being on deadline, but I’ve quickly learned that it’s a silly exercise. Baseball is filled with processes we can anticipate or try to understand in retrospect, but the results are massively unpredictable. Before the first pitch, who would have thought that any of the following events would take place?

Julio Urías goes five innings despite not being especially good

Tired pitchers present a two-pronged risk. Sometimes it’s their stuff that gets them. That wasn’t an issue for Urías; for three innings, his raw stuff was just fine, with everything as hard as expected and moving like it should have. But sometimes their command falters, as Urías’ did.

Urías has excellent secondary stuff. His fastball is merely solid, though, with the pitch’s success predicated on his ability to locate it. Most days, he is quite good at doing that, but not on Wednesday. To lead off the top of the second inning, Urías got two quick strikes against Eddie Rosario. Will Smith asked for a fastball low and outside, hoping to elicit a chase from the free-swinger. Urías missed up, while being nowhere near enough outside, and Rosario’s postseason hotness reached a boiling point to give the Braves a 1-0 lead:

The next batter was Adam Duvall. Again, Smith asked for a pitch low, and again, Urías couldn’t get there:

His inability both to get the heater in the lower part of the strike zone and to finish hitters off would define Urías’ night. Freddie Freeman’s home run in the third inning came against a middle fastball at the top of the zone; Rosario’s triple three batters later came on an 0-2 count. Roberts, with a ‘pen game looming the next day, had no choice but to sit on his hands, even as Urías velo dipped. At a certain point, it almost felt like he was managing for Game 5 and just hoping for the bats to come alive enough to force him to react more assertively to the game in front of him. But the moribund Dodgers offense remained dormant, and the most aggressive pitcher-changer in the postseason was suddenly quiet. Los Angeles only used three relievers the rest of the game, one of whom (Justin Bruihl) threw just five pitches. Those relievers did their job, at least for a time, delivering three shutout innings until the Braves tacked on a four-spot in the ninth to turn a game that had been within striking distance for the Dodgers into a laugher; once again, Roberts stayed silent, riding out a gassed Tony Gonsolin in order to save another chip for Thursday’s contest.

Drew Smyly becomes the hero of the ‘pen game

After letting Charlie Morton whiff in the middle of a fourth-inning rally on Tuesday, Snitker reversed his strategy on Wednesday. Chavez threw just 11 pitches during a perfect first inning and was lined up to deliver at least another frame before his turn to bat came up in the second with one on, one out and two runs already in. Hoping to add to the pressure, Snitker put Johan Camargo in the batter’s box. Now needing some length, the Braves manager took a chance on Drew Smyly, who made just six appearances in the final month of the regular season after losing his spot in Atlanta’s rotation and had yet to pitch in the playoffs.

If someone told you before the game that Snitker had used Smyly in a 9-2 playoff victory, you likely would have guessed that the left-hander mopped up the final three outs. Instead, he was arguably the most important pitcher, if not player, of the game, retiring seven Dodgers in a row and 10 of the first 11 he faced. Smyly still has a good curveball, and the Braves leaned on it like never before, with Travis d’Arnaud signaling for the deuce for nearly two-thirds of Smyly’s 56 pitches. The lefty did give up two runs, but getting 10 outs from a single pitcher in a bullpen game took all of the stress out of Snitker’s plans for the night and made Smyly the unlikeliest of the Braves’ postseason heroes.

Eddie Rosario goes from looking like Juan Pierre to looking like Randy Arozarena, 2020 postseason edition

While the Max Muncy injury generated more attention, the Braves were dealt an postseason blow almost as severe when Jorge Soler tested positive for COVID-19. Lesser players need to step up when stars go down, and Rosario has answered that call in the most shocking of ways. Abandoned by the Twins in the offseason, Rosario was a below-average player for Cleveland after signing a one-year deal, but improved dramatically following a trade to the Braves that basically amounted to Atlanta picking up some of the remainder of his rather reasonable salary.

Not much changed for Rosario in terms of his aggressive approach or his ability to make contact when he reached his new team, but a mechanical adjustment led to an increase in his power. Coming into Wednesday, that thump hadn’t yet manifested in the postseason, but Rosario was still a hitting machine; in seven games, he had a .400 batting average, albeit with a .400 slugging percentage to match. That all changed in Game 4. Rosario’s four hits, including a triple and two bombs, have turned him into the most dangerous hitter on the team; his performance also placed him in some rare postseason company. It’s an unexpected turn of events for a deadline pickup who was acquired to provide emergency fill-in level depth.

And now, the Dodgers are on the brink of elimination. Now, the Dodgers must prepare for an all-hands-on-deck game with a pitching staff that is running on fumes. There are few scenarios in which the Braves fail to get on the scoreboard tomorrow, so the NL’s second-best offense has to find a way to become that once again. They’ll have to do it without Justin Turner, who is done for the postseason after re-injuring his hamstring, and they’ll have to get some results from the big three at the top the lineup (Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Trea Turner), who are a combined 9-for-47 (.189) in this series. The offense has to get going at some point, as it’s nearly impossible to see the pitching saving the day, and after Wednesday night’s blowout, the Dodgers are down to their final chance.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Not to mention this offense has to get going against the Braves well rested ace!

2 years ago
Reply to  fjrobinson44

I do wonder about that though. What are the numbers on a team getting to see a starter a second time in less than a week. I don’t imagine it would be third time through the order level penalty, but I also assume its not nothing.

Antonio Bananas
2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I’m going to say it’s pretty negligible. Third time through the lineup it is your eighth plus pitch seen from the same guy in less than two hours.

They’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of pitches from like 10 other pitchers since they last saw Fried.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I was thinking that same thing. I was also wondering how much an advantage hitters have from seeing the same relievers over and over again in the the span of just a few days.