ATLANTA — The first two games of the National League Championship Series have been riveting. They’ve been tight and tense. They’ve been dramatic. And, yes, they’ve been a little weird.
The strangeness begins with the most important fact from the weekend: The 88-win Atlanta Braves lead the 106-win, defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers 2-0. However we got there, that’s most important. Just like they did last year, the freewheeling Braves have put the corporate Dodgers in a hole.
Will it end the same way, with the Dodgers coming back to break the hearts of the Braves? Maybe unwinding some of the weirdness will help get a sense of what is to come.
The Dodgers’ scripted bullpen
To a certain extent, pretty much all postseason games are bullpen games at this point in the strategy wars. The Dodgers announced they would unleash their bullpen for Saturday’s Game 1, and they did, with eight relievers tromping to the mound, none getting more than five outs.
The Dodgers lost Game 1, but the scheme worked. The Braves scored just three runs, struck out 14 times, managed six hits and didn’t draw a walk. But the three runs were enough for a dramatic 3-2 Braves win on Austin Riley‘s ninth-inning hit off Blake Treinen.
It was worth a shot, right?
The Dodgers still had to feel good about their chances for a split with future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer set to go in Game 2. Surely, he would give the L.A. bullpen at least a little respite from the turnstile that their bullpen gate looked like on Saturday.
But there was a problem: Scherzer, pitching on two days of rest after closing out the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, was not Scherzer.
“I would just say my arm was dead,” Scherzer said. “I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired.”
Scherzer gutted through 4⅓ innings, giving up only Joc Pederson‘s massive two-run homer in the fourth, but that left a whole lot of outs to get in a tie game. So, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts deployed six more relievers to get through Game 2. And one of those was 20-game winner Julio Urias, who threw the top of the eighth and gave up the tying runs.
Two days. Thirteen pitching changes. An 0-2 hole in the series. Using your Game 4 starter for a full inning when, at that point, there were other options in the bullpen.
Panic time in Tinseltown?
First, Roberts emphasized that Urias’ appearance shouldn’t impact his ability to make his previously announced start in Game 4, largely because Urias doesn’t generally get to a high pitch count anyway. And the Braves’ pitching plan for that game is totally up in the air, but it will probably have to be either a bullpen game or an opener.
“Walker’s ready to go,” Roberts said. “He’s got an extra couple days. So, certainly for Game 3 we’re going to lean on him.”
As for Game 5, that could turn out to be another bullpen game for the Dodgers. But remember: Their gambit on Saturday actually worked. And then in Game 6, they can turn to a fully rested Scherzer. And Buehler would be lined up for a seventh game.
Still, don’t forget the most pertinent fact about the weekend:
“This is kind of how the series has played out, and I think that both teams are in the same situation,” Roberts said. “Outside of the most important factor — that they have got a two-game-to-nothing lead.”
Besides, for all the attention focused in on the Dodgers’ pitching plan for the first two games, the larger reason they didn’t win either game is probably this:
That’s the Dodgers’ mark with runners in scoring position so far in the NLCS. Two hits, four walks and a hit by pitch with 24 chances to drive in a run. And they’ve scored three runs in those spots. The Braves have only scored four, but they’ve only had eight shots at it — and they’ve come up big, with back-to-back ninth-inning game winners.
“It’s an approach thing, and I think that certain times in scoring position we’re expanding [the strike zone] too much,” Roberts said.
During the regular season, the Dodgers ranked ninth in the majors with a .262 average with runners in scoring position, so it’s not like this is an ongoing problem. But the concern comes when you look at things from the player level.
Both hits with runners in scoring position against Atlanta have come off the bat of Chris Taylor, one of which was two-run bloop double in Game 2 that left the bat at 76 mph and was misplayed in center field by Guillermo Heredia. No other Dodger has a hit in a scoring situation, going 0-for-15 with eight strikeouts.
Now, these things tend to become magnified in a postseason setting, and the tiny sample of a short series means while the 2-for-18 has narrative power, the predictive impact is pretty much nil. It’s what has happened; it’s not necessarily going to keep happening.
That said, consider this: This Braves pitching staff has become awfully adept at working around traffic on the bases. After Game 2, Atlanta had allowed four hits in 41 at-bats with runners in scoring position so far in the playoffs. That translates to an .098 batting average.
Extreme numbers like .098 and 2-for-18 tend to normalize rather than continue. But for a Dodgers team down two games, they better normalize in a hurry.
The Braves have leaned heavily on their trio of primary high-leverage relievers: lefty Tyler Matzek, righty Luke Jackson and lefty closer Will Smith. Matzek, in fact, has pitched in every game of the postseason. The bill for that has to come due at some point. Right?
“It’s amazing,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I mean, he kind of gets pissed off when I don’t pitch him. He’s like, I could pitch all the time. And he always assures me that he’s ready to go. He said that’s a luxury I have is I can pitch. I’m like, well, okay, so we’ll, you know, I’ll pitch you then.”
If ever a quote has zeroed in on the difference between the Braves and Dodgers, it’s that one.
Atlanta’s Game 2 starter Ian Anderson came out after three innings because he simply wasn’t sharp. Snitker said after the game that an Anderson-goes-three scenario hadn’t even been discussed.
For the uninitiated, that’s not a reference to the city, but to the audible call made famous by NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. That’s what Snitker did when Anderson came out: He audibled.
Of course Matzke, Jackson and Smith pitched. So too did a few other relieves who haven’t seen much action during October. Seven Atlanta relievers combined to allow one hit over six innings — but they walked six.
And yet, they won. The Braves have won five straight now, after dropping their NLDS opener in Milwaukee. Some of their wins have just made much sense. But they are wins nevertheless.
What will happen to this crazy mix in Los Angeles? Who knows? But one gets the sense that while the Dodgers’ small army of analysts is busy right now mapping things out to the level of the molecule, the Braves are just ready to audible, no matter what comes next.
And here’s the wildest part of the Braves’ two wins: They got nothing from face of the franchise Freddie Freeman. Nothing. Not a thing.
Freeman went 0-for-4 in Game 1, striking out in all four of his trips to the dish. Then he promptly went out in Game 2 and struck out three more times. The seven straight Ks matched the worst stretch of his career. Only six players have ever struck out seven straight times within a postseason series, and only David Justice (2001) got to eight.
Mercifully, Freeman flied out his final time up on Sunday, sparing him the ignominy of tying Justice’s mark. Once again, it was the players hitting around Freeman — Eddie Rosario, Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley — who were stealing the show.
And you know what? This particular section ought to scare the bejeesus out of the Dodgers. The Braves have won two games without any kind of contribution from their best player.
There is no kind of tangible baseball meaning to be derived of this, but if you believe in omens and destiny and such imponderables, the Dodgers might also be concerned about the extent that Joc Pederson’s pearl neckless has become a talisman for the entire Atlanta baseball community.
Yes, they are selling plastic replicas in the team stores at Trusit Park and before the games, lines have snaked around the concourse. Yes, Pederson is keeping everybody loose, bonding around the field in shorts and that necklace during batting practice, then hammering one huge homer after another once the games begin.
But what does this mean: Braves legend Dale Murphy threw out the first pitch before Game 2. First, he ripped off his “Murphy” jersey, revealing an Austin Riley jersey underneath.
Then the finale: Murphy whipped out a string of (presumably) plastic pearls do don while he completed his ceremonial pitch.
The Joctober thing is taking on a life on its own. It’s wild. It’s wonderful. And, yes, it’s kind of weird.