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  • The ball wasn't in play much, but the Dodgers used their plate discipline and big bats to coast past the Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS.
By Tom Verducci
October 05, 2018

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers’ hitters, many of them seated on the floor, some with their backs to a wall in a room behind their dugout, listened to their coaching staff tell them two hours before Game 1 of the National League Division Series how to beat the Atlanta Braves. The main thrust of the information could have been said on any day of the Dodgers’ season: control the strike zone.

“We talk about it on a daily basis,” third baseman Justin Turner said. “It’s something we take pride in—swinging at strikes and taking balls.”

“Around here if you’re chasing, chasing, chasing,” second baseman Kiké Hernández said, “you’re going to be the only one. It’s going to be pretty obvious.”

This time, though, the message had particular resonance because of the opponent. The Braves’ pitchers walked more batters than any staff in the league. It’s hard to do what the Braves did: win a division title with so many walks. In fact, Atlanta pitchers walked more batters, 635, than any of the 248 teams to ever win a division title. The Dodgers’ staff spelled out the control issues of Atlanta’s pitchers.

“We heard that and knew we had to control the strike zone,” Hernández said. “Because if you chase against power arms and they get ahead, they go to their putaway pitches.”

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Sometimes the scriptwriters in Los Angeles turn in something that sounds impossible. Kirk Gibson’s home run 30 years ago comes to mind. Sometimes they turn in something that doesn’t live up to the buildup. World Series Game 7 last year, a dull coda to a week of nutty baseball, is of that sort.

And then sometimes they turn in a script that is so predictable as to be formulaic. That was NLDS Game 1 Wednesday night. It played out exactly as it should. The team that took the most walks and hit the most home runs in the league, with reams of postseason experience on which to draw, flat outclassed the team that walked the most batters and had very little reps on the big October stage.

The final score was Dodgers 6, Braves 0, but it was also 8–0 (in walks) and 3–0 (in home runs) in the Dodgers’ favor. Atlanta became only the ninth team to open a postseason series by walking eight batters; only one of the others went on to win the series. The Braves became the first team ever to open a postseason series by getting out-walked 8–0.

“Hopefully,” said one Brave, “we got the nervousness out of the way.”

This was Dodgers Baseball, and a slice of how baseball increasingly is played. Los Angeles plays the power-and-patience game as well as any team. They hit a franchise-record 235 homers and drew 647 walks—thresholds reached by only seven other teams in baseball history, and last done by the 2009 world champion Yankees.

They dominated the game while getting out-hit, 6–5.

“It’s not all about having 10 hits,” Turner said, “but getting traffic out there on the bases and wearing down a pitcher. That’s the way our offense goes.”

If you want to see the ball in play more, this is not your team. In Game 1 the Dodgers put the ball in play only 15 times, or just 41% of their trips to the plate.

What they do is to force pitchers into the strike zone, and when they do, they pounce with power.

There is no better example of how the Dodgers wear down pitchers than first baseman Max Muncy. He saw 17 pitches and swung at only two of them. One was a foul ball and the other was a three-run dagger of a homer in the second inning that put the game on ice—yes, that early. His other three trips to plate resulted in walks. He saw 14 pitches out of the zone (including one blown call by umpire Adrian Johnson) and swung at none of them.

Turner, when asked what impressed him most about Muncy when he first saw him in spring training, said, “The ability to control the strike zone. It’s off the charts.”

The list of guys who drew three walks and hit a home run in a nine-inning postseason game is as impressive as it is short: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran … and Max Muncy, the only one to do so in his first postseason game.

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The Dodgers never let Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz take a deep breath. He threw 22 pitches out of the strike zone, and Los Angeles swung at only three of them.

Foltynewicz has a big arm, a killer slider and a bright future after the strides he made this year controlling his pitches and his emotions on the mound. But you could have guessed by his body language that this was his first postseason start.

He gifted Joc Pederson, the first batter he faced and baseball’s third-worst hitter against breaking balls (.146), with an 0-and-2 fastball. A thankful Pederson crushed it for a home run. Foltynewicz kept overstriding and sending his pitches astray. And he kept pulling from his back pocket his crib notes, a laminated card that serves as a Cliffs Notes of scouting reports on Dodgers’ hitters. It was disconcerting to see a pitcher check it as often as Foltynewicz did, but especially so when he did so in the middle of at-bats. Was there any feel to what he was doing? Did he have any confidence in his own stuff? Was there any on-the-fly evaluation of how his ball was moving or how the hitters were reacting to it? It was an exercise in paint-by-numbers.

Atlanta ran out five more pitchers after Foltynewicz was gone after two innings. The Dodgers even saw that parade as an advantage. Los Angeles had not seen some of the young power arms in the Braves’ bullpen. “For us to see them in Game 1 was huge,” Hernández said. It was real-time intelligence to pay dividends over the rest of the series.

The Braves do throw a savvy veteran in Game 2, Aníbal Sánchez, who has pitched to a 2.79 ERA in seven postseason games and is the best strike thrower in their rotation (64.4%). Clayton Kershaw, a former ace in transition now that his fastball has lost its oomph, will try to trick Atlanta for five or six innings for the Dodgers. But if the Braves keep throwing the ball like this—they threw just 54 percent strikes in Game 1 as compared to the Dodgers’ 67 percent rate—it will be a short series.

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