For a while, it looked as though the Braves might get shut out in the NLDS. Instead they took advantage of a rookie pitcher’s command issues to open a 5–0 lead in the second inning. The Dodgers clawed back, tying the game in the fifth, but a Freddie Freeman home run off former Brave Alex Wood forced a Game 4.
Buehler’s Off Day
With one swing, Braves leftfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. ruined Dodgers righty Walker Buehler’s night. The 20-year-old Acuña became the youngest player to hit a postseason grand slam, edging 20-year-old Mickey Mantle, when he deposited a 98-mph fastball in the leftfield stands. But it was actually the plate appearance before that got the trouble started.
Buehler had been one of the filthiest pitchers in baseball down the stretch, holding opponents to a .211 OBP in September, fourth best in the game, and striking out more than a third of the batters he faced. He is 24 and a rookie, but he had already proven he could handle pressure, holding the Rockies to one hit in 6 2/3 shutout innings in the Game 163 that gave L.A. the NL West title. He blew through the first inning tonight in five pitches—all strikes—but lost his command in the second. With two outs and a runner on first, centerfielder Cody Bellinger misplayed a single. Suddenly there were men on second and third. Buehler intentionally walked Charlie Culberson to load the bases and set up the matchup with pitcher Sean Newcomb … and walked him on four pitches, none of them particularly close, for the Braves’ first run of the series.
Newcomb became the first pitcher in postseason history to draw a bases-loaded walk. Buehler eventually finished five innings and kept the Dodgers in the game, but it seems likely he will have more nightmares about the walk than the grand slam.
Young stars abound on these two teams, and tonight we saw both the positives and the negatives to letting the kids play. Acuña sparked his team’s comeback, but he only got the chance because of some bad behavior a pitch earlier. With an 3–0 count, Buehler pumped a 98-mph four-seamer several inches high. Acuña seemed destined to walk in the Braves’ second run. But he thought so, too, and he lowered his bat and stepped out of the box before it even crossed the plate. Home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom called it a strike, in what seemed to be a reminder to the rookie. Acuña put the next pitch in the stands. An inning later, with two outs and runners on first and second, Acuña overran a single, allowing an extra run to score. (That still made him plus-3 on the night, though.)
When Braves Hall of Famer Chipper Jones fired a strike as the ceremonial first pitch, it seemed appropriate that first baseman Freddie Freeman was there to catch it. Atlanta took him in the second round of the 2007 draft, convinced him not to go to college and set about making him the franchise player he has become. The Braves made the playoffs in two of Freeman’s first three seasons, but had been simply awful until this season.
Through it all Freeman stayed put, signing an eight-year deal in ’14, and calmly insisted that better days were near. He mentored the cadre of young players with which the Braves surrounded him and helped forge a genial clubhouse culture. He personally lobbied the front office to make interim manager Brian Snitker, who took over for Fredi González in ’16, permanent. And tonight the 29-year-old cornerstone hit a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning that would prove to be the margin of victory. What a lovely moment for a man whose loyalty has been rewarded.