ARLINGTON – The Dodgers turned Game 1 of the National League Division Series into the turf version of Texas Motor Speedway. One after another, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts threw his best, fastest arms at the Atlanta Braves.
Walker Buehler, Brusdar Graterol, Dustin May, Victor Gonzalez, Blake Treinen … the State Fair would have run out of stuffed animals if these guys ever showed up at the speed pitch booth. They threw 67 pitches at the Braves at 96 mph or better, the ninth most by any team in any game this year. Six pitches hit triple digits.
Roberts’ plan to expend his best arms worked for a long while. The game between the two highest-scoring teams in baseball was tied, 1-1, heading to the ninth inning–until the Braves did what the Braves have done all season: swing their way to a win.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “You saw it tonight. This offense is just so good. When guys are getting more comfortable and the swings are getting better good things happen.”
When Dave Winfield won a World Series with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays, he had a great line of what it was like for other teams to keep the Toronto offense at bay: “It’s like trying to hold back water with your hands.”
Such is the task of trying to keep the Braves in check, especially if your plan is to do so with premium velocity. Those 67 pitches at 96 mph or better? Atlanta hit .385 against them, including every hit that drove in a run: a first-inning homer by Freeman (97.3), a ninth-inning tie-breaking homer by Austin Riley (97.9), an RBI-single by Marcell Ozuna (96.5) and a three-run homer by Ozzie Albies (96.3).
The Braves are 6-0 this postseason. They have scored 11 of their past 12 runs smashing pitches at 95 or faster.
Speaking of Riley, Freeman said, “That’s a pretty good nine-hole hitter we’ve got, huh?”
Riley's homer off Treinen sent the Braves on their way to a 5-1 win Monday in the first 2020 baseball game played in front of actual, live paying customers. It was a beautiful sight. Riley joined Alfonso Soriano of the Yankees (2001 ALCS Game 4) as the only players to hit a tie-breaking postseason homer in the ninth inning out of the ninth spot in the batting order.
It was the worst kind of loss for the Dodgers, and not only because the Atlanta Lumber Co. turned around their Grade A fastballs. Before the game Roberts spoke about the special kind of calculation it would take for a manager to get through seven games in seven days, an unprecedented postseason gauntlet.
“What you don’t want to do is lose a game when you use your high leverage guys,” Roberts said.
At 1-1 through eight innings, either Roberts or Atlanta manager Brian Snitker was going to wind up with one of those expensive losses. Snitker and his Braves won another bullpen game, once again because his relievers held the opponent while waiting for the inevitable strike from the offense.
Atlanta made it to a bullpen game because its starter, Max Fried, was resilient. While the Dodgers’ pitchers bullied their way through the game, Fried was clinical and careful. He worked so hard just to get through two innings–it took 45 pitches–that Snitker said at the time, “If he goes four innings we’ll be lucky.”
Fried made it through six, slicing up Los Angeles by tickling the edges of the strike zone with two breaking pitches, a slider and curve. And when the Dodgers looked for those, he had them late on his fastball. His only mistake was a hanging curveball that Kiké Hernández crushed for a tying home run in the fifth.
“Nibbling and spinning us to death,” was how Roberts described Fried’s manner of stopping the highest-scoring offense in the game.
The Braves are playing baseball as if they believe they are unbeatable, which actually happens to be the case this postseason. Their bullpen is impenetrable. Their defense rock solid. But the vibe for this club is set by the offense. It is relentless. It is jubilant. It is emotional.
Hernandez noticed that special something early about the Braves.
“Their energy was a little bit better than ours tonight,” the Los Angeles second baseman said. “They came right out of the gates. Freddie hit that ball really hard in the first inning. After that it put us on our heels a little bit.”
Said Freeman, “It’s been this way for the past few years. We get to the seventh, eighth, ninth innings and we seem to have some magic. It’s a tough lineup to navigate.”
Next up to try to stop Atlanta: Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ starter in Game 2 Tuesday. Maybe he’s actually the perfect candidate for Los Angeles to send out there. Kershaw has not hit 94 mph with any of his 1,068 pitches this year. He throws more breaking pitches as a percentage of his pitches than any starter in baseball. He better be on point.
The Braves are 6-0 this postseason. They have outscored opponents, 29-6. They have trailed after only four of 58 innings.
Nobody has been able yet to knock the Braves off their confident stride. Nobody has been able to hold back water with their hands.