ARLINGTON — Postseason baseball amid a pandemic is proving to be as unusual as it sounds. The Atlanta Braves, the franchise that never won three postseason games in a row for 18 years, suddenly can’t lose. Their closer has caught more home runs this year than he has allowed. Their 22-year-old rookie pitcher is the second coming of Christy Mathewson. Their starting center fielder in National League Championship Series Game 2 never had started a big league game in center field nor knocked in a run.
But what happened to the Dodgers in the fifth inning of what became an 8–7 Atlanta win Tuesday defined how the rules of engagement this October are unlike anything else. Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts watched the game get out of hand—and the Dodgers’ season if they can’t stop this Braves train by winning four of the next five. The new rules helped push him into an uncomfortable situation.
Rule No. 1 for a manager: never let a game get out of hand. It’s especially true when you have the game’s highest-scoring offense and five more turns at bat. Roberts violated the rule, but it was not entirely his fault.
Baseball adopted a rule this year that prohibits a manager from using a relief pitcher for one or two batters (except if that pitcher records the third out of an inning). So if there is one out and your world is on fire—which was the case for the Dodgers in the fifth inning, down 3–0 with a runner at second base—you have to use a water pistol rather than a fire hose to put it out.
The rule was designed to limit multi-inning pitching changes (which have been going down in recent years) and to speed up the game (it has had zero effect on such; the game Tuesday night took four hours, 12 minutes). It was the first time in history baseball wizards told managers they could not deploy the necessary strategy to win a ballgame.
The Braves' lineup had just turned over for a third time to their three best hitters: right-handed Ronald Acuña Jr., left-handed Freddie Freeman and right-handed Marcell Ozuna. Starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin, who had not pitched for 16 days and had thrown 11 innings in the past month, was running on fumes. Laboring, he could not put away Atlanta’s 8-9 hitters, Nick Markakis (10-pitch walk) and the nouveau center fielder, Christian Pache (double on the sixth pitch).
Roberts did have one of his best relievers, Blake Treinen, throwing in the bullpen during the inning, but curiously, sat him down. Righthander Pedro Báez and lefthander Adam Kolarek were warming.
Roberts admitted the walk to Markakis “wasn’t a good walk,” but stuck with Gonsolin.
“So right there, I’m feeling he’s still throwing the baseball well, to try to get Acuña,” Roberts said.
Gonsolin got strike one, but badly missed the zone on all four of his next pitches. It was true before but now it was official: he was cooked.
Roberts brought in Báez to pitch to Freeman, a career .324 hitter with runners in scoring position. He is Atlanta’s best hitter—one of the best in baseball. The game was in the balance. The moment called for a left-handed specialist to get Freeman. But Roberts could not use Kolarek because the arbitrary three-batter rule would mean the lefty would have to stay in to face Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud, another right-handed hitter.
“With one out you don’t want Kolarek to get after Freeman,” Roberts said, “when it’s Acuña [in front of him] and Ozuna behind him. You’re put in a tough spot with that three-batter rule.”
The moment felt artificial. Cheap. Manufactured. Not organic.
The Dodgers shift more than any team in the league. They did so against Freeman, an unwise move when the situation called only for Freeman to single, not to swing for extra bases.
Let me explain Freeman’s ability to use the whole field when runners are in scoring position. Let’s use a big, wide sample: 147 hits in those situations over the past four years. Would you deploy a shift against him with this spray chart in those situations?
Freeman, Hits by Direction, RISP, 2017-20
You do not hit .324 with RISP in an 11-year career by using half the field. In fact, when you open wide holes you encourage great hitters to move the baseball according to where it is pitched. I saw David Ortiz for many years beat shifts in those spots, especially at Fenway Park, which only doubled down on the rewards for hitting the other way. I saw the Astros get burned by Anthony Rendon last year in the same way.
Freeman took a fastball down and away—a pitch that conspired against the shift, not with it—and pushed a groundball single through the open side for an RBI hit.
“Seeing-eye grounder,” Roberts called it.
Not quite. Freeman is too good of a hitter to encourage him to hit that way.
It was the start of an ugly four-batter sequence for Báez: single, walk, walk, long sacrifice fly. Hello, 6–0.
Another element was at play here: no off days in the series. Teams typically get a day off after Game 2. You can manage Game 2 aggressively knowing there is an off day on the other side. Not this year.
I could forgive Roberts for not throwing his big relief sources into the game, such as Brusdar Graterol or Joe Kelly, under that logic. But Roberts went to another explanation, a more curious one.
“So when it’s 3–0 right there to think about bringing in one of your highest leverage relievers in the fifth inning in a three-[run] deficit it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Graterol had thrown one inning in Game 1. Someone asked Roberts if he was available in Game 2.
“Again, when you’re down 3–0 in the fifth inning I’m not going to use a high-leverage guy there,” Roberts said.
As it happened, Kelly wound up pitching to one batter in a 7–3 game. Kolarek pitched the ninth in an 8–3 game and gave up what became the deciding run on a homer by Ozzie Albies, the second in as many nights caught by Braves closer Mark Melancon while warming in the bullpen.
In a seven-batter sequence, the Dodgers left the game in the hands of a tiring Gonsolin and an ineffective Báez, who shoulders more blame than Roberts. (A wobbly Báez threw 21 pitches and only eight strikes, including only one swing and miss.) The game went from 2–0 to 6–0. Now that’s a game-changing sequence, the very definition of high leverage.
No team has come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a seven-game series since Roberts himself stole a base for the 2004 Red Sox. Twenty-two deficits. Twenty-two ousters.
Braves starters Max Fried and Ian Anderson have flummoxed the Los Angeles hitters with a superb mix of changing speeds. Fried kept landing his third-best pitch, the slider, while Anderson kept landing his third choice, the curveball. The Dodgers were unable to rule out any pitch, which is why you kept seeing Dodger hitter after Dodger hitter ahead of the softer stuff and behind the fastballs.
“They are a good hitting team,” Fried said when I ran into him in the lobby of the bubble hotel the day after he went six strong in Game 1. “So you have to keep trying to slow them down and speed them up. Back and forth, back and forth.”
These aren’t the velo-loving Padres pitchers. The Braves are 13th among 16 playoff teams in average velocity. They beat you by outthinking you, and by executing that better plan. It also helps to have the cool determination of Anderson, who joined Mathewson from 115 years ago as the only pitchers to open their postseason careers with three shutout starts of at least four innings.
Asked how he could pull off such magic on a night in which six Dodgers reached against him and none scored, Anderson said with his ever-present smile, “I think it’s just kind of the will to try to keep them from crossing the plate.”
The Braves are 7-0 this postseason. They have played 67 postseason innings and trailed in only four of them. They have faced just one deficit. They are palpably confident. They have seized control of this series. Los Angeles is plenty capable of winning four out of five. Grabbing a lead would be a start. Quickly, the Dodgers have reached the point where every inning, no matter the score, is a high leverage spot.