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Chris Taylor's Ninth-Inning Blunder Bungles Dodgers’ Chance in NLCS Game 1

Los Angeles faced its best opportunity to win against Atlanta in the top of the ninth. Instead, the Braves walked off with a 3–2 win.

ATLANTA — The loneliest man at Truist Park on Saturday wandered from the dugout to his place in center field in the bottom of the ninth inning. He stared at his feet, at the ground, at his glove. Not until he was nearly there did it occur to him to put on his hat.

Chris Taylor’s head was bare because a minute or so earlier, he had slammed his batting helmet to the ground after bungling the Dodgers’ best chance to win Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Instead Atlanta walked off with a 3–2 victory.

Taylor had almost keyed a rally. With two outs in the top of the ninth, he swung at a curveball, then took four straight balls from Atlanta lefty Will Smith. Up next was the pitcher’s spot in the order, followed by the team’s best hitter, Mookie Betts.

With no right-handed hitters left on the bench, manager Dave Roberts sent up lefty Cody Bellinger, who hit .116 off lefties this season. Smith pumped a slider, low and outside. Bellinger took it. Smith threw another one, just on the outside corner. Bellinger swung through it. Smith tried again. Bellinger got a hold of this one and lined it softly over the head of leaping second baseman Ozzie Albies. There should have been runners on first and second with two outs for Betts.

But Taylor got greedy. He charged past second and headed for third. Right fielder Joc Pederson, pearl necklace billowing, gloved the ball. Taylor changed his mind. He tried to turn back to second, but he tripped. It was too late, anyway—Pederson had fired to second.

Albies was surprised to find Taylor between bases. O.K., he thought. We got him. Taylor tried for third. Albies threw to third baseman Austin Riley, who chased Taylor back toward second and eventually flipped the ball to shortstop Dansby Swanson. Taylor tried to spin back toward third. Swanson nearly tripped over him as he applied the tag. Inning over. “F--- yeah!” yelled Smith.

Taylor muttered a similar word as he slumped in the dirt. He let himself burn with frustration as he trudged back to the dugout to collect his hat and glove, then out to center field.

Afterward, he stood outside the Dodgers clubhouse and spoke softly. “A bad read,” he said simply. “I saw it barely got over Albies’s head and I thought I could get to third and didn’t realize that Joc got it that fast, and [I] tried to stop, and I should have kept going.” In retrospect, he added, he wished he had stopped at second.

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Roberts agreed. “I think by the book he should have probably stayed,” he said. “I think it was hit softly. It was kind of towards the gap, and so I felt that he thought he had a good read on it. It's kind of one of those where you got to pick. You either are going to go hard, and I don't know if Joc would have thrown to third right there and just conceded that base, or just hold up and two outs and give Mookie a chance. But I think right there he was kind of caught in between. That's kind of when you get in trouble.”

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When Riley singled home Albies in the bottom of the ninth to end it, Taylor was the last Dodger to plod into the dugout.

He has much more experience on the other side of this feeling. He hit the go-ahead single in Game 2 of the 2017 NLDS, against the Diamondbacks. He hit the go-ahead homer in Game 1 of the ’17 NLCS, against the Cubs; three days later, he hit a triple and a home run in Game 3. He led off Game 1 of the 2017 World Series, against the Astros, with a home run. Seven days later, he hit the game-tying double that sent the Series to a Game 7. In Game 2 of the ’18 NLCS, against the Brewers, he singled and scored the tying run. Not quite two weeks ago, he entered the NL wild card game, against the Cardinals, in the seventh inning, and in his second at bat hit a walk-off home run.

“These are the type of moments that you dream about and you live for, and to be able to look back on this for the rest of my life,” he said after that game.

Saturday demonstrated the other end of that bargain. You can’t have moments like that without opening yourself up to moments like this.

The Dodgers, who won 18 more regular-season games than Atlanta did, remain heavy favorites in this series. This was always the game Atlanta was most likely to win: Atlanta started its ace on Saturday, while Los Angeles, which had used projected Game 1 starter Max Scherzer to close out NLDS Game 5, made do with a mix of relievers. Still, this was a missed opportunity to steal a victory.

Afterward, Taylor said none of his teammates had tried to console him. “I’m fine,” he insisted. Then he turned and walked down the tunnel alone. 

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