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Give the Braves Some Praise

The Dodgers' shortcomings so far in the NLCS have been and will continue to be analyzed. But that's not the only way we should be framing this series.

By this time tomorrow, we could have our first World Series team. Remarkably, the 88-win Braves are one win away from eliminating the defending-champion Dodgers.

A little bit later in this newsletter, Stephanie Apstein and Emma Baccellieri dig into what’s ailed Los Angeles so far in the NLCS. And if tonight really is the end the Dodgers, there will be plenty more time for us to go into what has gone wrong. Instead, let’s shine a light on all that Atlanta has done so well.

Oct 20, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Eddie Rosario (8) celebrates scoring in the third inning a during game four of the 2021 NLCS at Dodger Stadium.

Eddie Rosario

The Braves have played much cleaner baseball than the Dodgers. Atlanta is hitting .400 with runners in scoring position and is limiting L.A. to just a .222 clip in such situations. The Braves have yet to make an error, and, aside from a Game 3 hiccup, their bullpen has been lights out. Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud has put on a clinic blocking pitches in the dirt. It’s true, Dodgers baserunners have stolen nine bases across the four games, but only three of the nine eventually scored.

Twice in the four games has Atlanta’s starting pitcher completed five innings, which is longer than the average outing for a starter in this postseason, and Game 4 was meant to be a bullpen game anyway. So much for the Dodgers’ having the starting pitching advantage with two Cy Young frontrunners and a 20-game winner. Braves batters are hitting .333 with four home runs and 13 runs scored against Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías over 14 innings in the NLCS.

And then there’s the Atlanta outfield trio of Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario. Together, they are hitting .404 with four home runs and 14 RBIs. None of them were on the team when the season began, and yet the Braves probably would not be up three games to one in the series without them. Their consistency throughout the NLCS has provided cover when some of the other Atlanta hitters have gone cold.

Freddie Freeman started the series with seven straight Ks, and he didn’t pick up his first hit until his ninth plate appearance, which came in the first inning of Game 3. Including that single, Freeman is 5-for-8 over the last two games. Austin Riley has done the opposite. After driving in the game-tying hits in the first two games and coming through with the walk-off single in Game 1, Riley is hitless in his last nine at bats.

It’s worth noting here that the 2020 NLCS progressed the same way over the first four games. The Braves were one win away from going to the World Series for the first time since 1999, when the Dodgers finally came alive with three runs each in the sixth and seventh innings. Atlanta lost the next three games, and L.A. advanced to eventually win its first World Series title in more than three decades.

But, as you’ll see below, there are reasons for Braves fans to believe this time is different. Atlanta has three tries to close this thing out, beginning with tonight’s Game 5 at Dodger Stadium.

Have any questions for our team? Send a note to mlb@si.com.

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts (50) strikes out in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves during game four of the 2021 NLCS at Dodger Stadium.

Mookie Betts

1. THE OPENER

“If the Dodgers indeed finish snuffing out their 106-win season on Thursday, the scene of the crime will be the batter’s box. … Atlanta outfielder Eddie Rosario had four hits in Game 4. So did the Dodgers.”

That’s Stephanie Apstein on the Braves’ 9–2 demolition of the Dodgers last night. L.A. is down in the NLCS for the second straight year. But this time, its offense doesn't look up to the task for a comeback.

Read Stephanie’s entire column here.

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2. ICYMI

Want to get caught up on our latest stories on the ALCS? We’ve got you covered.

Framber Valdez's Sinkers Push Boston to the Brink of Elimination by Tom Verducci
In pitching so long and so well, Houston’s lefthander evoked the greatness of Bob Gibson in the ‘67 World Series. This major turning back of time put the Astros up 3–2 in the ALCS.

Red Sox’ Rookie Garrett Whitlock Emerges as Lockdown Reliever by Emma Baccellieri
Boston selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Yankees before the season. Now, he's helped stabilize the bullpen.

Miss yesterday’s newsletter? You can find that here.

The Strike Zone Isn’t the Problem by Matt Martell
The thrilling finish to the Astros–Red Sox Game 4 was overshadowed by a borderline ball call.

3. WORTH NOTING

Tom Verducci writes: Has pitcher usage swung too far when it comes to using starters out of the bullpen? On the heels of the Dodgers' paying a price for aggressive use of Max Scherzer and Julio Urías, Nathan Eovaldi is the next test case.

Eovaldi will start ALCS Game 6 for Boston after having pitched relief in Game 4. He threw 24 high-stress pitches in that game, a far greater workload than a bullpen session. His mechanics were a bit out of whack.

Houston shortstop Carlos Correa said after that game that seeing a pitcher for a second time in four days, as they did with Eovaldi, gives an edge to hitters because of the familiarity. What about three times in a week?

Stephanie Apstein writes: Things look bleak for the Dodgers after a 9–2 defeat in Game 4 that put Atlanta one win from a pennant. But an upside of the blowout loss is that Los Angeles was able to stay away from its best relievers: Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Joe Kelly, Alex Vesia and Brusdar Graterol all got the night off and should be fresh for Game 5.

Oct 17, 2021; Cumberland, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Braves center fielder Guillermo Heredia (38) celebrates with toy swords as  left fielder Eddie Rosario (8) celebrates his walk off game winning RBI against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the ninth inning in game two of the 2021 NLCS at Truist Park.

Braves celebrate after winning NLCS Game 2.

4. WHAT TO WATCH FOR from Will Laws

The Astros and Red Sox are off Thursday as they travel to Houston for Game 6. Atlanta will try to finish what it couldn’t last year and close out the Dodgers in five games, with first pitch coming at 8:08 p.m. ET on TBS.

The Braves are set to send Los Angeles native Max Fried to the hill for what they hope will be the series-clinching win. The lefty posted an MLB-best 1.74 ERA in the second half and has carried over that momentum into the playoffs, shutting out Milwaukee over six innings with nine strikeouts in Game 2 of the NLDS before scattering eight hits and five whiffs over six frames of two-run ball against Los Angeles in Game 1 of this series. Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner has struggled mightily in the playoffs, going 8-for-44 (.182) with 11 strikeouts, zero home runs, one run and one RBI after leading MLB with a .328 batting average during the regular season. But he may be in a good position to lead the charge against Fried. He’s tied for the second-most at bats against Fried of any hitter, behind only Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, and has compiled a .333/.414/.524 slash line with one home run and three walks in 24 plate appearances. He also went 2-for-3 against Fried in Game 1 to mark his only multi-hit game of the NLCS.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

Does this NLCS feel familiar? It should. So far, it’s fit the same pattern as last year: Atlanta takes Games 1 and 2, L.A. gets Game 3, Atlanta builds a 3–1 lead after Game 4. The Dodgers, as you may recall, came back to win it all last time. But there’s one crucial difference this year—L.A.’s pitching staff is in notably worse shape right now than it was at this point in 2020.

In the spring, this looked like a source of depth for the team, but that’s no longer true. Gone are Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May, Trevor Bauer and even two of the back-end options that the team picked up midseason, Cole Hamels and Danny Duffy—which means that they have just three true starters for the playoffs, and they’ve used two of the three in relief, too. The result is a staff that has looked wiped often this October. That’s not a great position from which to start a do-or-die bullpen game (and, if they’re lucky, two games after that). It certainly doesn’t make a series win impossible. But it makes it that much harder.

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox tomorrow. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at mlb@si.com.