As the Dodgers left Cobb County, Georgia on Sunday night, there was still plenty of reason to believe they could come back and vanquish the Braves once again to advance to the World Series.
Sure, they’d fallen into an 0-2 series hole – a lack of clutch hitting, defensive miscues, and confounding managerial decisions all assured that. They’d lost twice via walk-off, squandering opportunities to split or even sweep the initial two games of the NLCS in the greater Atlanta area. Coming home to Los Angeles was nevertheless comforting, especially given the circumstances.
The Dodgers had beaten the Braves 10 of the last 11 times they’d met in Los Angeles, including a three-game sweep to finish August and kick off September of this year. With Walker Buehler lined up to pitch Game 3, it was hard not to feel like the Dodgers had plenty of opportunity ahead to come back and win the series. When Game 3 in Los Angeles began with Corey Seager sending a 2-run, first inning home run into the netting that now protects a playground beyond center field at Dodger Stadium, it felt validating – at home, surely the Dodgers’ fortunes would change.
In the 4th inning, all of that confidence shattered. After two defensive miscues, a broken bat single, a double, and two walks, Walker Buehler’s seemingly smooth afternoon on the mound had unraveled, crescendoing with his second career bases loaded walk. Suddenly, the Dodgers trailed 4-2 – and the deficit would widen to 5-2 before the middle of the 5th inning. The Braves had unleashed a tedious, exacting offensive attack on the Dodgers by working counts, punishing shifts, and capitalizing on mistakes. After nearly being pushed from the game in the 1st, Charlie Morton settled in and would give the Braves 5 innings of gutty, effective pitching.
With the way Atlanta’s bullpen had been going, it was difficult to envision anything but a 3-0 deficit awaiting a tired, emotionally exhausted Dodgers team. As a unit, the Braves’ pen had pitched to a sterling 1.40 ERA over 25+ innings in the postseason. The Dodgers only managed a base runner in the 6th and 7th, as AJ Minter and Tyler Matzek continued to stymie Los Angeles’ offense with opportunities running thin.
If Dave Roberts’ pitching approach was any indication, he seemed resigned to the fact that the Dodgers would be fighting from even deeper in the hole. Doc would let Evan Phillips and Tony Gonsolin wade through the tops of the 7th and 8th innings, leaving his high leverage arms in the bullpen. Phillips and Gonsolin performed admirably, piecing together scoreless frames that would leave the door open for a Dodger rally, however unlikely it seemed.
The Braves would turn to Luke Jackson in the 8th, making his 3rd appearance of the series after 1.1 innings of scoreless work in Atlanta. Immediately, Will Smith singled to right, and AJ Pollock slapped a ground ball through a hole in the infield. As Cody Bellinger stepped into the box representing the tying run, the faithful at Chavez Ravine who had taken half or more of a day off work or school suddenly came to life. Having fallen behind in the count, Bellinger connected seemingly out of nowhere with a pitch close to a foot above the strike zone. Luke Jackson watched in disbelief – after all, the neck-high fastball was by design in an attempt to coerce Bellinger to chase it – as the ball soared halfway up the pavilion in right center field. A new ballgame was afoot, tied 5-5.
Chris Taylor chased Luke Jackson a batter later with a single laced into left field, forcing Jesse Chavez into the ballgame. Chavez would induce a groundout from Beaty, but couldn’t escape Postseason machine Mookie Betts, whose 107mph ringing double into the right-center gap would give Los Angeles the lead. Rested and carrying a chip on his shoulder after allowing the walkoff single that ended Game 2, Kenley Jansen swaggered out of the bullpen and produced a dominant, 3 strikeout save that would pull the series back to 2-1 in favor of Atlanta.
For the Braves, Tuesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium was par for the course. It was their 11th loss in their last 12 games played there, and 10th in a row despite the last 3 being 1-run games. After faltering from ahead 3-1 in the NLCS last year as well, it’s safe to say the boogeyman wears Dodger Blue in the eyes of Braves fans. Tonight, playing at a somewhat more reasonable time, the Dodgers will look to get even scarier in an effort to even the series.
NLCS Game 4
Wednesday, October 20
TBD vs Julio Urias (0-0, 18.00 ERA)
While pitching plans in Dodgers’ games tend to change by the moment this Postseason, Wednesday’s game for now appears to be a matchup between Atlanta’s bullpen (likely including “bulk” outings form Huascar Ynoa and/or Drew Smyly) and Julio Urias, although the Dodgers’ again using an opener wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
Having been dealt a second lease on life and with a chance now to even the NLCS at 2-2, Julio Urias steps back into the role he’s become most familiar with in 2021 – starting on the mound with a lot on the line. Julio’s relief appearance in Game 2 was a surprise to most, and his first appearance out of the bullpen since closing out the Dodgers’ World Series Championship in 2020. It did not go well at all – by the time Urias exited the 8th inning, an LA 4-2 lead had evaporated and the game was tied.
As Dave Roberts pointed out postgame, it is worth noting that Sunday would have been Urias’ normal “bullpen day” to begin with – in theory, this means that throwing a limited number of pitches in Sunday’s outing should not affect his longevity Wednesday at all. Whether that ends up being the case remains to be seen, especially with a relatively fresh group of arms available behind him (only Walker Buehler and Evan Phillips threw more than 20 pitches on Tuesday afternoon).
Huascar Ynoa and Drew Smyly each figure to factor in for multiple potential innings tonight for Atlanta. Ynoa, a 23-year old right hander from the Dominican Republic, has never faced the Dodgers. He went 4-6 with a 4.05 ERA during the regular season, and was victimized by Rowdy Tellez for a 2-run home run during the only inning he pitched in the NLDS against Milwaukee. Ynoa throws a fastball that averages 97mph, and is capable of producing a high strikeout rate when hitters chase out of the zone. While he throws hard, his fastball’s spin rate is well below average and when he is hit, the ball travels a long way – according to Baseball Savant, Ynoa falls in the bottom 15% of MLB pitchers in both average exit velocity against and percentage of hard hit balls against.
In some ways, Drew Smyly is the antithesis of Huascar Ynoa – the 32-year old lefty from Arkansas has a fastball that averages closer to 92mph.
Smyly’s 2021 saw him go 11-4 despite a poor ERA of 4.48, the product of ridiculously good run support (something he shares in common with Dodgers starter Julio Urias). Smyly’s Baseball Savant page does not bode well – in fact, he falls in the bottom 25% of MLB pitchers in 8 of the 15 categories the site measures. He was beaten like a drum on August 30 at Dodger Stadium, allowing 5 runs (including 4 homers) over 4.2 hapless innings en route to a loss. Something tells me that if we see Drew Smyly tonight, he won’t have a very long leash.
Thursday, October 21
Max Fried (0-0, 3.00 ERA) vs TBD
It remains to be seen how the Dodgers will approach Thursday’s game from a pitching perspective. The most likely scenario seems to involve them moving forward with a bullpen game, an approach that worked pretty successfully in Game 1’s loss. Should Atlanta pull out Game 4 and push the Dodgers back against the ropes, though, nothing would really surprise me pitching-wise for LA.
Regardless of Game 4’s result, it seems certain that Atlanta will turn back to their ace Max Fried in Game 5. Fried is plenty familiar with facing the Dodgers in October, and saw similarly mixed results in Game 1 to what he’s produced in his other appearances in the matchup. He’ll generally give Brian Snitker some length, as he’s pitched at least 6 full innings on his last 4 postseason starts (3 vs. LA). The Dodgers have homered off him in all three of those outings, and scored between 1-3 runs in each – if they want to give their bullpen some room to work in Game 5, doing so with some runners on base would go a long way.
After Game 3’s comeback victory, the Dodgers’ chances to head to their 4th World Series in 5 years suddenly feel a lot better than they did heading into the late innings on Tuesday night. Wednesday’s Game 4 is a huge opportunity, especially given the potential pitching mismatch working in the Dodgers’ favor. Of course, they’ll need to hit with runners in scoring position and make routine defensive plays if they want to make the advantage count – and those are big “ifs” given the way they’ve looked in this NLCS.