The Dodgers were one run away from taking the Atlanta Braves’ best punch Saturday night. They withstood Braves ace Max Fried, successfully combating the left-hander with a mix of relievers, to give themselves chances against a suspect bullpen.
All they needed to win Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, a clash they are heavily favored to win over a club without its best player, was one run from a lineup with blinding star power. But the mercurial offense didn’t produce for five innings, and the shortage cost them in a 3-2 loss at Truist Park.
Moments after Chris Taylor blundered on the bases to squash a two-out rally in the top of the ninth inning, Austin Riley went to the plate to face Blake Treinen with one out, Ozzie Albies at second base and first base open.
A year ago, Riley clubbed a go-ahead solo home run off Treinen in the ninth inning in Game 1 of the NLCS in the Arlington, Texas, bubble. Five innings earlier, Riley, who emerged as an All-Star this season, blasted a solo home run to tie the Braves’ first NLCS game at home in 20 years.
After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he considered intentionally walking Riley, but he chose to have Treinen pitch to him with former Dodger Joc Pederson, a left-handed slugger, on deck. Roberts said he liked the matchup against Riley better. The decision backfired. Treinen left a slider over the plate and Riley lined it down the left-field line for a single to lift the underdog Braves to a walk-off victory.
“I was just trying to get a base hit,” Riley said. “Luckily, I came through.”
The Dodgers squandered chances to take the lead in the seventh and ninth innings. Taylor led off the seventh with a double and advanced to third base on Austin Barnes’ sacrifice bunt for the top of the Dodgers’ lineup. But Mookie Betts popped out in foul territory and Trea Turner struck out to waste the opportunity.
Two innings later, Taylor worked a two-out walk against Braves closer Will Smith. Cody Bellinger, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, then lined a single to right field.
Taylor raced around second base as if he were headed to third but stopped about halfway thinking Pederson would throw to third. But Pederson threw to second base, catching Taylor in a mistake. After a brief rundown, shortstop Dansby Swanson tagged him out to end the inning. Taylor, after slamming his head into Swanson’s knee trying to avoid the tag, slammed his helmet in frustration.
“It was just a bad read,” Taylor said. “I saw it barely got over [second baseman Ozzie] Albies’ head, and I thought I could get to third. I didn’t realize Joc had it that quick and tried to stop. I should have kept going.”
Ultimately, despite compiling 10 hits, the Dodgers scored fewer than four runs for the fifth time in seven postseason games. They went one for eight with runners in scoring position and left seven runners on base. The Braves, who have been without perennial MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. since early July, put a runner in scoring position twice. They capitalized both times.
“We prevented runs all night,” Roberts said. “We didn’t not win the game because we didn’t prevent runs. We just didn’t get the hits when we needed.”
In the Dodgers’ last game in Atlanta before Saturday, Trevor Bauer started and saw his spin rate plummet days after Major League Baseball announced it would crack down on pitchers using banned substances to doctor baseballs. Bauer blamed the sudden drop on humidity. It went without saying that he stopped using sticky stuff.
That was June 6. Less than a month later, Bauer was put on paid administrative leave after being accused of sexual assault. The next day, Clayton Kershaw suffered a forearm injury. The absences left the Dodgers with an unexpected problem. After breaking spring training with a starting pitching surplus, they had a shortage.
Instead of filling both holes with a conventional starter, the Dodgers used a four-man rotation and opted for bullpen games whenever the fifth spot came up. They used the same strategy for a stretch earlier in the season when Dustin May blew out his elbow May 1.
The Dodgers preferred not going that route. If they did, they wouldn’t have committed $102 million to Bauer in February. It was a blueprint championed by clubs, notably the Tampa Bay Rays, that couldn’t afford elite starting pitching. They figured out it was more effective — and cost efficient — to regularly deploy a stream of quality relievers. For the Dodgers, it was a last resort until they acquired Max Scherzer at the July 30 trade deadline.
“I hated it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters, and starters go deep, but when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line.”
The Dodgers went 11-9 in bullpen games during the regular season — as defined here as a starter pitching three or fewer innings by design. That experience opened the door for them to consider using an opener with Julio Urías in the chamber in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Corey Knebel opened, tossed a scoreless first inning, and the Dodgers won 2-1 to advance to their fifth NLCS in six years.
And there was Knebel on the mound to open Game 1 on Saturday, becoming the first Dodger to start back-to-back postseason games since Kershaw in 2017. Those games — Game 5 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series — were full-blown starts five days apart. Knebel’s one-inning appearances were two days apart.
The Dodgers’ other option was having Scherzer start. But Scherzer said his arm was tired Friday after he threw 13 pitches in the ninth inning Thursday. He explained he probably would have been limited Saturday to somewhere between 60 and 90 pitches. He will instead start Game 2 on Sunday. Walker Buehler will follow in Game 3, and Urías will start Game 4.
“That’s what made most sense, just go pitch Game 2 and then you’re on a full slate,” Scherzer said. “And we know how to navigate games when I’m at full capacity.”
Unlike Thursday, Knebel didn’t survive his one inning unscathed. Eddie Rosario lined a leadoff single, stole second base, took third on a groundout, and scored on a wild pitch with two outs that catcher Will Smith should have caught to give Atlanta a quick lead.
The Dodgers responded in the top of the second with two outs. First, AJ Pollock hit a line drive off Fried to right field over Pederson, who would caught the ball with a better route. Instead, Pollock doubled. Taylor then lined a curveball for an RBI single.
The seesaw continued in the fourth inning. Smith smashed an 0-2 fastball from Fried for a solo home run in the top of the frame. Riley matched him in the bottom of the inning with a solo blast off Tony Gonsolin.
Gonsolin is theoretically the Dodgers’ No. 4 starter since Kershaw is out for the postseason. But Gonsolin hadn’t pitched since Sept. 30 and Roberts didn’t trust him for long out of the bullpen Saturday, lifting him after just 28 pitches over 1 2/3 innings before he could face the top of the Braves’ lineup.
Fried, meanwhile, gave the Braves a performance they needed against a lineup that featured seven right-handed hitters — pitcher not included. The Harvard-Westlake High product gave up two runs over six innings, scattering eight hits without a walk. He was pulled with the score tied.
The sides continued exchanging zeroes until Riley stepped in the batter’s box for the fourth time. Treinen started the at-bat with a slider over the plate for a called strike. He went back to the pitch in nearly the same spot. Riley pounced the second time and left the Dodgers in a 1-0 hole.