LOS ANGELES -- More than two decades after annually relying on Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in the postseason, the Braves find themselves a win away from the World Series thanks to the combined efforts of Chavez, Smyly and Minter.
“Bullpen games are extremely hard to navigate, especially when you have a wrinkle thrown at you before the game even started,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “It was just another obstacle for this team to overcome. What Drew and what A.J. Minter did was just absolutely huge.”
As Atlanta gained a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, it wasn't adversely affected by blowing a three-run lead in the eighth inning of Game 3 on Tuesday. Nor was the club fazed by the fact that scheduled Game 4 opener Huascar Ynoa was scratched because of right shoulder discomfort he felt a few hours before the first pitch.
The Braves scored two runs off Julio Urías in both the second and third innings. Chavez and Smyly combined to hold the Dodgers hitless until the fifth.
That last sentence wasn’t a misprint. But maybe these two veteran hurlers combining to record some of the season’s biggest outs shouldn’t be surprising given what they’ve experienced this year. Atlanta didn’t boast a winning record until August, and it now has three chances to tally the one win that separates it from its first World Series appearance since 1999.
Nearly two hours after learning he would serve as the opener in place of Ynoa, Chavez -- who at 38 years, 60 days became the sixth-oldest pitcher to make his first career postseason start and the oldest since R.A. Dickey (40 years, 348 days) for the Blue Jays in Game 4 of the 2015 American League Division Series -- needed only 11 pitches to complete a perfect first inning. With left-handed hitters Gavin Lux and Cody Bellinger due up second and fourth in the second, the Braves handed the ball to Smyly, who hadn’t pitched since Oct. 2.
“I just took it like any other game,” Smyly said. “I wanted to get every out I could until they took the ball from me.”
Smyly retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced before giving up a pair of singles that led to a couple of runs when Chris Martin yielded a two-run single to AJ Pollock in the fifth. Those 10 outs recorded by Smyly gave Atlanta the length it needed to successfully complete the bullpen game.
Minter provided two scoreless innings after he entered to begin the sixth. His effort bridged the gap to Tyler Matzek and Will Smith, who combined to retire all six batters they faced over the final two frames.
Braves manager Brian Snitker liked what he saw when Chavez served as an opener with Smyly following him several times late in the regular season. But when asked a few weeks ago if this pairing could be used together in the postseason, Snitker immediately said no.
Funny how things change. Smyly was removed from the rotation after allowing four home runs in 4 2/3 innings at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 30. Now, 6 1/2 weeks later, he cruised through a relief appearance that has significantly damaged the Dodgers’ bid to repeat as World Series champions.
“I admire [Smyly] so much and his professionalism and how he stays ready,” Snitker said. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been a big part of what we’ve done.”