LOS ANGELES -- Three days after flying to the West Coast filled with the energy, excitement and anxiousness you'd expect from a youthful team with limited postseason experience, the Braves traveled back to Atlanta somewhat baffled by the manner in which Clayton Kershaw had pushed them to the brink of elimination.
Freddie Freeman has dealt with Kershaw's mastery in the past, but he had never seen the three-time National League Cy Young Award winner as crafty as he was while guiding the Dodgers to a 3-0 win over the Braves in Game 2 of the NL Division Series on Friday night.
"That was a totally different Kershaw than I've ever seen," Freeman said. "Usually, he's at 94-96 mph with an 88 mph slider and a big curveball. I saw one curveball tonight and I saw 90-mph heaters. It was just kind of weird. We were putting the ball in play. We were just hitting weak ground balls and popups."
:: NLDS schedule and results ::
It's never comfortable being down 2-0 in a best-of-five series, especially when supremely talented rookie pitcher Walker Buehler stands as the competition on Sunday at SunTrust Park. But given the Braves now stand with the 1921 Giants as the only teams to be shut out through the first two games of a postseason season, it's understandable why they might be even more uneasy.
Ronald Acuna Jr. stands as the only Braves player to reach third base during this series. The 20-year-old phenom opened Friday's game with a double, but was left stranded at third. He singled again in the ninth, but after advancing twice on defensive indifference, he was left 90 feet from the plate when Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen struck out Freeman to end the game.
"I thought maybe we had a good plan," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "Ronald came out and rifled that one in the first inning, and he was the only guy, I think, that got to second base after that even. So, I don't know. We just gotta go back home, regroup and win a game."
Acuna's double -- his first career postseason hit -- stands as the only extra-base hit Kershaw has allowed over 21 career postseason innings against the Braves. The only other hit the southpaw surrendered over eight scoreless innings in Game 2 was a weak infield single Ender Inciarte produced in the fifth.
"They're a very good hitting team," Kershaw said. "They've done a lot of damage early in counts, especially a lot of those guys who like to swing the bat. I feel like a lot of teams tend to swing early against me."
In other words, Kershaw planned to counter the game plan set by the Braves, who exited Friday's pregame meeting intent on hunting fastballs early in the count. This plan worked for Acuna, who hit the first pitch off the left-center-field wall. But the Dodgers lefty exited the third inning having thrown only 39 pitches -- and he got more efficient after that.
Six of Atlanta's first 10 plate appearances consisted of either one or two pitches. On the night, Kershaw needed 85 pitches over eight frames.
"Our game plan in our meeting today told us to come out swinging early," Freeman said. "The analytics from our meeting told us he throws a lot of heaters. Ronald jumped on that. Johan [Camargo] did that and then all the sudden those analytics went out the door because he started throwing sliders and all that and that's why he's Clayton Kershaw."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Manny Machado entered the game having gone 7-for-15 with three homers in his career against Braves starter Anibal Sanchez. So when the Dodgers shortstop encountered a 3-0 count with two bases open and two outs in the first inning, the expectation was he would be walked.
Instead, Machado seemed to be expecting the low-and-away cutter that he drilled over the left-center-field wall to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.
"I just kind of thought, 'Well, he's not going to pitch to him,'" Snitker said. "I have the option of walking him. That's my fault right there. But I just assumed right there -- and the pitch he hit was, I mean, most guys don't get that ball. But I could have taken it out of his hands, too."
Sanchez also allowed Yasmani Grandal to crush an 0-2 fastball over the right-center-field wall in the fifth inning. But the crushing blow came when Machado showed why he's one of the game's best players.
"You try to execute a 3-0 pitch," Sanchez said. "You want to throw a pitch for a strike, especially with how good a hitter Machado is. I tried to execute the pitch, but he put a really good swing on it."
After Carmago's groundout moved Acuna to third in the first inning, Freeman grounded out sharply to second baseman Enrique Hernandez and Kershaw left Acuna stranded at third when he got Nick Markakis to look at a wicked 1-2 curveball on the outside corner. There was little reason for Markakis to expect the pitch. With two strikes against a left-hander during the regular season, Kershaw threw a curveball just 5.2 percent of the time, per Statcast™.
"We needed to score that run, "Freeman said. "I got in that hitter's count and hit it right at [Hernandez]. If I hit that four feet to the left, it's up the middle. If I hit it four feet to the right, it's through."
• Braves miss chance for 'release' as 1st fizzles
The Dodgers have thrown 18 pitches with a runner in scoring position through the first 18 innings of this series. Thirteen of those pitches followed Acuna's first-inning double.