Braves ousted by LA: 'An unbelievable run'
Having just addressed his team following the season-ending 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday night, Braves manager Brian Snitker explained why this year’s disappointment wasn’t as painful as what he’d experienced last October.
“This hurts, but I’m proud of what these guys accomplished,” Snitker said. “I felt worse last year than I do this year, quite honestly. I feel good right now. I wanted to go to the World Series so bad. It doesn’t work out sometimes. But we did a lot of really good things organizationally and with our club this year.”
Despite losing Mike Soroka in early August and spending most of the season without more than one or two dependable starting pitchers, the Braves won a postseason series for the first time since 2001 and finished a win away from their first World Series since 1999.
But even while overcoming so much, the Braves also squandered a 3-1 series lead. Just add it to the pain felt in Atlanta, a city still haunted by Larry Bird besting Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 and a squandered 28-3 lead in a recent Super Bowl.
It also doesn’t help that the Braves have lost four of their past five NLCS appearances and six straight winner-take-all games, including Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals in 2019. So while progress was made, the conclusion was all too familiar for Atlanta fans.
“We heard it all year that the Dodgers were the best team in baseball,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We took them to Game 7, and we gave them a little heart murmur in this series. We gave them all they could handle. They just made all the right plays at the right time.”
The decisive play was the two-out solo homer Cody Bellinger belted off Chris Martin in the seventh inning. Bellinger fouled off three straight 2-2 pitches before ending an eight-pitch battle by drilling the series-winning homer deep into the right-field seats.
Martin was one pitch away from adding to the success of his impressive season. He had not allowed a home run over a span of 25 appearances dating back to Opening Day, when he surrendered Yoenis Céspedes’ game-winning homer, coincidentally also in the seventh.
“The Atlanta Braves are an amazing team,” Bellinger said. “It was not an easy series. That was fun right there.”
The Braves had plenty of fun as their offense backed strong starts by Max Fried and Ian Anderson in the first two games of this series. Kyle Wright’s ugly outing in Game 3 was followed by Bryse Wilson delivering an unexpected gem in Game 4.
None of these four hurlers had made a postseason start before this season, and they had combined to make 75 starts before the playoffs began. Well, Fried had made 50. Anderson (6), Wright (12) and Wilson (7) combined for 25.
Still, the Braves won each of their first seven games this postseason. Four of those wins were shutouts. Leading the way was Anderson, who became the first Braves rookie to ever start Game 7 of a postseason series.
Anderson kept his scoreless streak alive until Dodgers catcher Will Smith’s two-out, two-run single in the third. Smith’s hit through the vacated right side of the infield beat the shift and extended a rally that began with Justin Turner drawing a two-out walk after falling behind with a 1-2 count.
Anderson began his postseason career with 17 2/3 scoreless innings. The only longer postseason streaks in franchise history were produced by Lew Burdette (24 innings during the 1957 World Series) and Tom Glavine (18 innings from 1995-96).
“At the end of the day, they put tough at-bats up there and they really earned it,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we really handed it to them by any means. That’s what makes it tough for everyone in that locker room.”
Anderson lasted just three innings, so the Braves were forced to dip into their bullpen early. In the sixth, they called upon A.J. Minter, who had thrown 42 pitches while striking out seven of 10 batters as the opener in Game 5 on Friday.
When the Braves brought Minter in to protect a 3-2 lead in Sunday’s sixth, the Dodgers called back Joc Pederson and inserted Kiké Hernández, who hit a game-tying homer off the Atlanta lefty.
“There’s a lot of things that could have gone the other way, but the Dodgers made plays,” said Freeman, who saw Mookie Betts rob him of a home run in the fifth.
Chris Taylor followed Hernández’s homer with a double. But he was thrown out while running on contact from third base on Corey Seager’s sharp grounder to third. This baserunning mistake might not have been as costly as the one the Braves committed after claiming a lead in the fourth.
Austin Riley delivered a go-ahead RBI single against Tony Gonsolin’s 0-2 splitter and advanced when Blake Treinen’s wild pitch gave the Braves runners at second and third with none out in the fourth. The threat ended when Dansby Swanson was caught between home and third after running on contact on Nick Markakis’ grounder to third. Riley made matters worse when he froze before unsuccessfully attempting to reach third during the rundown.
"We're usually a good baserunning team,” Snitker said. “We just did some fundamental things wrong."
That was as critical as Snitker got when he was asked about the finale of this season, which brought him a lot of satisfaction.
“We have nothing to hang our heads about,” Snitker said. “We have nothing to be ashamed of. This was an unbelievable run. It was fun. It was rewarding. We gained a lot of unbelievable experience. You can’t replicate this. These guys just went through an NLCS and were a couple runs away from going to the World Series.”