By the time Ronald Acuña Jr. danced down the third-base line in the ninth inning with the happiest of high-knee runs while scoring on a Marcell Ozuna single or when closer Mark Melancon confidently lifted his arms not just to celebrate Ozzie Albies’ two-run homer but to actually catch it between warmup pitches in the bullpen, there could be no doubt.
We’ve got something here.
The Dodgers might have the look of an all-time team after their stranglehold on the shortened season. But the Atlanta Braves aren’t in this National League Championship Series at Arlington’s Globe Life Field by accident, either. And in breaking open a Game 1 that had been tighter than Walker Buehler’s leggings-masquerading-as-baseball-pants and winning it, 5-1, the Braves sowed the season’s first seed of doubt about the Dodgers.
“We’re like an NBA game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You don’t want to leave because a lot of things don’t happen until the last third.”
At what amounted to halftime of this 2020 postseason, before the NLCS began, some might have wondered whether Atlanta’s 5-0 start was attributable to serendipitous seeding.
In the Wild Card Series, the Braves shut out a Reds team that had hit just .212 in the 60-game season. In the NL Division Series, they breezed past a Marlins club whose mere presence in the postseason was due to their success in the seven-inning doubleheaders necessitated by their own COVID-19 outbreak. Just as it was fun to celebrate the Braves’ 0.92 ERA in those five games, it was also fair to wonder whether they would withstand this deep and dominant Dodgers squad.
One game does not a series make. But the Braves, who were the definition of rotation adversity in the regular season and hadn’t advanced this deep into October since 2001, demonstrated that nothing’s going to come easy for the Dodgers this week.
Even on a night when the Braves’ young ace (and L.A. native) Max Fried ran his pitch count up early, he delivered six sterling innings in which he allowed just a run to his boyhood team. Even on a night when the Atlanta offense consistently came up empty with runners in scoring position, a four-run eruption in the ninth was in the offing. Even on a night in which left fielder Adam Duvall suffered what looked to be a bad oblique injury and the Braves wound up batting both Pablo Sandoval and Charlie Culberson -- two players designated for assignment in September -- in a big spot, they downed a Dodgers team stuffed with stars.
It was a 1-1 ballgame when the Braves came to bat in the ninth against Blake Treinen. No. 9 hitter Austin Riley -- much like Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman in the first inning and Dodgers second baseman Kiké Hernández in the fifth -- conquered Globe Life’s cavernous conditions with his line-drive home run to center to give the Braves the go-ahead run.
“That’s a pretty good nine-hole hitter we’ve got, huh?” Freeman said.
A Braves team that finished second only to the Dodgers in runs scored this season has the depth to string together the big inning, and they proved it once Riley broke the dam. Acuña doubled, Ozuna singled and Albies made a mockery of the close contest that once was with his two-run blast off Jake McGee.
What did all four of those big hits have in common?
They all came after Riley, Acuña, Ozuna and Albies had fallen behind 0-2.
They’re not just in this NLCS, they’re up 1-0 -- an advantage 64 percent of Game 1 winners in past best-of-sevens have used as a springboard to a series win. That’s not an overwhelming advantage, but it’s enough to turn everything that was assumed by the oddsmakers coming into this week on its head. The Dodgers hadn’t lost a ballgame since Sept. 23, and they haven’t lost much, at all. So many things about the COVID-altered calendar were weird, but not that. The Dodgers were expected to be great, and they lived up to it by going 43-17 in the regular season and 5-0 to open the postseason.
October, though, is its own animal, as the Dodgers can attest. And it wouldn’t be October if we didn’t have some questions about the Dodgers’ bullpen. It’s the single biggest factor that could swing this series in the Braves’ favor. Snitker got scoreless innings from Chris Martin, Will Smith and Melancon in this win, and he has other high-leverage options aplenty in Shane Greene, Tyler Matzek and Darren O’Day. The Dodgers, meanwhile, are trying to dance around the decline of Kenley Jansen with a committee approach, and Treinen’s nightmare ninth, on the heels of a September in which he gave up nine runs in 10 2/3 innings, is an early source of agita.
“He’s going to have to do it again,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Treinen. “It just didn’t work out. But I trust that he’s going to get those guys out.”
Let Game 1 serve as confirmation that the Braves are a tough out -- in the context of an at-bat, an inning and a series. Just as this game was tight until it wasn’t, the Dodgers are favorites until they aren’t. We have the makings of a legit -- and fun -- NLCS here.