ATLANTA -- After finally getting past the Giants in a thrilling five-game National League Division Series, it was easy to assume that the hardest part of the Dodgers’ quest for a repeat was behind them.
They had eliminated the only team with a better record than theirs in the postseason field and were getting ready to face a team that finished with 18 fewer wins than they did during the regular season.
But the games aren’t played on paper. It was never actually going to be that easy in the best-of-seven NL Championship Series.
The Dodgers lost Game 1, 3-2, to the Braves on Saturday at Truist Park on a ninth-inning, walk-off single by Austin Riley off right-hander Blake Treinen. If the Dodgers want to advance to the World Series, they’re going to have to come from behind in the NLCS against Atlanta for the second consecutive year.
“Anybody can win on any given day,” said Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner. “It doesn’t matter what the odds say or what the numbers say. You got to play the game. ... That’s baseball. Anything can happen.”
Coming into the series, if there was one game in which the Dodgers weren’t going to be considered the favorites, it was going to be Game 1. After using Max Scherzer as the closer in Game 5 of the NLDS, the Dodgers decided to give the right-hander an extra day of rest and go with a bullpen game in Game 1. The Braves, on the other hand, were countering with their ace, left-hander Max Fried.
Through eight innings, however, the Dodgers put themselves in a great position to steal a win. The bullpen game worked out almost perfectly for a second consecutive game, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts effectively used seven pitchers to hold the Braves to two runs. That included Kenley Jansen, who made a surprise appearance in the eighth inning, which meant that the ninth would go to Treinen. Roberts said the move to use Jansen in the eighth was based on what they believed were favorable matchups.
But after getting Freddie Freeman to strike out for the fourth time in the game, Treinen ran into trouble. Ozzie Albies singled and stole second before Riley turned on Treinen’s slider, a pitch that had produced an opponents’ batting average of .074 this season.
“That was huge tonight, to get that first one out and under your belt,” Riley said. “Hopefully tomorrow is the same outcome.”
Saturday’s loss certainly puts the Dodgers in a slight hole. In best-of-seven postseason series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams winning Game 1 at home have gone on to win the series 62 of 94 times (66%). This excludes 2020, when the LCS and World Series were played at neutral sites.
But if there’s a team that’s equipped to make that stat irrelevant, it’s this one. Though effective, the Dodgers won’t have to rely on a bullpen game until a potential Game 5. Scherzer will get the ball in Game 2, followed by Walker Buehler in Game 3 and Julio Urías in Game 4. Not many teams have the luxury of tossing three top-five NL Cy Young candidates, but that’s how talented the Dodgers are on the pitching side. Now, it just comes down to those three pitchers executing.
“Tomorrow we’re going to be fine,” said Dodgers utility man Chris Taylor. “We’ve been here plenty of times.”
Pitching is only part of the equation, however. Despite outhitting the Braves, 10-6, in Game 1, the Dodgers’ offense continued to struggle in the postseason. Taylor drove in the first run with a two-out single in the second and Will Smith recorded his third homer of the postseason in the fourth. But the offense has now been held to three or fewer runs in five of seven postseason games.
The Dodgers’ best opportunity to score a late-inning run came in the seventh. The Dodgers had Taylor at third base with just one out. They also had two of their best hitters, Mookie Betts and Turner, due up. Neither All-Star was able to drive in the run, as Betts popped out to first and Turner struck out swinging against left-hander Tyler Matzek. The Dodgers went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
“There’s a situational at-bat in there that I’ll take our guy anytime and we didn’t come through,” Roberts said. “It happens. It’s baseball. But I thought tonight, considering the stuff that Fried had out there, get him out after six, I thought we took good at-bats against him. We just couldn’t push enough runs across.”
The other mistake that ultimately cost the Dodgers was Taylor’s baserunning blunder in the ninth inning. After Cody Bellinger dropped a single into right field, just over Albies’ head, Taylor rounded second and took off for third. But as he peeked over into the outfield, he saw that Joc Pederson had already picked up the ball and tried to hit the brakes before slipping. Suddenly, he was caught in no man’s land.
“You don’t want to make the last out when you’re in scoring position,” Taylor said. “I should’ve kept going. ... It was just a bad read on my part.”
The Dodgers have been in this situation before during their nine-year postseason run and still believe they are set up to win the series. But beating the Braves isn’t going to be as easy as many thought. It never was. They were reminded of that on Saturday.