Riley's clutch blast the 'biggest HR of his life'

Third baseman lifts Braves to NLCS Game 1 win over Dodgers

October 13th, 2020

In a lineup front-loaded with some of the game's most powerful hitters, an unlikely hero emerged from the No. 9 spot to lift the Braves to a 5-1 win over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night at Globe Life Field.

“That’s a pretty good No. 9 hole hitter we’ve got,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman.

It was only a year ago that Austin Riley was left off the Braves' postseason roster. There’s no denying his place on the team this season. With the game tied at 1 in the top of the ninth inning, Riley pummeled a go-ahead solo home run a Statcast-projected 448 feet off a 97.9 mph sinker from Blake Treinen, setting the stage for Atlanta’s breakout four-run inning. It was the third-longest home run of Riley’s two-year MLB career.

“I was able to put a good swing on it and didn’t feel my legs when I was running around the bases,” Riley said. “So it was a good feeling.”

Riley entered this season with a renewed mindset after watching the Braves’ 2019 playoff run from the instructional league in Florida. He wouldn’t let last year’s omission hold him back, but rather motivate him.

“You never want to think you’re off the roster, but I think everybody knows that I wasn’t playing to my ability and there just wasn’t a spot on there for me,” Riley said. “You have to win every ballgame in the postseason, so just took it to heart and told myself that, 'Going into next year, you’re not going to panic when things aren’t going your way.'”

This season, Riley started to heat up toward the end of August (a month in which he had 17 RBIs) and into the beginning of September. But he battled right quad tightness in the final stretch of the regular season. It was just another obstacle to overcome, one that he did to earn a spot on the postseason roster.

“I just love it for him,” said Freeman, who also homered in the win. “He’s been battling, going through some ups and downs his first couple of years. For him to have that moment, the biggest home run of his life, I’m just so happy for him.”

Riley managed the five-pitch at-bat with poise and composure. He swung and missed on the first pitch from Treinen, then fouled off the next two. After he laid off a slider, he stepped out of the batter's box to remind himself to keep his hands close to his body and follow through with his swing. The next pitch was the home run, which was only his second hit off a fastball this year.

That cool, collected mindset on a stage of that magnitude went beyond his age. Riley (23 years and 193 days old) became the fourth-youngest player to hit a postseason go-ahead homer in the ninth inning or later, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only younger players to do it were Jimmie Foxx (22 years, 349 days) in 1930, Tim McCarver (22 years, 362 days) in ‘64 and Chipper Jones (23 years, 162 days) in ‘95.

Riley's late-game homer also stands out in Braves playoff lore. It was Atlanta’s sixth postseason go-ahead homer in the ninth inning or later. The feat hadn't been done since Rick Ankiel homered off Ramon Ramirez in Game 2 of the 2010 NL Division Series.

“For a guy like Austin Riley, we know that is in there,” manager Brian Snitker said. “You just keep hanging with those guys. If a guy like Austin gets it going, it’s something special.”

That something special was a four-run ninth that earned the Braves the Game 1 victory. After Riley homered, Ronald Acuña Jr. doubled and Marcell Ozuna drove him in with an RBI single. One batter after the Dodgers replaced Treinen with Jake McGee, Ozzie Albies put an exclamation mark on the night with the second home run of the frame. Atlanta tied a club record for most runs scored in the ninth inning or later of a postseason game.

The Braves now hold an NLCS lead for the first time since 1999, thanks in large part to a player who is making the most of his first postseason run.

“The confidence is starting to build more and more,” Riley said. “Tonight was a great win.”