'Just a speed bump': Braves let G3 slip away

October 20th, 2021

LOS ANGELES -- If attempting to make sense of the game-changing home run Cody Bellinger hit off on Tuesday night, it’s best to remember the blast occurred within what has become the Braves’ house of horrors.

Very little has gone right for the Braves whenever they have visited Dodger Stadium over the past eight years. But still, it was surprising to see exactly how everything went wrong as they squandered a three-run eighth-inning lead in a 6-5 loss to the Dodgers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

“We were dead in the water,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You could see it.”

Yep. quickly rebounded from a 35-pitch first inning and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler was chased during a four-run fourth. Given the way Tyler Matzek, Jackson and closer Will Smith have pitched recently, there was reason to think the Braves were going to head back to their hotel with a 3-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.

But that was before Will Smith began the eighth with an excuse-me single and advanced to second on a one-out AJ Pollock single. Four pitches later, Bellinger went well above the strike zone to drill Jackson’s 95.6 mph fastball over the right-center-field wall for a game-tying three-run homer.

“Sad thing is I would [throw] the same thing again,” Jackson said.

Bellinger hit a pitch that was 4.12 feet off the ground, making it the second-highest pitch he’s homered against. The 2019 NL MVP hit just .143 (8-for-56 with 27 strikeouts) against pitches thrown 95 mph or faster during the regular season. That was the ninth-worst average among all MLB players who concluded at least 50 plate appearances against a 95-plus mph pitch.

But the numbers sometimes lie, and that seems to be especially true when the Braves are playing at Dodger Stadium.

“I was trying to throw a fastball up and away,” Jackson said. “I actually threw it better than I thought I threw it. Out of my hand, I was like, ‘Oh, that's a ball, it's too high.’ And no, it wasn't too high. It was, you know, a good player put a good swing on it and it was pretty remarkable.”

Mookie Betts capped the eighth-inning comeback with a go-ahead RBI double off Jesse Chavez, and Kenley Jansen struck out the side in a perfect ninth. This was the 82nd time in Dodgers postseason history that they trailed by three-plus runs in the eighth inning or later. It’s the first time they won such a game.

“I think the guys have a lot of confidence in themselves and they will get a good night's sleep, have a nice dinner and be ready to go tomorrow,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “There's going to be no residual effects after this game here. There never has been with this group.”

One thing the Braves must overcome in Game 4 on Wednesday and Game 5 on Thursday is the mental effects of playing in this iconic ballpark. They have lost 21 of their past 25 games -- postseason included -- at Dodger Stadium, including 10 in a row and 13 of their past 14. They lost both playoff games played in Chavez Ravine in 2013 and '18.

“Yeah, it hurts,” Jackson said. “I mean, we lost the game because I made a couple bad pitches that, you know, some days are outs and some days they're home runs.”

Now the Braves are back where they were a year ago, when they held a 2-1 lead on the Dodgers through the first three games of the 2020 NLCS -- and a 3-1 lead after four games -- which was played at the Rangers’ home ballpark. So the Dodger Stadium effect didn’t come into play as Los Angeles won the final three games of that series and then beat Morton’s Rays in the World Series.

Speaking of Morton, his five-inning effort seemed to be a microcosm of the Braves’ season. He surrendered Corey Seager’s two-run homer before recording an out and issued four walks during the first inning. He became the first pitcher to allow a home run and issue four walks in the same inning of a postseason game.

Morton’s ability to get through four more innings unscathed was reminiscent of how Atlanta beat the odds while continuing to win after losing Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Mike Soroka this year.

But Morton’s determined effort combined with Freddie Freeman’s three-hit performance wasn’t enough to give the Braves a commanding series lead. Instead, Bellinger’s homer brought back memories of the go-ahead eighth-inning homer Juan Uribe hit off David Carpenter to decide Game 4 of the 2013 NL Division Series.

Still, if ignoring the Dodger Stadium influence, the numbers are in favor of the Braves.

In series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams like the Dodgers that have lost Games 1 and 2 on the road but then won Game 3 at home have rallied to win the series just nine of 34 times (26%). This excludes 2020, when the LCS and World Series were held at neutral sites.

“This is just a speed bump in the road,” Jackson said. “I wish it didn't happen and I wish we were up 3-0 going into Game 4 and having a chance to sweep. But I have no doubt at all in our team coming back stronger tomorrow.”