ATLANTA -- The Dodgers, tied in the ninth inning for the second time in as many games, were building themselves another rally on Saturday night. Cody Bellinger’s two-out single sent Chris Taylor to second base. Mookie Betts was due up, with two men aboard. The Dodgers were in business.
And then, suddenly, they weren’t. Taylor found himself in no-man’s land, having strayed too far past the second-base bag when he realized that, actually, he probably shouldn’t be risking the final out at third base. Braves right fielder Joc Pederson fielded Bellinger’s single far quicker than Taylor had anticipated. So Taylor slammed on the brakes. By then, it was too late.
A rundown ensued, and Taylor was tagged out, negating the Dodgers’ best chance to win Game 1 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park. A few minutes later, they lost it, 3-2, on a walk-off single from Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley in the bottom of the ninth.
Having out-hit the Braves, 10-6, the Dodgers were left only to rue their missed opportunities. And one missed opportunity, in particular.
“It was just a bad read,” Taylor said. “I saw it barely got over [second baseman Ozzie] Albies' head, and thought I could get to third. I didn't realize Joc got it so quick and tried to stop. Just, I should've kept going.”
The Dodgers’ offense has been inconsistent this postseason, having scored three runs or fewer in five of their seven games. Of course, in the other two, they scored a total of 16. But for a team that boasts one of the best collections of bats in the Majors, their lineup is clearly not firing on all cylinders.
Then again, even when the Dodgers’ offense hasn’t fully clicked this season, they’ve managed to win games because of their savvy. They don’t give away outs. Notably, they don’t run into many outs on the bases. The Dodgers were thrown out only 42 times on the basepaths this season, tied for the seventh-fewest in the Majors, despite finishing tied for the sport’s fourth-highest on-base percentage.
“You don't want to make the last out there when we're in scoring position,” Taylor put it succinctly.
Taylor never picked up third-base coach Dino Ebel on the play, though that’s standard operating procedure for the Dodgers. The way they teach it, the runner on first base is given the freedom to make his own read on a single hit to the outfield.
Taylor’s read was to break for third. Then, he changed his mind. And that’s where the play went haywire. Even if Taylor had made the wrong decision to go for third, he would’ve at least forced Pederson to make a good throw had he continued to run.
“By the book he should have probably stayed,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “But it was hit softly, toward the gap, so I felt that he thought he had a good read on it.
“It's one of those where you’ve got to pick. You either are going to go hard … or just hold up and, two outs, give Mookie a chance. But I think right there he was kind of caught in between. That's when you get in trouble.”
Pederson still needed to make a smart split-second decision to throw behind the runner to second base. His throw to Dansby Swanson was low, and the Braves’ shortstop picked it cleanly. Swanson turned to first base to check on Bellinger, then turned toward third where he noticed that Taylor was hung up.
“To be honest with you, I thought [Taylor] was going to be at third already, once I jumped and the ball went over my head,” Albies said. “When I turned around and I saw him halfway, and he stopped, I said, ‘OK, we got him.’ Dansby did a great job to pick that ball that Joc threw, and we got him out.”
The Braves executed the ensuing rundown with minimal fuss -- Swanson to Riley back to Swanson. As Taylor attempted to avoid Swanson’s tag, he spun and hit his head on Swanson’s left thigh.
Taylor appeared to be shaken up, as he slammed his helmet to the dirt. But afterward, he said he felt fine.
“Just frustrated,” said Taylor, who had an RBI single in the second inning and then was stranded at third in the seventh after leading off with a hustle double.
Two days after Bellinger’s single with two men aboard gave the Dodgers a ninth-inning lead in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Giants, Betts wouldn’t be afforded that same chance.
Presented with a gift, the Braves promptly capitalized, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS. In postseason history, teams taking a 1-0 lead in any best-of-seven series have gone on to win that series 116 of 182 times (64%).
“Joc did a really good job of closing in on that ball,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “Dansby had a heads-up play, as he always does. You never know. I mean, that's a huge, huge out in the game.”