If the Dodgers go on to win the pennant and then the World Series, exorcising more than three decades of demons to bring a championship to Los Angeles, they may be able to point to the third inning Friday as the moment when everything changed. If the Braves continue their own quarter century of October frustrations, they’ll have the same moment to blame.
Early in an elimination game at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, the Dodgers were in trouble, which threatened to become deep trouble when the first two batters of the inning singled off Joe Kelly. Already staring at a two-run deficit, the Dodgers feared it becoming three as Dansby Swanson lofted a ball deep enough into right field to become a sacrifice fly.
What happened next transformed the tenor of National League Championship Series Game 5, allowing the Dodgers to roar from behind and upend the Braves, 7-3. As right fielder Mookie Betts sprinted forward, covering 64 feet in four seconds, Marcell Ozuna cut short his secondary lead and wandered back to third base. But when Betts reached down to make a shoestring catch mere inches from the turf, Ozuna left the bag early, becoming the back end of a 9-2 double play following replay review.
That ended the inning; moments later, Corey Seager led off the fourth with a homer. Even though the Dodgers were still trailing by a run, the momentum shift could hardly have been more profound as they rallied in the middle innings to cut their NLCS deficit to 3-2.
“We’ve had a lot of great plays this year,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, referring to Betts’ contribution. “But if you’re talking about momentum shifts, that’s the play of the year for me.”
With Ozuna leading off third base, Betts knew as soon as the ball sliced toward him that he needed to stay on his feet. Diving to make the catch might have robbed Swanson of a hit, but it also would have robbed Betts of any chance to prevent Ozuna from scoring. So Betts didn’t dive. Instead, he reached down to the general area of his left cleat to snare the ball.
“That was my whole plan,” Betts said. “Just to do whatever I could to stay on my feet.”
By itself, the catch was significant, on a line drive Statcast estimated to have a 49 percent hit probability. Combined with Ozuna’s blunder, it cost Atlanta several factors more. The Braves’ most prolific hitter in their Game 4 victory, Ozuna was not available postgame to discuss the play; his manager, Brian Snitker, said simply: “That didn’t help.”
Statistically, the effect was considerable. When Swanson stepped to the plate in the third inning, the Braves boasted a win expectancy of 82.1 percent, thanks to two early rallies. That figure dropped to 72.4 percent after the double play, making it easily the most impactful non-scoring event of the game. When Seager homered, Atlanta’s win expectancy plummeted to 62.0 percent.
“There were a bunch of different plays during that game that really kind of turned the momentum,” Seager said, referencing Betts’ play as one of them. “You just never know where the spark’s going to come.”
Roberts agreed, calling Betts “the straw that stirs us” following a night in which he also finished 2-for-4 with a stolen base, a run scored, an RBI … and a double play more significant than all of it.
“I just thought that there was no way he was going to make that play,” Roberts said.