Smith, Braves' 'pen cap 'unbelievable' NLDS

October 15th, 2021

ATLANTA -- Braves closer planned to pitch the ninth inning on Tuesday night at Truist Park, regardless of whether jumped a first-pitch slider from Brewers closer Josh Hader and smashed a ground-rattling go-ahead home run to left-center field in the bottom of the eighth.

Of course, Freeman did exactly that.

Freeman’s heroics did not change Smith’s mindset as he trotted from the bullpen to the mound in a 5-4 victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Smith still needed to get three outs to clinch the Braves’ second consecutive trip to the NL Championship Series where they'll take on the Dodgers beginning Saturday. But it certainly changed the mood in the ballpark as fans stood and cheered as Smith’s warm-up music blared.

“You see Freddie clip one and you’ve really got a job,” Smith said. “You lock it in and here we go.”

Smith allowed a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Eduardo Escobar, but the lefty retired the next two batters before 2018 NL MVP Award winner Christian Yelich stepped to the plate. Smith struck out Yelich on three consecutive sliders.

Smith placed the third one on the outside corner for a called strike three.

It capped a tremendous performance from the Braves’ bullpen throughout the best-of-five series. Atlanta started Charlie Morton on short rest in Game 4 for just the second time in his career -- and the first time in more than 13 years. The Braves expected Morton to pitch no more than four innings, meaning the bullpen had to be on high alert earlier than usual.

“We have meetings before the game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “With [bullpen coach] Drew [French] … because this time of year, we’ve used them in different pods or whatever … it’s like, 'Tell so-and-so to be ready earlier.' And things like, ‘Give them a heads up.’”

Morton pitched 3 1/3 innings. Jesse Chavez, Huascar Ynoa, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Tyler Matzek and Smith took Atlanta the rest of the way. The six combined to allow four hits, two runs and two walks, while striking out 10 in 5 2/3 innings.

The bullpen posted a 1.23 ERA in the series. Smith saved Games 2, 3 and 4 with three scoreless innings. Jackson and Matzek pitched in all four games. Jackson did not allow a run in 3 1/3 innings. Matzek did not allow a run in 4 1/3 innings.

“They did an unbelievable job, as they have been,” Snitker said. “It’s like I told Luke and Matzek, ‘You get, like, four days off and I'm going to do it again to you.’ So those guys were unbelievable, how they take the ball and want the ball. Luke wanted to go back out if we didn't get down there and hit for him in the seventh. He wanted the ball in the eighth. He said, ‘I'm great. I'm good.’

"They all stick their head in the door: ‘I'm good to go.’ They don't want to be down. They like throwing. And they love competing. It's a great group. Like I said, I've ridden them pretty hard, too.”

By doing their jobs well on Tuesday, Atlanta's relievers earned an extra day of rest with no Game 5 needed on Thursday in Milwaukee.

Instead, they can prepare for Game 1 of the NLCS.

“Everyone knew they had an opportunity to go in before the game,” Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud said. “I could tell they were all just locked in. If their name was called, they were going to be ready. That team over there is an excellent team, and for us to limit them to six runs the whole series is huge. And the bullpen did a tremendous job the whole series, especially today. I mean, we got them to four runs and we held them there.”

Joc Pederson on Monday and Freeman on Tuesday each talked about having a slow heartbeat in big moments. Smith was asked if it is the same for pitchers.

“I'm definitely trying to do the same thing,” he said. “I'm trying to slow it down, not treat it as a bullpen, but you still got to have conviction behind every pitch you throw. The moment, as a pitcher, [if] you try to do too much, that's when you get flattened out, your breaking balls aren't as sharp. You try to take the extra two, three seconds in between pitches, slow it down. You know what kind of defense you have behind you, so let them put it in play and those guys usually go get it.”

Or just throw three great sliders and do it yourself.