This feels eerily familiar, doesn’t it?
In both the 2020 NLCS and the 2021 NLCS, the Braves grabbed a surprising 2-0 series lead against the favored Dodgers, and then Los Angeles responded with an emphatic momentum-shifting Game 3 victory.
Last year, the Dodgers scored 11 runs in the first inning of Game 3 and cruised to a 15-3 win. This time, the Braves avoided that disastrous first frame, delaying the painful part of the game until the eighth inning, when Cody Bellinger — the former MVP who produced an anemic .165 batting average and 45 OPS+ during the regular season — continued his redemption tour with a three-run home run that knotted the game at 5-5. Two batters later, a Mookie Betts double drove home Chris Taylor with the winning run.
Different paths, same destination: Decisive victory for the Dodgers.
Last year, the Braves won Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead, then frittered away the final three contests as the Dodgers claimed the NL’s spot in the World Series. Atlanta sports fans, already cynical by virtue of, well, having watched Atlanta sports teams most often fall short of the biggest prizes during their lifetimes, are probably panicking a bit right now, whether or not they’ll admit it.
Is another winnable series about to slip away? Will history repeat itself? It certainly could, but for Braves fans, here are three reasons to think this year could be different.
1. Max, Ian and Charlie
The bullpen effort in Game 4 is scary for Atlanta fans, no doubt. Quite honestly, that one could get away from the Braves quickly, and Drew Smyly could wind up throwing a handful of “take one for the team” innings if things get out of hand early. It’s not that the Dodgers winning Wednesday’s game is a foregone conclusion, but the point we’re trying to make is this: Even if L.A. wins that one, Atlanta is still in good shape heading into the final stretch.
Max Fried will take the mound on full rest in Game 5. He wasn’t at his sharpest in Game 1, and he still held the Dodgers to just two runs in six solid innings of work. He posted a 3.14 ERA on the road this year (he was at 2.94 at home).
Ian Anderson would be set for Game 6 back in Atlanta. And, yeah, he gave up the homer to Corey Seager in the first inning of Game 2, but this is a kid with a 1.35 ERA in 26 2/3 career postseason innings, including three starts against the Dodgers. He only threw 55 pitches in his first start, so he’ll be ready to go.
And then Charlie Morton would be on the bump, again on full rest, for a potential Game 7 (if he wasn’t called on to help hold a lead in Game 6). This is the fifth consecutive postseason in which Morton has competed; he has a 2.52 ERA in his past eight playoff starts. He might be 37 years old, but he’s on the short list of pitchers any manager would feel confident rolling out for a win-or-go-home start. He might not win it by himself, but he’ll battle and keep the Braves competitive into the middle of the game, just like he did in Game 3.
2. Atlanta’s offense is better this time
The Braves somehow won the first two games of this series with zero offensive contributions from Freddie Freeman, who went 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts. Obviously, he’s too good for that to continue, and he broke out of that funk with three hits in Game 3. Austin Riley is showing why Braves fans spent the past two months of the season telling anyone who would listen — and even those who wouldn’t — why Riley deserved to be in the MVP conversation.
Eddie Rosario looks inspired at the plate, Joc Pederson has rarely been more locked in and Dansby Swanson, who popped 27 homers during the regular season, is batting eighth for the Braves, for crying out loud. Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall are rolling along, business as usual, like they’re playing the Phillies in a June series.
The Braves are being aggressive, chasing strikes and batting .275 against Dodgers pitchers through the first three games. They chased Walker Buehler before the end of the fourth, Max Scherzer before the end of the fifth and jumped on Game 4 starter Julio Urias in his relief outing.
3. These Dodgers can be pitched to
It’s not that the Dodgers’ lineup lacks power or has glaring weak spots. Far from it, in fact. It’s just not as good this year as it was last year, because last year’s Dodgers lineup was pretty incredible. This year’s group offers at least a sliver of hope for pitchers. Part of that, of course, has to do with Max Muncy’s absence. The Dodgers’ first baseman had a .452 on-base percentage in the 2020 NLCS, with two homers and six RBIs. He’s out with an injury. Joc Pederson hit .389 in that NLCS for the Dodgers, and he’s playing for the Braves now. Corey Seager hit five home runs and had 11 RBIs in that NLCS, and it’s doubtful he repeats that total — and I say that even with two homers already through three games.
And here’s the truth: In the wild-card game, the Dodgers were held to a single run heading into the ninth inning. In the NLDS against the Giants, they were shut out twice and scored as many runs in Game 2 (nine) as they did in the other four games combined. The Dodgers scored two runs in Game 1 of the NLCS and had just four hits in Game 2. Even in Game 3, when the Dodgers scored six runs on 10 hits, four of those runs and six of those hits were in the eighth inning, and the first two hits were not exactly line drives off the bat (Bellinger’s certainly was, though).
Again, it’s not to say the Los Angeles offense is weak or vulnerable, just that it’s not the dominating force it was last October. The Dodgers have walked a tightrope in both the wild-card game and the NLDS, and they came out on top in tense, down-to-the-wire competitions both times. But that’s a tough way to survive the month of October.
So, yes, Atlanta can still win this series, and it’s more than one-in-a-million talk.