ATLANTA – Nothing ever comes easy in the postseason for the Atlanta Braves. Never, ever, ever.
Atlanta came into Friday night's NL division series game against the Los Angeles Dodgers needing a win. Coming off a poor showing against Clayton Kershaw on Thursday night, Atlanta couldn't expect to survive long in Los Angeles down two games to none in the best-of-five series.
And so Atlanta did what it had to do in Game 2, winning 4-3 Friday to even the series. Of course, this being Atlanta, what seemed like a cruise-control victory turned into yet another last-second escape.
The Braves have lost six straight opening games in a division series, and not surprisingly have lost the last five of those series. The last time the Braves won a playoff series, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine were still in Atlanta uniforms.
Put another way, the last time the Braves won a playoff series, Jason Heyward, Friday's hero, was 12 years old. These Braves are not a team of October veterans, and that, according to manager Fredi Gonzalez, is part of the reason why his team struggled in Game 1.
"There was a lot of firsts for a lot of guys, a lot of first appearances, a lot of first at-bats in the division series, a lot of first managing the first game in the division [series], too," Gonzalez said after the game. "We had four pitchers come out of the bullpen [Thursday] for the first time to pitch in a playoff game, and I think that was good to get them in there and get them settled in. [Thursday] was good for them to get their feet wet and kind of settle them down a little bit. But today I didn't think there was going to be any residue from [Thursday]."
Game 2 didn't exactly start out that way. Mike Minor allowed the Dodgers' Mark Ellis to score on a Hanley Ramirez double, and Los Angeles had a lead before many of the Turner Field faithful – and there were an awful lot on this night – had even reached their seats.
So the script looked familiar. Atlanta had lost 28 of its last 37 postseason games. What on earth was there to indicate this year would be any different?
To start, the Braves figured out how to manufacture runs. Like Kershaw before him, Dodgers starter Zack Greinke wasn't giving Atlanta much to hit, so the Braves couldn't use their usual stack-the-bases-and-swing-for-the-fences strategy. Atlanta plated runs in the second and fourth innings to take a 2-1 lead.
Then came the seventh inning. Should the Braves advance, or perhaps reach or even win the World Series, the team will look back on the seventh inning of Game 2 as pivotal. It was there Atlanta had the chance to let the game, and possibly the series, slip away, and it was there the Braves held their ground.
Skip Schumacher's single chased Minor, and reliever Luis Ayala missed a chance to get pinch-hitter Michael Young out at first when he couldn't get his foot on the bag. With men on first and third, new reliever Luis Avilan induced Carl Crawford into an inning-ending double play that had little margin for error.
"We felt like if [Crawford] got it on the ground, they're not going to get two unless it's just a bullet right at somebody," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "At that point, that's a big league play. Many times you'll see that guy not make that play."
The bottom of the inning was even stranger. The Braves had men on second and third with two out, with Reed Johnson, who'd hit just .244 playing in less than half of Atlanta's games this year, at the plate. Inexplicably, Mattingly intentionally walked Johnson to face Jason Heyward, who promptly ripped a two-run single right up the middle off reliever Paco Gonzalez to give Atlanta a 4-1 lead.
Even then, Atlanta couldn't appreciate prosperity; Ramirez slammed a two-run homer to start the eighth. And in the ninth, catcher Gerald Laird threw out Dee Gordon on a bang-bang play in an attempted steal of second to snuff out the last Dodgers rally. The Braves escaped, the crowd chanted, the tomahawks chopped, and for a brief moment, the Georgia Bulldogs weren't the most popular team in the state.
"Every night in the postseason is a must-win game for us," Heyward said. "You don't want to ever think it's OK to lose. That's been our attitude all year."
After the game, the Braves' clubhouse was about as rowdy as your average strip-mall insurance office. While the Detroit-Oakland game played silently on TVs overhead, Avilan, Laird, Elliot Johnson and others spoke the party line ("We want to make sure we get back to Atlanta and give ourselves a chance to clinch here," Laird said).
In Atlanta's clubhouse, images of the past – and by association, what's expected in the present – are everywhere. Black-and-white photos of the Braves' glory days ring the entire clubhouse, with Maddux, Glavine, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and the rest reveling in one win or another. On Friday night, there was no celebration, not yet. There were only full suitcases waiting to be loaded on an overnight flight to Los Angeles, and the time-to-go-home strains of "Georgia On My Mind" filtering down from the stadium above.
The only evidence of the Braves' intent was a sign on a television in the center of the clubhouse. "Next home game: Los Angeles at Atlanta, October 9," it read. There was no "if necessary" in sight.
Atlanta may well return to Turner Field for more games, especially if the team can play like it did Friday night. Chances are, however, the path back home will be anything but routine.