LOS ANGELES – The Atlanta Braves haven’t played a lot of playoff games the past five years. In fact that number would be one, the one they played here Thursday night. Upon their first-game re-entry into relevance, that heel-turn coming a bit sooner than anyone – including the Atlanta Braves – might have expected, it is possible, probable even, they would have lost no matter how they’d played.
Hyun-jin Ryu was very forceful, if one may view a precision changeup in such terms. And the Los Angeles Dodgers did what they generally do, which is to pick out a few pitches over the course of a few hours and cold-jack them into the bleachers. They’re not so much into sustained rallies. The Braves actually are better at that. No, the Dodgers are more into the back-leg offense, which is what all the kids are doing these days anyway. Keeps ‘em young.
So, maybe, just for those few hours of Game 1 of the National League Division Series, it’d be best to overlook the notion the Braves walked into a ballpark in the foothills of the San Gabriels and for a just a moment forgot which foot went first and which one went second in a 6-0 loss to the Dodgers.
Nobody, of course, would admit that it got a little big here, that the air got a little thick, that there suddenly was an awful lot on the line. They’d earned their way into this series for six months, six honest months, burying the best team on paper (Washington Nationals) and best team on Aug. 11 (Philadelphia Phillies) to do it, to the point where no one could claim this was a fluke or a soft outcome. They were better than those teams. And while the Braves aren’t near full grown, neither has the National League grown into its big-boy muscles, not as compared to the other league. So, the Braves of Freeman and Acuña and Albies and Camargo and Markakis wouldn’t have to apologize for their party, any more than, say, the Dodgers would have to apologize for theirs.
The Braves scored their runs. They prevented their runs. They played the game better than most. They survived it just like any other ballclub that starts out trying to find its way and ends up having figured a way to win a handful of games more than the teams they had to outrun.
So, about Thursday night. Didn’t look great. It happens. They looked young. It happens. They threw imprecise pitches and made poor decisions and missed a sign and pitched to the wrong guy and made a mistake on defense and were so bench-short they sacrificed an out in a four-run deficit by batting a person who’d hit .052 this season. Against a postseason sturdy team like the Dodgers, that’s how a team comes out of the gate with a zero-to-one hole in games, how 1-0 in the first inning becomes 4-0 in the second, becomes 5-0 in the sixth and 6-0 in the eighth, becomes a bus ride back to the hotel, all before it really gets started.
It’s not as though it were ugly. It just was so thorough.
Braves ace Mike Foltynewicz, who’d spent six months overcoming a four-year, not-quite-there label by winning 13 games and logging 183 innings and posting a 2.85 ERA, gave up a two-strike home run to Joc Pederson in the first inning. Afterward he called that fastball a “somewhat all right pitch,” except it was an 0-2 pitch that landed 383 feet away. He’d expend 25 more pitches in the first inning without further damage, then get the first two outs and the next two strikes of the second, only to hit a batter on an 0-2 pitch, walk the next batter, and allow a three-run homer to Max Muncy.
“Yeah, pretty much I’ve been thinking about that all night,” Foltynewicz said.
He was done after two innings (after batting in the top of the third), his first postseason start undone in the moments of a couple two-strike pitches.
The score was still 4-0, still somewhat manageable if you didn’t count what Ryu was doing, when rookie Ronald Acuña Jr., about the best 20-year-old you’ve ever seen, and in fact even better than that, began the sixth inning by reaching first base on an error. The strength of the Braves’ lineup stretched behind him. If Ryu, who once since April had thrown more than 89 pitches in a game, was to be gotten, this was the time and place.
Acuña took off for second base.
In the sixth inning. Of a four-run game. In which the Braves had managed one previous runner to second base.
Johan Camargo, another of the fine young Braves, swung through a 2-2 pitch. Acuña was out at second by plenty. The sixth inning was all but gone.
“Yeah, we held him,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “And, you know, I know he probably looked at [third base coach Ron Washington] and looked right through him. In his mind, he’s an aggressive kid. He wants to make something happen. But in that situation we held him. He missed a sign and we probably [would have] ran him 3-and-2.”
Snitker’s been around forever, and has seen more young ones than old ones.
“I’ve had it happen to me before as a third-base coach,” he said. “Those guys, sometimes you’ll put a sign on and they’re looking right through you. It happens. It wasn’t by any stretch anything that cost us a game or anything like that. It was just a kid, I think, that was out there and thinking that his teammate’s going to put that ball in play and he’s going to try to help make something happen.”
“Those are just things that are part of the game,” he said through a translator. “If I miss it, it’s just part of the game.”
Well, and that certainly is true. It does get a touch more expensive in the postseason, however, looking straight through one’s third-base coach. Just like getting 0-2 pitches hit over fences. Or rallying the other lineup after there are two out. Or, whatever else might’ve gone on the first Thursday night in October the Braves have seen in a while.
This is what October feels like. Tastes like. How it fills one’s lungs. And so, if they didn’t know before, the Braves know now.
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