ATLANTA — For a sport so governed by cold numbers, baseball is, at its heart, a sport of hunches and guesses. You know that a hitter who reaches base two times out of every five is on an All-Star trajectory. But you don’t know how that hitter will react when you pair him up with two, three or four other great batsmen. Maybe he’ll scrap. Maybe he’ll struggle. Maybe he’ll go cold under pressure.
And maybe, if he’s Manny Machado, he’ll turn an already fearsome lineup into a monumental one.
Machado homered to ice the National League Division Series on Monday night, a three-run shot that put Los Angeles ahead of the overmatched Atlanta Braves for good both in Game 4 and in the series. Maybe the Dodgers couldn’t script this exact scenario – game on the line, Machado at the plate, fastball on the way – but they put in place everything to make it possible. And now, the biggest name of the 2018 trade deadline is well on his way to becoming the biggest name of the postseason.
“The plays you see on TV don’t really do him justice,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “He’s pretty impressive when it comes down to it.”
Los Angeles has a long road to go to even return to the World Series. The Milwaukee Brewers, their NLCS opponent, is riding the hottest winning streak in the majors. And neither the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros or New York Yankees would be an easy matchup should the Dodgers return to the series. But by trading for Machado in July, Los Angeles might just have achieved the near-impossible: multiplication by addition.
Machado spent the first six-and-a-half years of his career in Baltimore, a purgatory not unlike keeping LeBron James in a church league. The team reached the postseason three times and went 2-8 over that span, but two straight years in the AL East cellar made it clear that Machado was on his way out of Charm City this past summer. The worst-kept secret in baseball broke during the All-Star Game, when Machado effectively played his final game in an Orioles uniform.
“I remember talking to him in the All-Star break, telling him we were going to get him,” All-Star closer Kenley Jansen said. “It was a great conversation. I was fired up.”
Machado joined the team in Milwaukee — a touch ironic, given the Dodgers’ upcoming NLCS opponent — and singled through the right side in his first at-bat in blue.
“We knew we had something special [before Machado], and we knew we needed a big bat,” Grandal said. “Once we got used to each other, it took off.”
Over 66 games with Los Angeles, Machado went .273/.338/.487 with 13 homers and 42 RBI, finishing the season on a 10-game hitting streak. That was enough to send his teammates into fits of high praise.
“He can change the game with one swing of the bat,” Justin Turner said. “You definitely saw him do that tonight.”
“Everybody here is beyond amazing,” Machado, drenched in champagne and holding a half-full Budweiser bottle, told Yahoo Sports in the chaos of a winning locker room. “They made you feel at home. They made me fit in since Day One. It makes [baseball] a lot easier.”
Machado cemented the strength of a lineup that was already one of the league’s best. Granted, the Dodgers couldn’t seem to shake the Rockies – Los Angeles was within two games of Colorado for literally every day but one of the season’s final month – but the team avoided a wild-card game and clinched a playoff berth with that 5-2 Game 163 victory. Machado wasn’t the hero of that game, but he didn’t need to be – that day, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy handled Top Dog duties just fine.
“You need a different guy every day to win the game, to do the big hit, to make the big play, to pitch the big pitch,” pitcher Ryan Madson said. “We have a lineup that can do that.”
The Dodgers carried that momentum into the division series, demonstrating with ruthless efficiency just how deep and dangerous their lineup goes. Six different players homered. Eight different players batted in a run. Eleven players got at least one hit, and 13 players got on base. Braves pitchers gave up runs in the first inning of three of the four games, meaning Atlanta was playing from behind right from the start, over and over again. It’s a case study in how a relentless offense can bury an entire opposing pitching staff.
“We’ve got a deep lineup,” Turner said. “It doesn’t matter who’s coming up. Every guy can hurt you. That makes it easy to go through and take your at-bat and not try to do too much.”
“You’re just waiting for a top-tier baseball player to show off,” said Madson, who got the win Monday with two-thirds of an inning of clutch pitching. “That’s what it feels like. They’re not showy and overconfident like that, but that’s what it is. Who’s going to show off their baseball talents today? From Chris Taylor to Machado, you don’t know who it’s going to be.”
The Braves won’t soon forget the lesson. Los Angeles streaked out to early leads en route to shutout victories in Games 1 and 2, then erased a five-run lead in Game 3 before falling by a single run. Atlanta held a short, slight lead in Game 4, but old-school postseason hero David Freese – another one of those last-second additions, another piece that fit the puzzle perfectly – put the Dodgers ahead in the sixth inning.
Four batters later, Machado boxed up the last of Atlanta’s postseason hopes and fired them into 2019, turning on a four-seamer to blast a 393-foot home run deep into the left-field seats. Like the perfect alley-oop, like a finely orchestrated symphony, this Dodgers offense is running at maximum speed and peak efficiency with Machado at its heart.
“This is the beauty about this team,” Machado said. “We lose together, we win together. There’s unbelievable support. That’s why we’re so confident that we’re the best team in the National League, the best team in baseball.”
Next stop: Milwaukee.
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