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Opinion: Atlanta wins NLCS opener vs. Dodgers, even if they didn't deserve the victory

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this column was edited to remove the team name after it had been originally published. Due to an editing change, the team name was inserted without the author’s knowledge.

ATLANTA – It was one of the worst games of reigning MVP Freddie Freeman’s career.

Ace Max Fried never felt right all night.

Atlanta struck out 14 times, with Freeman striking out four times alone, the most in his postseason career.

Just twice the entire game did Atlanta even have a runner in scoring position.

And yet, miraculously enough, Atlanta won Saturday, knocking off the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, in their bid to pull off the biggest upset of the postseason, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

It was a game, quite honestly, Atlanta had to win if they are going to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1999.

They had their ace going in Fried, and the Dodgers had a bullpen game, using eight different relievers.

Atlanta couldn’t squander this opportunity, not with three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, All-Star Walker Buehler and 20-game winner Julio Urias lined up the next three games for the Dodgers.

Austin Riley celebrates his walk off RBI with his teammates in Game 1 of the NLCS.
Austin Riley celebrates his walk off RBI with his teammates in Game 1 of the NLCS.

“I think it was huge tonight,’’ said Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley. “You can’t go to Dodgers Stadium down 0-2 because it’s electric there.’’

Riley was a one-man power show, hitting a walk-off single in the ninth inning, a home run in the fourth inning, and mobbed by his teammates, with the sellout crowd of 41,8155 at Truist Field chanting, “MVP! MVP! MVP!’’

“You dream of that,’’ Riley said, “as a little kid.’’

Considering the damage Riley incurred this night, and really all season – .303 bating average, 33 homers, 107 RBI – the Dodgers felt like joining in the chorus.

“Crazy,’’ said Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner, “hats off to him. He's come a long way in a short time. Even last year, he didn't have all these tools. He can beat you in so many ways now, and he always had that power, but now he's putting together such good at-bats.

“He's a polished hitter and he's gotten to the point where he's been a really good player. There’s a reason why fans are chanting MVP for him.’’

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Still, even with Riley’s heroics, it was a game the Dodgers felt they should have won. They stopped Freeman cold, striking him out in all four of his plate appearances, the 13th four-strikeout game of his career. The bottom four hitters in Atlanta’s lineup went 0-for-12 with six strikeouts. And Fried was in trouble all night without a single 1-2-3 inning, giving up eight hits and striking out only five batters in six innings. He gave up six hits alone with two strikes, matching his career high, after opponents hit just .160 this season when he had two strikes.

And the Dodgers crazy carousel of pitching worked brilliantly, with all eight pitchers striking out at least one batter, and giving up no more than two hits without a walk.

Still, they lost a game they should have won, to a team that had to win or else they’d lose the series.

Chalk one up to old-school baseball.

Let the other teams in the ALCS and NLCS use 34 pitchers in three games.

Let the other teams in the LCS sit back and wait for the home run, combining for 10 of them in 26 innings.

Let the other teams snub the running game without a single stolen base in the ALCS while Atlanta stole two bases Saturday night, including Ozzie Albies’ ninth-inning steal after his one-out single that put him in scoring position for Riley’s game-winning hit into left field.

Let the other teams go with openers, or yank their starters the first time they’re in trouble, with the five other starters in the ALCS and NLCS combining for just 12 ⅔ innings. Only one starter lasted past 2 ⅔ innings until Fried’s performance.

Atlanta is going the traditional route, as if they still had Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz roaming in that clubhouse.

“I'm a big believer in starting pitching,’’ Atlanta manager Brian Snitker says. “All them flags are flying out there because of we had really good starting pitching. …It's the way I was raised in the game. I mean, I came up with the Braves here, and we were all about starting pitching.

“I don't know any better, quite honestly, if you want to get down to it.’’

There’s no reason to apologize. This is how Atlanta was built. A year ago, they were up 3 games to 1 on the Dodgers in the NLCS, and lost three in a row. The pain was do deep, Albies said, he couldn’t bear to watch the World Series except for the highlights.

This time around, they plan to be playing on baseball’s biggest stage, letting everyone bemoan the fact they didn’t have a winning record until Aug. 6, winning just 88 games playing in baseball’s worst division, but could now become the last team standing.

“It doesn't matter what the odds say or what the numbers say,’’ Trea Turner said, “you got to play the game. I'm a big believer in anything can happen, and especially in the postseason.’’

Atlanta is living proof.

“You know what,’’ Snitker says, “we're capable of doing this. We played the world champions last year, and were a game away from putting ourselves into the World Series. These guys should know that it's do-able.’’

The Dodgers found that out the hard way.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Braves beat Dodgers in NLCS opener they had no right to win