The Los Angeles Dodgers plan to run through the best Atlanta Braves pitchers in the NLCS until they get to the lesser arms. That makes sense. The Braves are short on quality starters. The Dodgers are a power-hitting team that doesn’t strike out much. They can grind.
The Braves did it better in Game 1. They wore down Dodgers ace Walker Buehler until finally getting to the bullpen. The Braves kept producing baserunners to no avail until blowing the game open in the ninth inning with their signature big bats.
Austin Riley’s lead-off homer in the ninth broke a tie. Ronald Acuna followed with a double and scored on Marcell Ozuna’s one-out single. Ozzie Albies hit a two-run homer with two outs.
After stranding baserunners all night, the Braves suddenly were on their way to a 5-1 victory with a flurry of power hitting against Dodgers relievers. It was a sudden and decisive blow that put the Braves ahead in the best-of-seven series.
The Braves had stranded 10 baserunners through eight innings. They couldn’t score on reliever Brusdar Graterol in the sixth after producing two baserunners with no outs. Ozuna’s lead-off double against Dustin May in the eight went to waste when the Braves loaded the bases and couldn’t score.
Finally, the Braves scored to win their sixth straight postseason game in as many chances. The Braves didn’t let young lefty Max Fried’s fine night go to waste.
Fried outshined Buehler with one run allowed over six innings. He foiled the Dodgers’ plan to make him throw a lot of pitches. The Dodgers will try the same against right-hander Ian Anderson in Game 2 and Kyle Wright in Game 3. The Braves’ rotation is iffy after those three.
There are no off days during this series. Braves manager Brian Snitker may not always have his best relievers available. Using them a lot early in the series complicates so-called bullpen games after his top three starters take their turns.
But those potential scenarios seem less daunting after the Braves won the series opener. Their bullpen was perfect in Game 1. It was Dodgers relievers who eventually wilted after Buehler left the game.
There’s risk for the Dodgers in trying to up pitch counts. They’ll face a lot of unfavorable counts if Braves pitchers can throw strikes. Fried did that in Game 1. Their urgency to swing will increase if the Braves gain a lead. Freddie Freeman, whose bat was quiet in the first two rounds, put the Braves ahead with a first-inning solo homer off Buehler.
Dodgers hitters immediately put their plan in action against Fried. They were taking first pitches. Mookie Betts and Corey Seager fell behind in the count before striking out. Fried got Betts looking with a fastball on the outside corner and made Seager swing for strike three on a looping curveball.
Justin Turner hit Fried’s 17th pitch for a two-out single. Fried walked the next batter, Max Muncy. He’d need 17 more pitches to get out of the inning. The Dodgers didn’t score but they had put their long-term plot in motion. Fried eventually thwarted them.
The young lefty was throwing his big curveball for strikes. Fried’s fastballs had life. The Dodgers had to start swinging or they’d be trying to catch up to Fried all night.
Fried faced five batters in the second inning but needed just 17 pitches to finish a scoreless inning. Fried retired the next six Dodgers hitters in order. Their lead-off hitter in the fifth, Kiki Hernandez, pulled Fried’s hanging curveball over the left-field wall.
It was one of Fried’s few mistakes. He had his least effective start of the year in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Miami Marlins. He came back to hold the best lineup he’s faced in 2020 to a run over six innings with nine strikeouts, four hits and a walk.
While Fried got more efficient, the Braves made Buehler work. That was key. Buehler has dealt with a blister on his throwing hand. He’d pitched four innings in his past three starts, including two in the postseason. The 95 pitches Buehler threw against the San Diego Padres last week were his most of the year.
Buehler’s pitch count was up to 38 after two innings against the Braves. He ended up with 100 pitches over five-plus. The Braves produced baserunners against Buehler in every inning except the fifth but only Freeman could tally.
Freeman’s homer was a welcome sign for the Braves. He might win the NL MVP award, but Freeman didn’t do much hitting in the first two rounds. He was 3-for-18 in the first two rounds. Freeman walked five times, and his run-scoring single beat the Cincinnati Reds in the playoff opener, but he had no extra-base hits in the postseason until Monday.
Freeman fell behind 0-2 on Buehler fastballs and laid off a low slider. Buehler threw him another fastball and Freeman smashed it 429 feet to right field. The Braves wouldn’t score again until the ninth inning despite so many chances.
The Braves swept the Reds and Marlins because their pitching was so good. The Dodgers hit a lot more than those clubs and are deeper in pitching. But the Braves were better than the Dodgers in every way in Game 1. It took a while for their lineup to show it but once it happened the Braves couldn’t be stopped.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)