If there was a moment Sunday night that reminded us that this isn’t last year, it was the renewal of the Will Smith vs. Will Smith rivalry in the ninth inning in suburban Atlanta.
Will The Elder gave up a memorable home run to Will The Younger during the 2020 Dodgers-Braves National League Championship Series. When they faced each other Sunday night, Will the Younger struck out swinging on a slider for the second out of the ninth inning.
One vignette, true. But maybe here’s another: Julio Urías, the Dodgers’ accidental but oh, so successful closer of 2020, came into the game to start the eighth inning Sunday night with a 4-2 lead – and gave up three hits and the tying runs, only escaping further damage by striking out Joc Pederson and pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza to strand the go-ahead run on second base.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters after the game that he considered Urías his best option at that point, even after Blake Treinen needed just nine pitches to get through the seventh.
“We talked about it before the series, and he was available (Saturday) night if it came to the situation, but it didn’t,” Roberts said. “He hadn’t thrown a bullpen and he was the best option at that point in time. He was prepared for it.”
Not only did Urías struggle, but those 14 pitches might have compromised him for his scheduled start on Wednesday in Game 4. Max Scherzer, with two days of rest after his 13-pitch save of Game 5 on Thursday night in San Francisco, made it through 79 pitches and, somewhat uncharacteristically but absolutely candidly, acknowledged to Roberts that he was spent.
Somehow, the idea of “five and dive, and be ready to throw a high-stress inning out of the bullpen in a couple of days” might not be a sustainable strategy. Atlanta’s Brian Snitker hasn’t seen the need to use any of his starters in relief yet, but he used every one of his relievers last night and has used Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Smith (The Elder) each of the first two games. And, unlike last year, there are days off in this series.
One more reminder that it’s different? Joctober still exists, only now it’s dreaded instead of welcomed in the Dodgers’ dugout. Joc Pederson wiped out the Dodgers’ first lead with a two-run home run in the fourth – specifically, a booming, 454-foot drive off Scherzer. As this series goes on, Pederson – no longer just a platoon player – has to be reckoned with.
There is this thought, which could be comforting if you still hold onto memories of 2020: The Braves were up 2-0 in last year’s series. They’re up 2-0 in this series after Eddie Rosario’s shot up the middle and under Corey Seager’s glove drove in the winning run, on Kenley Jansen’s first and only pitch of the game in the ninth inning, for a 5-4 Atlanta victory.
But do you really want to have to run the elimination game gamut again? No matter how battle-tested you might be, when you roll those dice too often you’ll lose at some point.
And here’s the biggest difference, so far, between this year and last year: Those Dodgers were noted for scoring runs with two outs: 59 through 19 postseason games. That’s the sign of a team capable of cashing in opportunities and adjusting as necessary to get it done.
These Dodgers are hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position through eight games this postseason: 13 for 68, or .191. They were 1 for 10 Sunday night. The one was Chris Taylor’s two-run double in the seventh, a sinking liner that center fielder Guillermo Heredia – who had entered the game that inning – couldn’t get to and then overran, seemingly unsure whether to try to dive or to short-hop it.
Otherwise? They left 10 men on base. They had men on first and second with one out in the third, but Gavin Lux popped up and Taylor struck out. They had first and second with two outs in the fifth, after Mookie Betts walked and stole second and Smith (the Younger) was intentionally walked with two outs, and Lux flied to left.
They got Taylor to third with one out in the sixth, and AJ Pollock and pinch-hitter Albert Pujols struck out. They re-loaded the bases after Taylor’s hit in the seventh, and Pollock struck out. And Trea Turner hit the first pitch from Smith (The Elder) to the wall in left field, but Rosario ran it down.
It’s a problem we’ve seen all season, and now it’s recurring at the worst possible time. And yes, the approach has been an issue.
“It’s an approach thing,” Roberts said. “I think that certain times in scoring position, we’re expanding (the strike zone) too much.”
But here’s the biggest difference from 2020 (besides, of course, the fact that the core of this group now knows what it’s like to win a championship): They’re going to be playing the middle games at home, where they were 58-23 during the regular season and are 2-1 so far in the postseason.
And if ever they needed the extra push from a spirited home crowd, it’s now.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter
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