Braves’ Max Fried finds footing in World Series clincher

  • The Houston Astros’ Michael Brantley steps on the foot of Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried on the way to first base during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried commits a fielding error as Michael Brantley #23 of the Houston Astros reaches first base safely during the first inning in Game Six of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried commits a fielding error as Michael Brantley #23 of the Houston Astros reaches first base safely during the first inning in Game Six of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

  • The Houston Astros’ Michael Brantley steps on the foot of Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried on the way to first base during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried commits a fielding error as Michael Brantley #23 of the Houston Astros reaches first base safely during the first inning in Game Six of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried reacts after committing a fielding error against the Houston Astros during the first inning in Game Six of the World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried throws to the plate against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried celebrates the last out in the first inning in Game 6 of baseball’s World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried throws to the plate against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried throws to the plate against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried throws to the plate against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried throws to the plate against the Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried walks into the dugout after the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Fried pitched six scoreless innings in the 7-0 win that clinched the title for Atlanta. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

  • Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, left, and starting pitcher Max Fried celebrate the team’s 7-0 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 6 to win the World Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

  • Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Max Fried, left, and first baseman Freddie Freeman celebrate the team’s 7-0 victory against the Houston Astros in Game Six to win the 2021 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

  • Braves starting pitcher Max Fried celebrates with teammates after their 7-0 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 6 to win the 2021 World Series on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

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By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Baseball Writer

HOUSTON — Max Fried found his footing on the mound for the Atlanta Braves after getting stepped on early in Game 6 of the World Series.

The young left-hander looked like an ace again, and the Braves clinched their first championship since 1995, which came only a few months before Fried’s second birthday.

Fried got 18 outs against the 19 batters he faced after his right ankle got stomped on by Michael Brantley’s rubber cleat and became the first pitcher in this World Series to complete six innings. The former Harvard-Westlake standout was trying to cover first base after Houston’s second batter of the game on Tuesday night hit a slow grounder fielded by first baseman Freddie Freeman.

“It didn’t feel good, but at that point, it’s the World Series. You just got to figure out how to get through,” Fried said. “It was more of it got tight, but it was never any shooting pain or anything too severe or uncomfortable.”

When umpire Chris Conroy signaled safe, Fried immediately pointed at his right foot, and not because he was hurting. He was indicating that Brantley had stepped on his foot, which was bent somewhat awkwardly but not in contact with the base.

The Braves didn’t argue the call, instead moving quickly to check that Fried was OK.

Six days after losing Game 2 in Houston, he was just fine. Fried struck out six without a walk and limited the Astros to four singles in a 7-0 win.

Braves manager Brian Snitker described Fried getting stepped on as “very scary,” and said it brought back a quick flashback to Game 1 starter Charlie Morton taking a comebacker off his right leg that resulted in a fractured fibula.

“I was just glad when he got up and threw that everything was good,” Snitker said. “Then he had a really stressful inning after that. I was just kind of wondering what that was going to take, that whole incident would take out of him, and he rebounded and did a great job obviously.”

Mission Viejo High product Tyler Matzek pitched two scoreless innings with four strikeouts before Will Smith, the closer and third lefty in a row to pitch for the Braves, worked the ninth to wrap up the first shutout in a World Series clincher since the Chicago White Sox won, 1-0, in the same stadium in 2005 to finish a four-game sweep of the Astros.

Jose Altuve led off with an infield single before Brantley reached on what was ruled an error on Fried. But they were both left stranded when Carlos Correa struck out, cleanup hitter Yordan Alvarez grounded out and AL batting champion Yuli Gurriel took three strikes in a row.

After getting stepped on, Fried said his only worry was having runners on first and second with nobody out.

“I didn’t want the inning to get out of hand,” he said. “For me, I didn’t want to have a repeat of Game 2 where four runs come across and you look up and you’re down by a lot. So I just knew that I had to really just bear down.”

Houston had leadoff singles in both the third and fourth innings before double plays. That included a comebacker by Brantley in the third, when Fried turned and fired to shortstop Dansby Swanson for the relay to first.

When Altuve got to the plate for the third time with one out in the sixth, Fried threw a pair of offspeed pitches for strikes before a routine infield pop-up. Brantley singled on a slow roller that Swanson fielded in shallow center field before Correa struck out for the second time to end the inning on Fried’s 74th and final pitch.

“That was Max Fried. He had a little chip on his shoulder, I think, after the last couple starts. But what you guys saw tonight was what we saw for months during the season,” said Freeman, the longtime Braves first baseman from El Modena High, who homered and had an RBI double in the clincher. “An incredible performance when we needed it most.”

In Game 2 last Wednesday, Fried retired 10 batters in a row in his first-ever World Series start. But that came after a four-run second inning that put the Astros ahead to stay in a 7-2 win, only the second time all year he lost consecutive starts.

Six days before that, he gave up five runs and eight hits over 4-2/3 innings against the Dodgers in an 11-2 loss when the Braves had a chance to wrap up the NL Championship Series in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. That had been the first time since June 1 that he didn’t make it past the fifth inning.

Fried became the first starting pitcher with at least six strikeouts without walking a batter in a potential World Series clincher. The last pitcher without a walk in at least six scoreless innings in a clincher was Bret Saberhagen for Kansas City in Game 7 in 1985.

It was the ninth career postseason start for the 27-year-old Fried. The only Braves with more are Tom Glavine (32), John Smoltz (27), Greg Maddux (27) – all three of them Hall of Fame pitchers – and Steve Avery 12.

Fried put on quite a show for Braves fans, two of his high school teammates who were there to watch – Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito and St. Louis pitcher Jack Flaherty – and Matt LaCour, the coach of their celebrated Harvard-Westlake team from 2012.

All three of those former teammates were Opening Day MLB starters this season. Only Fried made it to the final game.

“It’s indescribable”@MaxFried32 threw 6 scoreless innings to lead the @Braves to the clinch in Game 6.@HeidiWatney I #WorldSeries I #BattleATL pic.twitter.com/S22E434692

— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) November 3, 2021

.@MaxFried32‘s 98.4 MPH K is the fastest strike of his career (reg. and #postseason). pic.twitter.com/fc7IGKchr7

— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) November 3, 2021

Harvard-Westlake in the building to support high school teammate @MaxFried32! #WorldSeries pic.twitter.com/xsYvK60BK1

— MLB (@MLB) November 3, 2021

The stars of Game 6. pic.twitter.com/VaeY6YgOii

— MLB (@MLB) November 3, 2021

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Unlikely hero, 2 HRs carry Braves to brink of World Series title

ATLANTA — This Atlanta Braves team couldn’t have picked a more fitting way to move to the brink of a World Series championship.

A pitcher who spent most of the year in the minors kept ’em in it.

A slugger who came in a flurry of trades won it for ’em.

If this gritty bunch can do it one more time, the Braves will have their first Series title in 26 years.

Dansby Swanson and pinch-hitter Jorge Soler connected for back-to-back homers in the seventh inning Saturday night, propelling the Braves to a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros and a commanding 3-1 Series lead.

Game 5 is Sunday night. The Braves can wrap up the championship on their home field, just as they did two stadiums ago when they beat the Cleveland Indians in 1995.

They’ve sure been tough at home, improving to 7-0 this postseason.

“It’s just such a cool moment for this city,” Swanson said. “But we’ve got one more. They’ve got a great ballclub over there and we can’t take anything for granted.”

That triumph more than a quarter-century ago at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium remains the franchise’s only World Series crown since moving to the Deep South in 1966.

This is the closest the Braves have been to a second title since then.

What an improbable crown it would be.

The Braves stumbled along at .500 or worse until Aug. 6. They had to rebuild their entire outfield before the July 30 trade deadline after Ronald Acuña Jr. went down with a knee injury and Marcell Ozuna was sidelined by a hand injury and legal troubles. They won the NL East with just 88 wins, the fewest of any playoff team — and less even than two teams that didn’t make the postseason.

With former president Donald Trump watching from a private box down the right-field line, the Braves got a huge boost from a most unlikely player.

Former first-round draft pick Kyle Wright, who made only two appearances in the majors during a season spent mostly at Triple-A Gwinnett, got through 4 2/3 critical innings out of the bullpen after surprise starter Dylan Lee retired only one hitter.

Wright was hardly overpowering, giving up five hits — including a solo homer by Jose Altuve in the fourth that staked the Astros to a 2-0 lead — and three walks. But he continually pitched out of trouble, giving the Braves a semblance of hope until the offense woke up.

“He probably doesn’t realize what he did, how big it was,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m so proud how he handled the situation.”

Wright has a career record of 2-8 with a 6.56 ERA. In two 2021 starts for the Braves, he was 0-1 with a 9.95 ERA.

“Honestly, I was a little lost,” he conceded.

He found himself just in the nick of time for the Braves.

In the sixth, Eddie Rosario became the first Atlanta hitter to get past first base with a one-out double off Brooks Raley.

Rosario wound up scoring on another clutch postseason hit by Austin Riley, who lined a two-out single to left against Phil Maton.

The Braves left the bases loaded, but they weren’t done. Just like that, they stunningly engineered the first lead change of the entire Series, with Swanson and Soler becoming the third duo in World Series history to hit back-to-back homers that tied and put a team ahead.

The first two guys to do it were named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Facing Cristian Javier, Swanson went the opposite way for a homer that tied the game at 2, the ball hit so hard that it ricocheted off the tabled section in the right-field stands and rolled all the way back to the infield.

“It was like, ‘You know what? Let’s get rid of everything else and just compete,’” Swanson said. “And you know what? Something amazing happened.”

The celebration had barely simmered down when Soler, one of four outfielders acquired in trades by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter.

On a 2-1 pitch from Javier, Soler put a charge into a hanging slider and drove it into the Astros’ bullpen in left. Yordan Alvarez was left hanging helplessly atop the short fence as the ball sailed over his head.

Luke Jackson worked a scoreless eighth, getting a great catch from Rosario slamming into the same left-field wall that Soler homered over, and Will Smith worked a 1-2-3 ninth for his sixth save in six chances this postseason.

The Astros could only kick themselves for squandering countless chances, going hitless in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position and leaving 11 on base overall.

“They’ve been playing us tough. They’ve been playing us real tough,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We’ve had our backs to the wall before. Our guys know what to do.”

Seven teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series, with the Cubs being the most recent in 2016.

The Braves certainly know it’s not over. Last year, they squandered a 3-1 lead in the NL Championship Series and lost to the Dodgers.

Houston got just what it wanted from 38-year-old starter Zack Greinke, who threw four scoreless innings.

The bullpen just couldn’t hold it.

Now, there’s no more room for error.

“Just basically focus on one game at a time. That’s it,” Altuve said. “If we win tomorrow, then try to win Game 6 and see what happens. But we’ve got to focus on one game, and that game is tomorrow.”

MOVING UP THE CHARTS

Altuve’s homer was his 23rd homer in 77 postseason games, which pushed him to second place all alone on the career list behind Manny Ramirez with 29.

Altuve had been tied with longtime New York Yankees star Bernie Williams.

TRUMP’S CHOP

Only months after calling for a boycott of Major League Baseball, Trump chopped away with fans before the game while standing beside his wife, Melania.

Trump said he was invited to the game by Commissioner Rob Manfred and New York Yankees President Randy Levine. Major League Baseball denied making the invitation, saying the former president asked to attend the game.

Trump encouraged a boycott of MLB games after Manfred removed the All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s new voting law.

Unlike the 2019 World Series in Washington, when Trump was booed while still in office, there was no obvious reception for the former president at Truist Park.

His appearance was not announced to the crowd.

LEE STARTS

Lee was one of the most unlikely starters in World Series history.

The 27-year-old left-hander had never pitched in the big leagues until the final weekend of the regular season, when he was called up from Triple-A to make a couple of appearances after the Braves had already locked up the NL East title.

He had been released by the Marlins at the end of spring training and signed a minor league deal with the Braves.

Lee didn’t last long in Game 4, but he will forever be known as a World Series starter.

UP NEXT

Game 1 loser Framber Valdez gets his second start of the Series for the Astros. The left-hander lasted only two innings last Tuesday, giving up eight hits, five runs and two homers in a 6-2 setback.

The Braves will counter with their second consecutive bullpen game. No word on who will be the opener in a start that would’ve gone to Charlie Morton if not for a broken leg that ended his season in Game 1.

 

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Alexander: Dodgers finding not all 0-2 NLCS deficits are alike

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.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers-Giants series had to end this way, didn’t it?

The ending the Dodgers and Giants provided Thursday night in San Francisco, after 3 hours and 26 minutes of stress and tension and the best that baseball can offer, might be proof that there is indeed karma. Or at least Someone Up There has one heck of a sense of drama.

Remember July 22? That was the night first base umpire Ed Hickox ruled that the Giants’ Darin Ruf did not go around on a check swing that would have been strike three. That led to Manager Dave Roberts’ ejection and kept alive a rally that turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 loss, gave Kenley Jansen his second blown save in a row and pushed the Dodgers three games behind the Giants in the NL West standings. You can make the case that if it weren’t for that game, and the ultimate one-game margin between the clubs, Thursday night’s decider of the NL Division Series would have been in The Ravine instead of at Oracle Park.

Here come the #Giants fans whining about Flores’ check swing to end the game, conveniently ignoring Darin Ruf’s full count swing that walked in a run vs #LADodgers earlier in the season. pic.twitter.com/JdUxE03tbF

— Aaron (@aarondevandry) October 15, 2021

Fast forward, then, to the bottom of the ninth Thursday, two outs, a man on first and the Dodgers trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead and finish off the series. Wilmer Flores tried to hold up on Max Scherzer’s 2-and-2 slider and … well, maybe he held up and maybe he didn’t. The check swing is maybe the toughest call in baseball to get right, although to some (many?) umps just finding the strike zone is particularly challenging.

But first base umpire Gabe Morales ruled it a swing, and that was that.

Wilmer Flores and the check swing heard ’round the world. pic.twitter.com/nZWVre7U1v

— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) October 15, 2021

Ruf, who had tied Thursday’s game with a monstrous 452-foot home run to center field in the sixth inning, acknowledged the juxtaposition afterward.

Darin Ruf recognizes the irony: “ it didn’t look like he went but a checked swing early in the year helped us out too, It’s kind of funny how it comes down to those two events.”

— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) October 15, 2021

Darin Ruf on the check-swing calls coming full circle for both #Dodgers and #SFGiants this season. Logan Webb on how he felt tonight as well. #Postseason pic.twitter.com/G3DCnChRI4

— Michael J. Duarte (@michaeljduarte) October 15, 2021

But it was fitting that this series, and an entire season that has been so competitive between these ancient rivals, would be decided by the smallest of margins and the most difficult of calls.

Maybe it was only right that after the conversation and consternation in the afternoon about the Dodgers’ decision to use Corey Knebel as an opener en route to Julio Urías, the chain from Knebel to Brusdar Graterol to Urías, Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen and Scherzer ran as smoothly as it did. And maybe it was coincidence, or maybe not, that Scherzer nailed down an elimination game on two days of rest, 56 years to the day after Sandy Koufax pitched a 2-0 shutout of the Minnesota Twins on two days of rest to win the 1965 World Series.

It’s baseball. What can we say?

This was 3 hours and 26 minutes of tension and nervous energy and waiting to see who would be responsible for the big hit or the big pitch or the big play – or big miscue – that would spoil an entire season’s work for one of these ancient rivals.

“I mean, the Giants are an incredible team,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told media members after it was over. “Talented one through 26, Kap (Gabe Kapler) deploys them really well. So we knew it was going to be a really tough series. I don’t think we appreciated the full extent of it until living it. But it was an incredible series. Obviously, we feel really good about being on the side of it that we were. But we appreciate how razor-thin the margins were.”

Beyond the rivalry, and the history, and the enmity between Dodgers fans and Giants fans (and the trolling was underway not long after the final pitch), there seemed to be mutual respect among the competitors. Maybe it’s because these teams are so similar, with former Dodger GM Farhan Zaidi and former Dodger farm director Kapler using many of the same principles to assemble this Giants roster and get it into fighting shape a year or two earlier than those on the outside had anticipated. That team is good, and it’s likely going to be a threat for years to come.

And after both teams had won 109 games in 2021, counting the postseason, and after the Giants had won 12 and the Dodgers 11 head-to-head, shouldn’t a taut pitchers’ duel have been the only way it could end?

For the record, dating to the first meeting between NL champion New York and American Association champion Brooklyn in the 1889 “World’s Series” – you know, the one nobody remembered when they kept calling this the “first ever” postseason meeting of the franchises – the Giants have won 1,277 meetings between the teams and the Dodgers (aka Bridegrooms, Grooms, Superbas and Robins) have won 1,249, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It must be noted that Brooklyn was 121 games under .500 against New York from 1903 through 1938, a period when the Brooklyn club seldom contended and was often lousy. Since the teams came to the West Coast in 1958, the Dodgers have a 575-550 edge following Thursday’s victory.

Yes, there have been memorable moments and winner-take-all games that catapulted one of these teams into the World Series. But no less an authority than Vin Scully, who witnessed most of those battles over the years, tweeted Thursday afternoon that this might be the biggest one in the teams’ shared history.

To my knowledge, tonight’s game between the @Dodgers and @SFGiants is the most important game in the history of their rivalry. With nearly identical records, and so much at stake, I believe this to be the case.

— Vin Scully (@TheVinScully) October 14, 2021

If Vin says it, I believe it.

“It was great every time we played those guys, just bringing the rivalry back to life, really playing for relevance,” Roberts said.

San Diegans probably will object, but this season and particularly this series served as a reminder of the importance of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, not only its history and the way both franchises embrace it but its renewed relevance on the national stage.

And while this wasn’t the first postseason meeting between the rivals (again, see the link above), may it not be the last, either. This stuff is too good to keep to ourselves.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers’ Walker Buehler aces another big-game moment

LOS ANGELES — It was evident in Walker Buehler not long after he wedged his way into the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 2018. He might be young, but he’s strong-willed and he does not scare.

“That’s why aces are aces,” Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday afternoon. “They don’t run from fights.”

They’re just as likely to jump in.

So Saturday night, when Buehler informed his manager after the Dodgers won Game 2 of the National League Division Series in San Francisco that he would be available to pitch a Game 4 three nights later, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After Monday’s crushing 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 3, then, the choice was obvious. The Dodgers had gone through the charade of trotting Tony Gonsolin to the interview room before Monday’s game, the implication being that Gonsolin would somehow take down bulk innings in some sort of a bullpen game. But afterward, there were hints Buehler would be involved, and Albert Pujols pretty well let the cat out of the bag when he went to the postgame interview room and said, “Walker is throwing the ball real well all year long. I think he’s going to go out there and we expect the same thing.”

They got it. Buehler was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time as a starter in the majors. But he was also pitching in the fourth elimination game of his career, and that muscle memory overrode the short rest and helped the Dodgers extend their season at least one more game.

The assignment, Roberts said, was to “go as hard as you can as long as you can.” Buehler, who threw 99 pitches in Game 1 on Friday in San Francisco, came back with 71 pitches in 4-1/3 innings Tuesday night, giving up a run and three hits and starting the Dodgers toward their eventual series-extending 7-2 victory.

If Julio Urias can take the baton from Buehler and take the Dodgers the rest of the way Thursday night at Oracle Park when he faces the Giants’ Logan Webb, let’s at least hope Buehler’s effort will be remembered with the significance it deserves.

This was an ace doing what aces do. This was what the Dodgers had asked of Clayton Kershaw so many times over the years, to pitch on short rest and bail out a beleaguered or short-handed pitching rotation.

Buehler handled it like a charm, belying the fact he was doing it for the first time. Of his 71 pitches, 42 were strikes. He threw the four-seamer most of the time (34 pitches) but got most of his swings and misses on his slider (three of 13) and changeup (two of 13), as well as four called strikes on the changeup.

“Honestly, I want to say he had better stuff than he had the other night,” Roberts said afterward, jokingly suggesting maybe the solution was to “have him go short more often.

“He just seemed relaxed,” he added. “Sometimes, when you might be a little more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you don’t try to do too much. All night long he stayed in his delivery. The stuff, the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches were really good. He used the change when he needed to, and I thought it was really good all night long.”

Catcher Will Smith said Buehler’s velocity was actually up from his previous start – he averaged 96.1 on the four-seam and 95.7 on the sinker – but the changeup has become a true weapon.

“Yeah, over the whole course of the year it’s just developed and gotten better and better,” Smith said. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”

As a rookie in 2018, Buehler pitched and won Game 163 against Colorado for the NL West title, and started Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee (one run allowed in 4-2/3 innings). In 2019 he started Game 5 against Washington in the Division Series (one run, four hits and seven strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, only to have the bullpen waste it). And last year, when the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against Atlanta, Buehler pitched Game 5 and delivered six shutout innings with six strikeouts.

Clearly, the moment does not get too big for him.

“With an elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball,” he said. “And I feel good about what I did. I wish I could have gotten a little bit deeper, but … we have the talent and the guys in the back end of the bullpen to cover it.

“To be completely honest, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been going on that I would have told him that I didn’t want the ball, so as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”

When he decided to volunteer for Game 4, he remembered, he didn’t talk to anyone about it before asking, “and then I spoke to everyone after I said it to make sure I wasn’t being an idiot.

“Luckily we have the players in that room, (Max) Scherzer, Kersh, guys that have been asked to and have (done) that, that I was able to (say), ‘Hey, am I doing anything wrong? Should I be doing anything different?’ … It’s not something we want to do all the time, but I felt that if things didn’t go our way (Monday), I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.

“I’m very happy that it worked out and kind of fortunate in a lot of ways. Our offense took care of a lot of it. Bullpen took care of a lot of it. But it’s just kind of another thing in terms of trying to become the baseball player that I am and that I want to (be). And I’m glad it worked out for us.”

This has probably been an ongoing process rather than one huge conversation. It is not uncommon to see Buehler, Kershaw and Scherzer in conversation on the dugout railing during games when they don’t pitch, talking pitching and sharing knowledge. Any questions Buehler might have asked about this situation in particular probably have had their base in all of those mid-game conversations.

Buehler talked as a rookie about drawing on the experience of Kershaw and then-teammate Rich Hill. But even then, Roberts trusted him in big games. And while the Dodgers need to be careful with usage on short rest – and ideally won’t need to lean on him often in those situations – they know they can depend on him.

After all, he’s an ace. And that’s what aces do.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers’ Walker Buehler takes the ball and delivers

LOS ANGELES — It was evident in Walker Buehler not long after he wedged his way into the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 2018. He might be young, but he’s strong-willed and he does not scare.

“That’s why aces are aces,” Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday afternoon. “They don’t run from fights.”

They’re just as likely to jump in.

So Saturday night, when Buehler informed his manager after the Dodgers won Game 2 of the National League Division Series in San Francisco that he would be available to pitch a Game 4 three nights later, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After Monday’s crushing 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 3, then, the choice was obvious. The Dodgers had gone through the charade of trotting Tony Gonsolin to the interview room before Monday’s game, the implication being that Gonsolin would somehow take down bulk innings in some sort of a bullpen game. But afterward, there were hints Buehler would be involved, and Albert Pujols pretty well let the cat out of the bag when he went to the postgame interview room and said, “Walker is throwing the ball real well all year long. I think he’s going to go out there and we expect the same thing.”

They got it. Buehler was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time as a starter in the majors. But he was also pitching in the fourth elimination game of his career, and that muscle memory overrode the short rest and helped the Dodgers extend their season at least one more game.

The assignment, Roberts said, was to “go as hard as you can as long as you can.” Buehler, who threw 99 pitches in Game 1 on Friday in San Francisco, came back with 71 pitches in 4-1/3 innings Tuesday night, giving up a run and three hits and starting the Dodgers toward their eventual series-extending 7-2 victory.

If Julio Urias can take the baton from Buehler and take the Dodgers the rest of the way Thursday night at Oracle Park when he faces the Giants’ Logan Webb, let’s at least hope Buehler’s effort will be remembered with the significance it deserves.

This was an ace doing what aces do. This was what the Dodgers had asked of Clayton Kershaw so many times over the years, to pitch on short rest and bail out a beleaguered or short-handed pitching rotation.

Buehler handled it like a charm, belying the fact he was doing it for the first time. Of his 71 pitches, 42 were strikes. He threw the four-seamer most of the time (34 pitches) but got most of his swings and misses on his slider (three of 13) and changeup (two of 13), as well as four called strikes on the changeup.

“Honestly, I want to say he had better stuff than he had the other night,” Roberts said afterward, jokingly suggesting maybe the solution was to “have him go short more often.

“He just seemed relaxed,” he added. “Sometimes, when you might be a little more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you don’t try to do too much. All night long he stayed in his delivery. The stuff, the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches were really good. He used the change when he needed to, and I thought it was really good all night long.”

Catcher Will Smith said Buehler’s velocity was actually up from his previous start – he averaged 96.1 on the four-seam and 95.7 on the sinker – but the changeup has become a true weapon.

“Yeah, over the whole course of the year it’s just developed and gotten better and better,” Smith said. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”

As a rookie in 2018, Buehler pitched and won Game 163 against Colorado for the NL West title, and started Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee (one run allowed in 4-2/3 innings). In 2019 he started Game 5 against Washington in the Division Series (one run, four hits and seven strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, only to have the bullpen waste it). And last year, when the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against Atlanta, Buehler pitched Game 5 and delivered six shutout innings with six strikeouts.

Clearly, the moment does not get too big for him.

“With an elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball,” he said. “And I feel good about what I did. I wish I could have gotten a little bit deeper, but … we have the talent and the guys in the back end of the bullpen to cover it.

“To be completely honest, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been going on that I would have told him that I didn’t want the ball, so as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”

When he decided to volunteer for Game 4, he remembered, he didn’t talk to anyone about it before asking, “and then I spoke to everyone after I said it to make sure I wasn’t being an idiot.

“Luckily we have the players in that room, (Max) Scherzer, Kersh, guys that have been asked to and have (done) that, that I was able to (say), ‘Hey, am I doing anything wrong? Should I be doing anything different?’ … It’s not something we want to do all the time, but I felt that if things didn’t go our way (Monday), I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.

“I’m very happy that it worked out and kind of fortunate in a lot of ways. Our offense took care of a lot of it. Bullpen took care of a lot of it. But it’s just kind of another thing in terms of trying to become the baseball player that I am and that I want to (be). And I’m glad it worked out for us.”

This has probably been an ongoing process rather than one huge conversation. It is not uncommon to see Buehler, Kershaw and Scherzer in conversation on the dugout railing during games when they don’t pitch, talking pitching and sharing knowledge. Any questions Buehler might have asked about this situation in particular probably have had their base in all of those mid-game conversations.

Buehler talked as a rookie about drawing on the experience of Kershaw and then-teammate Rich Hill. But even then, Roberts trusted him in big games. And while the Dodgers need to be careful with usage on short rest – and ideally won’t need to lean on him often in those situations – they know they can depend on him.

After all, he’s an ace. And that’s what aces do.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Whicker: Dodgers’ margin of error disappears, but they’ve handled that before

LOS ANGELES — This would have been Clayton Kershaw’s game. Or Dustin May’s. Or, if not for a series of unfortunate events, Trevor Bauer’s.

Instead, the Dodgers will try to extend this season with a pitching plan that Manager Dave Roberts did not divulge Monday night, either because he didn’t know what this 1-0, Game 3 loss did to the original plan, or because he didn’t want to tell the San Francisco Giants that they would see Walker Buehler two nights before they were supposed to.

They probably won’t be surprised. They never are.

Buehler pitched in San Francisco on Friday night. He has not performed on three days’ rest in his career, and this season he carried 207-2/3 innings into the playoffs.

But then the Giants got the final six outs from rookie Camilo Doval, and he hadn’t done that before either.

Precedent isn’t particularly meaningful when the Dodgers, the only National League team to average five runs in 2021, have been blanked twice in the first three games of this series.

Roberts admitted to “frustration” as the Giants kept playing Whack-A-Mole with nearly every hard-hit ball. The signature play came from shortstop Brandon Crawford, who skied to snag Mookie Betts’ line drive with two on and two outs in the seventh inning.

But Donovan Solano, who came in to play second base when Tommy La Stella’s Achilles tightened up, also ranged to his left to retire AJ Pollock for the first out in the seventh.

And the winds, apparently imported from Candlestick Point in San Francisco where an infuriating old ballpark once stood, made it typical for a home run-dependent team to hit home runs.

The final hitter, Gavin Lux, watched his squared-up shot hit the wall of wind and get tracked down by Steven Duggar. Roberts thought it was gone, and Giants third baseman Evan Longoria admitted his “heart sank” when he saw the trajectory.

“Those winds were super strange for L.A.,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler, a graduate of Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Only Longoria brought a big enough hammer to pierce the gusts and reach the seats, as he did on a straight, 0-and-2 fastball from Max Scherzer in the fifth.

Most of the day the Dodgers acted as if Tony Gonsolin, a spot starter for most of the season, would be the leader of the pitching parade in Game 4. That, of course, was before they lost Game 3. They only used Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen for one inning apiece, and there is an off-day between Tuesday and a potential Game 5 in San Francisco.

But you’d rather have Buehler, who was second in the National League in innings, third in ERA, seventh in strikeouts and fourth in WHIP.

“I think he’s going to throw the ball pretty well,” Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols said, even though no one had announced Buehler would be going. “I know he’s coming in on short rest, but I think he’s going to be pretty excited.”

In 2014, Vanderbilt needed Buehler to imitate a relief pitcher in a College World Series game against UC Irvine. Buehler struck out seven in 5-1/3 no-hit innings. It is not ideal, but it’s hard to believe Roberts would go into such an emergency situation and leave Buehler behind.

The Giants have Anthony DeSclafani, a well-rested starter, locked in for Game 4. He went 13-7 in 2021 with a 3.17 ERA, but he was 0-3 with a 7.33 ERA with six home runs allowed in six starts against the Dodgers. Much of that ERA is weighted by a 10-run, 2 2/3-inning outing on May 23, and he did throw six scoreless innings against them the last time he faced them.

If that doesn’t work they can lean on Logan Webb, who snake-charmed the Dodgers in Game 1, against Julio Urias in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday. Urias would be pitching on his regular schedule.

Is that how it ends for a team that won 106 regular-season games? Maybe, but then the Dodgers have learned how to deal with the brink.

They needed Chris Taylor’s home run to get past the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card game last week. They trailed Atlanta, 3-1, in last year’s NL Championship Series and wound up winning, with Buehler excelling in his Game 6 start.

Much of this team remembers 2018 in Milwaukee, when Buehler started Game 7 and Kershaw finished it, and the Dodgers won that NLCS.

Roberts seems to think the Line Drive Gods will intervene for the Dodgers and place baseballs outside the reach of San Francisco’s defensive octopus. After Alex Wood left the game with two outs in the fifth inning, the Dodgers had a shot at three Giants relievers, sent up 16 batters who struck out only three times, and still got nothing. They ended the game with no extra-base hits.

The enormity of the night and the obvious reluctance to face the aftermath of such a sudden defeat will put a fearsome game face on every Dodger. That’s yet another reason to use a guy like Buehler. He rarely leaves home without his.

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Whicker: Dodgers’ beefed-up bullpen helps send them to NLDS

LOS ANGELES — Chris Taylor’s home run landed hard. Hard enough to spring the joyful playoff noise from Dodger Stadium for the first time since Game 1 of the 2019 National League Division Series.

Hard enough to justify Max Scherzer’s prediction that it would turn out exactly that way, that Cody Bellinger would draw a walk in the ninth inning and Taylor would bury Alex Reyes’ slider into the left field bleachers.

“I thought (Albert) Pujols would actually hit the home run,” third baseman Justin Turner said later, “and he almost did.”

The point is that key people in the Dodgers’ dugout knew it would end in the ninth and, for that matter, how it would end.

Taylor’s two-run shot finally subdued the Cardinals, 3-1, in one of the most involving games of any kind that the Dodgers have played in the Guggenheim era.

“I think we made them a little nervous,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ starting pitcher. “But they were relentless. They were who they are.”

However, there was a calling card that landed even harder, and it should have resounded throughout the Bay Area, as the Dodgers and Giants prepare for a Golden best-of-five series that begins Friday night in San Francisco.

The real message of this victory is that the Dodgers are playing with a couple of full decks in their bullpen these days, and those who assume they can still hang around until the end and watch the Dodgers dissolve might be sadly mistaken.

This game was not supposed to be a job from the relievers, not with Max Scherzer performing. But Scherzer was all over the place in his 4-1/3 innings, throwing 94 pitches and watching Manager Dave Roberts come out with the hook.

Roberts extended his right hand and quickly realized the ball was not going to be placed in it. He instead shook hands with his right-hander and then plucked the ball out of Scherzer’s glove.

It went to a better place.

Joe Kelly got two outs in the fifth and stranded Paul Goldschmidt at third base. Brusdar Graterol faced four hitters and was back in the dugout in five pitches, getting three grounders and holding his stuff at 100 mph.

Blake Treinen, unaccustomed to getting five outs, did so. It was laborious, since he had to pop up Nolan Arenado with Tyler O’Neill on second. Corey Knebel, who was once a nuclear closer in Milwaukee, struck out Harrison Bader with two out in the eighth.

It all led up to Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side in the ninth. Tommy Edman, who played a fabulous game at both ends for the Cardinals, got his third hit and stole a base in the ninth, but Jansen fanned Goldschmidt and then cranked a high 94 mph fastball that O’Neill waved at. You could hear it pop Will Smith’s glove in Eagle Rock.

“In terms of having a lot of neutral guys, then, yeah, it’s probably as good as we’ve had,” Roberts said, referring to relievers who don’t mind which side of the plate the hitter occupies.

“They’ve been our backbone all year,” Justin Turner said. “I thought Max did a great job battling tonight, and then the guys came in and did what they always do.”

Roberts did some roster shuffling because this was a win-or-stay-home situation. He left David Price off the roster and he thought he might have to use Julio Urias. Instead, Urias was a cheerleader and can now work Game 2 in San Francisco without a problem on Saturday night. Walker Buehler is the Game 1 starter Friday night, and Scherzer can come back for Game 3 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

It’s basically what they wanted.

The bullpen has always been the foreboding theme for the Dodgers, with appropriate “Twilight Zone” music in the background whenever the innings begin to dwindle. Only two years ago Clayton Kershaw was involved in the bullpen mix. In 2017 Brandan Morrow was worked into exhaustion. In 2018, a wrenching seven-game NLCS with Milwaukee wore down the relievers, and even though they rallied to extend Game 3 of the World Series to 18 innings, there wasn’t much left, before or after.

On Wednesday the Dodgers were able to outlast the Cardinals’ distinguished bullpen without having to use either Alex Vesia or Phil Bickford. They all await another roster alteration before Game 1 at Oracle Park.

“I really thought the winner of this game would go on to win the World Series,” Wainwright said. “I think we got to see that we could compete with a great team in this atmosphere.”

But it takes years of bonding, through champagne and through silence, to develop the keen antennae for winning that the Dodgers have.

Taylor was told that Scherzer had predicted this Hollywood ending perfectly.

“Good call,” he said, smiling. But not a hard one.

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Dodgers hit 4 home runs in 8th inning to beat Padres

LOS ANGELES ― The Dodgers saved their best for last Wednesday night.

With four games left in the regular season, they’ll have to make it a recurring theme.

Trailing the San Diego Padres by three runs with six outs to go, the Dodgers hit four home runs in the eighth inning to complete a wild, come-from-behind 11-9 victory.

Home runs by Max Muncy, AJ Pollock, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager pushed five runs across the plate, allowing the Dodgers to erase a 9-6 deficit. Seager’s two-run blast off right-hander Nabil Crismatt was the final dagger.

“Just trying to get the run in,” Seager said. “That was the only thought.”

The win allowed the Dodgers (102-56) to keep pace with the first-place San Francisco Giants (104-54) in the National League West standings.

The Giants beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 1-0, earlier Thursday night. They lead the Dodgers by two games with four to play themselves, and their magic number to clinch the division title is down to three. The NL West runner-up will host the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card game on Oct. 6.

Pollock also homered in the first inning to give the Dodgers an early 4-0 lead. Mookie Betts began the Dodgers’ comeback from a 9-5 deficit with a solo home run in the seventh.

Seager went 3 for 5 with three RBIs. Pollock and Muncy each had two of the Dodgers’ 12 hits. Trea Turner extended his hitting streak to 15 games with an RBI single in the first inning.

Justin Turner came off the bench to hit a double in the eighth inning ahead of Seager’s game-winning blast. Turner’s 357-foot fly ball clanged off the left-field wall, falling a few feet shy of a five-homer inning.

David Price (5-2) was credited with the victory after pitching a scoreless eighth inning, and Kenley Jansen tossed a perfect ninth to convert his 37th save. The Dodgers have won eight consecutive games against the Padres (78-80).

This one will be remembered for a homer-happy inning unlike any other.

“That was a crazy inning,” Bellinger said, “maybe the craziest I’ve been a part of.”

After blowing leads of 4-0 and 5-1 early, the Dodgers saw the Padres rough up starter Max Scherzer for six runs (five earned) in 5⅓ innings. In the seventh inning, San Diego scored three more runs against Brusdar Graterol to take a 9-5 lead.

The same Padres team that committed two errors in the field just one day earlier turned the tables against Scherzer. The right-hander threw 97 pitches and induced only nine swing-and-misses.

For Scherzer, his last two starts amount to a rare lapse of dominance. He’s allowed five earned runs in back-to-back outings. He began the day with a 2.28 ERA, best in the National League, but now trails Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, 2.46 to 2.29.

“He just didn’t have good command,” Manager Dave Roberts said of Scherzer. “At times the curveball was good. The cutter and changeup just weren’t commanded. He’s picked us up many times over. We picked him up.”

In what might have been his final start of the regular season, Scherzer also went 0 for 2 at the plate. He has failed to reach base in any of his 61 plate appearances this season, which would break the previous record held by Wei-Yin Chen.

On a night when hard contact was easy to come by for the Padres, the Dodgers’ defense was porous. San Diego tied the score at 5-5 in the fourth inning when Seager allowed a routine ground ball to glance off his glove, turning the potential third out into an unearned run. Chris Taylor flubbed an easy ground ball earlier in the same inning.

The Dodgers’ most costly error was officially recorded as a triple off the bat of Wil Myers in the sixth inning. It came at the expense of Gavin Lux.

Lux, making his sixth career start in center field, took his eye off Myers’ deep fly ball at the last second. He dropped the ball then crashed violently into the wall.

Lux sustained a neck stinger, Roberts said, and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning. He was replaced by Bellinger, whose defense in center field has been steady.

Bellinger’s bat is another story. He began the day hitting .158, the lowest batting average of any hitter with at least 300 plate appearances this season. He ended the day by treating the announced home crowd of 45,366 to a game-tying home run.

“He’s in a good place mentally, a good place physically,” Roberts said of Bellinger. “He was ready when called upon. His teammates were really excited for him.”

The teams will play once more Thursday as the Dodgers attempt to catch the Giants. A wild card berth would end their streak of division titles at eight.

Seager Smash for the lead!

The @Dodgers hit 4 homers in the 8th!!!! pic.twitter.com/wqHOFHSSFj

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

A Belli 💣 ties the game in LA! pic.twitter.com/Flthm4G83S

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

Muncy starts the inning off with a bang ⚡ pic.twitter.com/s2nJzJhlzt

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) September 30, 2021

“Its special, that team in there has got a lot of fight in them.” @coreyseager_5 on the #Dodgers electric 5-run eighth inning. pic.twitter.com/5vQrJNbI5b

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) September 30, 2021

Win 102.

The reigning champs are ready for October. pic.twitter.com/9aTIgQQzMV

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

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Shohei Ohtani hits 45th homer, but Angels’ young pitchers struggle in another loss

ANAHEIM — The Angels are limping to the finish line.

Although they had perhaps overachieved for much of the second half by flirting with .500 despite a skeleton roster, the Angels’ 10-5 loss to the Houston Astros on Tuesday night was their fifth in a row.

The Angels scored all of their runs on three home runs, including the 45th homer of the season for Shohei Ohtani, who had not hit one since Sept. 10. Ohtani’s eighth-inning blast pulled him within one of Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez, who are tied for the major league lead with 46.

Ohtani’s homer traveled 445 feet, landing well up into the seats beyond the right field fence.

“Chop that up a little bit he might get two or three out of that,” Manager Joe Maddon said. “That was crushed. He’s fine. He’s in position to finish very strong at the plate and on the mound. That ball was properly struck.”

Although Ohtani has slumped lately and there has been discussion that Guerrero might challenge him for the American League MVP award, Maddon reiterated his opinion that the race is over.

“I think everyone is in second, third, fourth and fifth,” Maddon said.

The MVP discussion is about all that’s left for the Angels (72-79), who are now seven games under .500 for the first time since May 28, which was so long ago that Mike Trout had not even yet missed two weeks.

After three consecutive tight losses to the Oakland A’s over the weekend, the Angels have been outscored 20-5 in the first two games of this four-game series against the AL West-leading Astros.

Their latest defeat induced poor performances by the first three pitchers who took the mound, each of whom had shown some encouraging signs in previous games.

Starter Packy Naughton carried a 4.32 ERA into the game, and he’d had thrown five scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres earlier this month.

The Astros tagged him for three runs in the second on back-to-back homers by Kyle Tucker and Aledmys Diaz. He tacked on a couple more scoreless innings before getting pulled after a leadoff walk in the fifth.

“I made two bad pitches,” Naughton said. “I think I came back and battled well, but in the end, I hope I can come out and execute better on those pitches.”

Oliver Ortega, who had allowed two runs in his first six innings, then gave up a two-run homer to José Altuve. Ortega allowed three of the next four hitters to reach and he was charged with three runs.

Finally, Kyle Tyler gave up three runs in the sixth, including a homer to Martin Maldonado.

Tyler bounced back with a scoreless seventh, looking more like the pitcher who had allowed just one run in his first 9-2/3 big league innings.

While those pitchers had pitched better previously, it’s worth noting that all three began the season at Double-A, and none of them had been in the majors before August. None of them are considered among the Angels’ top pitching prospects.

Austin Warren, who began the year in Triple-A, pitched a scoreless eighth in his first outing after missing a month following a positive COVID test.

“Beautiful,” Maddon said of Warren’s performance. “First pitch slider for a strike. I thought the ball is coming out hot again. This is a guy you know what to expect. That’s what you want from your relief pitchers.”

The Angels trailed 10-1 in the sixth before Phil Gosselin blasted a three-run homer, his second hit of the night. It was the seventh homer of the season for Gosselin.

Earlier Jack Mayfield had hit his 10th homer, this one against the team that brought him to the big leagues. Mayfield reached double-digits in homers after hitting just two in his 112 plate appearances with the Astros in 2019-20.

Shohei Ohtani has 5 HRs of 116+ MPH this season; the most in @MLB. pic.twitter.com/yUDBiHO43j

— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) September 22, 2021

Tonight marks the 13th time this year Shohei Ohtani homered but his team ended up losing by 4+ runs.

That ties the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa (1999) for the most such games in a season in MLB history.

— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) September 22, 2021

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