It became the game that turned Game 5 of the NLCS and – who knows? – Maybe the whole series. Because there was another possible outcome, a very distant, sinking liner on Swanson’s right: Betts caught it on the run right over the lawn. Marcell Ozuna reported from third place too early. A retest confirmed this and Ozuna was excluded. A Braves run has been deleted from the scoreboard.
And the Dodgers soon achieved a pivotal 7-3 win at Globe Life Field that prevented a Braves winner and forced a Game 6 in the Best of Seven series on Saturday. Still leading the series, three to two games, the Braves will send ace Max Fried up the hill in Game 6 to face Dodger’s right-handed Walker Buehler in a Game 1 rematch.
The Dodgers took control of the game as they are used to, with longballs – a three-hour blast from catcher Will Smith in the sixth and a split shot from shortstop Corey Seager, his second in the game in the seventh. The Dodgers led the majors this season with 118 homers and have beaten 12 of them in just five games in the series, two less than the NLCS record.
But even in today’s power-on-power version of baseball – 100 mph fastballs versus all-or-nothing swings – a game can sometimes activate something subtle and seemingly small. Like a gold glove, the right outfield player transforms a probable single and a surefire sacrificial fly into a double game at the end of the inning. The Dodgers traded for Betts this spring, then gave him $ 365 million to keep for moments like this.
With the Braves 2-0 lead at the end of third place and second and third as well as falling behind, Betts made a fabulous catch on Swanson’s sinking liner after a full sprint, somehow keeping his balance and sticking to his feet. On the third base, Ozuna took a break and made his way home.
“I just knew that I had to stay on my feet to kick him out at home,” said Betts. “I tried to do everything possible to stay on my feet.”
Ozuna barely knocked Betts ‘unbalanced throw on the plate and scored the Braves’ third run – except that Ozuna, it turned out, may have been unsure if Betts got the ball clean, left the bag prematurely, which was on the replay immediately became clear. After a brief review, the umpires called Ozuna out, finished the inning, and wiped the Braves’ run off the scoreboard.
“We’ve played a lot of great pieces this year,” said Dave Roberts, Dodgers manager, “but when you talk about momentum shifts, this is the game of the year for me.”
Immediately afterwards, when Seager drove off the top of fourth place against the new Braves pitcher Tyler Matzek, he smashed a solo homer into the immediate midfield. In the span of two skirmishes – the Betts Game and the Seager Homer – the Braves went from thinking they had a three-run lead to reducing that lead to one.
“It is not always offensive that you get a spark,” said Seager of the Betts game. “A moment like this can change everything.”
That shouldn’t ignore the importance of Smith’s mammoth three-run homer that put the Dodgers in the lead – and threatened to break Twitter, too. That’s because it came at the end of a one-of-a-kind matchup by postseason fighters of the same name: Will Smith, Dodger’s catcher, destroying a homer of Will Smith, Braves left reliever.
The fateful ride took place in sixth place in the bat game – after Batter Smith fought his way back from 2-0 on the count and improved to 3-2 – converting a 2-1 lead from Braves into a 4-2 lead from Dodgers. It also sparked a million dizzying tweets – mostly lines from songs and films by Will Smith, the rapper and actor.
“I’ll always bet on our Will Smith,” said Roberts.
“It’s a name that is common enough,” the Dodger catcher shrugged.
When Seager hit Braves right-hander Jacob Webb deep in the seventh game, the game was close to a third blowout in a row, followed by games in Games 3 and 4. Perhaps, given the unusual LCS format used this year – without the typical off-days in the middle of the series and with games every evening.
After running out of baseball players for their fifth straight night, the Braves commissioned a bullpen game with left-wing AJ Minter – who hadn’t started a game since his junior year at Texas A&M in 2015. Hoping for a clean game inning, maybe two, the Braves were pleased to see Minter blow through three – his longest time as a great leaguer.
The first four reliefs the Braves brought into play – Matzek, Shane Greene, Smith, and Webb – all gave up runs. If both nerves are frayed, shoulders and elbows are barking, and energy reserves are sinking to critical levels, does either team have enough pitching to survive another game, maybe two?
The Dodgers needed their own six-man bullpen squadron – to the relief of starter Dustin May, who only survived two innings – to carry their lead home, a task infinitely made easier by the piling up of runs in the later innings. They went from Joe Kelly (who secured three outs) to Blake Treinen (six outs) to Pedro Baez (three) to Victor Gonzalez (three) to Brusdar Graterol. Everyone put up zeros, except Graterol, who allowed one in the eighth.
“They’ll all be ready,” said Roberts on Saturday.
The ninth belonged to Kenley Jansen – as it always was before Jansen lost his grip on his cutter and lost his grip on the job of Dodgers sewer. His Friday night outing in an unsafe situation can best be viewed as a test – to see if Jansen can be trusted as long as the Dodgers keep their season alive. He slapped aside and touched 94 mph on the radar gun for the first time in weeks, suggesting the answer was yes.
The Dodgers played their 70th game of 2020 on Friday night. They won an incredible 50 of them, a 0.714 percent gain – that’s a pace of 116 wins in a 162 game season. You have to win twice more to reach the World Series. But this NLCS has become less of a competition of skills than a battle of attrition.