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ATLANTA – The Los Angeles Dodgers reached the National League Championship Series with one final, highly competitive pitch on Thursday evening in San Francisco.
His luck last move – or sorcery or absurdity, or whatever your baseball loyalties lead you to call it – didn’t last.
Instead, Atlanta’s Austin Riley lifted Blake Treinen’s offer to left field with Game 1 of the NLCS in the ninth inning on Saturday, turning a slider into a starting gun for Ozzie Albies. Albies drove off the second base he’d stolen moments earlier and crossed home plate to give Atlanta a 3-2 win in the best-of-seven series.
It was the franchise’s first NLCS win here since 1999.
“I was just trying to get a base goal and luckily it came through,” said Riley, whose home run devastated the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS last season
“That’s what you dream of as a small child,” he said on Saturday.
The theatricality was an exciting coda to a game that featured two of baseball’s most boastful offenses, but which turned out to be more of a defensive showcase. There were running catches and a rundown too. The teams combined for 21 strikeouts. In his sixth career start after the season, Max Fried of Atlanta completed six innings and allowed two runs on eight hits.
“They hit some balls hard and looked for places in certain areas and that’s what good teams do,” Fried said. “It’s a really tough game, so getting out there and keeping us in the game was basically my goal today and I was happy that I could do it.”
The Dodgers weighed in with Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner, to start the series against Atlanta. But after Scherzer scored the first parade of his professional career on Thursday night when he placed ninth in San Francisco, he and manager Dave Roberts decided that he would start for Los Angeles in Game 2, which will be played in Atlanta on Sunday.
Instead, the Dodgers named Corey Knebel as the “opener” for Game 1. Seven more pitches from Los Angeles, only one of whom worked more than 15 pitches, followed.
“We just ran into a tough pitcher tonight,” said Chris Taylor, the Los Angeles midfielder who collapsed in the ninth inning, of Fried. “He was the best thrower in the league in the second half. We were able to get a couple of runs on him. It was one of those games. We missed some opportunities and they took them. “
Both teams threatened in the first. In the top half of the inning, Corey Seager slid past a diving Albies into the middle right to double. But Fried, who had earned two outs on four pitches at the beginning of his night, outlasted Justin Turner in a seven pitch at-bat with a strikeout on a checked swing.
Then it was Atlanta’s turn. Eddie Rosario, who was at the top instead of Jorge Soler, who tested positive for the coronavirus during the divisional series, isolated Knebel’s first baseline. Rosario stole second place and then advanced to third, aided by a ground ball from Albies. Riley struck after four pitches. But the very first, a 97 mph fastball, was wild and bounced off home plate. Rosario slipped forward from third place and scored the first run on Saturday.
Atlanta’s leadership did not last. In the second, Fried quickly picked up two outs again, but AJ Pollock, who started Saturday’s game with an average of 0.183 in his postseason career, swung a curveball and drove it deep to the right. Taylor, a Los Angeles postseason hero for his walk-off home run in the wildcard game against St. Louis, got a full count before his single in the left gave Pollock enough time to score.
Los Angeles catcher Will Smith broke the tie after standing in the batter’s box as the first hitter of the fourth inning. He quickly took calls on two curveballs before Fried went to his fastball. Smith sent it 416 feet into the left field for a home run, his third of the postseason.
It was Los Angeles’ turn to quickly dissipate a lead. With an out in fourth, Tony Gonsolin started as the fourth pitcher of the Dodgers of the evening. He took the second out of the inning with a flyball from Albies. However, Riley, Atlanta’s scavenger, was lurking in circles on the deck. When he went to the plate, a couple of chants demanded that he win the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Riley missed a slider. He took another one, this one at the same speed, 87 mph as the first one, but just a little farther from the plate. Next came a fastball, followed by a crack, a soaring roar, and a solo home run to the left.
The switching of the scoreboard stopped, the last draw dragged on for half of the game.
The line-up in Atlanta in the ninth inning, however, promised danger. There was Freddie Freeman, the first baseman whose home run in the eighth inning on Tuesday gave Atlanta just enough to beat the Brewers in game 4 of their division series. He found no such magic on Saturday when he became the last of 14 strikeouts in Atlanta.
Albies, hovering for a catch in the sixth inning to obliterate one of Los Angeles’ most threatening scoring opportunities, swung the first pitch he saw of Treinen. The ball bounced toward the outfield, near the etch in the grass honoring Atlanta thug Hank Aaron, who died in January.
A trio of Dodgers drew nearer. The ball fell on the field. The winning run was on the basic paths with an out.
The MVP cheers returned when Riley hit the plate. Albies was gone early enough.
Hours after Richard G. Sneed, head of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, shouted “cue ball” in front of a sold-out Truist Park, the hoe-chanting swelled. Atlanta fans rhythmically swung their right arms. Treinen looked at the plate and fired his pitch 0: 1.
Riley swung on the field, in the lower half of the striking zone. The ball slammed into the field and bounced towards the left corner of the field. Albies, helmet off and arm raised in celebration, sped across the homeplate. The entire sequence lasted maybe seven seconds.
Albies said afterward that he never doubted Riley would get away. After all, he had played in a tie NLCS 1 against Treinen last year. His home run in the ninth inning of that game began a four-run rally for Atlanta’s coronavirus pandemic.
That night, Atlanta proved that he only needed his momentum to score a win late – the way it did in Georgia on Saturday night.
Scott Miller contributed to the coverage.