The Atlanta Braves blew a five-run lead, but Freddie Freeman’s bomb against former teammate Alex Wood and some big-time strikeouts by the bullpen gives the Braves another day of baseball in 2018. In a game that challenged the Braves’ depth along with the health of Braves fans’ hearts, Atlanta did just enough to force a Game Four and keep hope alive. Once again, Atlanta will look to right-hander Mike Foltynewicz to do something incredible – unlike his Game One effort. And if everything goes to plan, perhaps the young team that never seems to quit might take another trip to Los Angeles.
Lefty Sean Newcomb took the mound Sunday night. A few months before, he came within a strike of a no-hitter against these Dodgers. That drama wouldn’t last long this time around as he gave up a single to Justin Turner in the first. He also walked a batter in the second, but two double plays turned by his infield over the first two frames kept the Dodgers at bay.
The bottom of the second inning would be pivotal for the Braves. After Nick Markakis earned a four-pitch walk against Walker Buehler, Johan Camargo and Kurt Suzuki each struck out against the talented right-hander. Ozzie Albies let a couple of pitches flutter out of the strikezone before poking one to center field. Cody Bellinger, who has been surprisingly solid in center field, bobbled the ball. It allowed both Markakis and Albies to advance a base into scoring position, but it appeared like that would be unfortunate for the Braves. The Dodgers intentionally walked Charlie Culberson to face Newcomb. On the season, Newcomb had two hits in 53 trips to the plate. In a way, having him up with the bases loaded seemed like a better play for the Dodgers than Culberson up with runners on the corners.
But Buehler, who battled his control all night, walked Newcomb on four straight. Newcomb is now tied with a number of players in history with a postseason OBP of 1.000. Up next was Ronald Acuña Jr. With the count 3-0, Acuña Jr. pulled down his bat down on Buehler’s fourth pitch and watched it sail up. For everyone who watched, it looked like Ball 4. Newcomb even started to second. But the umpire, Gary Cederstrom, called it a strike – possibly unhappy with Acuña Jr.’s take on the pitch that included him dropping the bat to his waist and backing up even before the ball had reached home plate. Ultimately, this would prove disastrous not for the Braves, but the Dodgers. A terrible call allowed Buehler to throw one more pitch to Acuña Jr. and he crushed it into the night’s sky for a Grand Slam.
Acuña Jr. now holds a record as the youngest player to ever hit a Grand Slam in the postseason. Of course, Mickey Mantle’s postseason records have been broken before by a Braves rookie outfielder. I’m obviously referring to Andruw Jones, who became the youngest player in history to ever homer in the World Series at the age of 19 – wrestling a record away from Mantle. Humorously, Acuña Jr. was asked about Mantle after the game and said he didn’t know of him because he wasn’t born then. Kids, right?
Newcomb got two outs in the second, sandwiched between a pair of walks. The lefty, who worked two innings out of the pen on Thursday, was lifted for Kevin Gausman. The former Oriole had originally been tasked to pitch Game Three before being demoted in favor of Newcomb. Amped up, Gausman struggled with his location. Some were critical of Brian Snitker’s move for Gausman over a more traditional reliever with more experience with inheriting runners. Whatever the case, Gausman gave up a 3-1 single to Justin Turner. A run was going to score regardless, but like Bellinger had done the previous inning, Acuña Jr. committed a costly error and it brought home a second run. Gausman then walked another batter before getting a key strikeout of Manny Machado.
Gausman settled in for a solid fourth inning, but ran back into trouble with a leadoff walk in the fifth and an one-out homer by Chris Taylor. After Turner grounded out, Snitker went to the pen again. Like with Gausman, he went with a starter over a more traditional reliever trying to get one last out in the inning. And again, it burned the Braves as Max Muncy homered off Max Fried. The at-bat included a number of curveballs before Fried finally hung one. Tie ballgame.
It didn’t stay tied for long. After Touki Toussaint navigated through a double and two walks in the top-half of the sixth, Freddie Freeman greeted Alex Wood with a homer to open the bottom of the sixth to retake the lead.
From there, it was a question of whether or not the much-maligned Braves bullpen could hold on. Chad Sobotka pitched a perfect seventh, but both A.J. Minter and Arodys Vizcaino had to work around some issues. Minter gave up a single and a walk, but retired Yasiel Puig to end the eighth. In the ninth, a pair of long at-bats to open the inning turned into a single and a walk. But Vizcaino buckled down to strike out Muncy, Machado, and Brian Dozier.
It’s the first postseason win for Atlanta since Game 2 of the 2013 NLDS – also against the Dodgers. The Braves didn’t push that series to five games. They hope to do exactly that tomorrow afternoon. Taking the ball, once again, will be Mike Foltynewicz. He’ll look to bounce back from an awful Game One start. Julio Teheran may be the next guy out if needed.
One last thought to leave you with. Over a week ago, I wrote a mini-novel about the Braves’ rebuild. In it, I looked at two deals that were huge during the 2015 season. One was the trade of Alex Wood and company for Hector Olivera. The other was the salary dump that saw the Diamondbacks trade the Braves Touki Toussaint. On Sunday night, one was the winning pitcher and the other the losing pitcher. It’s funny how everything circles around.