Austin Riley elevates the Braves to Game 1 victory

For eight innings, the impromptu Dodgers’ box game went almost as planned, with their relief cavalcade limiting the Braves to two runs on just four hits. With the game tied before the end of the ninth inning, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts brought in his eighth pitcher of the night, Blake Treinen, in hopes of forcing more innings. It turned out to be too far a bridge for his relief corps. A simple bloop from Ozzie Albies followed by a stolen base put him in position to score the winning point. Austin Riley delivered the big hit, his second of the night after an equalizer in the fourth inning:

It was a bit of deja vu for Riley and Treinen. These same two teams met in the NLCS last year and it was Riley who ended up hitting Treinen’s winning home run in the ninth inning of Game 1. In this case it was a single in. line to left field that easily scored. Albies from second base. It was the first hit of Riley’s career and just another highlight of an outstanding season for the 24-year-old.

After a promising start in 2019, Riley made some adjustments to his approach in an attempt to remedy his 36.4% strikeout rate. Those changes worked – his take-out rate dropped to 23.8% in 2020 – but he struggled to maintain contact quality as good as it had been when he debuted. This year he’s got it all in place, maintaining his discipline gains at plate while producing fantastic contact quality. This led to a 135 WRC and a WAR 4.2, a season that is expected to produce MVP votes against the ballots.

For the Dodgers, starting the series on the back foot was always a possibility after Max Scherzer was deemed unavailable to start after his ninth inning in Game 5 of the Division Series. ZiPS game-by-game odds changed by more than five points in favor of the Braves after Corey Knebel was named a starter, although Los Angeles are still favorites to win, 51.3% to 48.7%. The game didn’t start exactly as planned either. Eddie Rosario started off with a hard hit single along the straight field line, stole second place, moved up to third on a field and eventually came to score on wild ground.

After Knebel, six more relievers from Dodger combined to keep the game close until the ninth. The only other hiccup was Riley’s equalizing solo shot against Tony Gonsolin in the fourth inning. Together, the Los Angeles relief corps struck out 14 Atlanta batters, steered no one, and limited them to four hits before Treinen allowed the decisive two hits in the final frame.

The only relievers who did not take part in the game were Brusdar Graterol and Evan Phillips. With Knebel called in as the opener, many expected Gonsolin to play a bigger role. And although he had the longest outing of the night, he was only needed for five outings. The rest of the Dodgers relievers had normal workloads and should be available for Game 2 without too much hesitation. It’s a nice silver liner for a pitching staff that got stretched during the playoffs.

Even though the Braves took an early lead in the first, it quickly evaporated after the Dodgers hit back in the second. After getting two quick outs, AJ Pollock ambushed a curved ball from Max Fried’s first pitch and lined it up in the left center gap for a brace. Chris Taylor singled him out at home after another curve that hung loosely in the middle of the strike zone. Allowing back-to-back shots on this ground was quite unusual for Fried. During the regular season, opposing hitters only hit 0.160 on his breaker with a wOBA of just 0.198.

Fried looked after the base runners all evening. He allowed eight hits in six innings with at least one hit in each of those frames. He managed to keep most of those runners from scoring with timely strikeouts and excellent defense behind him. It certainly seemed like Los Angeles had a unified game plan against Fried; of the 25 batters he’s faced, only eight have seen more than three pitches in one at bat. The Dodgers were swinging early and often, which helped Fried keep his pitching count under control despite the heavy traffic on the base trails. He gave way to the bullpen after completing six innings, throwing just 81 shots.

The Dodgers took a brief 2-1 lead early in the fourth after Will Smith took Fried deep on a 0-2 fastball that caught a little too much plate. After the fourth inning, they had just two runners who made it to second base or further until the end of the game despite hitting each inning. After Riley’s explosion, the Dodgers’ best chance to regain the lead probably came in the seventh inning. Taylor started off with a double bloop on the first baseline. A sacrifice of sacrifice put him on third base with an out, but a foul by Mookie Betts and a withdrawal by Trea Turner quickly quelled that threat. In the ninth, Taylor hit again with a two-out walk, but a massive baserunning blunder ended the inning after passing second base on a Cody Bellinger single.

On the other hand, the Braves’ speed on the basic paths made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. Between Rosario’s first-run circuit around the goals and Albies’s stolen ninth-inning sack, Atlanta put two runners in position to score with an aggressive baseline run. During the regular season, Smith sent off a quarter of the runners who attempted to fly against him, just a hair above the league average rate of 24.3%. Atlanta hasn’t been particularly active on base paths during the regular season, attempting just 78 interceptions with a 75.6 percent success rate. They obviously saw an opportunity to take advantage of Smith’s arm and the Dodgers relievers.

Albies has been a prolific base thief throughout his career and set a career high this year with 20 sweeps. Once he reached number one in the ninth inning, almost everyone in the stadium knew he would try to make his way to second place during Riley’s beat. Rosario isn’t the speedster that Albies is, but he’s notched 11 goals this season, tying a career high that dates back to his rookie year in 2015.

With their first win in the bag, the Braves will now look to Ian Anderson in Game 2. The Dodgers will look to tie the series behind Scherzer.

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