ARLINGTON, Texas – It will be up to ace Max Fried and, perhaps, his rookie running mate, Ian Anderson, to determine if what we saw Friday night in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series was merely a highly-entertaining delay in an Atlanta Braves coronation.
This NLCS got weird in a hurry, the game turning on a historic showdown of men with the same name, the momentum swinging on the ever-popular 9-2-5 double play, the Los Angeles Dodgers suddenly finding a bumper crop of shutdown relief pitching after a five-alarm fire out of their bullpen through the first four games.
Oh, the Braves will probably sleep well enough into Saturday morning, knowing that Game 1 winner Fried and indomitable playoff starter Anderson loom in Games 6 and 7. But it will sting to know they had the NL pennant in their grasp, only to see it slip away in a bizarre turn of events in the middle innings, resulting in a 7-3 Dodgers victory.
They’ll all report back here Saturday night for Game 6, Fried and Walker Buehler in a Game 1 rematch, Anderson and probably Tony Gonsolin in a Game 7 and the Braves knowing they prevailed both times those pitchers all locked horns.
Corey Seager screams after slugging his second home run of the game. (Photo: Tom Pennington, Getty Images)
Yet, while the Braves have flexed their muscles in this series and drawn upon a gaggle of startling, inspired performances – opener A.J. Minter’s career-high three innings and seven strikeouts in Game 5 the latest – there’s also a sense of tip-toeing around a Dodger club that hopefully wouldn’t awaken and play to its full capabilities.
It has only come in fits and bursts. Friday’s dose was something to behold.
Shortstop Corey Seager scorched a pair of home runs, a solo shot to halve a Braves lead to 2-1, and then a two-run homer in the seventh, his fourth of the NLCS, to give the Dodgers crucial breathing room on a night they deployed seven pitchers.
BIG WILLIE STYLE: Will Smith homers off Will Smith
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Right fielder Mookie Betts turned in a stupendous all-around performance, racing in to make a shoe-string catch on Dansby Swanson’s sinking line drive in the third inning and then firing home. The sequence was so wham-bam that Marcell Ozuna scrambled back to tag up, left too soon and ended being called out on replay review, preventing the Braves from pushing their lead to 3-0.
Betts later beat out an infield single on a grounder to third base, which in Game 2 was the drip of water that led to a record 11-run, first-inning deluge.
On this night, it set up the Dodgers’ season-saving moment.
That came four batters later, in a moment the baseball geekerati had been waiting for all series: Braves reliever Will Smith vs. Dodgers catcher Will Smith.
Yes, it was the first time a pitcher and batter with the same name faced each other in a playoff game. Who knew this odd bit of trivia would come at such a pivotal moment: Sixth inning, elimination game, Braves nursing a 2-1 lead.
The younger Smith would prevail.
He fell into a two-strike hole before clouting a full-count fastball into the left-field giving the Dodgers a 4-2 lead and, more important, life.
This was an all-hands effort: The Dodgers bullpen, boosted greatly by Betts’ defensive prowess, retired 11 consecutive batters from the third through the sixth innings, and even got a perfect ninth from the struggling Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. This NLCS has shown things can get turned on their ear quickly. Chapter 6 is next.
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