Braves regain poise in classic postseason drama
Strong defense, clutch hitting on display in Game 2 win over Dodgers
ATLANTA -- The gusto and the glory of lineup introductions and frenzied fan bases and post-Wild Card champagne celebrations had all come and gone. But it wasn't until Friday night, here at Turner Field, that the bleeding, beating heart of October baseball fully revealed itself.
Until this game between the victorious Braves and the Dodgers, the early results had been rather lopsided and the tension had not yet been as taut as it tends to get this time of year. But a dazzling display of defense, a seventh-inning sequence loaded with questionable managerial maneuvering and, best of all, a one-run result in the Braves' 4-3 win brought us to that place on the edge of the seat that ought to be well-worn by Halloween, all with the Tomahawk Chop music burned into our brains.
More than anything, it brought us precisely what we envisioned this National League Division Series to be: a toss-up. Because while Clayton Kershaw's performance and the Braves' early stumbles sealed Game 1, this night was an authentic confirmation of the resolve that rests inside an Atlanta team that won 96 games despite some truly disappointing stretches.
"We came up big," Jason Heyward said.
Indeed, they did.
As jittery as the Braves looked in Game 1, that's how poised they appeared in Game 2. Much of the focus will be on Don Mattingly's reliance -- many would say over-reliance -- on the situational splits in the seventh inning, when he intentionally walked pinch-hitter Reed Johnson to face Heyward while trailing by a run. And much attention will be given to Heyward, the homegrown hero, coming through in the clutch to lead his boyhood team to its first postseason win at Turner Field in his career.
But the Braves really won this game because they took care of business defensively, which is something they did not do 24 hours earlier. They turned three double plays, each bigger than the last and none bigger than the one reliever Luis Avilan ignited on a sharp ground ball off the bat of Carl Crawford with runners on the corners and one out in the seventh. Instinctively, rather than going home with the throw, Avilan turned and fired to Andrelton Simmons at second, and Simmons' relay to first was in time to catch Crawford for the final out of the inning.
"That was the coolest moment of my life," Avilan said.
It was cool to watch, too, and what we're learning thus far in this series is that instincts -- be it Heyward's instinct to throw home on a Skip Schumaker sacrifice fly or Evan Gattis' instinct to leave his feet in pursuit of what turned out to be an A.J. Ellis double in the second inning of Game 1 -- are playing a big role in the eventual outcome.
That's how it should be, come October. All that advance work and statistical regurgitation ought to give way to a test of nerves and brainpower and innate ability. And if you didn't know this already, Game 2 ought to have convinced you that the Braves have the innate ability to hit the refresh button, because too many people were counting them out when they went into Game 2 in an 0-1 hole and facing Zack Greinke.
Speaking of Greinke, he had to endure the frustration of seeing his strong six innings of work marred by a slow-rolling single that gave the Braves their first lead of the series -- a lead they would not relinquish. That came in the fourth inning, when Greinke appeared to be pitching himself out of a jam ignited by Freddie Freeman's leadoff double. Greinke got two quick outs on ground balls and then induced a third. But this one was hit to the right of Hanley Ramirez at short.
"He hit it right where he needed to," Greinke said of Chris Johnson, "and found a hole."
Hey, maybe the ball was outfield-bound either way, but it was still unnerving to see Ramirez stand and watch the ball go by without an attempt at a diving stop. And this was proof of another pre-series supposition: Hanley can do wonders with his bat (and he already has, with three doubles and a homer thus far), but he comes with the cost of poor range to his right that is only exaggerated by the current condition of his lower back.
Contrast Ramirez with Simmons, and the respective shortstop situations could prove to be a crucial component of this series. Game 3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu gets more ground balls than any member of this Dodgers starting staff, so they'll have to hope those worm-burners aren't as properly placed as Johnson's was.
Game 2 demonstrated that the Braves don't necessarily need to be as power-dependant as some assert to beat L.A. -- and that's a worthwhile demonstration as the series shifts to the pitcher-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium. The Braves won this game without the benefit of the long ball. They merely played a smart game with the sort of well-executed infield defense that defined their season.
They also had some smarts in the dugout. Fredi Gonzalez sent the left-handed Jose "Can't Stand Ya" Constanza in to pinch-hit with runners at second and third and two outs in the seventh, despite Constanza logging just 31 plate appearances and eight hits (all singles) in the Majors this year. Gonzalez was testing Mattingly's willingness to leave in right-handed rookie Chris Withrow and, sure enough, Mattingly bit, opting to bring in left-hander Paco Rodriguez to play the percentages. Gonzalez then countered with the right-handed-hitting Reed Johnson, who was intentionally walked to bring up the left-handed-hitting Heyward.
"Just really at that point trusting Paco to do what he had to do," Mattingly explained.
Paco didn't do it. Heyward brought home a pair with a single, and the Braves, despite an eighth-inning blast from Ramirez, went on to win.
We'll remember that moment if the Braves take this series. But we'll remember Atlanta's early overeagerness if the Dodgers advance. This series has already lived up to the expectation that it could go either way. Turns out, it's only just begun.