The four National League teams that qualified for the two Division Series are steered by the top-four vote getters in our annual regular-season awards balloting. But we had to wait until the seventh inning of the fourth NLDS contest to witness two of them matching wits for the first time this October.
Only one of the first six playoff games, the Red Sox’ 11-2 win over the Rays earlier on Friday afternoon, featured a lead change. And that shift quickly turned into a rout the other way, as, in the course of two innings, a 2-0 Tampa Bay advantage became an 8-2 Boston romp. Finally, as that game wrapped up at Fenway Park, the Dodgers and Braves kicked off the postseason’s first nailbiter at Turner Field.
In the top of the seventh, with the Braves ahead 2-1, Skip Schumaker led off with an infield single that caromed off of pitcher Mike Minor. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly’s first decision: asking A.J. Ellis to move Schumaker into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. His second: pinch-hitting Michael Young, which coaxed Braves skipper Fredi Gonzalez into pulling Minor in favor of right-hander Luis Ayala. Young followed with another infield single that put runners at the corners and sent Gonzalez back to the mound to fetch Ayala and bring in lefty Luis Avilan for Carl Crawford.
The outfielder’s platoon splits, including a .206/.261/.290 triple-slash line versus southpaws this year, might have nudged Mattingly into using another pinch-hitter, such as Scott Van Slyke. Crawford’s speed was an asset with runners at the corners and one out, because the left-handed hitter had only bounced into four double plays in 2013, but more than two-thirds of the balls lefties put in play versus Avilan this year were grounders. So was this one:
The PFP drills held six months ago in spring training paid off as Avilan started a 1-6-3 double play that also required most of the strength in Andrelton Simmons’ 80-grade right arm. Heading to the seventh-inning stretch, it was Atlanta 2, Los Angeles 1, and Gonzalez 1, Mattingly 0.
The intrigue only grew in the home half of the seventh, with the Braves looking for insurance runs and the Dodgers bent on keeping the game close. Chris Withrow replaced Greinke and promptly walked Brian McCann, who moved to second on a single by Chris Johnson. Simmons advanced both runners (B.J. Upton replaced McCann) with a bunt, but Elliot Johnson struck out, leaving them at second and third with two away. That’s when the fun resumed.
Avilan was due up, and Gonzalez elected to have the fleet-footed but light-hitting Jose Constanza bat for him. Mattingly, it seems, was determined to gain the platoon advantage regardless of the identities of the hitter at the plate and the like-handed pitcher on the mound. That nixed any chance of Withrow facing Constanza, but as soon Mattingly called for left-hander Paco Rodriguez, Gonzalez countered with the righty-swinging Reed Johnson. Mattingly wouldn’t have that: with first base open, he had Rodriguez intentionally walk Johnson.
Unfortunately for the Dodgers, that turned the order over and brought up leadoff man Jason Heyward. Rodriguez threw him three straight breaking balls, fell behind in the count 2-1, and then caught too much of the plate with a flatter slider:
Heyward drilled it up the middle to bring home both Upton and Johnson with tallies that eventually made all the difference. At the end of seven, it was Braves 4, Dodgers 1, and Gonzalez 2, Mattingly 0.
Heyward’s single enabled the Braves to endure the two runs Hanley Ramirez drove in with a home run in the top of the eighth, his fourth extra-base hit of the series. And Gerald Laird helped Craig Kimbrel work around a couple of ninth-inning walks by gunning down pinch-runner Dee Gordon on a steal attempt.
- Minor scattered eight hits over 6 1/3 innings, of which only two—both Ramirez doubles—went for extra bases. Ramirez plated the only run the Dodgers scored against him in the opening frame. The lefty walked one and struck out five to become the fourth Braves starter to earn a win in his first playoff outing since 1963.
- In addition to his turn on the aforementioned double play, Simmons went 1-for-2 at the plate with an RBI two-bagger that tied the game in the bottom of the second. On the defensive side of the ball, he partook in two other twin killings and blocked the bag on Gordon’s ill-fated steal try.
- Brian Wilson worked a scoreless inning for the second straight night, this time holding the line in the bottom of the eighth and collecting a couple of strikeouts along the way. His 0.00 ERA in the playoffs now has 13 2/3 frames worth of padding.
- Kimbrel’s save was just the second of the year in which he recorded four outs. The other also came in relief of Minor, at Busch Stadium on August 25.
- The series resumes in Los Angeles on Sunday night, with Julio Teheran toeing the rubber for the Braves against Hyun-jin Ryu (8:00 p.m. ET). Both will be making their postseason debuts. Look for Mike Gianella’s preview of that game later this weekend.