Dodgers Strike First, Claim Game 6Rachael McDanielon October 18, 2020 at 1:48 am

The first game of this NLCS was a tense thriller, carrying a score of 1-1 into the top of the ninth thanks to the performances of starters Walker Buehler and Max Fried. With a burst of offense in the ninth, the Braves took that game, 5-1. Five days later — doesn’t it feel like it’s been longer? — Atlanta entered Game 6, a repeat of that starting pitching matchup, with a chance to walk away with the pennant. And while the two games had many features in common — low scores, great starting pitching, and missed opportunities on the offensive side — it was the Dodgers, this time, who came out on top. After a 3-1 Los Angeles victory, the series is now tied at 3-3, with a decisive seventh game coming tomorrow.

Buehler set the tone by retiring Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna on only seven pitches in the top of the first. Fried, who outpitched Buehler in Game 1, did not have the same success. He retired Mookie Betts without incident, but Corey Seager turned on a curveball on the inner half, sending it into the seats in right field. Two batters into the game, the Dodgers already had the lead — and one batter later, they added to it, as Justin Turner shot a sinker just over the outstretched arm of Cristian Pache in center.

A mound visit followed, accompanied by furrowed brows in the Atlanta dugout. Max Muncy walked and Will Smith singled, and now Fried had a veritable jam to deal with. Cody Bellinger then singled Muncy home, and just like that, it was 3-0 Dodgers.

But it wasn’t Fried, ultimately, who sank the Braves in Game 6. The Dodgers would not score off him in the remaining 5.2 innings he pitched. Despite Fried falling behind in counts often, and the three walks and four hits he allowed after the first, the Dodgers couldn’t scratch a run across. And they couldn’t score off Darren O’Day or Chris Martin, either, leaving a total of 10 runners on base. Their only hit in six chances with runners in scoring position was the first-inning Bellinger single. The Braves’ pitching staff — particularly Fried, who ended the day having thrown 109 pitches — put forth a valiant effort, grinding out a series of scoreless innings.

It was the Braves’ powerful lineup who faltered, wasting chances to pull closer or take the lead. They had no better chance than the one that came in the top of the second, immediately following the Dodgers’ three runs. Buehler came out to face the middle of the Braves’ lineup and promptly surrendered three straight singles to Travis d’Arnaud, Ozzie Albies, and Dansby Swanson. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Austin Riley struck out on three straight 98-mph fastballs, Nick Markakis worked the count full before taking strike three — again, all fastballs, the last one at 99.7 mph — and Pache, the last hope of getting something out of this golden opportunity to shift the game in Atlanta’s favor, grounded out to short to end the inning.

That was the Braves’ best chance of the game, but it was far from their only chance. In the top of the fourth, d’Arnaud and Swanson got Buehler for singles again around an Albies strikeout, but Riley and Markakis couldn’t drive them in. With two outs in the top of the fifth, Freeman smoked the first pitch he saw from Buehler into right-center, but Betts swiftly cut it off, preventing extra bases. Two pitches later, Ozuna scorched a pitch towards the wall in right, where Betts, running backward and leaping, made an incredible catch to end the inning, preventing at least one run from scoring.

In the top of the sixth with one out, Albies hit a chopper up the first base line. Muncy grabbed it, and Albies, feeling the tag, touched first and rounded it, exasperated at making an out. But Muncy had not, in fact, tagged him out: the ball had squeaked out of his glove as he applied the tag, and if Albies had not given up on the play, he would have been safe. Instead, Buehler scooped up the ball and applied the tag for the second out of the inning. That the error was immediately followed by yet another Swanson single — he would eventually reach third on a stolen base and a throwing error by Austin Barnes before being stranded — made it all the more critical.

Buehler left the game after six innings, and as though to celebrate his departure, Markakis jumped on Blake Treinen’s first pitch for a triple. After a Pache groundout, he came around to score on an Acuña double into right. But Treinen managed to retire Freeman and Ozuna to escape the inning without any further damage. Pedro Báez pitched a clean eighth, and a somehow-resurgent Kenley Jansen, in his second straight day of work, only took six pitches to close out the ninth for the Dodgers.

The Braves finished the day 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position, just a little better than their 1-for-12 mark in Game 1. In that contest, however, they had near-perfect pitching to bail them out. This time they didn’t have that luxury, and it only took a bad first inning to push them into a do-or-die situation. Tomorrow they have their rookie Ian Anderson on the mound, yet to be scored upon in this postseason; the Dodgers have yet to announce a starter but presumably will be throwing whomever they possibly can. Hold on to your seats, folks.
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