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Well that got out of hand quickly, eh?
It took all of two pitches for the Dodgers to stake an early lead in Wednesday’s NLCS Game 3. Mookie Betts legged out an infield single (replay correctly overturned a bang-bang play at first) and then Corey Seager continued his torrid hitting with a double in the left center field gap to plate the leadoff man. After two quick outs, it looked like Braves starter Kyle Wright would be able to wriggle out of the inning with minimal damage.
Then the barrage began in earnest: A double and a walk preceded back-to-back jacks from Joc Pederson and Edwin Rios. Another walk chased Wright, but all Grant Dayton could do was throw more fuel on the fire: Walk, double, HBP, grand slam. Just like that, the Dodgers — who were an overturned call at first from getting nothing in the frame — had an 11-0 lead, and a new record for runs in a single postseason inning.
From there, it was academic. Los Angeles added in the second and third and Atlanta managed a few runs of their own. The only real remaining highlight was Cristian Pache‘s first major league home run, a no-doubter that stayed just fair on its way past the foul pole.
The obvious parallel here is Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, when St. Louis’s 10-run first inning explosion all but ended Atlanta’s season eight and a half innings before it became official. But tonight’s lopsided contest actually reminds me of a game from all the way back in 2001.
After winning 116 times during the regular season, Seattle barely survived its ALDS bout with Cleveland and then fell behind the Yankees two games to none in the ALCS. The Mariners were too good to not wake up eventually, and in Game 3 they did. Stifled for 2.5 games, the Mariners bats erupted over the final five innings, and they ultimately trounced the Bronx Bombers 13-2. For one glorious afternoon, all was right in the world for the Mariners and their fans.
Like the Mariners, this Dodgers club is brimming with talent. Both teams won more than 70% of their games. Each was solid up and down the order, with strong rotations, deep bullpens, and multiple Hall of Famers on the roster. And each club’s regular season dominance meant nothing when they smacked into the headwinds of a short series.
There’s no reason to think these Dodgers are especially vulnerable to echoing the 2001 Mariners and bowing out two days after winning a Game 3 laugher. Heck, given Atlanta’s upcoming starters, I think I’d still pick Los Angeles in this matchup if I had to wager. But baseball’s a strange game. Just because today felt a lot more normal for Dodgers fans doesn’t mean that order has been restored. It’s anyone’s series.
Ever since Jose Bautista shed his fourth-outfielder skin and emerged as one of the game’s preeminent sluggers, the search for the next big breakout has been something of a pastime among baseball scribes; I’m certainly guilty of it. Baseball people have been doing this forever, of course. But it’s only in the last 10 years or so of advanced analytics, the ubiquity of baseball on television, and the growing prevalence of swing changes and velocity development that these breakouts have become so common, and so easy to identify as they occur.
The risk in always being on the lookout for a breakout is that you set yourself up for a false positive. To a small extent, I wonder if this happened with Wright.
Wright, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft, and a top 100 prospect every year since, has mostly struggled to translate his impressive raw stuff into sustained big league success. In a year Atlanta desperately needed starting pitching, they demoted Wright to the alternate training site midway through the season.
Upon his return, he was better. He struck out 10 and allowed only two runs in his final two regular season starts, then fired six innings of shutout ball against Miami in the NLDS. In part, he credited his success to the increased use of his two-seamer, and to moving his plant leg toward the first base side of the rubber. All told, his last three starts nurtured optimism that he’d turned a corner.
One bad start isn’t definitive, but tonight L.A. was able to expose a starter still honing his stuff. The Dodgers mashed his fastball, and Wright had a very hard time spotting his breaking balls in competitive locations out of the strike zone. The result was an ugly line: two-thirds of an inning, two walks, two homers, five hits, and seven runs allowed. Wright may well turn into an impact starter, but he’s not there quite yet.
In the third inning, Austin Riley settled under a routine fly off the bat of Max Muncy. Or, he thought he did. Soon after stopping his pursuit he realized the ball was going way, way over his head. It ultimately landed on the warning track, a good 25-30 feet behind where he originally camped.
Riley is not a left fielder by trade. He played third base almost exclusively as a minor leaguer and only stood in left four times this season. He started the first seven games of this series at his usual post on the left side of the infield. He probably felt a little rusty in the outfield, and Arlington’s modest, if not quite stiff, breeze made his job a bit trickier than normal.
But man, big leaguers just don’t misjudge flies like distracted Little Leaguers all that often. It struck me as the latest in a long line of plays that suggest the ball is, yet again, flying further than normal. I don’t have drag coefficients, unwound cowhide, an admission from the league, or any other smoking gun to prove my hypothesis (Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus thinks that suspiciously high exit velocities seem to be a factor). But after seeing Riley’s play and another six-homer game, it seems pretty obvious that something’s up. Take a look at this table:
|2020 WC Round||1.09|
If it feels like we’re averaging four home runs per game lately, that’s because we are. If that seems like a lot, you’re right again: Even in 2019, a year in which the league broke its own home run record in August, batters hit fewer than three dingers per game. (My colleague Jay Jaffe took a longer look at postseason home run rates and scoring relative to the regular season – among other trends – here.)
I don’t have a satisfying answer to what’s going on or why. It seems likely that such a dramatic change in the ball’s composition from literally one week to the next was intentional, but who can say. It’s worth mentioning that the Wild Card round, MLB’s most transparent attempt to annex the public’s attention span for the purpose of making money, drew far fewer eyeballs than expected and that the ratings have been down all postseason. But whether the league is trying to gin up offense to stoke ratings, or simply can’t regulate a fundamental part of its product, I don’t know.
What I do know is that if, halfway through the playoffs, the NBA ordered wider hoops or the NHL larger goals, we’d treat it as a farce, perhaps even a scandal. I don’t see why MLB should escape similar scrutiny.
Clayton Kershaw, a late scratch for Game 2, will start for the Dodgers tomorrow. While he’s had a few postseason highlights — his save in Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS in Washington particularly stands out — the prevailing image of Kershaw in the playoffs is of him conceding something, whether it be a lead against Houston in 2017 or Washington last year, or an inexplicable homer, like the one he surrendered to Matt Adams back in 2014.
Kershaw’s career needs no redemption. But to the extent that there’s work left for him to do, he’ll find himself in an unusual situation tomorrow: a chance to pitch the Dodgers back into a series they’re losing. He’ll face Bryse Wilson, a largely untested rookie who has been hit around in his brief major league career. Down 2-1 in the series, the famously competitive Kershaw will surely relish the chance to help pull his side level.