The Dodgers Are World Series BoundBen Clemenson October 19, 2020 at 5:16 am

It’s impossible for a single play in the fourth inning to decide the outcome of a baseball game. There are simply too many at-bats left, too much time for something else to happen that invalidates whatever occurred so early in the action. Consider a bases loaded, two out situation, down two runs in the top of the fourth, for a random example: hit a grand slam, and our WPA Inquirer will tell you that the away team wins 70.3% of the time. Strike out, and it’s 21.1%. In neither case is the game over.

Don’t tell Atlanta that, though. In the top of the fourth inning, the Braves were ready to hit the turbo button. With a one-run lead already in their pocket, they had an enviable situation: runners on second and third with no one out. A single could make it a three-run game; heck, a grounder to the right side and then a sac fly would suffice. Nick Markakis, the batter, almost never strikes out; he’s the exact kind of player the Braves wanted at the plate in this moment.

Markakis put the ball in play. Dansby Swanson broke on contact, and well, yeah, he probably wishes he could take that decision back:

Going on the crack of the bat puts pressure on the defense, but it comes with a downside: if the ball is hit firmly and directly at a fielder, there’s no recourse. Not all teams would send the runner on contact there, but given that nine-hole hitter Cristian Pache was on deck, it’s not an outlandish decision. Swanson was dead to rights as soon as Turner fielded the ball; his job at that point was to get into a rundown that gave the remaining baserunners time to advance:

From that perspective, his baserunning was a success. An initial retreat forced Will Smith to make a return throw to Turner, at which point Swanson turned homeward and drew the play out, all according to plan. He wasn’t getting out of this jam, but if trail runner Austin Riley made it to third, a sacrifice fly could still add to Atlanta’s lead.

Yeah, about that:

Riley spent the first half of the play loitering off of second base, the kind of loitering my grandfather would tell me meant someone was up to no good. He finally moved about halfway between second and third, as far from safety as is possible in the confines of a baseball diamond. Finally, he took an odd lunge back towards second before starting a headlong sprint for third. One clumsy slide later, the Braves, like an alchemist who flunked out, had turned gold into lead.

It’s impossible for a single bases-empty play in the top of the fifth to decide the outcome of a baseball game. Let’s say you’re up a run. A homer puts you ahead by two, but two run leads aren’t insurmountable. An out is just an out — you’re still up a run, and one run leads hold up all the time. Freddie Freeman made an out:

I’m underselling it, because that’s the silly conceit of this article, but what a catch! No one has ever conclusively proved that Mookie Betts isn’t a time-traveling wizard, and this play didn’t clear anything up. It was somehow his second home run heist of the series, but you can’t score on defense; the Dodgers still trailed by a run.

Just because those two plays didn’t decisively end things, though, doesn’t mean they didn’t matter. Combined, they kept the Dodgers within a run, which, conveniently enough, is the exact number of runs a solo homer is worth:

Tied isn’t ahead, and before the inning was over, the Braves made a defensive stand of their own to keep it that way. With Chris Taylor on third base with one out, the Dodgers tried a contact play of their own. It ended less disastrously than the first one, but just as consequentially: Ozzie Albies beat Taylor home with a throw, and a Justin Turner strikeout ended the sixth with a whimper.

Because the Braves didn’t score any runs on those two earlier plays, they were tied instead of ahead. Because they were tied instead of ahead, they were promptly behind, because Cody Bellinger hit one to Plano:

Truthfully, I have no idea which direction Plano is, and neither, presumably, does Bellinger. He was sure he hit it somewhere far away, though, so sure that he took a little time to admire his handiwork. The sheer length of a baseball game cuts both ways, though. The Braves weren’t done after Bellinger’s home run; they had six outs to make things right. You’re reading this recap, though, and you read the title of the article: you know that didn’t happen.

The Dodgers used, by my rough math, 6.2 trillion pitchers in this series. The last one to take the mound was Julio Urías, and that’s all Los Angeles needed. He wasn’t overpowering — he didn’t strike out a single batter — but he repeatedly got ahead and coerced soft contact from the opposing hitters. Johan Camargo hit a sinking liner that AJ Pollock corralled in the seventh, and Freeman smacked a line drive directly towards Bellinger to start the eighth, but none of the other seven batters he faced even put a scare in the defense. Nine up, nine down, thanks very much for coming out.

It’s true that a single play in the fourth inning can’t end the game right there. The Dodgers were still underdogs after Riley clomped unsuccessfully from second to third. The Braves were still ahead after Betts defied gravity. In some other universe’s version of tonight, Atlanta held on 3-2. In another version, they scored in bucketloads and won 10-6, or perhaps the Dodgers stormed back to win 10-4.

None of those happened here tonight, though. Here, those pivotal plays did matter. The Dodgers are a juggernaut, and in the first two rounds of the playoffs they simply discarded their opponents. This series, they encountered an even match. After six innings tonight, the teams were tied 3-3 in runs and games, and a three-inning game determined the winner of the National League. In a series shortened to a microcosm, one play can matter, and tonight the Dodgers made all the plays that mattered.
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