In a matchup that spawned 1,000 memes, Will Smith — the Braves left-handed reliever — finally faced off against Will Smith — the Dodgers catcher — in Game 5 of the NLCS. With two men on, two outs, and down by a run, the only thing out of place in this Hollywood script was the inning — it was the bottom of the sixth inning rather than the ninth. But destiny would not be denied. Smith the Pitcher had been brought in to face Max Muncy in the previous at-bat. In a fantastic display of discipline, Muncy worked a walk, ensuring the showdown between the two Wills Smith. That moment would prove to be the turning point in the game.
Up to that point, Braves pitching had stymied the Dodgers’ hitters. A.J. Minter had been selected as the starter for Brian Snitker’s club in what promised to be a bullpen game. A reliever for his entire professional career, he was the first pitcher to ever make his first career start in the postseason. He wound up going three innings — his longest professional appearance — and struck out seven. The only blemish against him was a two-out double in the first inning. The red hot Corey Seager snuck a solo home run just over the center field wall to lead off the fourth but Tyler Matzek and Shane Greene stood firm and got the team through the fifth inning with a 2-1 lead.
Greene was sent back out to start the sixth and allowed Mookie Betts to reach on a leadoff infield single. A harmless fly out from Seager followed, forcing Betts to get aggressive on the basepaths to try to get a rally started. He stole second but was erased on a fielder’s choice off Justin Turner’s bat. Some heads up baserunning got Turner to second during Betts’ rundown, leaving first base open for Muncy. Smith the Pitcher started Muncy off with five straight sliders. The first three were off the plate away; the next two were called strikes over the plate. Muncy spat on all five. The sixth pitch of the at-bat was a fastball just off the outer edge of the plate; Muncy refused to move his bat. It was a bold take to cap off a fantastic exercise in discipline.
During the regular season, Muncy swung at pitches thrown outside the strike zone just 18.3% of the time, the third best mark in baseball among qualified hitters. If you lower the minimum plate appearance threshold to 100 PAs, Muncy drops to fifth, with one of his teammates slots in just ahead of him: Smith the Catcher swung at pitches thrown outside the strike zone just 18.2% of the time in 2020. That was a 6.7 point improvement from what he posted during his rookie season in 2019.
Smith the Pitcher started off the at-bat against his younger, mirror self with a backdoor curve that caught the upper corner of the plate for a called strike one. Then he shifted his attention to the other side of the zone, peppering the inside corner with fastballs. A 0-1 fastball was called a strike even though it looked to be off the plate by a couple of centimeters. The next two heaters came up and in but both were taken easily because they rode in a little too far. The 2-2 pitch was a nasty slider thrown towards the batter’s back foot. A less disciplined hitter would have swung right over the pitch but Smith the Catcher stood his ground. With the count full, Smith the Pitcher went back to the hard stuff and threw a fastball down and in. Smith the batter dropped his barrel and launched the pitch into the left field stands for a go-ahead, three-run home run.
Prior to the payoff pitch, Travis d’Arnaud flashed his glove up in the zone, indicating a return to the plan of attack before the 2-2 slider. Smith the Pitcher missed his spot and Smith the Catcher punished him for it. Not only did this matchup allow him to show off his excellent plate discipline, his home run displayed his other strength as a hitter: His 12.9% barrel rate and 47.3% hard hit rate sat in the 84th and 88th percentile, respectively, in the majors this year. Swinging at all the right pitches and making tons of hard contact is an easy recipe for success.
After the Smith on Smith violence, the Dodgers would not give up the lead. They tacked on three more runs in the seventh inning off a Betts RBI single and Seager’s second home run of the evening. The Braves threatened in the bottom of the seventh after the first two batters reached base but Victor González induced a nice 5-4-3 double play off the bat of Cristian Pache to quell the uprising. Atlanta scratched one more run across in the eighth, but it was too little, too late.
Those two threats in the seventh and eighth did result in a hollow victory for Atlanta. The Dodgers were forced to use nearly their entire bullpen to close out the game. Their starter, Dustin May, labored through just two innings but Blake Treinen and Joe Kelly kept the game close in the middle innings. Because of the lack of length from his starter and those two late rallies, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts had to call on Pedro Báez, González, Brusdar Graterol, and Kenley Jansen to finish off the last four frames. That could leave the Dodgers bullpen a little short handed for today’s Game 6. Both González and Graterol appeared in Thursday’s game too, so they’d be making three consecutive appearances if called on tomorrow; Treinen went two innings yesterday but only threw 19 pitches, so he’s likely available.
Thankfully for Dodgers fans, Jansen looked sharp in his ninth inning appearance. He struck out the side on just 12 pitches with five whiffs. His cutter velocity sat around 91 mph and looked like it had its trademark late action. That’s an encouraging sign for the beleaguered Dodgers closer.
Freddie Freeman continued to torch Dodgers pitching, hitting two doubles and coming around to score after each of them. But the rest of Atlanta’s bats were pretty silent on the night. They scored a single run in each of the first two innings and looked like they were going to score again in the third. With runners on second and third and one out, Dansby Swanson lifted a soft fly ball out to shallow right. Betts broke in hard and made a very nice shoe string catch and tried to nail Marcell Ozuna, the runner at third. Betts’ throw was late but a replay review showed that Ozuna left third a little early. It appeared as though he was unsure if Betts had made the catch and had forgotten to put his foot back on the bag before breaking for home. Atlanta wouldn’t threaten to score again until the seventh.
Game 6 of the NLCS will feature a reprise of the Game 1 pitching matchup, Walker Buehler versus Max Fried. With Seager locked in and the rest of the Dodgers lineup finally producing in spurts, they’ll look to push the series to a decisive Game 7. If they follow the script, we should be in for an exciting weekend of baseball.