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Passan: Braves are making the improbable real against the Dodgers in NLCS

    ESPN MLB insider
    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

ARLINGTON, Texas — For a National League Championship Series that seems to relish bringing the improbable to life, even this was outlandish. It was the ninth inning of Game 2, and Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies yanked a fastball toward left-center field. The ball flew over the fence — and directly into the glove of Mark Melancon, the Braves’ closer, who grinned and galloped gleefully around the team’s bullpen. Relievers occasionally snag home run balls, sure, but from the same batter in the same inning off the same pitch type in the same series? Melancon had done it in Game 1, too.

The theme of improbability linking Monday to Tuesday wasn’t limited to reliever cosplaying outfielder. The Braves beat the Los Angeles Dodgers again. The same Dodgers who only four times this year lost back-to-back games. The same Dodgers who entered this series in Las Vegas as 70% favorites, the third-highest percentage in an LCS in two decades, even though Atlanta had similarly run roughshod over its wild-card and division series opponents.

There is but one undefeated team remaining in this postseason, and it’s the Braves, whose 8-7 victory was an NL record-tying seventh in a row to start the playoffs — and far more convincing than the final score indicated. The Dodgers tattooed Josh Tomlin, the Braves’ mop-up guy, for three runs in the ninth inning before Melancon worked around an error and triple to record a one-out save. Going into the ninth, Atlanta held an 8-3 lead and was primed to post back-to-back wins by at least four runs against the Dodgers. In four-run games during the regular season, the Dodgers were 23-3.

In other words, the Braves are doing to the Dodgers what the Dodgers did to everyone else this year.

“There’s no reason for anyone to take their foot off the gas,” Melancon said. “Nobody’s won anything yet.”

Melancon’s caution is understandable, and yet what he and his 27 teammates have done in the first two games of the NLCS is what none of the nine other West division teams nor the Milwaukee Brewers could do with the Dodgers: make them look human. Los Angeles finished the regular season 43-17, a 116-win pace in a typical season. The Dodgers hit, the Dodgers pitched and the Dodgers fielded, an orchestral blend of talent. Their depth reinforced them on offense and buttressed them in the bullpen. This wasn’t just a good team. It was a great team.

And it might still be, though the hole from which Los Angeles must dig itself grew troublingly deep Tuesday. The day had begun with the Dodgers scratching starter Clayton Kershaw from his scheduled start because of a back spasm. Los Angeles moved up rookie Tony Gonsolin, whom the Braves knocked around for five runs in 4⅓ innings while their rookie starter, Ian Anderson, tiptoed around trouble and tossed four shutout innings to extend his postseason scoreless streak to 15⅔ frames.

Atlanta’s routine was familiar: a dose of power from MVP-to-be Freddie Freeman, who homered for the second consecutive day to put the Braves ahead 2-0, and bend-and-bend-and-bend-some-more-but-don’t-break pitching by their staff. Through the top of the seventh inning, when Atlanta held a 7-0 lead, the team’s postseason earned-run average was 0.84.

That the Braves proceeded to give up more runs over the next three innings (seven) than they had in the first 6⅔ games (six) wasn’t exactly ideal, but then one can’t expect the Dodgers’ somnambulism to continue. As good as the Braves are — as worthy an opponent as they’ve proven themselves — the notion that Los Angeles will roll over doesn’t resonate with Atlanta.

“I didn’t feel good with a big lead because these guys are too powerful,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “That’s a good ballgame to win. They all are now.”

It’s not just that the Braves are winning but how they’re doing it. Atlanta entered the postseason with two clear starting pitchers: Max Fried, their burgeoning ace, and Anderson, who didn’t even debut until Aug. 26 and entered the playoffs with six major league starts. The Braves did boast a deep and underappreciated bullpen that hadn’t shown a fissure, let alone a crack, until Corey Seager cranked a three-run home run in the seventh Tuesday and Max Muncy dropped a two-run shot in the ninth.

What had buoyed Atlanta after the brutal Achilles tear of young ace Mike Soroka and myriad other pitching foibles was its lineup, with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Marcell Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud and Albies and especially Freeman.

“He just keeps reiterating why he’s the MVP, right?” Melancon said. “Freddie’s one of the most consistent players I’ve ever seen, played against, with, been around. That’s just who he is. If there’s one word to sum him up, it’s consistency.”

Funny enough, that word sums up the 2020 Dodgers as well. Snitker called them a group that has “been through those wars,” and whether it was losing the 2017 or 2018 World Series or imploding in the division series against eventual champion Washington last season, the Dodgers do understand adversity.

So when their manager, Dave Roberts, said that “us showing life late — that was really good to see,” it sounded more prognostication than platitude. With Fried and Anderson unavailable for Games 3 and 4, the Dodgers have their opening. Roberts said he expected to pitch Kershaw in Game 4 on Thursday, though first Los Angeles must contend in Game 3 with 25-year-old Kyle Wright, who in his first playoff start threw six shutout innings against Miami and clinched the division series.

Not once this year have the Dodgers dropped three consecutive games, an eye-popping number that illustrates how good they have been and why so many considered their advance to the World Series a fait accompli. The Braves put an end to that talk, and another win would go a long way to putting an end to the NLCS.

“Hopefully,” Melancon said, “[Wednesday] night is three in a row.”

Actually, he was talking about catching another Albies home run ball. But if the sentiment applies instead to the Dodgers, he’ll happily forsake playing outfielder again.

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