NLDS Takeaways: ‘Mad Max’ comes up big in Dodgers’ win over Nationals

Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy watches his two-run single off Washington Nationals relief pitcher Fernando Rodney during the seventh inning of Game 1 in baseball's National League Divisional Series on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Day one of the National League Division Series is in the books. The St. Louis Cardinals hung on for a one-run victory on the road over the Atlanta Braves, and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat up on the Washington Nationals, 6-0. Here’s how it all went down.

St. Louis Cardinals 7 — Atlanta Braves 6

The starters — Miles Mikolas vs. Dallas Keuchel

Neither starter went particularly deep in this one, but not many do in modern post-seasons. Five-and-dive is typically all a team’s looking for, and that’s essentially what both Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas and his Braves counterpart Dallas Keuchel provided.

Mikolas went exactly five, allowing only a run on three hits and two walks. He ran his fastball up to the mid-90’s at times and threw lots of sliders, but didn’t generate much swing-and-miss.

That meant Mikolas had to rely on St. Louis’ typically strong defence, which came through for him. But it didn’t do the same for Tyler Webb and Giovanny Gallegos, who pitched the sixth. After Webb loaded the bases, Gallegos got a 76-m.p.h. grounder from Dansby Swanson. It could’ve been an inning-ending out. Instead, it scored two:

Meanwhile, Keuchel was his typical groundball-ing self, getting seven of his first nine outs on the ground, and 10 total. He exited with two out in the fifth after allowing a run without the ball ever leaving the infield (more on that later). But considering that was the only run to score against him on five hits and three walks, he did an excellent job of limiting damage.

A little small ball

If you like small ball you probably hate the way baseball’s played in 2019. But at least you had St. Louis’ fifth inning.

With his team down a run, Cardinals No. 8 hitter Harrison Bader led off and rolled a swinging bunt up the third-base line so slowly that StatCast didn’t even measure its exit velocity. Bader’s not much of a hitter, but he’s one of baseball’s fastest players — his sprint speed measured in the 98th percentile this season — which meant Keuchel had zero chance to nab him at first as he raced after the ball. Infield single.

Mikolas was next and, after taking a pitch and bunting a couple more foul, went way down to bunt a slider back to Keuchel as Bader sprinted into second. Sacrifice bunt.

Keuchel’s pretty good at holding runners — he didn’t allow a stolen base over 112.2 innings pitched this season. But the Cardinals must’ve had something on him. As Keuchel was preparing to deliver his very next pitch, Bader took off, getting an absurdly big jump and easily advancing 90 feet to third. Stolen base.

Four pitches later, in a 2-2 count, Dexter Fowler stayed with a change-up just off the plate and, as they so often say, didn’t try to do too much with it. He bounced an 81-m.p.h. grounder to the right side, just slowly enough for Bader to scamper home. Productive out.

That’s some good run manufacturing. Now someone please hit a home run.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a home run

This seems like a much simpler way to score one:

That’s a mere 446-feet of tater from Paul Goldschmidt, who now has five homers in nine career postseason games. And it didn’t eat up any outs, which allowed the Cardinals to rally with two down later in the inning.

First Paul DeJong hit a single. Then Kolten Wong followed with another. The Braves went to their closer, Mark Melancon, who got to within a strike of escaping the jam. But Matt Carpenter sliced a cutter into left field, plating DeJong with the tying run before Wong was thrown out at home trying to put his team up by one.

In conclusion, homers are good. Hit homers.

A game of centimetres

Things really went off the rails for Melancon in the ninth as he loaded the bases with one out thanks to two singles and a four-pitch Goldschmidt walk. Marcell Ozuna was next, and looked silly swinging over a Melancon curveball to fall behind, 0-2. But when Melancon went back to the pitch, Ozuna was ready for it, and sneaked a two-run double just past third base and into left field:

A strikeout later, Wong went after another Melancon curveball and this time wrapped it around the first base bag, scoring two more:

Those aren’t bad pitches — particularly the one to Wong — from Melancon, who was getting plenty of ugly swings on the night. And if Ozuna and Wong hit them just a few centimetres to the left and right, respectively, they’re foul balls and the game remains tied. But they weren’t and it didn’t.

The Braves bullpen was inconsistent this season and Melancon was acquired from the San Francisco Giants to help address it. Now, after he threw 28 pitches in game 1, it’ll be interesting to see if Braves manager Brian Snitker goes back to him in a big spot in Game 2.

Bend but don’t break

Pretty tough night for the closers of both teams, it turned out. Carlos Martinez took over with a four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, walked Billy Hamilton (.289 OBP) on eight pitches, then surrendered this bomb to Ronald Acuna Jr.:

That ball went 455 feet, which isn’t as far as the 460-feet that Freddie Freeman drove a Martinez fastball a batter later to pull the Braves to within a run. Martinez ultimately finished the job. But if either he or Melancon are called upon in Friday’s Game 2, they’ll have to put a couple rough innings behind them quickly.

Washington Nationals 0 — Los Angeles Dodgers 6

The many breaking balls of Patrick Corbin

It’s not entirely accurate to say Nationals starter Patrick Corbin leans on his breaking ball, because he throws approximately a half-dozen different breaking balls. Against the Dodgers, he threw breaking pitches with the following velocities (m.p.h.): 67, 69, 71, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86. All the same pitch, but none all that similar.

It makes him a tough plate appearance, as David Freese and Justin Turner found during their first-inning strikeouts. But it also makes him somewhat prone to bouts of wildness, as A.J. Pollock, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, and Max Muncy found during their first-innings walks.

That’s right — none of the first six batters Corbin faced put the ball in play, yet a run still scored thanks to a bases-loaded, two-out walk. And Corbin kept the Dodgers right there all the way until two outs in the fifth. That’s when he surrendered another walk, gave up a hard-hit single, and then experienced some poor luck on a ball in play as Muncy bounced one right through Howie Kendrick’s five hole at first base, scoring LA’s second run.

In the end, Corbin allowed only the two runs (one earned) on three hits and five walks, striking out nine. He got nine swinging strikes with breaking balls, and four with a fastball that sat at 93-94-m.p.h. on the night. That’s a job well done against an offence like LA’s. But ultimately not good enough considering who the Dodgers had on the mound.

Buehler dominates

While Corbin plays with his hitters, Dodgers starter Walker Buehler goes right at his. He sat at 97-m.p.h., touching 99 at times, as he got nine swinging strikes with his overpowering fastball.

That’s premium velocity, but it’s downright unfair when Buehler’s mixing in breaking balls that look just like his fastball out of his hand before ending up in the dirt. Here’s what Nationals hitters were dealing with:

So it’s little wonder Buehler allowed only a hit and three walks over his six scoreless innings, striking out eight. He ended up with 18 swinging strikes and threw breaking balls that ranged from 80-90-m.p.h. After 30 starts and 182.1 innings during the regular season, Buehler was as untouchable as ever.

Mad Max

Max Muncy had already driven in a run for Los Angeles when he came up with the bases loaded in the seventh and drove in two more. Fernando Rodney, throwing mid-90’s in the postseason at the age of 42, left one of those fastballs just a little too high with the bases loaded, and Muncy didn’t miss.

Finding players like Muncy, who was released by the Oakland Athletics at the end of spring training in 2017 and signed by LA to a minor-league deal a month later, is part of what makes the Dodgers so unfair. He has a 145 OPS+ for LA over the last two seasons while defending capably at four different positions. He’s put up 10 wins above replacement over that span while earning the major-league minimum.

The Dodgers can afford to spend more than any other team, and nearly do. They have one of the most robust analytics departments in baseball constantly analyzing ways to increase winning percentages. They have a top-five farm system and a deep player-development staff. And then they find a player like Muncy on the MLB scrap heap and he becomes an all-star overnight.

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