NLCS Takeaways: Dodgers prevail in Game 7 classic, earn World Series berth

Cody Bellinger's home run in the seventh inning delivered a comeback win for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who eliminated the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 to win the NLCS and advance to the World Series.

Sunday’s NLCS Game 7 between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers had multiple lead changes, a pinch-hit home run, a runner gunned out at the plate, a home run pulled back from over the wall, an unfathomable double play, an escape from a bases-loaded jam, a home run celebration injury, a home plate collision, and maybe a half-dozen other dramatic moments no one will even remember.

It was nothing less than a classic. A tense, thrilling, back-and-forth contest between two uber talented teams fighting for a World Series berth. A lot of Game 7’s don’t meet the expectations placed upon them coming in. This one exceeded them.

In the end, the Dodgers prevailed, 4-3. They will take 48 hours to catch their breath before playing the Tampa Bay Rays for the World Series starting Tuesday. After seven consecutive days of intense post-season baseball, an off-day has never been more welcome.

Let’s take a moment as well to look back at a wild night of baseball. Here are your takeaways from an epic Game 7.

The upside and downside of an opener

Let’s try to work somewhat chronologically before we get to the insane leverage moments that came late in this game. Because, remember, the first is a leverage inning, too.

The score’s tied, the top of the opposition order is up, and, in the 2019 season, it was MLB’s highest-scoring inning. That’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing more and more teams do what the Dodgers did Sunday, turning to a short-stint opener ahead of a more traditional starting pitcher in consequential games.

But good process doesn’t always lead to good results. Just as a high leverage reliever is liable to struggle with their command upon entering a game in late innings, an opener could take the mound in the first and do the same. That’s what happened to Dustin May.

The Dodgers right-hander began Game 7 throwing eight consecutive pitches outside the strike zone, walking the first two batters of the night. Two pitches later he left a breaking ball on the inner-half to Marcell Ozuna, who gladly ripped it to left to plate Atlanta’s first run.

That’s the downside of an opener. The upside is what May did next, quickly inducing a double play groundball with a well located cutter before blowing away Ozzie Albies with a 100-m.p.h. fastball to end the inning.

That right there is why May was on the mound. His stuff is electric and once he got it in the zone Braves hitters were completely overmatched. But leverage innings are leverage innings because there’s little margin for error. And that’s how the Dodgers found themselves facing a Game 7 deficit before their first plate appearance.

Not how they drew it up

As much as the Dodgers wanted a smooth first inning from May, they needed efficient outs from Tony Gonsolin, who was earmarked for around 12-15 of them as his club entered game 7 short on pitchers who could be trusted to throw a bulk of innings effectively. It’s another reason why it made sense to use him behind an opener, as it meant Gonsolin would begin his outing against the bottom of Atlanta’s lineup rather than the top, putting him in the best possible position to succeed.

But again — good process doesn’t always lead to good results. And to that end, here’s Gonsolin’s third pitch of the night:

Giving up a bomb to the No. 6 hitter certainly was not the design. Neither was walking the No. 9 hitter — Christian Pache — with two outs, extending an already stressful inning. Gonsolin ultimately got out of the second with only the one run in. But the bottom of the Braves lineup that he was strategically deployed against ended up forcing him to throw 22 pitches — a foreboding beginning to Gonsolin’s night considering how much length the Dodgers were hoping to get from him.

Speaking of foreboding, the Braves hit three fly balls with exit velocities of 90-, 97- and 100-m.p.h. in Gonsolin’s next inning. They all became outs, but the contact was awfully loud. And they’d end up being the final outs Gonsolin would record. He started the fourth with back-to-back walks before leaving this splitter up to Austin Riley:

Ironically, at 76-m.p.h., that was the softest contact Gonsolin allowed all night. But that actually ended up being a good thing for the Braves, as Riley’s looper landed in no-man’s land, and got there slowly enough to allow Ozzie Albies to motor home from second. Suddenly, Gonsolin’s night was done, and the Dodgers were facing another deficit.

An unforced error

The Braves were one swing from breaking the game wide open later in that fourth, with runners on second and third, none out, and a run already in. And they can only blame themselves for unfathomably running into a double play that decreased their win expectancy by 16.5 per cent:

Hello, disaster. Swanson running on contact in that situation at all is questionable, although the Dodgers were playing back and seemingly conceding a run. At least he was being aggressive. You can’t say the same for Riley, who was caught in no man’s land between second and third rather than taking either base to ensure the Braves would lose only one runner from scoring position. The right play was to advance to third while Swanson stalled in the rundown. But the least Riley could have done was retreat to second and take the safe way out.

Of course, that’s all easier said than done — especially in Game 7. Which is what makes Justin Turner’s instincts even more impressive. The veteran third baseman not only ran down Dansby Swanson and caught him on the heels, but had the presence of mind to pop up, his hat masking his vision, and rifle a perfect ball to third to nail Riley advancing.

It’s always tough to measure the impact of experience. But the decision-making in that spot from a 35-year-old Turner and a 23-year-old Riley paint a pretty telling picture.

For Anderson, not bad, but not good enough

In late August, Ian Anderson had yet to make his MLB debut. He’d pitched just five times above double-A. Only seven weeks and nine big-league starts later, the 22-year-old was jogging out to the mound to start Game 7 of the NLCS.

That, in and of itself, is an accomplishment. Anderson wasn’t taking the mound because the Braves were desperate or someone got hurt — he was given the assignment because he followed up six tremendous regular season outings with three scoreless ones in the playoffs. He’d been remarkable over 15.2 post-season innings, allowing only six hits — five of them singles — while striking out 22 and walking eight.

Still, this was easily the most consequential game of Anderson’s life. And an elite Dodgers lineup that had seen him only five days prior posed the biggest challenge he’d ever faced. Which helps explain why Anderson didn’t look too much like himself.

Not that he ever looked bothered. The low-emotion, low-pulse right-hander is a stoic presence on the mound in tough times and good. But the Dodgers were determined to make him work, forcing Anderson to throw 21 pitches in the first inning, 26 in the second, and 26 more in the third.

The rookie was able to dance between the rain drops through the first two innings, scattering some loud contact and several base runners to keep the Dodgers contained. But it caught up to him in that third, as Justin Turner walked, Max Muncy doubled, and Will Smith singled, driving in both to tie the game:

Anderson finished the inning, stranding a pair. But Braves manager Brian Snitker wasn’t messing around, opting not to let him return for the fourth.

It’s a learning experience for Anderson, to be certain. He could’ve located some curveballs better and his changeup landed up in the zone a little too often. But what did him in was the Dodgers' approach. They refused to chase curveballs and changeups anywhere off the plate, forcing him into the zone with fastballs.

Biggest game of his life, biggest challenge of his life — and an outing Anderson’s likely going to be ruminating over for quite some time.

A great plate appearance in a huge spot

It’s tough to describe just how impressive Kike Hernadnez’s seventh inning plate appearance was.

He came off the bench cold, pinch-hitting against Braves reliever A.J. Minter, who was throwing 97-m.p.h. and pitched to a 0.83 ERA this season. He laid off a cutter that just missed the zone to get ahead in the count, and fought doggedly with two strikes, fouling off a fastball on the inside black, a cutter on the down-and-in corner, and a changeup on the down-and-away corner to keep his plate appearance alive.

And then, on the eighth pitch he saw, he did this:

Hernandez’s bomb was only the second pinch-hit homer hit in a Game 7. And you’ll rarely see a better plate appearance in a bigger spot.

A just as good plate appearance in a just as big spot

OK, but then there was Cody Bellinger’s in the seventh. Facing Braves right-hander Chris Martin, who was throwing in the mid-90’s and had struck out the first two batters of the inning with ease, Bellinger showed a magnificent approach, fouling off inside fastball after inside fastball.

Finally, on the eighth pitch of the plate appearance, Martin threw Bellinger a heater that didn’t get inside enough, sitting up on the plate for the Dodgers centre fielder to do this:

A home run so ridiculous that StatCast literally failed to measure it. Bat dropped, strutting out of the box, watching it fly for a dozen steps up the first base line. And the man blew up his shoulder celebrating it:

In a game of crazy moments, that was the craziest.

What a relief

Dave Roberts did not want to go to his bullpen as early as he did in this one. He was forced to ride his high leverage relievers just to get his team to this position after falling behind 3-1 in the series, and the bill was coming due. Blake Treinen, Pedro Baez, and Kenley Jansen had all pitched Games 5 and 6 — and none of them had appeared on three consecutive days this season.

But that changed in the fourth, when Roberts was forced to call on Treinen in relief of Gonsolin, trying to keep the game from spiralling out of control. And he got an absolute gift when the Braves ran into that unbelievable double play, providing two cheap outs and allowing Treinen to escape the inning on only 10 pitches.

That allowed him to return for the fifth, when fortune was on his side again as Mookie Betts went up to the top of the wall to rob a Freddie Freeman home run. After a nine-pitch inning, Treinen was back in the dugout having given his team more than they ever could’ve expected from him on his third consecutive day.

Brusdar Graterol took over in the sixth, threw his first pitch at 101-m.p.h., and didn’t look back, motoring through his three outs. He turned it over to Julio Urias, who absoutley going nine up, nine down over the final three innings.

Dave Roberts couldn’t have loved the state of his bullpen coming into Game 7. And he couldn’t have felt any better when May and Gonsolin got him only nine outs. But a little defence, a little gusto, and three relievers combining for six no-hit innings got his team to the finish line.

Odds and ends

• If baseball doesn’t work out (it will) Ronald Acuna Jr. could perhaps try high jump:

• Tyler Matzek gave Braves fans a scare while protecting a one-run lead in the fourth, loading the bases with two out thanks to a single and a couple walks.

But the Braves reliever executed some fantastic pitches against Max Muncy with nowhere to put him, leaning on his fastball for a couple called strikes on the outside black, before blowing a 97-m.p.h. heater — Matzek’s hardest of the night — past him to escape the jam:

• Mookie. Again.

What else is there to say? Mike Trout’s the best player in the game. But that guy right there’s the second-best and he’s worth every nickel the Dodgers pay him.

• NLCS MVP Corey Seager had a quiet Game 7 but a hell of a series, with five homers and 11 RBIs — both NLCS records. The all-time marks for both homers and RBIs in a single postseason series still belongs to Nelson Cruz, who homered 6 times and drove in 13 for the Texas Rangers in the 2011 ALCS.

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