NLCS Takeaways: Dodgers win pitching duel in Game 6 to stave off elimination

Corey Seager homered again, Walker Buehler pitched six scoreless innings and the Los Angeles Dodgers pushed the NL Championship Series to Game 7 with a 3-1 win over Atlanta on Saturday.

It was a long wait for the 2020 MLB season to begin. And it’s been a long wait to learn which two teams will ultimately play for the World Series. One of those waits has been much more captivating than the other.

With Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers staved off elimination for a second-straight day and guaranteed that, like the ALCS, the NLCS would see a seventh game.

This series has featured plenty of offence, but Game 6 was all about pitching as the two clubs combined for just four runs, and only one after the first inning. That sets up a relative coin flip of a Game 7 Sunday night in Arlington. But before we get there, let’s look back at some takeaways from Game 6.

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A matter of location

When Atlanta’s Max Fried started Game 1 of this series, he allowed just a run over six innings, making a dangerous Dodgers lineup look pedestrian. He did it with tremendous command, locating a cavalcade of curveballs and sliders on the edges of the zone for strikes. That kept hitters from timing up his fastball, which he similarly kept off the heart of the plate.

It’s safe to assume he was trying to use the same formula Saturday in Game 6. But the early returns suggested his command wasn’t quite there. Fried missed the zone with the first fastball he threw. The first curveball, too. He didn’t miss the plate his next curveball — he left it hanging up on a platter for Corey Seager:

That is not a well-executed pitch. Neither is this fastball, only two pitches later, which Fried left middle-in to Justin Turner:

Fried missed badly with four of his next six pitches to walk Max Muncy, before Will Smith and Cody Bellinger hit back-to-back singles on pitches left right over the heart of the plate to extend a first-inning Dodgers lead to three.

Something was clearly awry. But what separates really good pitchers like Fried is knowing how to make in-game adjustments when things aren’t working. And that’s exactly what he did, as Fried’s command steadily improved after he escaped that rough first inning. By the middle of the game, he was landing his curveball and slider where he intended to, and painting with mid-90s fastballs like this:

He still didn’t quite have the success with his breaking stuff that he did in his last start, generating only four swinging strikes with his curveball and slider after getting eight in Game 1. But he worked effectively with what he had, putting up 5.2 scoreless innings after that three-run first. Fried finally turned it over to Atlanta’s bullpen with one on and two out in the seventh, having more than done his job with a resilient, 109-pitch outing.

Trust the cheese

Immediately following that three-run Dodgers first, the Braves came roaring back with three consecutive singles off LA starter Walker Buehler to load the bases with none out in the second. To that point, Buehler had been mixing and matching with cutters, curveballs, and sliders, trying to maximize his repertoire. But suddenly the Dodgers right-hander was done messing around.

Buehler reared back and threw three-straight fastballs to Austin Riley, striking him out swinging, and six more to Nick Markakis, striking him out looking. Cristian Pache was next and he got — what else? — a first-pitch fastball, Buehler’s 10th-straight heater thrown at 98 m.p.h. or harder.

It was then, at 0-1, that Buehler finally went to another pitch, throwing an unfair cutter that Pache could only foul off. Two pitches later, the Braves centre fielder rolled over Buehler’s first slider in a 14-pitch span for an inning-ending groundout.

You know, pitching doesn’t have to be so complicated. Who needs all that breaking stuff when you can just drop and drive in your tight pants and do this:

What’s even more gutsy about the all-fastball sequence is Buehler doesn’t get a ton of swing-and-miss with his heater. It’s a pitch that spins a ton but doesn’t move much, which invites contact in spite of its premium velocity. That’s a dangerous game to play with the bases loaded. But in that spot, Buehler opted to challenge Braves hitters over and over, daring them to make something happen. And they couldn’t.

That’s the kind of confidence Buehler was pitching with throughout the game, leaning on his fastball 60 per cent of the time while landing cutters and sliders for strikes. He cruised through six scoreless, allowing seven hits — six of them singles — while striking out six. And he did it on only 89 pitches.

A little relief

With Buehler two batters away from completing his third trip through the order while pitching through a blister issue, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided he’d rather lift his starter an inning too early than an inning too late, turning things over to Blake Treinen to start the seventh.

And traditionalist observers who groaned at the move were immediately validated when Treinen’s first pitch, a cutter in and off the plate to Nick Markakis, was shot into the right field corner for a triple.

It was a bizarre result — the pitch was a ball, Markakis hit it at only 86 m.p.h. off the handle of his bat, and Treinen hadn’t allowed a hit on a cutter in three months. But that’s baseball. And a batter later Ronald Acuna Jr. came up with a much more legitimate result, shooting a Treinen sinker on the plate into right field for a double, plating Markakis.

But Roberts went to Treinen in that spot for a reason — because he’s generally extremely hard to square up. And he showed why over the next two batters, getting Freddie Freeman to strike out swinging and Marcell Ozuna to fly out softly to end the threat.

Pedro Baez did the same in the eighth, mowing down three hitters, before Kenley Jansen earned the save with three fly balls in the ninth.

Where things get interesting now is whether or not those three are available in Game 7. Treinen (14 pitches), Baez (17 pitches), and Jansen (six pitches) were all working on back-to-back days Saturday, and both Baez and Jansen were pitching for a third time in four days.

Odds and ends

• The Dodgers trade for Mookie Betts keeps looking better and better, especially when he’s doing things like this:

In a lot of ballparks, that’s a home run. In the Bronx it might’ve landed in the second deck. But at Globe Life Field, it’s merely an incredible catch at the top of the wall to help preserve a slim lead.

• The Dodgers didn’t need to make this one as close as it was, but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base. Then again, the Braves went 2-for-11 with RISP and left 11. That’s a credit to the pitchers of each team, who scattered their hits and walks, and found ways to work out of jams.

• It’ll likely be Ian Anderson vs. Tony Gonsolin in Sunday’s Game 7. Both were 2016 draft picks, although Anderson (No. 3 overall, $4 million signing bonus) carried far more pedigree than Gonsolin (No. 281, $2,500 bonus) into his MLB career. But regardless of how they came into the league, they’ve each found their way onto one of its biggest stages.

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