There will be no sweeps in the National League. No dethroned champs, no coronated 111-win teams, just a long and harrowing weekend of baseball ahead.
Thank the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres for that, flipping the narrative and squaring their respective National League Division Series with taut, grinding Game 2 victories. The American League Division Series fires back up Thursday afternoon, with the upstart Seattle Mariners hoping to recover from an all-time October gut punch.
Here is what we learned as the NL series rumbled on while the AL took a breath:
Braves-Phillies: Champs keep hope alive
We’re closing in on a quarter-century without a team winning back-to-back World Series titles. That dream is still alive for the Atlanta Braves.
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Yet even as they resuscitated their hopes with a 3-0 victory to square their NLDS with the Philadelphia Phillies at 1-1, the enormity of the task is already evident.
The Braves scratched and clawed to get level with Philly, as 20-game winner Kyle Wright and Phillies ace Zack Wheeler hung zeroes until the sixth, when a hit-by-pitch, a lengthy delay, a defensive misplay and a pair of scratch hits tipped the game in Atlanta’s favor.
Over two games, the Phillies have given them more than they’d like to handle and in doing so drove home a point that repeating will only get more difficult.
Why? Because even one year ago, these Phillies would not have been in the playoffs.
Expanded playoffs mean more teams. More teams mean more chances for a group to find its footing, as the Phillies did in securing a playoff spot at year’s end and sweeping St. Louis to start the playoffs. Heck, in another year, one in which the Braves don’t win 101 games, capturing their division might have forced them to win two more games.
This Atlanta club has a lot of ingredients to go back-to-back, the first club to do so since the 1998-2000 Yankees. There’s no danger of going stale, what with the celebrated Matt Olson-Freddie Freeman swap at first and the All-Star caliber contributions from rookie outfielder Michael Harris II and starter Spencer Strider.
It is Strider who will have to win one game in hostile Philadelphia to either clinch the series or keep Atlanta alive; manager Brian Snitker did not say if veteran Charlie Morton or someone else will start Game 3.
“We’ve got faith in each and every one of the guys that’s in that locker room. And I think that that’s just something that we thrive on here, is just the confidence we have in one another,” shortstop Dansby Swanson, who along with third baseman Austin Riley made stupendous defensive plays in Game 2, said of the mystery starter.
That starter will face All-Star Aaron Nola, in front of a frenzied Philly crowd that any other year would already be singing “Fly, Eagles Fly” instead of watching baseball. Just another roadblock for a club aiming to run it back – a task that never gets easier.
Dodgers-Padres: A dynasty dilly-dallys
The division was wrapped up by August. The No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs assured early in September. Your 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers had months to dope out playoff scenarios and align its players for October.
It took just two games for something that looks like panic to settle in.
Two games of Dodgers-Padres in this NLDS produced consecutive 5-3 outcomes, the first going to the Dodgers, Game 2 to the Padres, both clubs hanging on for dear life.
It is the Padres who got two nights of perfect bullpen work to stay in one game and win another. The Dodgers’ relievers faltered, and so did shortstop Trea Turner, and also the whole operation seems way too unsettled for a club that lapped the field this year.
With the club hanging on to a 4-3 lead, right-hander Blake Treinen pitched the seventh inning, his first outing since Sept. 5 and just his third since April. He gave up a massive – in length and significance – home run to Jake Cronenworth.
With the tying run at the plate in the eighth, and dominant lefty reliever Josh Hader on the mound, manager Dave Roberts pinch-hit for No. 9 hitter Cody Bellinger – not with longtime playoff hero Chris Taylor but backup catcher Austin Barnes.
Taylor, coming off a neck injury was apparently not ready to pinch hit there, but he will start for the Dodgers in Game 3 against lefty Blake Snell. Huh?
Meanwhile, Tony Gonsolin will start on the mound for the Dodgers – just his second outing since Aug. 23; it should be noted he pitched just two tune-up innings in his Oct. 3 return.
In short, this feels not like a playoff juggernaut but like a club still workshopping in September, still mixing and matching like the platoon-crazed Dodger clubs of yore and not the top-to-bottom star power this club boasted.
“Well, we weren’t clean,” says Roberts, and he could have been speaking of Turner’s two defensive misplays and an offense that stranded eight runners and went 2 for 11 with runners in scoring position.
On to San Diego, where a crazed crowd will await and a Snell-Gonsolin matchup means the game will, again, almost certainly come down to the bullpens.
So far, that’s been advantage, Padres – a daunting sign for the No. 1 seed in this tournament.
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Mariners-Astros: Avoiding the fallout
Asked a day later about his curious and ultimately failed decision to bring in starting pitcher Robbie Ray with Game 1 of the AL Division Series on the line, Scott Servais took a deep breath and delivered a 687-word answer. He uttered the word “process” six times.
After Yordan Alvarez’s scorching three-run homer made history and flipped the series opener from Seattle to Houston, the Mariners’ primary hope, it seems, is that trusting the process yields better results than Alvarez’s two-out blast that sent Minute Maid Park into a frenzy.
It is the Mariner Way: Don’t trust the process so much as torture it. It’s how GM Jerry Dipoto can turn over the lion’s share of a 40-man roster over one winter or trade their closer to a division rival (the Astros, no less) late in 2021, causing a near mutiny in the clubhouse.
The Mariners missed those playoffs by a couple games but got in this year, so something’s working. Yet to the untrained eye, turning to Ray, a lefty who hadn’t pitched in relief since 2020 and just twice since 2014, seemed curious given how bad he looked just two days earlier, failing to get past the third inning of a wild-card series start at Toronto.
“Our process was really good, stand by it,” Servais said Wednesday, an off day between Games 1 and 2. “I’m not going to change it. I’m not going to get off it. Why would you? That’s what got to us this point.”
Servais’ greater point was that Paul Sewald, the nominal closer who got into the mess that brought Ray into the game, and the indomitable Andrés Muñoz, who gave up a two-run homer to Alex Bregman that halved the Mariners’ lead in the eighth, and Ray himself were the ones who carried them that far. And he’d lean on them all again, despite their struggles.
Which would be a fair point, save for the manner in which Seattle wandered off script inserting Ray in that spot. Sure, it’s always on the athlete to execute, but Seattle’s vaunted process had at least a little to do with the middle-middle fastball that Alvarez smoked halfway to The Woodlands.
Not to say it’s something they can’t overcome. But players remember this stuff, too. They’re fortunate that momentum comes in the form of ace Luis Castillo, who will start Thursday’s Game 2. Starting rookie George Kirby, not Ray, in Game 3 might also be the best process-based decision. Yet it will be hard to avoid reminders of the great backfire.