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‘It hurt worse last year’: Braves fought Dodgers hard in NLCS, ready to knock door down next year

  • October 19, 2020

ARLINGTON, Texas — There were no tears, no signs of frustration or anger Sunday night from any members of the Atlanta Braves.

Sure, they badly wanted to be in the World Series. They could taste it. They had three chances to win one game. They ended up just one run away, losing Game 7 of the NLCS, 4-3, to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Instead, they’ll spend the next few weeks lamenting their chances, replaying their blown opportunities, their baserunning blunders, and have nightmares of Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts’ spectacular defensive plays.

Yet, when they are finally home and can truly reflect, they’ll be awfully proud of their 2020 season.

“We heard it all year,’’ MVP favorite Freddie Freeman said, “the Dodgers were the best team in baseball. Well, we took them to Game 7.

“We gave them a little heart murmur in this series.

“We gave them everything they could handle.’’

And much more.

Atlanta was up 2 games to 0 in this series. Then 3-1. Then they became the first National League team in history to lose a best-of-seven series when having such a decisive advantage.

Six consecutive times they have lost a winner-take-all game, the longest drought in the National League, and are 2-12 in series’ clinching games.

Yet, instead of being shamed, they are proud, convinced they’ll be back on this stage next year, and will be the ones playing in the World Series for the first time since 1999.

“We changed the narrative for sure that’s gone for the last 19 years,’’ Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “I’m looking forward to next year already. I’m as excited as I can be.

“It hurt worse last year than this year.’’

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. watches the go-ahead home run by Cody Bellinger go over his head in the seventh inning.

A year ago, Atlanta lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the NL Division Series, after leading 2 games to 1 in the best-of-five series, but that defeat was crushing. They believed they were the better team, even a World Series team.

This year, they won the NL East for the third consecutive time after losing virtually their entire starting rotation with injuries, demotions and opt-outs. Ace Mike Soroka made two starts before rupturing his Achilles’ tendon. Veteran Cole Hamels pitched 3 ⅓ innings all season. Sean Newcomb and Mike Foltynewicz were demoted to their alternate site. Felix Hernandez opted out.

Atlanta wound up using 14 starting pitchers, including a bushel-full of rookies to go along with Max Fried, but here they were, with another rookie starter on the mound in Ian Anderson, pitching his first winner-take-all-game.

“I think (the experience) is going to be huge,’’ said Anderson, who didn’t give up an earned run in the postseason until Sunday. “It sucks the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but I think it’s going to be super beneficial for everyone going forward.

“We definitely learned quite a bit. I think everybody learned something about themselves. We didn’t hand it to team, that’s what makes it tough.’’

Still, there will be regrets, and their baserunning blunder in the fourth inning will leave a scar until spring training.

Atlanta was threatening to blow the game open in the fourth inning. Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson opened the fourth inning with walks off Dodgers reliever Tony Gonsolin, and Austin Riley followed with a single up the middle, for a 3-2 lead, and still nobody out.

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Blake Treinen entered the game for the Dodgers, threw a wild pitch, and just like that, Atlanta had runners on second and third, with no one out. The Dodgers played their infield back, conceding a run, when Nick Markakis hit a grounder to third baseman Justin Turner, who was playing on a shift. Swanson broke for home, much to Turner’s surprise, and threw home. Swanson, realizing he had no chance to score, turned back around and tried to get in a rundown. He was tagged by Turner running again to home, and meanwhile, Riley tried to make up for Swanson’s blunder by running to third.

Turner, who had fallen, flipped the ball to shortstop Corey Seager, who tagged Riley for the bizarre double play.

Atlanta didn’t get a lone hit the rest of the game, with Betts robbing Atlanta of another run by leaping and snaring Freeman’s fly ball over the right-field wall, and the Dodgers’ bullpen did the rest, ending the game by retiring 16 of the last 17 hitters.

“That was huge,’’ Snitker said. “We made some mistakes. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times, and it really hurt. Runs are so hard to come by in the postseason. You have to play flawless baseball.’’

One team did.

The other didn’t.

“There’s a lot of things that could have gone the other way,’’ Freeman said, “but the Dodgers made plays. They got out of second-and-third with no outs. Mookie robbed me of a home run. They made the plays, we didn’t.

“It hurts right now, it really does. But the Atlanta Braves organization is set up for success for a very long time, and this group of guys that we had this year started something special.’’

If Atlanta wants a lesson in perseverance, they need to look no further than the Dodgers. The Dodgers have won eight consecutive NL West titles. They will be headed to their third World Series in four years. And they still are looking for their first World Series title since 1988.

Atlanta hasn’t won the World Series since 1995, but they’re knocking on the door, believing that next year could be the year they kick it down.

“I’m so proud of these guys,’’ Snitker said. “You just don’t lose your entire starting rotation and end up a game away from the World Series. We have nothing to hang our heads about. Nothing to be ashamed about.

“Where we came from the last three years is amazing to me. This is a young team continuing to grow. We’re just going to get better and better.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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