Boy, do things quickly change. Just 24 hours ago, the LA Dodgers were supposedly in control of the NLCS, having just completed a massacre, beating the Braves 15-3 Wednesday night thanks to an 11-run first inning in Game 3. Atlanta still had a 2-1 series lead, but according to anyone with an opinion, the momentum was all with LA. Surprisingly — especially for a team that had just lost its first game in two weeks — everyone was certain the Braves were screwed.
If you looked closely enough, though, there were a few concerning issues. Kyle Wright had just gotten shelled to the tune of seven earned runs before he could even throw 30 pitches, forcing manager Brian Snitker to turn to potential Game 4 starter Huascar Ynoa for four innings (who pitched admirably, by the way). Losing Ynoa maybe wasn’t necessarily crippling all by itself, but the reality was the Braves had at least two more games before Max Fried could be deemed fully rested and only one more available starter in Bryse Wilson. And let’s be honest, expecting Bryse to outduel future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw was quite an unrealistic fantasy. Or so we thought. And get this, which MLB.com’s Mark Bowman rightfully points out in his recap Thursday night, if it wasn’t for Cole Hamels getting shut down in September, Bryse wouldn’t even be on the roster.
Well, it’s a good thing Bryse is on the postseason roster because he probably just saved the Braves season. And entering Friday’s Game 5, Atlanta is just one win away from punching their ticket to this year’s Fall Classic.
And here’s why they’re gonna do it tonight…
Fried (and most likely Ian Anderson) will be fully rested going forward
There are three viable options to consider when deciding how to approach today’s potential elimination game against LA:
- Option #1 – Turn to the rotation’s ace, Max Fried, and ride him as long as possible. This approach is aggressive and could backfire, as it automatically eliminates Fried in the event the series goes a full seven games. However, the logic here is that given it’s an elimination game, you might as well lean on your most consistent starter.
- Option #2 – Start Anderson on two days rest and hope he can give you a few dominant innings before deploying all of the bullpen. I struggled calling this a “viable” option because I highly doubt the Braves would start a pitcher on such short rest, but by saving Fried and using Anderson, Atlanta gets the best of both worlds in that they can depend on one of their best starters while still holding onto the ace for a potential Game 6.
- Option #3 – A full-on bullpen game. This option is the most likely course of action, given our own Chase Irle reported Thursday that the Braves do not intend to start Fried on Friday, eliminating Option #1 altogether. A bullpen game is a bit conservative and could come back to bite Snitker. However, considering the Dodgers must now win three games in a row (a herculean task all by itself), Atlanta does actually have some wiggle room.
It appears Option #3 is both the safest and smartest approach at this time. LA has exhausted all of their horses, already using Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, and Kershaw, leaving only 23-year-old Dustin May to start Friday. This is a solid matchup for the Braves bullpen, for May hasn’t made a six-inning start since back in August, and he hasn’t thrown more than 88 pitches in any outing all year. Plus, the Dodger righty has been used solely as a reliever during the playoffs, other than when he started as an opener in Game 3 of the NLDS (working just one inning).
If there was ever a time to line up Atlanta’s bullpen with LA’s starter, it’s definitely Friday. Even if the Braves were to lose Game 5, having Fried and Anderson fully rested for Games 6 and 7, respectively, gives them a much better shot.
Regardless, we’ll find out soon what the official decision is for today’s game, and Chase will have an update up once that happens.
The core of the bullpen is mostly rested
Other than using Tyler Matzek in the eighth inning (with a six-run lead) in Thursday’s win, Snitker’s bullpen management has been pretty solid. And even that wasn’t that bad, considering Matzek only threw 17 pitches and didn’t even come in on Wednesday. And speaking of Wednesday (the 15-3 loss), none of the bullpen’s high-leverage arms were burnt (of course, Ynoa’s 92-pitch outing could’ve been costly if not for Wilson’s gem last night).
The point is, you can say what you want about Snitker’s managing skills, but his bullpen is in great shape heading into today’s game. Shane Greene and possibly Will Smith may be the only two guys that could possibly be held out or given a low pitch count, given Greene has pitched back-to-back games (39 pitches total), and Smith needed 26 pitches just to get one out last night. Other than those two, the only other core reliever in question could be Chris Martin, who’s pitched in all but one game in the NLCS so far, and threw 18 more pitches last night.
But come on, these guys barely tallied 20-30 innings during the shortened regular season, compared to the 50 or 60 they usually accrue in a normal campaign. Mark Melancon hasn’t pitched in two days. As mentioned above (other than on Thursday), Matzek has been used efficiently so far. And guys like Darren O’Day and A.J. Minter have barely been used as both threw 16 and 10 pitches, respectively, back in Game 2.
Also, as Chase wrote on Thursday, Ynoa could be available if the series continues on into the weekend, either as a starter or reliever. And then there’s always Wright, whose short outing on Wednesday most likely means he’s available if needed as soon as today.
The Braves have plenty of options going forward, and even if Snitker does indeed decide to go with a bullpen game in today’s Game 5, there should be plenty of relief help for the rest of this weekend if things get ugly. Atlanta invested heavily in this area for a reason.
The bats are heating up
Before Wednesday’s rough 12-run loss, the Braves combined to score 13 runs during the first two games of the NLCS, and most of that production (all but two RBI) came from the lineup’s first five hitters. And those guys are only getting hotter.
In Games 1 and 2, Atlanta’s nos. 1-5 hitters combined to hit .293 with four home runs, two doubles, and ten RBI. Well, in just Thursday’s Game 4 alone (after hitting .278 in the Game 3 loss), those five hitters collectively hit .455 with two homers, two doubles, and six RBI; and that came against perhaps LA’s top starter this season in Kershaw. Do the math; that’s a .342 AVG for the team’s top five guys through the series’s first four games. Sure, they are the first five guys in the lineup for a reason, but imagine where the Braves would be right now if that AVG was cut in half.
Overall, the key guys in the lineup are starting to show up at just the right time. Entering today’s game, three of those first-five in the batting order (Freddie, Ozuna, and Albies) are running an OPS over 1.100, with Freddie’s 1.458 leading the way. Both Freddie and Ozuna finished with multi-hit games last night, highlighted by the latter’s two long balls (plus a double and four RBI). When the team’s main contributors perform well on offense, the wins begin to pile up, which is exactly why the Braves are 8-1 so far during the postseason.
For many of us that have watched this team consistently choke in the postseason, Thursday night’s game was proof that this year’s team is unlike any other we’ve followed since at least 2018. For once, there seems to be depth up and down the roster, clutch hitting, and a bullpen that is hellbent on preventing runs or walks.
After the type of regular season they had, Atlanta could’ve easily turned cold against the Reds a couple of weeks ago and simply bowed out like usual. But not only did the team stay strong and sweep Cincinnati, but they also took care of business and swept the Marlins too. Everything that has made the Braves great in 2020 has carried over into this NLCS, and as simple as that sounds, it’s rare territory for this franchise, at least over the last two decades.
The Braves haven’t been to the World Series since 1999 when they lost to them damn Yankees in just four games. Today they have an incredible opportunity to make it back. Looking at this team right here and right now, Braves Country should be celebrating tonight around midnight.