Clayton Kershaw pushes Braves to brink of playoff elimination
Clayton Kershaw followed Hyun-Jin Ryu's brilliant Game 1 performance to blank the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the National League Division Series and hand the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the five-game series.
This is the first time in Braves franchise history the team has failed to score in consecutive playoff games.
Now the organization faces elimination as it heads back to SunTrust Park.
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Vintage Clayton Kershaw haunts Braves again
On an early October night in 2013, then-Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez stated the obvious beneath the Turner Field bleachers: "He's the best pitcher in baseball and he showed it tonight."
The 2013 Braves-Dodgers NLDS Game 1 was Clayton Kershaw’s first postseason statement, placing 2009 ghosts of giving up nine earned runs in three starts, including two NLCS losses to Philadelphia, firmly behind him with 12 strikeouts over seven innings. That was the Clayton Kershaw of old: Battering opposing batters into pulp with pinpoint control on a mid-90s fastball while mixing in plus off-speed offerings. That was not the Clayton Kershaw of Friday night — and it still didn’t matter.
The 2018 NLDS Game 2 was Kershaw’s latest postseason statement.
A dramatic turn of events in Hollywood pushed left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, who pitched better than the future Hall of Famer down the stretch this season, into the first start of the series. Kershaw publicly disagreed with the move. It challenged his place in the pecking order, both in Los Angeles and baseball at large. In the age of prime deGrom or Sale or Scherzer, he’s no longer the sport's unquestioned pitching alpha. But he's still Clayton Kershaw.
Then Ryu spun a masterpiece against Atlanta in Game 1 and Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, took the ball then turned back the clock.
“We faced two guys that didn’t miss. They didn’t miss,” manager Brian Snitker said of Ryu and Kershaw. “They didn’t miss locations. They didn’t make any mistakes for two games, for 18 innings. It was two games that were about as pinpoint as you could be.”
Atlanta seen this show before.
Kershaw now owns a perfect 6-0 lifetime record against the Braves in the regular season and playoffs, and it’s not due to run support. He owns a 1.20 ERA in 90 career innings against Atlanta, striking out 99 batters with only 17 walks.
Aside from rookie phenom Ronald Acuña Jr.’s screaming leadoff double on the first pitch of Game 2, Snitker’s offense could not manage quality contact against the left-hander. He cruised through eight scoreless innings on 85 pitches. It was the longest start of his postseason career and the ball hardly left the infield.
The Braves have mustered nine hits with 15 strikeouts to open the series with back-to-back shutout losses, going 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. Hitters have looked more impatient than aggressive. The Braves have yet to draw a walk in the series. Dodgers pitchers (and manager Dave Roberts has barely touched his bullpen) have dictated the terms of engagement to the playoff newcomers.
The Dodgers are in full command of this series now: The 2-0 lead, the playoff experience, the extreme depth, the well-rested bullpen and, at the end of the day, the knowledge that a three-time Cy Young Award winner can still suspend space and time and remind the world why he’s heading to Cooperstown. He can still be the ace up Roberts’ sleeve even if he keeps him up there for an extra hand these days.
Los Angeles will send rookie star Walker Buehler, the team’s best pitcher this season and its standout performer in the tiebreaker win over Colorado, to the mound in Game 3 as the series flips to SunTrust Park. Dansby Swanson’s former Vanderbilt roommate held batters to a 2.62 ERA and 3.04 fielding-independent pitching, though he was much better at Dodger Stadium in his debut campaign. In his lone start against Atlanta, he allowed one run over 5 1/3 innings with four strikeouts and zero walks.
It’s difficult to imagine Buehler pitching better than Kershaw and Ryu did off Vin Scully Ave., but that may not matter with the way the Braves are hitting and how Dodger hitters keep express shipping mistakes to the outfield seats.
“It’s just not one guy. It’s a complete team thing right now as far as lack of offense,” Snitker said. "You can’t blame any one person. Our whole lineup's having a hard time, struggling offensively right now."
Mistakes on strange counts define playoff road starts for Mike Foltynewicz and Anibal Sanchez
For Game 1 starter Mike Foltynewicz, 0-2 counts were the story.
For Game 2 starter Anibal Sanchez, one 3-0 will be replayed over and over.
On Thursday night in the series opener, Foltynewicz’s first playoff start unraveled after throwing an 0-2 fastball to Joc Pederson — a player known for sitting on velocity and struggling against off-speed pitches — and watching it sail into the outfield seats, setting the tone for how the NLDS has played out to date. The young right-hander bounced back on another 0-2 count by striking out Yasmani Grandal but trouble returned in the second inning when he jumped way ahead of Pederson again only to hit him with a pitch.
"I've been thinking about that all night, especially in years past, two strikes and two outs, pretty much for all that to unwind like that really takes the cake," said Foltynewicz, who had limited batters to a .164/.177/.262 slash line up 0-2. "You get two quick outs and then to get two strikes, hit the batter, fall behind, turn and walk (Justin Turner), and for that to happen and put your team down, 4-0, in the second inning is not where you want to be.”
That spelled the end of Foltynewicz’s outing.
For Sanchez, a mistake on a less advantageous situation pushed the Braves offense into another first-inning hole. With Pederson standing on third base with two outs, Sanchez fell behind 3-0 to star shortstop Manny Machado. Instead of forcing Machado to chase or draw a walk, an 88-mile-per-hour cutter caught too much of the bottom of the zone and the right-hander slugger got his arms extended.
It was the first time in Sanchez’s entire career he’s allowed a home run on a 3-0 count.
“I just tried to execute a pitch: 3-0 count you want to throw a pitch for a strike,” Sanchez said. " … I know, for some reason, he’s going to try to swing in that moment. That’s why I tried to execute the pitch, but he put a really good swing on it.”
After the game, Snitker said in hindsight he would have handled the situation differently.
“I thought, ‘Well, he’s not going to pitch to him.’ I had the option of walking him and that’s my fault right there,” Snitker said. “The pitch he hit, most guys don’t hit that ball. But I can take it out of his hands, too.”
Home runs remain the story of Atlanta’s NLDS meeting with the high-scoring Dodgers lineup. Where the Braves have managed nine total hits, the Dodgers have belted five home runs. It’s a complete departure from the pitching staff’s 2018 success at keeping the ball within the field of play:
Braves starters in 2018: 1.01 HR/9 (3rd in MLB)
Braves pitchers in 2018: 0.95 HR/9 (3rd in MLB)
Braves pitchers in NLDS: 2.81 HR/9
Atlanta hands the ball to trade-deadline acquisition Kevin Gausman in Game 3. The right-hander allowed just five home runs in 59 2/3 innings after putting on a Braves uniform — a trend Atlanta’s pitching will desperately need to continue back home, regardless of the count.
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Max Fried, Touki Toussaint and Sean Newcomb provide Atlanta’s most notable silver living
The Atlanta Braves chose talent over experience with multiple bullpen additions to the NLDS roster. The choice paid dividends in L.A.
Young arms Sean Newcomb, Max Fried and Touki Toussaint, three of the franchise’s most promising starting pitching options, combined for 15 major-league relief appearances at the time their names were added to Atlanta’s playoff roster. The thought process seemed simple enough: Top-end arms with top-end stuff often lead to positive October outcomes.
So far, so good.
Newcomb, Fried and Toussaint have combined to throw 5 2/3 scoreless innings with two walks, one hit and five strikeouts during the series. Though the offense has yet to wake up, they’ve kept the traditionally comeback-happy roster within striking distance after falling behind early. While the series feels lopsided — as it should — this group is the primary reason the Dodgers have “only” outscored Atlanta by nine runs thus far. Regardless of Game 3’s outcome, at least one arm from this group will likely play a significant role.