Opportunistic Dodgers make Braves pay for mistakes
ATLANTA -- Had you known the Dodgers, with Clayton Kershaw on the mound, would be victorious in Game 1 of this National League Division Series, it wouldn't exactly have registered as a total shock.
For the Braves -- and for any Major League team -- there really is no shame in losing to Kershaw, especially not the way he's mastered this 2013 season.
But the nature by which the Dodgers soundly beat up on the Braves in a 6-1 win on Thursday night at Turner Field -- outhitting, out-fielding and out-finessing them, relentlessly scoring runs even with Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp out and Hanley Ramirez battling a bum back, backing Kershaw on a night in which his command wasn't always up to his absurdly high standard -- was a little surprising and quite convincing.
This was, after all, a series most agreed was up for grabs. The Dodgers, for one night at least, were the ones who grabbed it by the throat, and Kershaw was only one part of the problem -- albeit a big one -- for Atlanta.
"I think it took us about two or three innings," said Fredi Gonzalez, "to kind of settle down."
By then, it was too late.
It's one thing to get beaten by arguably the best rotation in the game. What the Braves can't afford in this best-of-5 is to beat themselves. And on this night, some early defensive miscues loomed large against a Dodgers team that was assertive, aggressive and impressive.
For the Braves, the trouble began in the second inning, with a seeing-eye single from Yasiel Puig. When Juan Uribe followed with a sharp single to left-center, Puig boldly bolted all the way to third, reaching it safely with a structurally sound but altogether unnecessary headfirst slide.
"I'm thinking I've got to get to third base," Puig said through an interpreter. "I did my job, and I think he didn't want to commit an error, especially with a runner behind me."
That willingness on Puig's part to test Jason Heyward was both daring and telling. And it would be Heyward's poor throw home on a subsequent sac fly from Skip Schumaker that would not only allow Puig to score easily, but allow Uribe to advance to second.
This gaffe would indirectly lead to another. An A.J. Ellis fly ball to left became a two-run double, thanks to Evan Gattis making an overly aggressive sliding stab at the ball -- something Gattis likely wouldn't have attempted had Uribe been at first. The ball bounced away from Gattis, and Uribe scooted home to make it 2-0.
In that moment, you saw the real extent of what B.J. Upton's offensive struggles this season have wrought. The Braves entered the year expecting to have a dynamic defensive outfield cast, but Upton has proven unplayable, and so Fredi Gonzalez takes the defensive downside that comes with the offensive upside of Gattis' power bat. In this game, it wasn't a fair trade, and it only looked worse when Gattis, after singling to open the bottom of the second, ran himself into a 9-3 putout when he drifted too far from the bag on Chris Johnson's shallow fly ball to Puig in right.
This was what Gonzalez meant when he talked about his club looking over-amped.
"Little things like that," Gonzalez said. "Guys were excited, and rightfully so."
Of course, October is alarmingly unforgiving when you make such mental mistakes. The Dodgers would add another pair of runs in the third, when Medlen, who had been more a victim of bad luck than poor performance up to that point, left a changeup hanging to Adrian Gonzalez. The pitch was pummeled over the center-field wall to make it 4-0.
That lead looked colossal. Kershaw went 11-0 in the regular season when getting four or more runs of support, and the Dodgers, as a team, went 14-1 when scoring four or more on nights Kershaw was on the mound.
The Braves, however, did briefly look capable of terminating that trend. Because while Kershaw was still collecting his usual assortment of outs, his ordinary efficiency was evading him.
In the fourth, when he gave up a Freddie Freeman one-out single and walked Gattis in succession, opportunity knocked. Brian McCann pounded a fly ball to left that, for a moment, looked bound for the seats, only to fall short of the wall for out No. 2. And though Johnson was able to sneak an RBI single past a diving Ramirez, Kershaw confounded Andrelton Simmons with a devastating slider on a 3-2 pitch to end the inning.
Kershaw's pitch count was all the way up to 77 by that point, but the Braves had little to show for it.
"When you look up and you see 77 pitches in the fourth inning, you feel like you have a chance," Gonzalez said. "But he is what he is."
And from that point, he shut the door. He struck out nine of the last 11 he faced, essentially sealing his first career postseason win.
"We've seen him do this a few times," Mattingly said. "As the game goes, he seems to get stronger and stronger."
Again, absolutely no shame in the Braves losing to the man who carries such clout on the mound. It's been known to happen.
But a Braves club known to be boom or bust offensively (witness the 15 strikeouts on this night) does need to leave no stone unturned if it is going to recover against the rest of this ample Dodgers rotation. That means offering a clean and opportunistic effort.
That simply didn't happen in Game 1. Kershaw wasn't the entire story here.