ATLANTA—When the Los Angeles Dodgers dealt for Manny Machado back in July, they couldn’t have expected a moment like Monday would happen. But they could have predicted it.
Machado, the All-Star shortstop who’d been relatively quiet in the National League Division Series, broke out huge in Game 4, doubling to drive in the Dodgers’ first run and hammering a long seventh-inning home run that iced a 6-2 victory and sent a feisty but still young Braves team to an early playoff exit. Los Angeles now moves on to face Milwaukee in the NLCS, and the Dodgers will bring the terrifying combination of a fully rested bullpen and fully operational offense to the party.
When you’ve got nothing to lose, you can play loose. Early in Game 4, the Braves, facing elimination for the second straight game, were the looser team, putting balls in play, moving runners, forcing the Dodgers into a reactionary pose in a way they hadn’t in Atlanta’s first two losses.
Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz began this game the same way he did Game 1, giving up a run in the first – in this case, Max Muncy crossed the plate on a Machado double that got hung up under the left-field corner padding. But where he collapsed in Game 1, giving up three runs in the second inning, Foltynewicz settled into a far more relaxed mode on Monday afternoon, allowing just two hits against five strikeouts over four innings.
The Braves, meanwhile, played patient ball in the early innings, using the classic get ‘em on-get ‘em over-get ‘em in approach. Atlanta broke through in the fourth, pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki bringing home Tyler Flowers and Johan Camargo to put Atlanta up 2-1. Braves fans hadn’t seen a meaningful October game in five years, and they felt the first familiar flickerings of hope. Could it happen? Could Atlanta force a Game 5? Could this band of come-from-behind overachievers make history?
Nope. The next inning, still up by one, the Braves loaded the bases with one out, and seemed on the verge of putting the Dodgers on the deck. But two weak popouts by Tyler Flowers and Ender Inciarte ended that threat, and you had the sense that for Atlanta, that right there was opportunity lost.
Because here’s the thing with the Dodgers: if you have them on the ropes, you don’t just try to knock them out. You try to bury them in a deep hole, and you cover that hole with cement. Because if they get loose, they’ll do exactly what they did to the Braves immediately after wriggling out of the fifth-inning jam. Los Angeles didn’t get this far just to pucker in the clutch, and after absorbing those jabs, the Dodgers struck back, hard and with finality.
With Kiké Hernandez on base, Yasiel Puig lofted what seemed to be a routine inning-ending fly ball into short right. But both Markakis and Albies took odd angles on the ball, and it dropped in for an unexpected single. Pinch-hitter David Freese, the deadline acquisition and long-ago postseason hero for St. Louis, then rifled a liner right past a diving Charlie Culberson, and just like that, a one-run deficit was a one-run lead.
One inning later, the Dodgers pressed their advantage, putting runners at first and second with no one out and Machado at the plate. Machado worked six pitches out of Chad Sobotka before turning on a four-seamer and sending it 393 feet into the Hank Aaron Terrace in left field.
Put another way: you give the Dodgers an inch, they’ll take your arm off.
From there, it was all over but the strikeouts. Dodgers relievers retired five straight Braves after Machado’s homer, and Kenta Maeda shut down a two-on, two-out eighth inning rally without an Atlanta run crossing the plate. All-Star closer Kenley Janson took the hill in the ninth, shutting down the Braves’ 1-2-3 hitters in order and closing out Atlanta’s season on a meek note.
Los Angeles now heads to its third straight NLCS, where it will face a Milwaukee team riding the hottest of win streaks. The young Braves, meanwhile, have the winter to reflect on how much bigger the game gets when the postseason rolls around. Atlanta may well be the future of the National League. But Los Angeles is the imposing, impressive present.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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