Braves give a sneak peak at the future
Marietta, Ga. – The question as to whether the Braves’ offense would wake up Sunday night was swiftly answered.
But Atlanta could not have possibly counted on the aid they would receive from Dodgers starter Walker Buehler, who surrendered a grand slam to rookie phenom Ronald Acuna, Jr. in the bottom of the second. Freddie Freeman later smacked a solo shot of his own to leadoff the sixth and Atlanta held off Los Angeles for a 6-5 triumph.
The Game 3 victory cut Los Angeles’ lead in the National League Division Series to 2-1. Although the Braves ultimately fell 6-2 on Monday night and were eliminated from the postseason in the process, Acuna’s homer will not only resonate for years to come, but proved that Atlanta is moving in the right direction with the team it has assembled.
“I was just trying to focus on my at-bat, take it pitch-by-pitch and do the best I could,” Acuna said through interpreter Franco Garcia in a post-game press conference Sunday night. “This is what we’ve been working for the entire time, just trying to get to the playoffs.”
Buehler got through the bottom of the first unscathed, but walked Nick Markakis to begin the second inning. However, he promptly struck out Johan Camargo and Kurt Suzuki in succession and appeared to be on his way to another easy inning.
That’s when the wheels fell off. Ozzie Albies followed with a single that opened the way for Markakis to reach third and Albies land at second on a fielding error by Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger. Charlie Culberson was then intentionally walked, loading the bases for pitcher Sean Newcomb.
Newcomb drew a 4-pitch walk that plated Markakis, which was Atlanta’s first run of the series. Up stepped leadoff man Acuna looking to etch his name in the record books.
Did he deliver. Oh, how he delivered.
The 20-year-old Acuna, Jr. connected on a 3-1 pitch for the grand slam that made the game 5-0, becoming the youngest player in Major League Baseball history to hit a grand salami in a postseason game.
The previous holder: Mickey Mantle, who was 21 when he crushed a grand slam in the 1953 World Series. Acuna, Jr. correctly put into perspective just how that record had stood.
“I don’t recognize the name; I wasn’t even born then,” Acuna said.
“He continues to amaze,” Freeman said. “I don’t think we wanted anybody else in that situation. It’s kind of fitting that our starting pitcher got our first RBI in the series, but in that situation, Ronald was able to work the count. I think everybody had all the confidence in the world; he’s been doing it all year. He’s pretty incredible.”
In what can only be described as bold strategy, Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker opted to pull starter Sean Newcomb early in his performance.
With two outs in the top of the third, Newcomb had walked two batters and Snitker made the trip to the hill, calling on the original Game 3 starter, Kevin Gausman.
Gausman promptly surrendered a two-run single to Justin Turner, with the second run scoring on an Acuna fielding error. But Gausman came through in a full-count situation against feared slugger Manny Machado, striking out the former Baltimore Oriole to end the frame and limit the damage.
“I told him (Newcomb) before the game, ‘I just want you to get this thing off the ground,’” said Atlanta skipper Brian Snitker. “I knew that if I wanted to bring Gausman in, that was the time to get the right-on-right matchup I wanted. If I had waited one more hitter, I probably wasn’t going to get that.”
The Dodgers continued to battle, as leadoff man Chris Taylor launched a 2-run homer in the top of the fifth, which cut Atlanta’s lead to 5-4 at that point. Two batters later, Max Muncy drove the ball over the right-field fence to tie the game at 5-5.
Freeman’s go-ahead homer was on the first pitch hurled at him from former Atlanta starter Alex Wood. It was the first homer Wood had surrendered to a left-handed batter in 2018.
“That was a big moment; it put us ahead,” Freeman said. “This was the biggest game of our lives tonight, so seeing the 5-run lead go away was not ideal. We held it, so we knew we had a chance.
“We didn’t get a lot of hits tonight, but we got the right hits. We’re not the biggest home-run hitting team, so it was definitely different. We’re usually a small-ball team, but it’s definitely tough to get three hits in a row in the playoffs and score some runs.”
Entering Sunday’s game, the Braves had been outscored by Los Angeles 9-0 in the first two games of the series and thanks to the strong pitching of Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw, produced only nine hits while on the West Coast.