The Dodgers had deftly handled the late innings entering the ninth in their 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night.
Brusdar Graterol needed six pitches to emerge unscathed from a jam Walker Buehler created in the sixth. Victor González, another rookie, was thrust into a bases-loaded predicament in the eighth and got a strikeout to preserve a tie. Manager Dave Roberts was pushing the right buttons. The next button was no longer automatic.
Every October for the last seven, since the Dodgers started winning the NL West every year in 2013, the ninth inning belonged to Kenley Jansen. But Jansen isn’t the Dodgers’ closer anymore. His recent struggles have earned him a demotion, whether the Dodgers explicitly say it or not.
Instead, the high-leverage late innings will be distributed on a case-by-case basis. On Monday, Roberts chose right-hander Blake Treinen, perhaps the best closer in baseball two years ago, to pitch the ninth inning with two right-handed hitters — Austin Riley and Ronald Acuña Jr. — and Freddie Freeman due up.
Disaster struck five pitches into the outing. Riley, Atlanta’s No. 9 hitter, launched a 98-mph sinker 448 feet over the left-center wall at Globe Life Field to ignite half of the first group of fans to attend a Major League Baseball game in 2020.
Acuña doubled next. Two batters later, Marcell Ozuna smacked an RBI single before Jake McGee was summoned. Two batters after that, Ozzie Albies Jr. delivered a backbreaking two-run home run.
The Braves improved to 6-0 in the postseason. The Dodgers took their first loss in nearly three weeks.
“I felt that run [of batters] right there was really good for Blake,” Roberts said. “He’s going to have to do it again. It just didn’t work out.”
The gates to an MLB game opened to fans for the first time since March at 5 p.m. local time. The people, the first to attend an event inside this new $1.2-billion building, entered through doors beyond the left-field wall.
Several dozen lined the first row of outfield seats as the Braves took batting practice. They were eager to catch a BP home run and seemingly not worried about catching COVID-19. They tested MLB’s rule mandating fans not to come within 20 feet of any players. A few had players shagging balls throw them one. Most wore masks. Some didn’t. Others didn’t wear them properly. Social distancing was treated as optional.
Those fans dispersed when the Braves finished their session. The first six rows of seats in those sections were then warded off. They scattered to the crowded concourse and settled into their pods spaced out throughout the ballpark. MLB announced an attendance of 10,700 and claimed every ticket for the game was sold.
“It was shocking for everyone to see, at least for [the] first few minutes,” Dodgers second baseman Kiké Hernández said. “It definitely added a little more to this game.”
Freeman, a leading NL MVP candidate, gave Atlanta’s fans the first reason to cheer.
Freeman hit .431 with nine home runs against fastballs during the regular season. He displayed his prowess again in the first inning when he clobbered a 97-mph fastball 429 feet to give the Braves a lead two batters into the game. “M-V-P” chants serenaded Freeman during his trot.
“You can’t make mistakes like that in games like this,” Buehler said.
Buehler wasn’t sharp again as the blister remained an issue. According to the TV broadcast, Buehler had both the index and middle fingers bandaged during his bullpen session Saturday — not just the index finger where his blister problem initially surfaced. Roberts confirmed Buehler has been dealing with two blisters that “kind of take turns.”
Buehler established a career high with five walks before the end of the fourth inning. But the Braves didn’t capitalize. They stranded five runners on base and went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position in the first four innings.
Buehler pitched into the sixth for the first time since Aug. 21, when his blisters surfaced, but didn’t get an out. He departed after yielding singles to the first two batters. He was erratic but struck out seven. He threw 100 pitches, becoming the first Dodgers pitcher to reach a triple-digit pitch count in 2020.
“It’s the playoffs, you’re trying to be fine, you’re trying to be perfect,” Buehler said. “That’s kind of how the playoffs have affected me.”
Max Fried’s six innings were cleaner. The Studio City Harvard-Westlake High graduate gave up one run on four hits and two walks. He struck out nine.
The left-hander’s only costly mistake was a hanging curveball he threw to Hernández on an 0-2 count in the fifth inning. Hernández, making his first postseason start, lifted it over the left field wall for a solo home run to tie the game.
The score remained even when Atlanta threatened a rally in the eighth inning. Ozuna led off with a double against Dustin May. The next two batters were retired before the Dodgers elected to intentionally walk Dansby Swanson. The Braves countered by having Pablo Sandoval pinch-hit. May plunked him to load the bases.
The Dodgers then chose González to face former Dodger Charlie Culberson. He struck him out in the most important spot of his young career. The Dodgers’ bullpen capsized from there.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.