Cody Bellinger produced a hit against an opposing left-handed pitcher only 12% of the time this season. But in the ninth inning on Saturday night, against the closer for a team that won its division, Bellinger came up with the line-drive single that would place the go-ahead run in scoring position. It seemed as if the Los Angeles Dodgers were meant to finally break through, as they had in two prior ninth innings already this postseason.
But then Chris Taylor got indecisive.
"I tried to stop," he said. "I should've kept going."
Taylor interrupted his sprint just before reaching the halfway point between second and third base and was tagged out after a brief rundown, ending the half-inning and thwarting one of few chances the Dodgers had to tack on runs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Austin Riley delivered the walk-off hit off Blake Treinen the next half-inning, sending the Braves into a 3-2 victory from an exhilarated Truist Park.
A wild end to the top of the 9th! 😱 pic.twitter.com/24ZLeIsoLp— MLB (@MLB) October 17, 2021
Moments before scoring the winning run -- set up by a shallow flare and a steal of second -- Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies was shaded toward shallow right field and came just shy of making a leaping catch on Bellinger's liner.
"To be honest with you, I thought he was going to be at third already once I jumped and the ball went over my head," Albies said. "When I turned around and I saw him halfway and he stopped, I said, 'OK, we got him.'"
Braves right fielder Joc Pederson charged in hard and short-hopped a throw into shortstop Dansby Swanson, who immediately looked to first wondering if Bellinger had crept too far off first base. When he turned, he saw Taylor caught in the middle. Swanson threw to Riley, then got the baseball back and quickly applied the tag.
Taylor tried desperately to spin away from Swanson's impending tag but instead banged his helmet against Swanson's kneecap. He slammed his helmet against the dirt, rested his arms on his knees and sat alone with his thoughts while 41,000-plus fans roared.
Dodgers third-base coach Dino Ebel could only watch helplessly as the play unfolded.
"That's our read," Taylor said. "Just a bad read on my part."
Taylor had made only two outs on the bases all year and had proved, once again, to be one of the most valuable yet underappreciated Dodgers. He provided versatility at six positions, accumulated 20 home runs, was worth 3.1 FanGraphs wins above replacement. But his indecisiveness struck at an inopportune time, late in a tight game with Mookie Betts -- coming off a four-hit performance in San Francisco -- due to bat next.
"It's one of those where you have to pick," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "You either go hard -- and I don't know if Joc would have thrown to third right there and just conceded that base -- or just hold up with two outs and give Mookie a chance. I think right there, he was caught in between. That's when you get in trouble."
Game 1 was the one the Braves needed. The Dodgers were scrambling with their pitching after having to use Walker Buehler on short rest on Tuesday and Max Scherzer out of the bullpen on Thursday just to get past the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series. They staged a bullpen game, opening with Corey Knebel and giving the next five innings to three unheralded relievers (Phil Bickford, Justin Bruihl, Alex Vesia) and a young starter who hadn't pitched in 16 days (Tony Gonsolin).
The Dodgers now have Scherzer, Buehler and Julio Urias lined up for the next three games, respectively, and remain in decent shape for the rest of this series. They outhit the Braves, 10-6, and struck out half as many times. But they managed only one hit in their eight at-bats with runners in scoring position, unable to sustain most rallies against Max Fried and the Braves' three best relievers.
In seven postseason games, the Dodgers' high-powered offense -- without Max Muncy, who is still sporting a bulky brace on his left elbow -- has scored three runs or fewer on five occasions.
"One of those games," Taylor said. "We squandered a couple opportunities, and they took advantage."