Foul ball after foul ball, the battle between pitcher and batter intensified.
On one side was Walker Buehler, the young ace that the Dodgers always want on the mound when the lights are the brightest and the stakes are the highest, trying to keep the score deadlocked at a run apiece.
On the other side was Eddie Rosario, the hottest hitter in the playoffs and the runaway MVP of the series.
With one swing Rosario won the battle, and the war, ending the Dodgers season and dashing their dreams of becoming the first repeat World Series Champions in 21 years.
Rosario hit a three-run homer on the seventh pitch he saw, and the Atlanta Braves defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 in front of a sold out crowd of 43,060 in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Truist Park.
That one swing was the difference between the Dodgers dancing back to the World Series, and an offseason spent stewing over what could have been had injuries not derailed them.
The Dodgers, who had just two hits after that fourth inning, had no answer following Rosario’s heroics.
When they were presented with golden opportunities, they wasted them. The Braves didn’t and that’s why they’re headed to their first World Series since 1999.
The Braves began the game with back-to-back doubles from Ozzie Albies and Austin Riley to give Atlanta an early one-run lead.
Atlanta’s sophomore sensation Ian Anderson started his second game of the series, and pitched much better than he did in Game 2. Anderson tossed three scoreless innings before he got beat by the shift in the top of the fourth.
Cody Bellinger’s two-out single to a vast empty space at shortstop tied the game.
Buehler was breezing through the bottom of the fourth when he got ahead of catcher Travis d’Arnaud 1-2. He let him off the hook with three straight balls outside the zone, and then served up a double down the right field line to Ehire Adrianza. Prior to that pinch-hit at-bat, Adrianaza hadn’t had a hit in over 22 days.
Once again, Buehler got ahead of Rosario 1-2, but couldn’t put him away. Rosario fouled off four of the next five pitches before crushing a cutter on the inner-half of the plate for the soul-shattering homer.
The Dodgers scratched a run across in the seventh, but wasted another premium opportunity. AJ Pollock hit an RBI double to cut Atlanta’s lead in half and put runners at second and third with no outs. The Dodgers appeared primed for one of their big innings that help the win the World Series in 2020. But Tyler Matzek entered the game in relief and struck out the side. Slamming the door on the Dodgers dreams in the process.
Wasted opportunities and mental errors plagued the Dodgers throughout the NLCS. Both were uncharacteristic of a team that won the World Series just one year prior. Despite winning a franchise record 106 games in the regular season, the 2021 Dodgers were plagued by injuries and inconsistency. Both, in addition to the mental fatigue that went with an intense and dramatic playoff run did them in at the end.
Consider how the Dodgers season began: After winning the World Series inside a bubble environment in Arlington, Texas, they lost Joc Pederson and Kiké Hernandez in free agency. Both are superstars in the postseason with their new respective clubs.
In their place, they signed reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. Before the season began they lost multiple players to injuries. They lost Cody Bellinger to a broken leg in the first week, and Dustin May to Tommy John surgery a few weeks later. Multiple injuries and off the field issues would follow as the Dodgers tried to navigate tumultuous terrain filled with obstacles at every turn throughout the 162-game regular season and playoffs.
Down the stretch it was more of the same, Clayton Kershaw had to come out of his final start of the season with a left elbow injury. Max Muncy dislocated his left elbow in the final game of the season. In total the Dodgers had an MLB record 32 different players on the injured list this season.
Two other key figures were missing for the Dodgers during the final few games of the NLCS. Third baseman Justin Turner, the longest-tenured Dodgers position player, suffered a left hamstring injury in Game 4 and relief pitcher Joe Kelly left in the first inning of Game 5 with right bicep tightness. Both were placed on the injured list for the remainder of the postseason.
Back in February, just days after Turner signed a three-year contract to remain with the Dodgers, he told reporters that one of the reasons he returned to Los Angeles was so that he could be part of the dogpile after winning the World Series at the end of the season. Something Turner wasn’t able to do in 2020 after being removed from the game in the seventh inning after a positive test for COVID-19 forced him to be a spectator for the on-field celebration. Even if the Dodgers had somehow allowed lightning to strike twice and overcame another 3-1 series deficit, Turner would still be forced to watch the World Series as a spectator.
Yet despite all the injuries, the Dodgers kept winning. They won 12 of their last 14 games, including a franchise record 16 straight at home. When the dust settled they didn’t win the NL West division for the first time in nine years, but they tied the franchise record for wins.
For the first time in a long time, the Dodgers’ bullpen wasn’t their Achilles heel this postseason. Instead, it was the offense’s inability to come up with a key hit in big situations. Not much separated the Braves and Dodgers in their 13 NLCS games over the past two seasons, but the Braves were better with runners in scoring position.
In all three games in Atlanta, the Dodgers were a combined 4-for-28 with runners in scoring position, and left 22 runners on base. They lost all three.
Ultimately, that’s what separates the contenders from the pretenders. The Dodgers may have been a championship team last year, but they missed the mark this series.
However, there is a silver lining in all this. After 32 long arduous years without a championship, the Dodgers finally got over the hump in 2020. They ran out of gas in 2021, and ultimately that’s why there hasn’t been a repeat champion in baseball since the New York Yankees did it in 2000. Nonetheless, the Dodgers have played in the Fall Classic in three out of the last four years, and for the NL pennant in five of the last six years. That means the Dodgers are a “World Series or bust” team each and every year.
So this season was a bust by that measure, but with the injuries, the wild card game, and the grueling five-game Division Series with the rival Giants, it was a valiant effort and a postseason run that will be remembered fondly once the sting of another October defeat subsides.
The Dodgers were the best team on paper before the series began, but that’s why baseball isn’t played on paper.
There’s still a banner at Dodger Stadium and for two more weeks, they’re still the reigning champions, but for the Boys in Blue it will be better luck next year.
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