ATLANTA -- Put this game in your back pocket. Or, more specifically, put the seventh inning in your back pocket. Because if the Atlanta Braves go on to win this series, and then go on to do something magical in the next series and then the big one after that, this will be a game to remember, the game Dodgers manager Don Mattingly elected to pitch to Jason Heyward with the bases loaded instead of somebody named Jose Constanza.
"Play the matchups. Play the matchups. That's what the postseason is about," Heyward said about his crucial at-bat against Dodgers reliever Paco Rodriguez. "You go lefty-lefty there."
Heyward singled in two runs, turning a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead, the eventual winning runs in the Braves' 4-3 victory over the Dodgers that tied up their Division Series.
But the story is how we got to that matchup, in an inning with enough strategy to make a sabermetrician's head explode and fans sweat profusely through their Freddie Freeman replica jerseys. Watching Mattingly and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez match wits may not exactly have been Earl Weaver versus Billy Martin, but it made for entertaining opportunities for the pundits and fans to debate.
In that one crucial decision, however, Gonzalez may have masterfully duped Mattingly.
The Braves led 2-1, Zack Greinke having been removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh after just 83 pitches (even though he did he hit .328 this season). Right-hander Chris Withrow came on in relief and walked Brian McCann before Chris Johnson lined a soft, broken-bat single to left. Gonzalez had Andrelton Simmons sacrifice in front of the weaker-hitting Elliot Johnson, a questionable move in itself that looked even more questionable after Withrow stuck out Johnson looking on a nasty 0-2 curveball.
So two outs, runners at second and third, pitcher Luis Avilan due up. Gonzalez sent up the left-handed Constanza to pinch-hit, a guy with just 31 plate appearances all season in the major leagues and just eight hits, all singles. He's on the roster primarily as a pinch-running or defensive option in the outfield.
Withrow is a rookie reliever with an upper 90s fastball who came on strong late in the year, and while he had just 34.2 innings, he struck out 43 batters and allowed just 20 hits. Left-handers hit just .217 off him -- limited sample size caveat -- with just one extra-base hit allowed. In other words, he's good. Good enough to face Constanza.
One problem with having so many relievers on the roster is you may overthink it and actually feel inclined to use them. Mattingly brought in the lefty Rodriguez, but of course Gonzalez wasn't going to let Constanza face Rodriguez; he sent up Reed Johnson. Mattingly elected to walk Johnson to face Heyward.
"Just really at that point trusting Paco to do what he had to do. ... Paco has been that guy all year long," Mattingly said.
Simmons, watching from the Braves’ dugout, admitted he "was a little surprised" Mattingly elected to load the bases. Simmons said the players aren't necessarily analyzing each move like the managers and coaching staff do, but they trust the manager to put the best players in the right spot. So when a player says he's surprised by a move, you have to wonder.
Mattingly got his lefty-lefty matchup, but Heyward was much improved against left-handed pitchers this season after his early-season struggles and appendectomy. Since June 1 he'd had a .402 on-base percentage against lefties. Yes, Rodriguez had held lefties to a .131 average, so it wasn't the worst matchup for the Dodgers. But Rodriguez was also in a situation where he had to throw strikes, and Heyward has excellent plate discipline.
Chris Withrow versus Jose Constanza? Or Paco Rodriguez versus Jason Heyward with the bases loaded?
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It's funny how players will view a game differently. Chris Johnson said, "I don't think it's a must-win game until you lose and go home." He's right, of course, it wasn't a must-win game for the Braves. On the other hand, you don't want to head to Los Angeles down 2-0. "We felt like our backs were against the wall," catcher Gerald Laird said. "We took it like it was an elimination game." He's right as well. In a short series, you have to play with a certain urgency. You can't let any situation slip away, and you have to take advantage of mistakes your opponents give you.
That's what Mattingly did. He opened the door and paid the price when Heyward singled up the middle on a 2-1 slider. Heyward said it was the best moment of his career. "I mean, the top," he said. "For right now, the top. This is this moment. ... We want to be in those situations to come through big for your team."
Heyward split the difference between Johnson and Laird when told Gonzalez said the game was probably a must-win, saying, "I know a manager has got a different mindset sometimes than the players, but I know we all agree on one thing: Every night in the postseason is a must-win game for us. You don't want to ever think it's OK to lose."
A baseball game is made up of hundreds of little decisions, starting with each pitch and what to throw. Avilan had a big decision himself in the top of that fateful seventh. With runners at the corners and one out, Carl Crawford hit a hard grounder back to him, with the runner on third breaking for home.
"As soon as I caught it, my first thought was second base," he said. "I knew we had a good shortstop with a strong arm.
"I saw the runner at third base running to home plate but thought I had a good chance at the double play."
Avilan and Simmons turned the double play, 1-6-3. Inning over. In the blink of a moment, Avilan made the right decision.
In his moment, Don Mattingly didn't, and the Braves are back in the series.