It became the play that turned Game 5 of the NLCS and ― who knows? ― maybe the entire series. Because there was another possible outcome, a very remote one, on Swanson’s sinking liner to right: Betts caught it on the run just above the turf. Marcell Ozuna tagged up too early from third. A replay review confirmed it, and Ozuna was ruled out. A Braves’ run was erased from the scoreboard.
And the Dodgers soon surged to a decisive 7-3 win at Globe Life Field that prevented a Braves clincher and forced a Game 6 in the best-of-seven series Saturday. The Braves still lead the series, three games to two, and will send ace Max Fried to the mound in Game 6 to face Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler in a rematch of Game 1.
The Dodgers took control of the game, as they are wont to do, with longballs ― a go-ahead, three-run blast by catcher Will Smith in the sixth and a two-run shot by shortstop Corey Seager, his second of the game, in the seventh. The Dodgers led the majors this season with 118 homers, and have smashed 12 of them in just five games in this series, two shy of the NLCS record.
But even in today’s power-on-power version of baseball ― 100 mph fastballs against all-or-nothing swings ― a game can sometimes turn on something subtle and seemingly small. Like a Gold Glove right fielder turning a likely single and a surefire sacrifice fly into an inning-ending double play. The Dodgers traded for Betts this spring, then handed him $365 million to keep him, for moments such as this.
With the Braves leading 2-0 in the bottom of the third, and with runners on second and third and one out, Betts, from a full sprint, made a fabulous, shoestring catch on Swanson’s sinking liner, somehow keeping his balance and staying on his feet. At third base, Ozuna paused and broke for home.
“I just knew I needed to stay on my feet to have a chance to throw him out at home,” Betts said. “I was trying to do everything I could to stay on my feet.”
Ozuna barely beat Betts’s off-balance throw to the plate, scoring the Braves’ third run ― except Ozuna, as it turned out, perhaps unsure if Betts caught the ball cleanly, left the bag early, a fact that was immediately clear on replay. After a brief review, the umpires called Ozuna out, ending the inning and wiping the Braves’ run off the scoreboard.
“We’ve had a lot of great plays this year,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said, “but if you’re talking momentum shifts ― that’s the play of the year for me.”
Immediately afterward, leading off the top of the fourth against the new Braves pitcher, Tyler Matzek, Seager smashed a solo homer to straightaway center field. In a span of two batters ― the Betts play and the Seager homer ― the Braves went from thinking they had a three-run lead to seeing that lead reduced to one.
“It’s not always on the offensive side that you get a spark,” Seager said of the Betts play. “A moment like that can change everything.”
That is not to discount the importance of Smith’s mammoth three-run homer, which put the Dodgers ahead for good ― and also threatened to break Twitter. That’s because it came at the end of a first-of-its kind matchup of like-named postseason combatants: Will Smith, Dodgers catcher, crushing a homer off Will Smith, Braves lefty reliever.
The fateful drive came on the sixth pitch of the at-bat ― after batter Smith battled back from down 0-2 in the count and worked it to 3-2 ― and turned a 2-1 Braves lead into a 4-2 Dodgers lead. It also sparked a million giddy tweets ― mostly lines from songs and movies by Will Smith, the rapper and actor.
“I’ll always bet on our Will Smith,” Roberts said.
"It's a common enough name," the Dodgers' catcher shrugged.
By the time Seager took Braves right-hander Jacob Webb deep in the seventh, the game was teetering on the edge of a third straight blowout, following the ones in Games 3 and 4. Perhaps this was to be expected given the unusual LCS format being used this year ― without the typical, mid-series off-days, and with games every night.
Having run out of starting pitchers on their fifth straight night of playing baseball, the Braves commissioned a bullpen game with lefty A.J. Minter ― who hadn’t started a game of any sort since his junior year at Texas A&M in 2015. Hoping for one clean inning, maybe two, the Braves were delighted to see Minter breeze through three ― his longest stint as a big leaguer.
The first four relievers the Braves brought into the game ― Matzek, Shane Greene, Smith and Webb ― all gave up runs. With nerves fraying, shoulders and elbows barking and energy reserves sinking to critical levels, will either team have enough pitching to get through one more game, maybe two?
The Dodgers required a six-man bullpen relay of their own ― in relief of starter Dustin May, who lasted just two innings ― to carry their lead home, a task made infinitely easier with the piled-on runs in the later innings. They went from Joe Kelly (who secured three outs) to Blake Treinen (six outs) to Pedro Baez (three) to Victor Gonzalez (three) to Brusdar Graterol. All of them put up zeros, except Graterol, who allowed one in the eighth.
“They’ll all be ready” Saturday, Roberts said.
The ninth belonged to Kenley Jansen ― the way it always used to, before Jansen lost the bite on his cutter and his hold on the Dodgers closer’s job. His outing Friday night, in a non-save situation, may be best regarded as a test ― to see if Jansen can be counted on in big spots for as long as the Dodgers keep their season alive. He struck out the side, touching 94 mph on the radar gun for the first time in weeks, suggesting the answer is yes.
The Dodgers played their 70th game of 2020 on Friday night. They have won a staggering 50 of them, a .714 winning percentage ― the equivalent of a 116-win pace over a 162-game season. They must still win twice more to reach the World Series. But this NLCS has become less a contest of ability than a battle of attrition.