It was his fourth-inning homer that gave Atlanta their second run, or as many as starter Max Fried would allow the Dodgers in six hard-fought innings. And it was that line drive with Ozzie Albies on second in the bottom of the ninth that gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the first NLCS it has hosted in 20 years.
“I think that kid is definitely taking the next step forward,” Braves Manager Brian Snitker said.
Riley started sparking this time last year, when his ninth-inning hit spurred the Braves to a Game 1 win against the Dodgers. By the time he came up in a similar spot this year, Riley was a different player altogether, with even Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts saying the jump in the third baseman’s confidence was noticeable.
“I’m just continuing to build that confidence of trusting my stuff and knowing that it plays at this level,” Riley said.
In parts of two big league seasons before this one, Riley had never hit above .240. This year, he hit .303. He hit 33 homers, drove in 107 runs, and put together a .898 on-base-plus-slugging — two points higher than Braves superstar Freddie Freeman. On a night when Freeman struck out four times, Riley carried Atlanta as the crowd chanted “M-V-P.”
“Crazy. Hats off to him. He’s come a long way in a short period of time,” Dodgers shortstop and Riley’s former NL East foe Trea Turner said. “There’s a reason why fans are cheering MVP for him.”
Riley, or “the big boss” as Albies called him, is 7 for 17 with two homers in five postseason games this year, one of several younger Braves players who seem to be taking the next step. Game 1 starter Max Fried, for example, scattered eight hits over six innings and allowed just two runs despite admitting later he was fighting himself all night. He has allowed two runs in 12 postseason innings.
“It just shows you how these guys are growing and they’re maturing, Snitker said. The moment isn’t too big for them because they’ve played in it now for three, four years.”
That the Braves would be ready for the Dodgers is no surprise. Though the Dodgers have become staples of October, the Braves are trying to make this an annual thing, too: They’ve won four straight division titles. After losing to the Dodgers in seven games this time last year, they have yet to advance past the NLCS in that span.
And in some ways, this didn’t seem likely to be the year they broke through. The Braves were the first National League team to win their division with fewer than 90 wins in nearly a decade and a half because played in the relatively weak NL East. The Dodgers were the first team to win 106 games and not win their division because they played in one of the best divisions in recent memory, the NL West.
Everyone knew the Braves have spunk, panache, resilience and all that. They proved that this season when they lost MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. to a torn ACL just before the all-star break, retooled at the deadline and came to life in time to win the division. They proved it last year when they pushed these Dodgers to a Game 7 in the NLCS.
But here, in Cobb County, history looks different. Here, they’ll tell you it was the Dodgers who took the Braves to seven games, not the other way around. After all, Atlanta led that series 2-0, then 3-1, before losing three straight.
“You look back and, you know what, we're capable of doing this,” Snitker said. “We played the world champions last year and were a game away from putting ourselves into the World Series.”
They are three games away from a World Series now, three games in which they will face Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Julio Urías — three games that would have looked far more formidable if Atlanta had not found a way to win this one.
“It doesn’t get easier, that’s for darn sure,” Snitker said. “All these wins here in this thing are going to be big. They’re all going to be hard to come by.”
In fact, as of the ninth inning, the game could have qualified as something near a best-case scenario for the Dodgers. They had left plenty of runners on, sure, but after being forced to rely on their bullpen for 27 outs, they were tied 2-2 with a chance to win the game.
Their bullpen had struck out 13 batters. Their offense had put a man on in every inning but one. And in the top of the ninth, in particular, Chris Taylor had walked to put the go-ahead run on base. When Cody Bellinger singled behind him, they looked ready to strike.
But Taylor rounded second base hard, then seemed to realize he had gone further than he might have normally. Instead of heading to third, he stopped, caught in between, and after a few back-and-forths ended up in a heap on the ground, tagged out, the inning over.
“It’s kind of one of those where you got to pick,” Roberts said. “I think right there, he was kind of caught in between, and that’s kind of when you get in trouble.”
Roberts’s Dodgers had plenty of other scoring chances. They left seven men on base and went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position. Thanks to Riley, the Braves went 1 for 2 in those situations, and that was all they needed.