No one expected things to be easy for the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but following a 13-6 blowout loss on Sunday night, they are one game away from seeing a 96-win regular season go up in smoke.
Game 3 of the NLDS was about as bad as it could possibly get for the Braves, which is strange only because things started out so well. Their offense had been kept in relative check through the first two games, scoring just five runs, but scored two runs in the first inning of Game 3 and four through the first three innings.
Unfortunately, with rookie Julio Teheran on the mound, the pitching couldn't keep the Braves ahead and eventually imploded.
As crushing as Sunday's loss was, there is no time for Atlanta to dwell on it because elimination is staring this team square in the face Monday night. To make matters worse, Freddy Garcia starts Game 4 and if the Braves happen to win, Clayton Kershaw comes back for Game 5.
No one ever said winning a World Series would be easy, but this is about as steep as the mountain gets before that big ball you have been pushing up for the last six months starts rolling back down on you.
Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk, a Braves fan, took to Twitter late on Sunday night to express thoughts a lot of people in his position certainly feel.
Annual autumn cold has me up at 3:53 AM desperately parsing Freddy Garcia's stats for a sliver of hope. None found. Reach for tea, whimper.— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 7, 2013
I'd feel better if I didn't think Fredi Gonzalez didn't just look at his ERA in 27 innings and think "yup, that's my guy. Look at his ERA!"— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 7, 2013
In case you are curious, Garcia's ERA in 27.1 innings with the Braves is 1.65. Before you go shouting off rooftops, it should be noted that he put up those numbers against the Marlins (twice), Mets, Phillies, Nationals and Brewers. Four of those five teams ranked in the bottom half of baseball in runs scored, and the Nationals were 15th.
I am painting a bleak picture because the odds are not in Atlanta's favor, but in baseball, even when you are starting Garcia in a do-or-die playoff game, nothing is impossible. I mean, Pittsburgh is a game away from the National League Championship Series, after all.
Here is what the Braves need to do in order to force this series back to Atlanta and conquer the beast known as Kershaw.
Have a Quick Hook
Fredi Gonzalez has never been a great tactical manager, but Game 3 was about as aloof as he has been.
When it was clear Julio Teheran didn't have it, especially after a four-run second inning that gave the Dodgers a 4-2 lead, Gonzalez should have had someone warming up in the bullpen ready to go in the third inning.
The Braves came back to tie the game in the top half of the third inning, all the more reason to use that bullpen. Teheran was allowed to start the third inning, giving up four hits and two more runs before Gonzalez pulled him.
Gonzalez has to know that Kershaw is going to pitch one of the next two games, which makes it all the more crucial that you win Game 4.
I can't say that Atlanta's 'pen would have held down the Dodgers offense after the second inning, but there was no reason at all for Teheran to start the third inning. It would be a shock to see Garcia out there if he is laboring in the third inning, but now is not the time for a manager to be timid.
Don't Pitch to Hanley Ramirez
How will the NLDS between the Braves and Dodgers play out?
This is not advocating for an intentional walk every time he steps to the plate, but Hanley Ramirez has been the driving force for the Dodgers in the first three games of the series. He's hitting .538/.571/1.231 (7-for-13) with four doubles, one triple, one home run and scored or driven in 10 of the team's 22 runs.
It's not like the rest of the Dodgers lineup has stopped hitting, as it's gone 28-for-91 (.308) in the first three games of the series. But Ramirez is so far beyond where anyone else is right now that you want to force someone else to beat you.
Since the Braves aren't going to walk Ramirez every at-bat, the next best solution would be to ensure he's not coming up with runners on base. Carl Crawford and Mark Ellis hit directly in front of him. They have hit well so far, but no one thinks of them as dynamic on-base machines ready to carry the top of a lineup.
Of course, when you have Ramirez hitting one-handed home runs like the one you see below, it is hard to think that anyone could get him out right now.
Keep the Pitch Counts Rising
The Braves offense catches a lot of grief for racking up strikeouts like they are going out of style, but it's also adept at working counts and drawing walks. It finished second in the NL with 542 walks during the regular season.
Strikeouts don't have to be a bad thing because they force pitchers to work deeper counts and elevate their pitch totals, forcing the bullpen to get more outs in a game.
As Alex Speier of WEEI.com noted, the Braves were one of the best in baseball at getting pitchers out of the game before the fifth inning.
Top 5 teams in knocking out opposing SP in <5IP: Braves, Red Sox, Tigers, A's Reds. All made playoffs. A closer look: http://t.co/pSuqFCr0YY— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) October 7, 2013
They were able to get to Hyun-Jin Ryu on Sunday night, forcing Mattingly to make a change after three innings. Ricky Nolasco gets the Game 4 start for the Dodgers, coming off a September that was by far his worst month of the year with a 6.66 ERA and 33 hits allowed in 25.2 innings.
Then you have to move ahead to Game 5 with Kershaw on the mound. I don't know how you keep his pitch count rising because he didn't have his best stuff or command in Game 1 yet still managed to strike out 12 in seven innings with just three hits and three walks allowed.
But the key is to force the issue. Make the Dodgers bullpen work to beat you. It was able to do it on Sunday, thanks in large part to that offensive outburst. But there are only so many bullets in the chamber before relievers start showing cracks.
Brother, Can You Spare a Quality Start?
Admittedly, I am going to contradict myself here a little bit because I am going to talk about an Atlanta pitcher working deep into a game shortly after saying that Gonzalez has to have a quick hook with Garcia in Game 4.
Allow me to explain myself.
The Braves have had one game in this series where the starter lasted more than four innings. In the two games they have lost, the bullpen has thrown 10.1 innings, giving up nine runs with eight hits and three walks.
All season, the strength of the Braves has been their bullpen, which finished with a league-best 2.46 ERA. But we are seeing that depth is a problem, as it is for most teams. They are great when Craig Kimbrel, Jordan Walden and David Carpenter are in their set roles.
Unfortunately, when you are playing from behind, and needing to call on relievers so early in games, it is hard to set things up the way you want.
The Braves desperately need at least one great start from Garcia or Kris Medlen and one good-enough start (like five innings, three runs) in order to have a shot at winning this series.
If Garcia winds up turning in the great start, the world might stop spinning on its axis. Stranger things have happened, I think.
Show Us Your Power
While they can pile up the strikeouts in a hurry, the Braves offense is also capable of hitting a ton of home runs in a hurry. They aren't playing in the best offensive environment right now, but power will play anywhere.
Yet the Braves have mustered just one home run and three doubles in three games. This is a team that had eight players with at least 12 homers and led the NL with 181 during the regular season.
Atlanta is slugging .284 as a team in this series. When you aren't driving the ball and the pitching has been this shaky, it's amazing we are still talking about them as having a shot to play a Game 4.
The bad news for the Braves heading into Monday night is that Nolasco has allowed just six home runs in 87 innings as a Dodger and 17 in 199.1 innings all season.
This team was built to bludgeon opponents. It worked a lot during the regular season, to the tune of a 96-66 record and an NL East title. The Braves aren't going to play small ball, or whatever you want to call it, and win a lot of games.
All of these are great things to talk about, but it all comes down to execution. The Dodgers were always a dangerous team for anyone to play, especially because that top of the rotation is scary.
The Braves got to Zack Greinke in Game 2, which seemed to set them up nicely for, at worst, a final game back in Atlanta. Yet the pitching effort on Sunday was lacking, and the Dodgers have taken advantage of every break they have gotten.
Having to win just one game isn't that overwhelming, though having Garcia start what could be the final game of the season is far from ideal. Toss in Clayton Kershaw as the opposing pitcher in Game 5, if it gets that far, and things look even worse.
It's not impossible, but the Braves have to start showing the things that made them such a successful regular-season team. They need to hit home runs, get Nolasco out of the game early and find a starter who can eat some innings.
Do that, and they may find themselves playing in the NLCS.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.