Atlanta lost its best player to a nasty knee injury in July, and probably the most exciting thing about its activity at the trade deadline is that they dealt away a former World Series MVP. In theory, not the best recipe for success.
Yet, there's Atlanta on its way to its first World Series since 1999 after winning the National League Championship Series over a team that ranked first in payroll and second in wins during the 2021 regular season. And it has an awful lot to do with the guy who came back in the aforementioned trade.
On July 30, Eddie Rosario was a struggling outfield on the injured list with a strained abdominal muscle. As of Oct. 23, he's the NLCS MVP after collecting 14 hits in the series, including a three-run home run that proved to be the dagger in Atlanta's 4-2 win in Game 6 on Saturday.
Inasmuch as any pennant-winning team can possibly be diminished, really the only way to diminish Atlanta's victory is to point out that they beat a Dodgers club that was far from at full strength. Because of this, the Dodgers and all those who bleed their distinct color of blue will inevitably look back at 2021 and wonder what might have been.
Regardless, let there be no question that the better team won the NLCS. And at least until the Fall Classic begins on Tuesday, that's the only thing that matters right now.
Atlanta Players of the Game
- LF Eddie Rosario: 2-for-4, 1 BB, 1 HR, 1 R, 3 RBI. The veteran finished with 14 hits in the NLCS, tying a postseason record for a single series. That plus three homers and a walk-off hit in Game 2 will win you a series MVP.
- RHP Ian Anderson: 4.0 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 4 K. The rookie wasn't great, but he was about as good as manager Brian Snitker needed him to be before turning things over to his well-rested bullpen.
- LHP Tyler Matzek: 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 4 K. Now, this guy. He was straight-up great, especially in the seventh inning, which we'll discuss in more detail shortly.
Dodgers Players of the Game
- CF Cody Bellinger and LF AJ Pollock: On an otherwise quiet night for the Dodgers offense, they brought home the club's only runs on an RBI single and RBI double, respectively.
- RHP Kenley Jansen: 1.0 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 0 R, 2 K. In what could be his final appearance with the Dodgers, he came through with a scoreless ninth inning that kept his team in the game.
This Series Was Pretty Much All Atlanta
Lest Rosario gets all the glory, his series-clinching home run was but one of two significant turning points in Game 6.
The other one was in the seventh inning when Atlanta found its lead in peril after Pollock's run-scoring double also put runners at second and third with nobody out. After giving Luke Jackson the hook, Snitker placed the monumental task of getting out of the inning on Matzek's shoulders.
Spoiler alert: The burly left-hander didn't allow another Dodger to put a ball in play that inning.
According to FanGraphs, Matzek's pitching alone lifted Atlanta's win expectancy from just 55 percent to 88 percent. And that was pretty much that, as the Dodgers failed to produce another threat in the eighth or the ninth.
More broadly, Matzek's electric performance didn't just save Atlanta from the kind of heartbreak that local sports fans have become all too familiar with in recent years. It also effectively secured the NLCS as one of the more dominant efforts in the Atlanta organization's history.
Though the books will show that Atlanta had two bad games in the NLCS, it was really more like one bad game and one bad inning. Yes, Game 5 at Dodger Stadium was an 11-2 blowout. But the only other loss that Atlanta incurred in Game 3 was borne from a four-run eighth. Snitker's guys barely had a chance to recover before the game was over.
This is not what was expected from this series, and for understandable reasons. Atlanta had won 18 fewer games than the Dodgers during the regular season and, while its win over the 95-win Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS was impressive, the Dodgers did one better by dispatching a 107-win team in the San Francisco Giants.
It's not, however, as if Atlanta backed into the playoffs. It burst into the postseason with 12 wins in its last 14 games and 36 out of 54 overall, dating back to Aug. 3. It thus hasn't so much gotten hot as, you know, stayed hot.
Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay Atlanta right now is that one doesn't actually need to wonder how much better it would be right now if Ronald Acuna Jr. hadn't torn his ACL just before the All-Star break.
This is indeed an especially dangerous offense, even without his MVP-caliber bat. To wit, Atlanta co-led the National League with the Dodgers in home runs after Aug. 3. And while it didn't win the home run battle in the NLCS, Atlanta's offense thoroughly outclassed its Los Angeles counterpart in hitting with runners in scoring position.
Though it was Rosario and reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman who did most of the hitting in the NLCS, it's likely just a matter of time before incumbent sluggers Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson and deadline newcomers Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler are heard from again in the World Series.
On the mound, Max Fried's stinker in Game 5 of the NLCS is the only real postseason dud between him and fellow aces Anderson and Charlie Morton. And apart from Jackson's meltdown in Game 3, Matzek and the rest of Atlanta's bullpen have been absolute nails of late.
In the Houston Astros, Atlanta is about to face a team that's fresh off a 95-win season and is playing in its third World Series in the last five years. Which is to say, Atlanta is going to be an underdog again.
But as Snitker's club knows all too well right now, even underdogs can slay dragons. So, why not add one more to the heap?
The Shorthanded Dodgers Just Couldn't Get It Done
For the Dodgers, this one hurts. Not only figuratively but quite literally in some cases.
To be sure, it's a tad silly to make excuses for a team that spent $267 million on the payroll only to become the 21st consecutive reigning champion to fail to make it two World Series wins in a row. But let's be real. After losing Clayton Kershaw and Max Muncy to injuries late in the season and then Justin Turner and Joe Kelly to their own injuries during the postseason, the Dodgers basically had no margin for error going into Game 6.
However, their loss and earlier than anticipated exit from the playoffs was also largely self-inflicted.
In spite of occasional flashes of brilliance, Mookie Betts' postseason was very much like his regular season in that he just wasn't the difference-maker that he is when he's at his best. Trea Turner was cold throughout, as was Corey Seager, apart from a couple of home runs.
Those guys' struggles shifted too much slack into the hands of the Dodgers' supporting cast. It's to Chris Taylor's, AJ Pollock's and especially Cody Bellinger's credit that they met the challenge as well as they did, but it ultimately wasn't enough.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, meanwhile, deserves all the hard questions he's going to get about how he deployed his pitchers.
Aces Max Scherzer and Julio Urias just weren't the same after working in relief in Game 5 of the NLDS and Game 2 of the NLCS, respectively. And after the former had to be scratched from starting Game 6 with a dead arm, Roberts took an arguably unnecessary risk by starting a wavering Walker Buehler on three days' rest for the second time in less than two weeks.
As for Buehler himself, the world would like to know what the heck he was thinking with the baffling sequence of pitches that preceded Rosario's home run:
In context of all this, there's no saying that the Dodgers lost a series they should have won. They were shorthanded, sure, but they simply misplayed the hand they were dealt.
Particularly in light of their seemingly infinite supply of resources, the usual line here is that the Dodgers will be back. But that's actually taking a lot for granted. As talented as they are and will remain in 2022, between now and then they'll need to either re-sign or replace Seager, Scherzer, Kershaw, Jansen and Taylor in free agency.
So if the Dodgers do want to be back, they'd better get busy.
What's Next for Atlanta
It's on to Houston for Atlanta, where it will face the Astros in Game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park. The first pitch is scheduled for 8:09 p.m. ET.
No matter what happens in the first two games, the World Series will shift back to Truist Park in Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday.