Heading into the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 3 of the 2021 NLCS, it felt like the series was over.
The Atlanta Braves were ahead 2-0 in the series and led 5-2 in the game. Luke Jackson (1.98 ERA during the regular season) and Will Smith (five scoreless innings of work thus far this postseason) were lined up to finish things off. And despite a payroll almost identical to five entire Baltimore Orioles rosters, the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn't buy a clutch hit all series, sitting at 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position through the first 25 innings of the series.
Coming back from the commercial break, TBS showed Dodgers fans streaming out of the parking lot, determined to not add two hours of sitting in traffic to the already infuriating nearly four hours of watching their team accomplish nothing aside from the Corey Seager home run in the first inning.
And then with one swing of Cody Bellinger's bat, everything changed.
Instead of being down 3-0 and staring an "only the 2004 Boston Red Sox have ever done it" proposition square in the face, the Dodgers are not only right back in this series, but they feel like the favorites once again.
Dodgers Players of the Game
1B Cody Bellinger: 1-for-3, 1 HR, 1 R, 3 RBI, 1 BB. Not even two weeks removed from Chris Taylor snapping out of an 8-for-73 skid with a walk-off two-run blast to win the NL Wild Card Game, it was Bellinger's turn to be the unlikely hero. He hit .165 during the regular season and had hit just one home run over his previous 48 games, but he annihilated an elevated fastball from Jackson to tie the game up at 5-5 in the bottom of the eighth inning.
RF Mookie Betts: 2-for-3, 1 R, 1 RBI, 2 BB, 1 2B, 1 SB. Bellinger's blast was the game-changer, but it merely tied the score. The Dodgers still needed Betts' clutch two-out, opposite-field RBI double to take the lead.
The Entire Dadgum Bullpen: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, 9 K. The Braves got walk-off wins against the bullpen in Games 1 and 2, but those relievers were the pre-Bellinger heroes of Game 3. Alex Vesia got out of the bases-loaded jam in relief of Walker Buehler in the fourth inning. The Braves stranded runners in scoring position in each of the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth innings. And then Kenley Jansen made things very uneventful in the ninth with three straight strikeouts.
Braves Players of the Game
1B Freddie Freeman: 3-for-4, 1 R, 1 BB. The Dodgers were committed to pitching Freeman away all night long, and he just went with it, dropping three opposite-field singles into left field. He led off Atlanta's big fourth inning with one of those hits, although his lone failed AB was the aforementioned Vesia out with the bases loaded.
SP Charlie Morton: 5.0 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 6 BB, 5 K. It wasn't a gem by any stretch of the imagination, but Morton—despite six walks—did a sensational job of limiting the damage. The first two Dodgers batters scored, and he shut them out from that point forward. He also struck out Corey Seager twice after Seager mashed that first-inning hanging curveball a mile to dead center.
Dodgers Rallied from a Brutal 4th Inning
Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler was dealing early. Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman led the game off with back-to-back singles, but Ozzie Albies lining into a double play to center field got Buehler into a groove. He subsequently fanned Austin Riley and made it through the next two innings with just one walk allowed.
It seemed like he was going to cruise at least into the sixth inning...right up until the wheels fell all the way off in the top of the fourth.
The Braves didn't hit Buehler hard, but they had some incredible luck.
Freeman led off the inning with a line drive directly to where a shortstop would normally be positioned. Because the Dodgers were in a shift, though, no one was anywhere close to fielding that single into left.
After an Albies flyout, Austin Riley lifted one to deep center where notably-inexperienced-at-that-position Gavin Lux was playing. Prior to Game 4 of the NLDS against San Francisco, Lux had played just 45.1 innings in center field in his MLB career, and it showed when he dropped a fly ball close to the wall. The scorekeeper somehow ruled it a double instead of an error, but that's a catch that an experienced center fielder makes probably 98 times out of 100.
The next man up was Joc Pederson, and home plate ump Jerry Meals made a terrible call on what should have been strike three. Instead, his AB continued and so did "Joctober" with an RBI single to right.
After that, Buehler got Adam Duvall to hack at a slider more than a foot off the plate, but he still managed to get a broken-bat single to left.
By that point, Buehler was understandably and visibly frustrated. He should have been out of the inning multiple times over. Instead, there was only one out and he started forcing the issue, resulting in a four-pitch walk to Travis d'Arnaud. After Corey Seager booted a tough but playable grounder from Dansby Swanson's bat, Buehler struck out Morton before yet another four-pitch walk, this one to Rosario with an RBI attached.
It was just 20 consecutive minutes of Dodgers fans wondering what else could possibly go wrong.
Atlanta only scored four runs in the inning, but it felt like 10, and it sucked all the energy out of the stadium.
Los Angeles didn't even threaten to make things interesting again until the eighth inning, when it pulled off what MLB.com's Sarah Langs said was its first such comeback in the postseason in many tries:
Fans in Atlanta Know This Feeling All Too Well
One could write a many-paged book chronicling all of the ways in which the professional sports franchises from Atlanta have broken the hearts of that city over and over again in the postseason.
Even if the Braves had won this game to take a 3-0 lead, there still would have been a distinct mixture of fear and dread in the cocktail of emotions for fans heading into Game 4.
After all, Los Angeles entered the night with a 17-1 record at home dating back to August 30, which began with a three-game sweep of the Braves.
In slightly less recent history, the Braves blew a 3-1 series lead against the Dodgers in this exact same spot one year ago.
And that probably wasn't even a top-10 collapse in Atlanta history, where even the most optimistic fans are now ingrained with a twinge of "I'll believe it when it actually happens" any time things start looking promising.
Blowing a 3-0 series lead was always going to feel like a possibility.
But now, blowing this 2-0 lead and turning Bellinger's gut punch into a week-long stomach pain almost feels inevitable.
The Dodgers, who are now 61-24 at home in 2021, have two more at Dodger Stadium before—provided they don't need to use him as a reliever in Games 4 or 5—getting Max Scherzer back on the mound for Game 6 in Atlanta.
Maybe the Braves can steal one of those three games, but probably not two. They're going to be a considerable underdog for each of the next three contests. And if this series does go to seven games, it's really just a question of when and how Los Angeles rips out Atlanta's heart in that one.
Speaking as a Washington Nationals fan, though, chin up, OK? Anything is possible, you guys.
Two years ago, the Dodgers went 59-22 at home during the regular season. Only the Houston Astros were better at 60-21. And yet the Nats—hailing from what was also quite the tortured city for fans up until that point—won six consecutive road games against those two juggernauts to win the World Series.
What's Next for the Braves and Dodgers?
Game 4 is scheduled for an 8:08 p.m. ET first pitch on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. The home team will have Julio Urias on the mound while the visitors are lining up for a bullpen game.
If Atlanta is going to steal one in L.A., it would most likely come in Game 5 on Thursday when those roles are reversed. Assuming a repeat of Game 1, it would be Max Fried (6.0 IP, 2 ER on Saturday) for the Braves and a bullpen game for the Dodgers.