Freddie Freeman annihilated a ball into the Chop House. While jogging to first base, he clenched both fists, looked over to the Braves dugout and unprecedentedly unleashed previously restrained emotions with a celebratory cheer.
He’d waited five years for a chance to restore hope to the Braves faithful. The biggest hit of his career came against Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood, his good friend and former teammate who hadn’t allowed a homer to a left-hander prior to the at-bat (168 plate appearances).
Freeman’s first-pitch shot spared the Braves of disaster. They defeated the Dodgers, 6-5, extending the National League Division Series to Game 4 and winning the first postseason game in SunTrust Park history.
» Game 4: Braves give Foltynewicz another chance
“We approached this game where there may be no tomorrow, and we gotta play it like that,” manager Brian Snitker said. “And (that’s) kind of what we did.”
The Braves squandered a 5-0 lead within three innings. The Dodgers recaptured momentum. The Braves were shuffling in pitcher after pitcher fighting for their lives.
“The biggest game of our lives was tonight, and obviously seeing the five-run lead go away was not ideal, but we held it at 5-5, so we knew we had a chance,” he said. “And this team's been doing it all year. When we get down, we come back, and hit it right back in that sixth inning. It wasn't what we wanted. But we're happy to get the win in this kind of fashion.”
Sunday was the first signs of life from the Braves’ offense, which saw just two runners reach third in the first pair of games. They shifted from their aggressive approach in the second frame.
Dodgers rookie starter Walker Buehler lost control of the zone, evidently disrupted by the ear-splitting “chop chants” serenading the Braves’ first playoff game at their new(ish) home.
Nick Markakis opened the frame with a walk before Johan Camargo and Kurt Suzuki struck out. Ozzie Albies singled and forced Buehler to walk Charlie Culberson to face pitcher Sean Newcomb. Newcomb stood still as Buehler threw four straight balls, plating the Braves’ first run of the series.
“I mean it was obvious that (Buehler) was having a hard time zoning things in,” Snitker said. “And guys sense that on pitchers, I think in certain situations.”
On a 3-0 count with the bases still full, Ronald Acuna withdrew his bat as Buehler bulleted a pitch noticeably above the strike zone. Home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom incorrectly ruled it a strike, extending Acuna’s at-bat.
For the Braves, it’s a good thing he did. Acuna skied the next pitch into the left-field seats, erupting a sold-out SunTrust Park and freeing the Braves of their lackadaisical offensive outputs.
“He’s special,” Suzuki said. “That’s the bottom line. He’s special. You’ve seen it for most of the year. ... The guy has been our spark plug since he’s been up. I expect that out of him now.”
Acuna, 20, became the youngest player in postseason history to hit a grand slam, surpassing a 21-year-old Mickey Mantle in the 1953 World Series. Acuna admitted afterwards he surprisingly wasn’t aware of Mantle, citing his age. Freeman added he’ll teach Acuna a little about the Hall of Fame switch-hitter.
Nonetheless, the budding star had his first signature October moment.
“I guess I have to rank it first of all the moments just because it happened in the playoffs,” he said through an interpreter. “And to be honest, that's what we've been working for this entire time since spring training trying get to the playoffs, and I guess the severity of the situation that it happened. That's why I put it No. 1. We're just trying to keep working hard and maintain the way we're going right now.”
There wasn’t to be a simplistic ending. Arodys Vizcaino surrendered a single and walk to begin the ninth. He struck out the next three, including the threatening Manny Machado, who looked foolish chasing an out-of-zone slider.
“I faced him in Los Angeles and I think I threw three sliders at him last time,” Vizcaino said through an interpreter. “I think he came up looking for a slider, so it helped me. I used my fastball then used that to my advantage and finished him on the slider.”
Newcomb started the game, providing two scoreless with the help of a couple double plays, including one via former Brave Matt Kemp. He issued a lead-off walk to Kike Hernandez in the third. He retired the next two before walking Chris Taylor, prompting Snitker to unlock his bullpen.
“I said (to Newcomb) that was a great job because you did exactly -- we needed you to start the game, get the thing in the air and then we'll take it from there and he did a good job,” Snitker said.
In came Kevin Gausman, initially projected as the Game 3 starter before the Braves shifted to Newcomb. Justin Turner singled on the fifth pitch of the ensuing at-bat, and the ball skated by Acuna. The hit and error plated the Dodgers’ first two runs.
After a clean fourth, Gausman collapsed in the fifth. It began with another leadoff walk, this time Yasmani Grandal, and Taylor’s home run pulled the Dodgers within a run. The Braves turned to lefty Max Fried, who served a hanging curveball to slugger Max Muncy, resulting in a tied game.
Just like that, the energy at SunTrust Park was sapped. A night which began with Chipper Jones’ ceremonial first pitch and Hank Aaron’s “Let’s play ball” had seemingly windswept into another edition of Atlanta sports futility.
But Freeman shouldered the weight of the franchise, homering in the sixth to keep the Braves alive for another day - and displaying an emotional side he rarely reveals.
“I don't really know what happened,” he said. “They showed me the replay after the game, and I guess I was pretty excited after I hit it. I am not one, but that was a big moment, put us ahead, so kind of emotions took over.”
Freeman has been the franchise’s MVP since Jones passed the torch. It’s only appropriate he awarded the city its first postseason win at SunTrust.
“It makes sense. That’s how you write it up,” Culberson said. “He doesn’t show emotion, and when he hit it, obviously he knew it was out and he yelled toward the dugout. I think he got us all fired up. It couldn’t have happened to a better person.”
Snitker added, “It's always him. He's the guy that we count on. I'm happy for him that he could provide that.”
Freeman and Acuna will need an encore, perhaps two, to continue the NLDS. The Braves, trailing the best-of-five series 2-1, will host Game 4 Monday afternoon, and a victory would send them back to Los Angeles for a winner-take-all Game 5.
Mike Foltynewicz will start Game 4 on short rest. He lasted just two innings in Game 1, so this marks an opportunity for redemption. The Braves’ season counts on it.
“I know tomorrow we’re going to see the best Folty we’ve seen all year,” outfielder Ender inciarte said. “He’s got that type of blood and he’s going to bring it tomorrow. I’m trusting him 100 percent.”