Dodgers' World Series championship reign ends in NLCS loss to Braves

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Atlanta, GA - October 23: Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts reacts after striking out during the seventh inning.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts walks back to the dugout after striking out in the seventh inning of a season-ending 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the NLCS at Truist Park on Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers’ season effectively ended in the seventh inning Saturday night at Truist Park. It happened with runners at second and third, stranded there after Atlanta Braves left-hander Tyler Matzek mowed through three hitters.

It happened in fitting fashion, with the Dodgers unable to capitalize on a prime scoring opportunity in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

When the sequence was over, after Albert Pujols, Steven Souza Jr. and Mookie Betts struck out in succession, Matzek pumped his fist twice. He leaped and he howled. The Dodgers had six outs left to erase a two-run deficit, but their World Series hopes were effectively extinguished there, without putting a ball in play, en route to a season-ending, 4-2 defeat.

The result will be remembered as a stunning conclusion. The Dodgers won 106 games during the regular season, matching the franchise record and 18 more than the Braves. Their payroll was $100 million more expensive than Atlanta’s operation. They were the clear favorites to claim back-to-back championships for the first time in franchise history after surviving the division series against the San Francisco Giants, the only team in the majors with more wins during the regular season.

They entered Saturday on a seven-game win streak in elimination games, a run they started when they rallied from a 3-1 hole in the NLCS against the Braves a year ago. But these Dodgers were drained and shorthanded. The gas tank was running on empty, and the Braves were just better.

The Braves surmounted the odds to reach the World Series for the first time since 1999. They’ll look for their first championship since 1995 against the Houston Astros while the Dodgers head into an uncertain offseason.

“The six years that I’ve been here it’s been a core group of guys that potentially could be turned over this winter,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I’m not looking forward to it. They're great players and great men and I wish we could have won another one with this group.”

The Dodgers’ quest for a repeat title ceased with Walker Buehler thrust into pitching on short rest for the second time in 12 days after Max Scherzer declared himself not ready to take the mound. It was stopped with Eddie Rosario, the series most valuable player, tormenting them again with a go-ahead, three-run home run in the fourth inning. It ended with the Dodgers going two for 10 with runners in scoring position. It happened when Matzek took the mound to face Pujols.

Matzek was summoned to pitch for the fifth time in the series to play fireman. Luke Jackson, who gave up Cody Bellinger’s game-tying, three-run home run in Game 3, had surrendered a run on two doubles and a walk to give the Dodgers life. Braves manager Brian Snitker wasn’t taking chances. He went to the left-handed Matzek even with Albert Pujols, a masher of left-handers, up next. He determined Matzek was his best choice.

Snitker’s aggressiveness was in contrast to Roberts’ decision-making in the fourth inning. Roberts chose to keep Buehler, a right-hander, in the game to face the left-handed-hitting Rosario. The seventh pitch of the at-bat landed over the brick wall in right field for the Braves’ most important hit in 20 years to break a 1-1 tie.

Matzek needed four pitches to discard Pujols. In years past, the Dodgers would’ve followed him with a dangerous threat off the bench. This year their bench wasn’t the same, evidenced by Souza, a veteran signed in late May to address their lack of depth, being used in one of the season’s most important spots. He also struck out on four pitches. Matzek needed just three for Betts.

“His fastball is an elite fastball,” Betts said of Matzek. “When you pair it with a really good breaking ball, the combination shut us down every time. I know he shut me down. So just have to tip my cap to him.”

On a day when he was supposed to take the mound to help save the Dodgers’ season, Scherzer told reporters he didn’t start because he’s too fatigued.

Scherzer cited “general muscle soreness” as the reason why he was scratched from his scheduled start Saturday. He maintained he isn’t dealing with an injury. He said there isn’t any structural damage in his arm. The impending free agent said he just didn’t rebound from the “dead arm” he experienced in Game 2 last Sunday in time to pitch Saturday.

“I just wasn’t recovering,” Scherzer said. “I got to basically Day 4 and it felt like Day 1 still.”

Scherzer, 37, said the fatigue was a cumulation of his workload, which included a one-inning relief appearance closing out Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants. Scherzer said he didn’t regret telling the team he was available that night. He was expected to pitch, in some capacity, Sunday if there was a Game 7. But he watched the Dodgers’ season end from the visiting dugout Saturday.

The Braves opened the scoring with a two-out 1-2 punch in the first inning. Freddie Freeman had grounded into a double play when Ozzie Albies lined a double.

Austin Riley then traded places with him, smacking a slider for an RBI, ground-rule double. It was the only run the Braves scored in the inning, but they squared up Buehler. Four of the five balls they put in play had exit velocities of at least 97 mph.

Buehler navigated the next two innings without giving up a run. That changed in fourth, and again with two outs. Travis d’Arnaud initiated the rally with a walk. Snitker then had Ehire Adrianza pinch-hit for pitcher Ian Anderson.

Adrianza hadn’t recorded a hit in 22 days, and Braves pinch-hitters were 0 for 11 in the series when he stepped in the batter’s box. Both skids were snapped on the second pitch when Adrianza lined the second pitch down the right-field line for a double.

D’Arnaud had a chance to score from first, but third base coach Ron Washington, known for a liberal green light, held him up. It was on Rosario to make sure the choice wouldn’t be remembered as a season-changing mistake.

Left-hander Alex Vesia was warming in the Dodgers’ bullpen. Having him face Rosario, a left-handed hitter, would’ve given the Dodgers a more favorable matchup. But Roberts had Buehler face the hottest hitter on the planet.

“I just felt in that moment he was the best option,” Roberts said.

The decision to stick with Buehler appeared to be a good one to start. Rosario fell behind in the count 0-and-2 on two cutters. But he wouldn’t go away. Buehler tried sneaking another cutter by him and Rosario fouled it off. Then he took a sinker for a ball. Then he fouled off a cutter and a sinker.

Buehler’s strategy was obvious. He was going to attack Rosario with hard stuff. The plan backfired. Rosario clobbered a cutter to spark madness. He faced the Braves’ dugout and hopped down the first-base line, pounding his chest. The blast was Rosario’s third home run and 14th hit of the series, matching the major league record by a player in any postseason series.

“Rosario is obviously kind of on a different planet right now,” Buehler said.

Three innings later, Matzek was the one celebrating when he fired a 98-mph fastball past Betts. All Betts could do was shake his head.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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