ARLINGTON, Texas – The moment of truth came early, at the top of the second. The Los Angeles Dodgers scored three first-inning runs, but the Atlanta Braves followed by loading bases with no exits. The history of sports is littered with moments like this – when the desperate team comes out hot, fades away when the opponent responds and never fully recovers. The man struggling to avoid that on Saturday afternoon was Walker Buehler. Early on, he knew his speed was not sharp. With the game in balance, threatening to be solved, Buehler knew what he had to do:
He needs to attack the best fastball-hitting baseball team using fastballs.
Of the 13 pitches that followed, 11 were four seamball fastballs. Everything was thrown 98 mph or higher. Four touched 99. Another reached 100. The result: strikeout, strikeout, groundout. The threat was neutralized. Weather protected.
“At the end of the day,” Buehler said, “that’s my best tone.”
The Dodgers, tested as if they hadn’t been all year, dominated everything on the line again, beating the Braves 3-1 in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. There will be Game 7. If the Dodgers get a third straight win, they will win from a deficit of only 13 baseball teams ever covered. And the only way they can – the only chance they have of navigating through small samples that tend to randomize outcomes at this time of year – is by believing who they are good enough to carry them through it. Later their talent will emerge. That they can do better than others.
Two nights ago, shortly after Game 4 losses put a notch in the Dodgers, a team text began as a way to enable players for the immense task that awaited them. Along the way, the Dodgers ’third baseman Justin Turner said, they began to embrace the challenge of doing something special. When Enrique Hernandez arrived at Globe Life Field on Saturday morning, less than 12 hours after a tiring, saving win in Game 5, he encountered the most energetic clubhouse he had ever experienced before a game day.
“We can embrace the situation, or we can pout and just go through the motions,” Hernandez said shortly afterwards. “That’s not what we’re going to do. We’re not going to make things easy. We’re still trying to win a World Series, and that’s still the goal. No one said it would be easy.”
Game 6 is definitely not.
It requires Buehler to blow the fastballs of a team that holds a major league best .960 OPS against fastballs at this time, in the most unpleasant situation imaginable. It required Blake Treinen to retire to Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, two of the top three baseball hitters by the weigh-in created in 2020, as they represented the tying run in the seventh round. It requires Mookie Betts saving a run with a leaping, twisting, full-extension catch up against the right-hand fence, his second game that changes the game over several days.
Mookie Betts let out a big scream after making a spectacular catch on the wall to rob Marcell Ozuna of extra bases.
And it asked Kenley Jansen to look for a version of himself that seemed to be gone.
Over the past few weeks, as the Dodgers management has explored alternative options in the ninth entry, teammates continue to encourage Jansen behind closed doors. With each turn – even though he was used to the sixth inning of a 14-run lead earlier this week – Roberts reiterated that Jansen would be counted on to record big releases for the rest of this month. With this, Jansen went on to try to bring back the upper half and the lower half. Phone calls with Charlie Hough and Rick Honeycutt, who have been building for 46 years in major leagues, have finally returned to the clean delivery of his boss.
In Game 4, after being released from the sidelines to maintain a four-run lead, Jansen glanced at his dugout with an intensity rarely seen.
In Game 5, after only needing six pitches to record three outs, he did it again.
“You just see the confidence he has in the pile, attacking people,” Turner said. “That was Kenley Jansen I knew and I loved and we were all there.”
The top of the ninth started with Joc Pederson making a wide catch. Think about it for a moment. Pederson, not known for his defense by any stretch, entered the game to pinch-hit under the eighth because the Dodgers were desperate to run in the running. He just stayed there because Chris Taylor’s right ankle was still sore to play defense, and he still charged towards a sinking line drive to make an unlikely play that changed over the course of the whole that precaution and, thus, the entire Dodgers season.
Moments like this are everywhere now.
These are when Corey Seager makes a point to find Max Fried’s curveball early and launches a first-inning home run, his fifth of this series.
These were when Peter Baez threw a right-to-right change to capture a nine-on-bat pitch with a Travis d’Arnaud strikeout, setting the tone for a critical eighth inning.
These are when Buehler, admittedly more calm than he felt building a baseball game, reached out, let go and trusted, whatever the moment, that his best was better than theirs.
“I failed in those moments,” Buehler said of the second-inning, bases full of that basin – two years after the second precaution, bases full of jam in his posteason debut that resulted in a grand slam of Ronald Acuna
“I can handle that failure. I went through it, and I became good after that. I am no longer afraid of that failure.”
His teammates seem to be on the same level, not afraid of what to bring in the next game.