Take the swing: Braves' ouster of 106-win Dodgers shows that October rewards ambition

He went up swinging, and he kept swinging. Eddie Rosario stepped in against Walker Buehler in the fourth inning with two runners on in an NLCS Game 6 tied at one. Met with a 93 mph cutter, he swung and missed for strike one.

The Atlanta Braves outfielder was the hottest hitter on the field, having batted .571 through the first five games of the NLCS with two homers and two four-hit games. Buehler, the 27-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, was wearing down, but also amped up.

Next pitch: Another 93 mph cutter. Another swing, foul tipped. Two strikes.

Neither Rosario nor Buehler were supposed to be here, per se. Rosario was the fourth outfielder Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos acquired in a July trade spree to restock a depleted lineup — a salary dump from Cleveland who came over while injured, for the cost of one soon-to-be-released Pablo Sandoval. Buehler was lined up to pitch a potential NLCS Game 7 on Sunday until the Dodgers’ elder ace, trade deadline headliner Max Scherzer, reported continuing arm fatigue. That left the Dodgers’ 106-win season on his shoulders — pitching on short rest for the second time this month and the second time of his major-league career.

Buehler was sticking to a clear game plan against the left-handed Rosario. Cutters inside, sinkers outside. Rosario fouled off a cutter, let one sinker go wide, then fouled off two more pitches to bring Buehler — who had eclipsed 225 total innings on the season — to his 70th pitch of the night.

The seventh pitch of the at-bat might have been the toughest, a 94 mph cutter bearing down and in, heading for that dangerous border of the strike zone. Rosario was swinging, of course.

Since breaking into the league in 2015, Rosario has swung about as often as any hitter in baseball — 56.5% of the pitches he sees, he goes after. The cost-benefit analysis of this tendency toward aggression is more complicated over years of competition and thousands of plate appearances, but in the playoffs its appeal becomes crystal clear: You never know which one might make the difference.

This was the one that made the difference. With a quick step and a slash of the bat, he sent the ball screaming into the right-field stands, the 88-win Braves to the World Series and the 106-win Dodgers into a disappointing winter.

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler watches Eddie Rosario's go-ahead homer sail into the stands in the Braves' NLCS Game 6 win.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler watches Eddie Rosario's go-ahead homer sail into the stands in the Braves' NLCS Game 6 win. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A star-studded Dodgers team falls

Recent vintage Dodgers teams have seemed designed to test the limits of how many great baseball players can be stuffed on to one team at the same time. Their architect, Andrew Friedman, has rewired the baseball world by taking constant swings.

A swing brought Mookie Betts to Los Angeles, and finally led to the team’s first World Series title in decades in the shortened 2020 season. They had previously taken big swings on Manny Machado, on Yu Darvish, on A.J. Pollock.

But it was the smaller, under-the-radar offerings that changed the game. When the Dodgers dealt a pitching prospect named Zach Lee to the Mariners for Chris Taylor in 2016, Taylor had scraped out three homers in 280 plate appearances at Triple-A that season. On Thursday night, he hit three in NLCS Game 5 to breathe life into the Dodgers’ title defense.

Taylor and Max Muncy are the poster boys of the Dodgers’ star factory, but there are examples up and down the roster of the swing-happy approach to team-building. Signing late-career Albert Pujols raised eyebrows, but in a more focused role, he scorched left-handed pitching and made the postseason roster. Buehler himself was something of a swing — he needed Tommy John surgery shortly after the Dodgers drafted him.

The 2021 season seemed like an opportunity for the Dodgers to begin building a gilded legacy for a golden era of teams. Over the winter, they signed controversial Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer to pad an already stacked starting rotation. It seemed extra, like a bit of a gaudy luxury.

A projected duel with the San Diego Padres quickly turned into a division chase that the San Francisco Giants were surprisingly winning. And the Bauer addition turned dark as he was placed on administrative leave amid sexual assault allegations.

Friedman and the Dodgers again went looking for the extra piece that would put them over the top. The search culminated in a mind-blowing deal with the Washington Nationals for Scherzer and Trea Turner — Cy Young and MVP candidates, respectively — that gave the Dodgers the undeniable air of an All-Star team.

They completed the season on a scorching two-month run, but never escaped the hamster wheel of chasing the Giants. When they finally knocked them off in NLDS Game 5, it was with a dramatic save from Scherzer — a move that wore him down heading into the NLCS.

Braves reliever Tyler Matzek pumps his fist in celebration after escaping a crucial jam in NLCS Game 6.
Braves reliever Tyler Matzek pumps his fist in celebration after escaping a crucial jam in NLCS Game 6. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

The optimism of the Braves' upset

The Braves’ swing at 2021 was nothing like the Dodgers’ dynasty grab, but it may have betrayed even more optimism.

Sitting at 51-54, Anthopoulos and the Braves added Rosario, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler on trade deadline day to go with earlier July acquisition Joc Pederson. By all accounts, they were just looking for a fighting chance in the NL East after losing MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. to a knee injury.

It worked. Soler thrived at the top of the order, the New York Mets collapsed, and Atlanta made the playoffs, even if it was with the worst record of any team still standing. They beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLDS and steeled themselves for a familiar foe. There was no month of the 2021 season where they were better than the Dodgers, but by refusing to give up on their team, Anthopoulos and company won entrance to the part of the schedule where the gulf between 106 wins and 88 wins effectively evaporates. You only have to be better for four games.

With three of those necessary wins already in the bag, and Rosario’s game-changing homer resonating around Atlanta in the middle of NLCS Game 6, Braves manager Brian Snitker dove into his bullpen. When the Dodgers were threatening most urgently, he called on Tyler Matzek.

The 31-year-old lefty signed with the Braves in 2019 in the midst of an arduous comeback from the yips. He returned to the majors in 2020 after more than five full years between big-league appearances. And on Saturday night, he flummoxed all six Dodgers he faced — striking out four, including Mookie Betts and Corey Seager. By the time he gave way to a pinch-hitter and Braves closer Will Smith, he had effectively driven a stake in the Dodgers’ hopes.

Though it won’t be of much comfort to the Dodgers as they return to L.A, with difficult decisions and no parade on the horizon, the triumphs of Rosario and Matzek validate casting an ever-widening net for difference-makers. Yes, the Dodgers’ ouster renders a stellar performance from baseball’s long, telling regular season effectively moot. But it also frames a more important endurance test — that of each team’s ambitions — as high drama with a real payoff.

The condensed jousting of October may not end up accurately reflecting the most talented or best team for history, but it provides the propulsion for the long summer months that make up the bulk of the sport. For four games, these Braves were better than these Dodgers. They get to take on the Houston Astros now in a World Series that requires no further narrative push.

Everyone else gets to make like Eddie Rosario and take a big swing at 2022, fueled by proof that it just might work out.