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Manny Machado's concussive blow helps Dodgers finish off Braves in NLDS

Manny Machado's concussive blow helps Dodgers finish off Braves in NLDS
Shortstop Manny Machado hits a three-run home run to help the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves and clinch a National League Division Series. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Baseball is not predicated on violence. The sport revolves around grace and grit, subtlety and subterfuge, deception and dexterity. The game does not celebrate the brutal.

Yet, there is no other way to describe what transpired in the seventh inning Monday. Manny Machado committed a violent act against a baseball, unleashing all his frustration and force on a 95-mph fastball, launching a concussive, three-run home run as the Dodgers finished off Atlanta in Game 4 of a National League Division Series with a 6-2 victory.

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The blast stunned SunTrust Park and delighted the Dodgers. In the dugout, Rich Hill gasped. Clayton Kershaw skipped. Cody Bellinger held his arms aloft. Machado popped a wad of gum before rounding the bases. A parade of hitters climbed the steps to greet him.

“Get that money,” Joc Pederson said. “Get that money.”

Over the offseason, when Machado dives into free agency, his net worth will expand. For now, he still can play a prominent role in the Dodgers’ pursuit of a championship. For the fourth time in six seasons, the team will compete in the National League Championship Series. Milwaukee hosts Game 1 on Friday.

To get there, the Dodgers bullied a youthful Braves team by a collective score of 21-8. They rebounded from a shaky outing by Walker Buehler in Game 3 on Sunday to clinch Monday. David Freese supplied a go-ahead, two-run single in the sixth inning. Machado unloaded on reliever Chad Sobotka an inning later to pad the lead. It was Machado’s third hit of the series: a two-run home run in Game 2, a run-scoring double Monday and the seventh-inning home run.

“You look back at this series, his two homers essentially led us to two wins,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We have a lot of good players, but I can't say enough about his focus and preparedness.”

The bullpen endured stress in the eighth inning, when Kenta Maeda put two men on base, but closed the show without drama. Kenley Jansen struck out first baseman Freddie Freeman to end the game. In the clubhouse, Jansen grabbed a bottle of champagne and removed a commemorative cap from Machado’s head.

“Hey, my cornrows, man,” Machado said in protest as the champagne soaked him. “My cornrows.”

“Get another one,” Jansen said. “Get another one.”

The clubhouse conducted its third champagne celebration in 10 days. Kershaw expressed happiness about starting Game 1 of the NLCS (unlike his Game 2 assignment in this series). Yasiel Puig flung ice chips. Yasmani Grandal soaked Will Ireton, Maeda’s interpreter. Chase Utley poured a stream of beer down Justin Turner’s neck.

Machado stood in the center of the room and captured the scene with his phone. He absorbed alcohol sprays from Puig and Matt Kemp. Machado had spent his tenure as a Dodger searching for a signature moment. This series exemplified the challenge of his mission: His talent can be so overwhelming that his lapses loom larger.

In Game 3, Machado went hitless, including two strikeouts, as the team failed to close out a sweep. Machado was undaunted. He insisted that the Dodgers played “a great game” and did not feel compelled to make significant adjustments.

“Baseball is easy, you know,” Machado said. “I mean, if you make it complicated, it's going to be complicated.”

His words related to the strategy of the game, rather than the difficulty of it, although his ability allows him to hover above the plane of his peers.

“He’s a freak,” Bellinger said.

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Hitting coach Turner Ward ticked off the attributes that distinguish Machado: Elite hand-eye coordination, a simple swing path, an ideal launch angle.

“The biggest thing with him is him not trying to do too much,” Ward said. “Because he is so good, so talented.”

As Machado sputtered through portions of the summer, team officials diagnosed an eagerness to impress as his chief idiosyncrasy. They hoped that might explain the disparity in his production. With the Baltimore Orioles this season, Machado hit .315 with a .963 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. After joining the Dodgers on July 18, he hit .273 with an .825 OPS. His strikeouts increased and his walks decreased.

His relative struggles fueled the perception in the industry that Machado coasts through games, relying on his skills to carry him. He has dealt with this charge throughout his career, and it has not fazed him. His perspective allows him to purge failure, rather ruminate on it.

“He’s just unflappable,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said.

Machado had an opportunity to display this quality Monday. The Dodgers faced a misaligned pitcher. Mike Foltynewicz lasted only two innings in Game 1 and returned to start on three days of rest for the first time in his career. His command wavered at the start, issuing a two-out walk to Max Muncy in the first inning.

Machado did not wait for a hitter’s count. He cracked a first-pitch double down the third base line. Muncy pumped his arms as he rounded second base, eyes up to catch the sign for home from third base coach Chris Woodward.

In the fourth inning, the inability of Hill to link up with umpire Tom Hallion’s zone proved problematic. Hill issued consecutive walks to start the frame. In both at-bats, Hallion refused to give Hill credit for curveballs that nipped the top of the zone. After the runners were bunted into scoring position, pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki lined a curveball into left field for a two-run single.

Machado made a mistake in the fifth. Hill departed with one out and the bases loaded when Machado fumbled a grounder. Down a run, Ryan Madson doused the flames, which set the table for the flurry in the sixth and the seventh innings.

Freese came off the bench to put the Dodgers in front. He arrived with two runners in scoring position. Reliever Brad Brach tried a full-count, 96-mph fastball. Freese stroked a two-run single up the middle to put the Dodgers back in front.

“If you don’t try and do too much,” Freese said, “balls can squeak through.”

The hit took the crowd out of the game. The next inning left them stunned. The table was set with a single by Turner and a walk by Muncy. The exit velocity on Machado’s home run was 109 mph. Machado circled the bases at a slower trot than that, indulging in his achievement.

“I didn’t feel anything,” Machado said. “As soon as I hit it, it was out. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”

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