Max Muncy watched only a handful of Dodgers games last October. He had spent the season as a member of the Dodgers organization, but not a day as a Dodger. Unable to earn a promotion from triple-A Oklahoma City, Muncy was unsure if he would re-sign over the winter. If the playoffs aired early in the day, he caught snippets at his home outside Dallas. He skipped the late-night drama of the pennant chase.
A year later, as the lights flickered over Dodger Stadium for the first postseason game of 2018, Muncy occupied his regular place in the center of the Dodgers lineup. He had traveled from a minor league obscurity to the cornerstone of a big league lineup, and he played an integral role in a 6-0 drubbing of the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, as a collection of overshadowed figures from last season shared the spotlight.
“It was a very good team last year, and they brought back almost all of the same guys,” Muncy said. “To be able to fit into the middle of it, it’s really exciting.”
Marooned in the minors in 2017, Muncy launched a three-run homer in the second inning as the Dodgers ambushed Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz. Left off the postseason roster last October, Hyun-Jin Ryu delivered seven innings of blemish-free brilliance. Absent from the 2017 NLDS roster, Joc Pederson led off Thursday with a homer. Considered dangerous only against left-handed pitchers in the past, Enrique Hernandez added a solo shot of his own in the sixth — and he did it against a right-hander.
The depth of the Dodgers overwhelmed the Braves, the NL East champions. And their starting pitcher anesthetized Atlanta’s bats. Ryu started in place of Clayton Kershaw, who was holstered until Game 2. Ryu yielded four singles and struck out eight. He did not permit a Brave to stand on third base.
“We’re playing really good baseball,” manager Dave Roberts said. “All of September, we’ve come together — offensively, defensively, starting pitching, the ’pen — and this is when you want to play your best baseball.”
Muncy personified the team’s offensive approach Thursday. He surrounded his homer with a trio of walks. He continued his success from the regular season, when he led the offense in home runs (35), walks (79) and slugging percentage (.582). “Just understanding the value of not making an out — I think he understands that, and his ability to see the ball out of the hand is pretty special,” Roberts said.
As a group, the Dodgers lineup can be maddening to watch. The lineup led the league in homers, yet rated less lethal with men in scoring position. They strand runners. They swing and miss. They squander opportunities.
And yet they are a debilitating bunch. They bleed pitchers. In Game 1, Foltynewicz needed 28 pitches to collect three outs. He lasted only two innings.
“Our objective every night is to make that starting pitcher work, and see how early we can get to the bullpen,” Hernandez said. “Tonight they had their horse going, and we were able to get him out of there.”
The victory eased the Dodgers’ path to the next round. Kershaw will start Friday against veteran Anibal Sanchez. The team got through Thursday without utilizing shaky closer Kenley Jansen, who will not be leaned upon like he was in 2017. And the Dodgers experienced no consequences for their decision to go with Ryu to start the series.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ryu stopped by the ballpark for a workout. He expected to pitch before the games moved to Atlanta, so he asked Kershaw if Kershaw was starting Game 1.
“No,” Kershaw told Ryu. “You are.”
The decision did not thrill Kershaw, who had started every postseason opener for the Dodgers dating to 2013. Team officials explained to Kershaw how Ryu would benefit from pitching on an extra day of rest, rather than two extra days of rest for Game 2.
Ryu squared off against Foltynewicz, a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher who made his first All-Star team this season, going 13-10 with a 2.85 ERA. Never before had he pitched in the postseason. His first inning was deflating.
Pederson opened the game with a flourish. He whacked an 0-2, 98-mph fastball over the center-field fence for a leadoff homer. After the baseball landed, Yasiel Puig ran along the dugout railing, flexing his biceps. Pederson skipped around the bases.
“I definitely wasn’t trying to do that,” Pederson said. “But it was really nice.”
The rest of the inning played out like a lowlight reel from the doldrums of the summer. The Dodgers loaded the bases but left them stranded, as Foltynewicz struck out three.
The receipt for his exertion came an inning later, after Foltynewicz hit Pederson with a two-out, two-strike slider.
Handed an opening, the Dodgers pounced. Justin Turner took a walk. Muncy came up for the second time. He had walked in his first at-bat, unfazed by the downward bite of Foltynewicz’s sliders and curveballs. Muncy tracked them well, waiting for a fastball up in the zone. It was the approach he had brought with him nearly eight months ago to Camelback Ranch.
The Dodgers had signed Muncy in late April 2017 after Oakland released him. He re-signed with the team the next winter despite never getting called up to the majors. He intended to sway team officials in his first full spring training. He made an impression on more than the front office.
“His ability to control the strike zone is off the charts,” Turner said. “It’s something that he’s done all year. When you’re swinging at good pitches, you have a good chance to do good things.”
Hernandez played against Muncy in the minors. He recalled a talented hitter with vulnerabilities on the inner half of the plate. By this spring, Hernandez recalled, Muncy had fortified that weakness. “It seemed like he didn’t have any holes,” Hernandez said.
Muncy revealed as much to the rest of the sport during the regular season. He got called up in April, and never left. By July, he was representing the Dodgers in the Home Run Derby. On the first day of October, he hit a two-run shot as the Dodgers downed Colorado in Game 163. On Thursday, he added another line to his resume.
As Foltynewicz searched for an escape route, he tried a slider. The pitch sailed high. Foltynewicz felt compelled to try a fastball. Muncy walloped it into the right-field pavilion. He managed a grin as he headed home.
“I was really pumped running around the bases,” Muncy said. “I might have shown more excitement than I usually do.”
The rest of the evening was academic. Ryu piled up outs. Hernandez punished Braves reliever Brad Brach for a flat changeup. David Freese added a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
The Dodgers felt little stress all evening. The offense showed why it can be so dangerous, even when it is not efficient. They saw pitches. They chewed up pitchers. And with Muncy at the forefront, they did damage.
“Not everyone gets a chance to do this,” Muncy said. “This is why we play the game.”