The first home run Alex Wood gave up to a left-handed hitter this season was blasted off the bat of Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman and landed a few rows beyond the right-field wall, feet from the Chop House, in the sixth inning Sunday night at SunTrust Park. In almost any other scenario it would’ve been an inconsequential blip, one even the best pitchers occasionally encounter when they face All-Star sluggers.
But Sunday was Game 3 of the National League Division Series and the score was tied with the Dodgers vying for a three-game series sweep. The stage was big and the margin for error was slim. So the first-pitch breaking ball that hung until Freeman’s lumber connected and launched it into orbit was a costly mistake. The solo home run was the difference in the Braves’ season-saving 6-5 victory.
“That wasn’t a good time for one,” Wood said. “Tip your cap.”
A year ago, Wood was an All-Star starting pitcher who was assigned a start in the National League Championship Series and another in the World Series. He was a rotation staple. But that changed last month after he allowed seven runs (six earned) in 32/3 innings Sept. 10 against the Cincinnati Reds. He was then replaced in the rotation by Ross Stripling, who had recovered from a back injury.
The switch brought mixed results. Stripling posted a 6.94 ERA in four starts and didn’t make the Dodgers’ NLDS roster while Wood, who wasn’t pleased with the demotion, allowed two runs in six relief appearances. The audition was good enough to seal a spot in the NLDS bullpen.
“That’s the route they decided to go,” the 27-year-old Wood said last week. “That’s the way we went. I don’t really want to talk much about it.”
Caleb Ferguson, Scott Alexander and Wood are the three left-handers in the Dodgers’ eight-man bullpen for the NLDS. Ferguson and Alexander are hard-throwing, late-inning options. Wood, a softer thrower capable of supplying length, has dominated lefties. The combination prompted Wood’s entrance in the sixth with Freeman and Nick Markakis, another left-handed hitter, due up.
Wood had held lefties to eight extra-base hits — all doubles — in 170 plate appearances, including his outing in the ninth inning against the Braves in Game 1. Wood faced Freeman during that appearance and struck him out with an 82-mph curveball, though he allowed two hits and was pulled before he could finish the game.
Wood began the at-bat against Freeman on Friday with consecutive fastballs. Freeman fouled both off to fall behind 0-2. A changeup followed for a ball. Wood then dropped an 82-mph curveball to punch out Freeman swinging. He tried an inverse approach Sunday and his 83-mph curveball was too meaty. Wood then got Markakis to ground out before he was removed.
“I thought we had a good gameplan,” said Wood, who pitched for the other team when these clubs met in the NLDS in 2013. “Just threw a bad pitch to a good hitter.”
The Dodgers had their chances to render Wood’s blunder minor. They stranded two runners in the third inning. They loaded the bases in the sixth inning, before Wood emerged, and left them that way. They stranded two runners in the eighth inning and two more in the ninth. Opportunities to seize the lead were squandered, leaving Wood’s hanging curve to loom large and halting the Dodgers’ march.