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Will Smith’s homer helps Dodgers rally past Braves in Game 5 of NLCS, avoid elimination

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Will Smith versus Will Smith. It was an apt battle for a game-changing moment in Major League Baseball’s warped 2020 season.

With his team trailing by a run, Will Smith, the catcher for the Dodgers, sought to continue the momentum his club had created facing elimination. Will Smith, the left-handed reliever for the Atlanta Braves, sought to wiggle free from a mess in the sixth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night.

The clash ended on the sixth pitch — a 3-2, 94-mph fastball — after Will Smith, the hitter, laid off three close pitches as if he knew what the other Will Smith was thinking.

The pitch was not poorly placed; it darted to the inside part of the plate above the knees. But Will Smith, the hitter, anticipated the location after getting four consecutive pitches inside. So, he dropped his hands and barreled the baseball.

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Both Will Smiths knew the outcome off the bat. The pitcher didn’t bother to peek. The hitter couldn’t stop looking. He watched the ball for its entire trajectory as he jogged to first base with bat in hand. He flipped the lumber when the ball landed over the left-field wall for a three-run home run to give the Dodgers their first lead in a 7-3, season-saving victory at Globe Life Field.

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Dodgers catcher Will Smith hits a three-run home run off Braves reliever Will Smith in Game 5 of the NLCS.

“I’ll always bet on our Will Smith,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Corey Seager sandwiched Smith’s power display with two home runs and three RBIs. He is the first shortstop to hit four home runs in a playoff series of any length. Mookie Betts collected two hits, drove in the Dodgers’ other run and made the defensive play of the game. Six relievers combined to give up one run in seven innings after Dustin May lasted just two. Kenley Jansen, the beleaguered former closer, flashed increased velocity and struck out the side in the ninth to seal the result.

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The Dodgers' Corey Seager (5) returns to the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning Oct. 16, 2020.
The Dodgers’ Corey Seager (5) returns to the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning — his second homer of the game.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Braves now lead the series 3-2. Game 6 is Saturday. Max Fried will start for Atlanta. The Dodgers will give the ball to Walker Buehler with their season on the line, again.

“The whole goal is to win,” Seager said. “We haven’t done that yet.”

The Braves planned for a bullpen game Friday. The Dodgers didn’t. And yet the Dodgers, in a disastrous development, went to their bullpen first. They hoped May could give them between 75 and 90 pitches through the sixth inning, but he threw 55 pitches in two innings before he was pulled.

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The rookie right-hander didn’t get any favors in the first inning. Freddie Freeman doubled on a ball that first baseman Max Muncy could’ve stopped. Freeman advanced to third on a passed ball by Smith and scored on Travis d’Arnaud’s sacrifice fly to put Atlanta on the board first.

The Braves scored again in the second inning when Cristian Pache — after failing to drop a sacrifice bunt — lined a hanging 0-2 curveball to center field for an RBI single. It was one of the 19 curveballs May threw in his outing — an unusual ratio for the right-hander, who threw a curveball just 13.4% of the time during the regular season.

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Highlights from the Dodgers’ 7-3 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS on Friday.

A.J. Minter, meanwhile, muzzled the Dodgers in his start since he threw five innings against Nebraska for Texas A&M in 2015. Before the game, Braves manager Brian Snitker said the club wanted one inning from Minter. He instead gave Atlanta three dominant innings. The left-hander allowed one baserunner — Justin Turner doubled — and compiled seven strikeouts, getting his last five outs that way.

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But the game changed once Minter left the mound. It was the same formula the Dodgers used to jump-start their only other win in the series: Betts making a hustle play and a replay review going right for Los Angeles.

In Game 3, Betts legged out a single to lead off the game. The dugout erupted when the out call was reversed. The Dodgers then became the first team to score 11 runs in a postseason inning.

On Friday, the Braves, already leading by two, welcomed Joe Kelly with two singles to begin the third inning. After a groundout moved the runners to second and third, Dansby Swanson lifted a fly ball to shallow right field. Betts sprinted in, reached down to his feet and caught the ball before it touched a blade of artificial grass.

Marcell Ozuna scored from third base, beating Betts’ throw on the run, to give Atlanta an apparent 3-0 lead. But the Dodgers were sure Ozuna left too early. They appealed, but third base umpire Will Little ruled that Ozuna left on time. A review revealed the truth: Ozuna hopped off the bag before Betts caught the ball. He was ruled out to complete an inning-ending double and erase a run.

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“That’s the play of the year for me,” Roberts said.

Moments later, with left-hander Tyler Matzek on the mound for Atlanta, Seager belted a 415-foot home run to straightaway center field to lead off the fourth inning. It was a two-run swing in a span of a few minutes. The Dodgers, down 2-1, didn’t look back.

Will Smith, the pitcher, entered the game with a runner on second base and two outs in the sixth inning. He got behind Muncy 3-0 before Muncy took two strikes. Muncy wound up not swinging at all; he took a fastball for ball four. Betts called it the play of the game. It set the stage for the first same-name encounter in postseason history.

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“It’s a common enough name,” said Smith, who went to high school with another person named Will Smith and was unimpressed by the development.

It ended with Will Smith, the normally reserved catcher, clobbering the biggest home run of his life off another man named Will Smith. He released a roar before smashing first base coach George Lombard’s hand in celebration. Half of the 11,119 people in attendance erupted. The Dodgers’ season was alive.


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