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Dodgers and Braves should be among elite National League teams for years

Atlanta Braves' Ozzie Albies scores under Dodgers catcher Will Smith during the fourth inning in Game 7 of the NLCS.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves pushed the National League Championship Series to the limit with Sunday night’s winner-take-all Game 7 in Globe Life Field.

Don’t be surprised if these teams are back in the NLCS again next season, battling each other for a World Series berth. And maybe the year after that.

The Dodgers, with their deep-pocketed owners, top-notch scouting and player development and keen eye for finding talent on the margins, are a perennial power, having won eight straight division titles.

But the Braves, with most valuable player candidate Freddie Freeman, a dynamic young core of position players led by Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies and one of baseball’s most promising young rotations, should be a force for years.

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Julio Urías claimed a permanent place in Dodgers history with his clutch relief performance in a 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the NLCS.

They’ve won three straight NL East titles and lost in the division series in 2018 and 2019 before taking another step forward this season.

“I think we’re going to do nothing but get stronger as some of these young guys mature,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Sunday. “There’s a lot to be excited about with this club moving forward.”

A rotation led by 26-year-old left-hander Max Fried and rookies Ian Anderson, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright will be boosted by the return of 23-year-old Mike Soroka, who went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 2019 but suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in August.

Acuña and Albies are signed through 2026 and 2025, respectively. Freeman and catcher Travis d’Arnaud are signed through 2021. Shortstop Dansby Swanson and outfielder Adam Duvall are signed through 2022.

Third baseman Austin Riley and center fielder Cristian Pache, a budding star who has been compared to Andruw Jones, are rookies. Slugger Marcell Ozuna and veteran outfielder Nick Markakis are the only free-agent position players.

The Dodgers advanced to the World Series for the third time in four years after defeating the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the NLCS on Sunday night.

Closer Mark Melancon and reliever Shane Greene will be free agents, but setup men Will Smith (signed through 2022) and Chris Martin (2021) will return, and several top relief arms — Jacob Webb, Tyler Matzek, AJ Minter — are under club control for several years.

“We’re honestly a very competitive team,” Acuña said, when asked if the Braves are primed for a years-long run, “and with the grace of God we’ll stay that way for a long time.”

May day

The Dodgers gave rookie Dustin May the Game 7 start because they thought he would benefit from “the certainty of starting the game and knowing which hitters you’re going to get,” manager Dave Roberts said.

That decision looked terrible when May, unable to harness his 99-mph sinker, walked the first two batters of the game on eight pitches and gave up an RBI single to Ozuna.

But the inning wasn’t as disastrous as it could have been. With Brusdar Graterol and Tony Gonsolin warming up, May found the strike zone with his off-speed pitches and got d’Arnaud to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. He then struck out Albies with a 100-mph fastball to end the inning and his night.

Degree of difficulty

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts made game-changing plays three nights in a row, racing in to make a shoe-string catch of Swanson’s flare with runners on second and third to start an inning-ending double play in Game 5, leaping at the wall to rob Ozuna of extra bases in Game 6 and robbing Freeman of a homer with a leaping catch above the wall in the fifth inning in Game 7.

So what’s more difficult, coming in on a ball or going back and leaping at the wall?

“I think coming in is uh … I don’t even know the answer,” Betts said before Game 7. “I would say going back is probably more difficult, just because of all the timing, then jumping, staying healthy, too, because I’ve been around that wall and gotten hurt a couple of times.”

Shift happens

The Braves shifted 7.6% of the time this season according to Baseball Savant, by far the lowest rate in the major leagues, but they were burned by the decision to move Albies to the shortstop side of the second-base bag in the third inning of Game 7.

With runners on second and third and two outs, Will Smith took a nice, easy swing at a first-pitch curveball from Anderson and rolled a groundball through the vacated spot where the second baseman would normally be stationed for a two-run single that tied the score 2-2.

Heads-up play

Relievers aren’t often known for their defensive prowess, but Greene, the Braves right-hander, made a Gold Glove-caliber nonplay in the fifth inning.

With Cody Bellinger on first base and one out, AJ Pollock chopped a grounder up the middle that Greene could have easily gloved. But the pitcher made a split-second decision to pull his glove back, and the grounder rolled right to Albies, who started an easy 4-6-3 inning-ending double play to preserve a temporary 3-2 lead.

Digiovanna reported from Los Angeles.


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