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Braves get a reminder to stay focused after almost giving game away

Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger yells out "let's go!" to teammates after hitting an RBI triple.
Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger yells out “let’s go!” to teammates after hitting an RBI triple in the bottom of the ninth to bring the Dodgers within a run of the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

One half-inning, closer Mark Melancon was high-stepping and high-fiving in the Atlanta bullpen after catching a home-run ball off the bat of Ozzie Albies for the second straight night, and Albies was posing for a pretend selfie with teammates in the Braves dugout.

The next, the Braves were white-knuckling through potential disaster in the bottom of the ninth, pushed to the brink of a collapse that might have rivaled the Falcons’ 25-point blown third-quarter lead in a Super Bowl LI loss to the New England Patriots for Atlanta sporting flops.

Almost all of a seven-run, seventh-inning lead had disappeared, and the potential tying run was on third base for the Dodgers when Melancon got AJ Pollock to ground out to third to close Atlanta’s nail-biter of an 8-7 National League Championship Series Game 2 victory at Globe Life Field.

Photos from Game 2 of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

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“That was definitely nerve-wracking,” Atlanta starter Ian Anderson said after the Braves took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. “That’s a good team over there, and they don’t quit. The last three outs are the toughest three to get, especially in the postseason.”

The first 6½ innings were filled with some tension but mostly fun and frivolity for the Braves. Anderson, the 22-year-old rookie right-hander, blanked the Dodgers over four one-hit innings, navigating through five walks to extend his scoreless playoff streak to 15 2/3 innings in three starts.

“There was traffic, and he did a great job of never giving in,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “He wasn’t real sharp, as evidenced by the walks and the pitch count (85), but that’s gonna happen. To his credit, he kept things manageable and didn’t let an inning get out of hand. What a great trait for a young pitcher.”

Anderson got some help from third baseman Austin Riley, who snagged Will Smith’s one-hop smash with two on and two out in the first, and first baseman Freddie Freeman, who sprawled into the dirt to make a full-extension catch of Riley’s errant throw while keeping his foot on the bag to end the inning.

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“That was huge,” Anderson said. “Riley made a fantastic play, and Freddie on the other end, he showed why he won that Gold Glove [in 2018]. It definitely settled me down, that we got me out of that jam, and that went a long way to helping me get through the innings I got through.”

Tyler Matzek, the 29-year-old left-hander from Capistrano Valley High who pitched for the independent-league Texas AirHogs in 2018 and 2019 and overcame a case of the throwing yips to return to the big leagues, blanked the Dodgers on one hit and struck out one in the fifth and sixth innings.

“He’s been a huge reason for our success in the bullpen,” Melancon said of Matzek, who went 4-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 21 games this season. “Without Matzek, we couldn’t piece things together. He gives us two innings tonight, and he’s done that quite a bit.

“We don’t really look at those fifth, sixth and seventh innings all that often, but because of him, we’ve been able to piece together wins quite often [during] those innings that sometimes don’t get much love.”

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Freeman, the former Orange El Modena High standout, provided an early Atlanta lead with a two-run homer to right, a 408-foot laser that left his bat at 108 mph, in the fourth inning, just like he did with his first-inning solo shot in Game 1.

“He just keeps reiterating why he’s the MVP, right?” Melancon said of Freeman, who hit .341 with a 1.102 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 13 homers, 23 doubles, 53 RBIs and 51 runs this season. “Freddie is one of the most consistent players I’ve ever seen, played against, played with and been around.”

The Braves channeled their inner Dodgers during a four-run, fifth-inning rally in which seven of the first eight batters worked full counts, four drew walks — one with the bases loaded — and Cristian Pache (double) and Freeman (single) drove in runs with hits. Dansby Swanson’s RBI double in the seventh made it 7-0.

Corey Seager’s three-run homer off left-hander A.J. Minter pulled the Dodgers to within 7-3 in the bottom of the seventh. Albies’ solo shot off Adam Kolarek pushed Atlanta’s lead to 8-3 in the top of the ninth.

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But the Dodgers roared back with four runs in the bottom of the ninth, as Mookie Betts singled, Seager hit an RBI double and Max Muncy crushed a two-run homer off right-hander Josh Tomlin.

Did the Dodgers stay with starter Tony Gonsolin too long when the Braves broke the game open in the fifth? Should left-hander Adam Kolarek have been summond?

Melancon replaced Tomlin and got Smith to hit what appeared to be a routine, game-ending grounder to second base, but Albies bobbled the ball twice and threw late to first for an error.

Cody Bellinger rifled an RBI triple into the right-field corner to make it 8-7 before Pollock grounded out, sending a collective sigh of relief through the Braves dugout.

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“That’s a powerful team over there, and until that 27th out is made, you don’t feel good because of what they’re capable of doing,” Snitker said of the Dodgers. “They’ve been through the wars. They’re a good club, and you gotta make pitches, you gotta hit locations. This whole thing is gonna be tough.”

Melancon, who spent two-plus seasons with San Francisco from 2017 to 2019, expected no less from a team that has won eight straight NL West titles and advanced to the World Series in two of the last three years.

“They’re a good club, they’re not gonna give up,” Melancon said. “We have to treat [Wednesday] like it’s the first game of the series. There’s no reason for either club to take their foot off the gas, right? Nobody has won anything yet. We have to come out strong, keep our mind-set and stay focused.”

DiGiovanna reported from Los Angeles.


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