ARLINGTON, Texas – Atlanta Braves fans were still doing tomahawk-chop chants as they filed out of the stadium, real people who replaced the cardboard cutouts players got so accustomed to this season.
One game, but a big boost for the Braves in their first National League Championship Series since 2001.
Austin Riley led off the ninth inning with a tiebreaking homer that sparked a four-run rally Monday night for a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first major league game this season with fans allowed to attend.
“It was awesome — fun to play in front of fans again,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said. “11,000 people, really felt like 50,000 to us because we haven't had any all year.”
Riley greeted reliever Blake Treinen with a 448-foot drive to left-center, giving Atlanta a 2-1 lead and generating a familiar noise in the ballpark that only got louder.
“I didn’t feel my legs when I was running around the bases, so it was a good feeling,” said the 23-year-old Riley, left off the postseason roster last year.
And the Braves weren’t done.
Ronald Acuña Jr. followed with a double and scored on a single by Marcell Ozuna that chased Treinen. Ozzie Albies added a two-run homer off Jake McGee.
“It’s what these guys do. I’ve said we’re like an NBA game, you don’t want to leave because a lot of things don’t happen until the last third,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “These guys never quit, they keep grinding at-bats and doing their thing, and it’s a pretty neat trait for a ballclub to have.”
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is Tuesday, with Atlanta rookie Ian Anderson set to face three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.
Riley became the youngest player with a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning of a postseason game or later since Braves star Chipper Jones in 1995.
“That's a pretty good 9-hole hitter we've got,” Freeman said. “We believe in every single guy, and Austin was the guy tonight.”
In a matchup of teams that ranked 1-2 in the majors for runs and homers, and in the first NLCS opener since 2007 with both teams undefeated in the postseason, the Braves delivered another impressive pitching performance even without a shutout.
Max Fried struck out nine over six sharp innings, Will Smith worked a perfect eighth for the win and Mark Melancon closed it out. Atlanta, which threw four shutouts in its first five playoff games against Cincinnati and Miami, has allowed a total of six runs while going 6-0 this postseason.
Los Angeles had won nine straight going back to the regular season.
Before the ninth, the only runs came on a pair of solo homers. Freeman went deep in the first and Kiké Hernández connected leading off the Dodgers fifth.
It was the first time since March 12, the day spring training was suspended because of the coronavirus, that there were fans in the stands for an MLB game.
All 10,700 tickets available to the general public were sold, in addition to another 800 or so utilized by MLB and the teams. That was about 28% of the 40,518 capacity at the new Texas Rangers ballpark, where the retractable roof was open for the first NLCS game played at a neutral site.
The Braves had the bases loaded in the eighth after reliever Dustin May hit pinch-hitter Pablo Sandoval with a pitch. Victor Gonzalez came on and struck out pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson, punctuating the inning-ending out with an emphatic fist pump on the way back to the dugout.
Dodgers starter Walker Buehler pitched past the fourth for the first time in his three playoff series openers this fall, while apparently now dealing with blisters on both his middle and index fingers and with his seemingly tight pants trending on Twitter.
Buehler struck out seven in five-plus innings, joining Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as the only pitchers with at least seven strikeouts in nine consecutive postseason starts — coming in the first nine for Buehler. He also walked five, a career high.
“I feel like I’ve been decently successful,” Buehler said. “I don’t want to walk guys. We’re trying to keep runs off the board. I can go deeper. I can be better.”
Two years ago, Fried pitched in relief for the Braves in every game of the Division Series as they lost to the Dodgers in four.
The left-hander was born in Santa Monica, went to high school in Los Angeles and was the seventh overall draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2012, two years before he got traded to Atlanta.
“There was a lot of energy from both sides,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Walker matched that intensity. You’ve just got to give credit to Fried cause he pitched a heck of a ballgame.”
There were chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” when Freeman homered in the top of the first — a 429-foot shot to right that landed among fans well beyond the roped-off first five rows closest to the field. It was his first homer this postseason.
Atlanta didn't get another hit until consecutive singles opening the sixth that chased Buehler. Brusdar Graterol quickly got out of the jam.
“We’ll throw this one away and come back tomorrow with a fresh mind," Hernández said.
SWING AND MISS
Fried induced 14 swings and misses, his second-most in any game this season — including his 11 starts in the regular season when he was 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA.
Braves LF Adam Duvall left in the middle of his at-bat in the second inning because of an oblique issue. Duvall was in obvious pain after fouling off a pitch, then had his hand on his left side.
“I don’t expect the outcome to be good. He popped it,” Snitker said.
Rookie outfielder Cristian Pache took over with a 1-2 count and drew a walk.
Braves: Anderson has thrown 11 2/3 scoreless innings with 17 strikeouts in his two playoff starts.
Dodgers: Kershaw, the ace lefty from nearby Dallas, has 19 strikeouts in his two starts this postseason — both wins. He pitched eight shutout innings against Atlanta in the NLDS two years ago.
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