It's pretty common for an MLB playoff game to be decided by one team's best guys outperforming the other team's best guys. But rarely if ever do we see that duel play out specifically on the basepaths, especially not in a manner as stark as Saturday night's Game 1 between the Dodgers and the Braves. With the score tied in the top of the ninth inning, one of the best baserunners on Los Angeles made a critical error that prevented an opportunity for his team to take the lead, while in the bottom half one of the best baserunners in Atlanta pulled off a brilliant steal of second that directly led to the Braves' 3-2 victory.
The game was chock-full of missed chances for the Dodgers, who outhit the Braves 10-6 but only batted 1-for-8 with men in scoring position. Their biggest blown chance, however, came not in the batter's box but between second and third base. After Chris Taylor walked with two outs and nobody on in the ninth, the pinch-hitting Cody Bellinger came up clutch with a base knock. But Taylor, who led the Dodgers in stolen bases this year and rates as one of their fastest runners this side of Trea Turner, was seized with indecision and paid the price. He probably should have stopped at second. He maybe could have hustled to third and made it. But instead he found himself caught between both choices, and then stuck in a rundown. He was tagged out in humiliating fashion.
“It was just a bad read,” Taylor said after the game. “I saw it like barely got over (second baseman Ozzie) Albies’ head and thought I could get to third and then I didn’t realize Joc had it that quick and tried to stop and I should’ve kept going.”
Albies would play a much more significant role just minutes later, as Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen came on for the ninth to try and quarantine the Braves' offense and send the game into extras. Freddie Freeman struck out to lead things off, but then Albies got on with a bloop single to center. That's when the Braves' own stolen base leader did what Taylor could not, using his exceptional running to greatly increase his team's chances of winning. On the very first pitch of the next at-bat, Albies took off for second on an 86-mph slider and easily beat the throw from the catcher.
One pitch later, and the game was over. Austin Riley followed up on a solo shot earlier in the night by slamming a meatball into left field and all the way to the wall. While it might have been a close play had Albies stayed stuck at first, with the winning run on second there was no reason for AJ Pollock to even try and stop him. The Braves' 1-0 series lead was forged the moment the ball touched grass.
I'd recommend against reading too much into one playoff game, especially when there's so much series left to play. But one could easily view Saturday's ninth inning as symbolic of a shift that's occurred since these two teams met in last year's classic of an NLCS. There, it was the relatively inexperienced Braves who slipped when it mattered most, blowing three straight chances to win the pennant as the battle-hardened Dodgers took the series in seven games. But, while it may or may not be an actual sign of what's to come this year, the Braves executed better than the Dodgers this time around, and it was enough to give them the early edge.
"These guys are growing and maturing," Braves manager Brian Snitker said after the win. "The moment isn’t too big for them because they’ve played in it.”