The first thought in the head of Atlanta Braves reliever Luke Jackson when his 95.6-mph fastball to Cody Bellinger left his hand in the eighth inning Tuesday was that it was a waste pitch, a 1-and-2 offering well above the strike zone.
“I was trying to throw a fastball up and away, and I actually threw it better than I thought I threw it,” Jackson said. “Out of my hand, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a ball. It’s too high.’ And no, it wasn’t too high.”
Bellinger, who had trouble handling high heat all season, somehow got his barrel to the armpit-high pitch and crushed a three-run, score-tying home run to right-center field, the key blow in the Dodgers’ 6-5 come-from-behind win in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Chavez Ravine.
Five outs away from taking a commanding three-games-to-none lead in the series and taking a huge step toward their first World Series appearance since 1999, the underdog Braves, winners of 88 games this season, suffered a potentially staggering, momentum-turning loss to the 106-win Dodgers.
Atlanta still leads the series 2-1, but the Braves had a 3-1 lead in last year’s NLCS and could not close out the Dodgers, who won three straight elimination games en route to their first World Series title since 1988. There was a sense at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday that a sleeping giant was awakened.
“Yeah, it hurts. I mean, we lost the game because I made a couple bad pitches that, you know, some days are outs and some days they’re home runs,” Jackson said. “But to feel like this is a dagger, no, this is just a speed bump in the road.
“I wish it didn’t happen, and I wish we were up 3-0 going into Game 4 and having a chance to sweep, but I have no doubt at all in our team coming stronger [Wednesday night] and ready to roll.”
While Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was heavily criticized for his late-game pitching decisions in Game 2, including using 20-game winner Julio Urías as an eighth-inning setup man in a 5-4 walk-off loss, it was Braves manager Brian Snitker who took a turn under the heat lamp in Game 3.
Snitker takes an old-school approach to late-game leads, preferring left-hander Tyler Matzek in the seventh inning, the right-handed Jackson in the eighth and left-handed closer Will Smith in the ninth.
Matzek, a former Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley High School star who has pitched in all seven playoff games, struck out two of three in a one-two-three seventh, and Snitker summoned Jackson, who went 2-2 with a 1.98 ERA in 71 games this season, to protect a 5-2 lead in the eighth.
Jackson gave up a leadoff single to the Dodgers’ Will Smith. Justin Turner popped out for the first out, but AJ Pollock singled to center.
Will Smith, the Braves’ closer, was warming, but with two on and one out, Snitker let Jackson pitch to the left-handed-hitting Bellinger.
“Yeah, he was up, but I wasn’t going to pitch Will more than four outs,” Snitker said. “He hasn’t done that, and we need him for the rest of the series. But I did have him up in the right situation, yes.”
Snitker’s stubborn adherence to regimented relief roles might have cost the Braves the game. Bellinger’s homer tied the score at 5, and Chris Taylor smacked a single to left.
In came Jesse Chavez, a 38-year-old journeyman who has played for nine teams, including the Dodgers and Angels, in his 14-year career. Taylor stole second, Matt Beaty grounded out, and Mookie Betts drove a two-out, RBI double to right-center for a 6-5 Dodgers lead.
Wasted was a gutsy start from Braves right-hander Charlie Morton, who survived a rocky two-run, four-walk, 34-pitch first inning to complete five two-run, three-hit innings; a three-hit game from Freddie Freeman, who went 0 for 8 with seven strikeouts in the first two games; and a two-RBI game from Adam Duvall.
Snitker said before Tuesday’s game that the experience of blowing a 3-1 NLCS lead last season “will be good for these guys. … We were a young team trying to take the next step, and we kind of took the next step last year.”
Their next step in this series will be a “bullpen game” Wednesday night. This does not bode well for the Braves, who don’t have as deep of a bullpen as the Dodgers. Atlanta ace Max Fried, a left-hander from Studio City Harvard-Westlake, is scheduled to start Game 5.
“They’ll be fine,” Snitker said. “They will be ready to play. We’ve lost tough games before and bounced back and done some really good things.”
Asked to compare how he felt after losing Game 3 to the Dodgers last season to how he felt Tuesday, Snitker said: “Hell, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, let alone what happened last year. I mean, we feel good. We’re confident. I think our guys, every year, are getting more battle-tested. … There’s going to be no residual effects after this game.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.