Sometimes it’s not always the destination, but more about the journey, appreciating stops along the way during a ride of indeterminate length. The Dodgers may or may not win the World Series this season, but they aren’t dead yet, thanks in large part to one of the most absurdly fun moments of the year.
Dodgers catcher Will Smith hit a three-run home run off Braves reliever Will Smith, flipping a deficit into an eventual 7-3 win in Game 5 of the NLCS on Friday night at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
I may have been anticipating this matchup to an unhealthy degree ever since these two teams won their respective division series.
It’s not even the first Smith vs. Smith matchup. That came on September 6, 2019 at Dodger Stadium, when the then-Giants lefty struck out the catcher to close out a 5-4 win for San Francisco. I was at that game with both of my brothers, a rare occasion in the last two decades with nearly an entire country between us.
This was also during the Before Times, when going out and being among people was a viable option. Now, watching Game 5 from my apartment, where I’ve been all season, 223 days since I last hugged somebody, maybe I got a little emotional about a possible matchup of Wills Smith, because it reminded me how fun it can be to experience human emotion with other people.
The Dodgers’ Smith said other than facing the pitcher Smith last year, he did go to high school with another Will Smith. “It’s a pretty common name,” he said.
We nearly got the Will Smiths together in Game 4, when the Dodgers catcher didn’t start, but was on deck to pinch hit when the Braves reliever was struggling in the seventh. A walk loaded the bases last night, but the matchup was lost when Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled his pitcher. It was such an affront to the universe that Snitker forgot to wait until the pinch hitter was announced, so the Dodgers didn’t have to use their Smith just yet, and got the platoon advantage out of a few hitters first.
In Game 5, the Dodgers had a runner on second base and two outs, down 2-1 in the sixth, and Smith the pitcher was brought in, with Smith the catcher in the on-deck circle. But first, Max Muncy needed to reach base to give us this matchup. He took all six pitches, and four were out of the strike zone, setting the stage for, well, this:
Will Smith vs. Will Smith.— MLB (@MLB) October 17, 2020
Advantage, Will Smith. pic.twitter.com/RxjuhY5hek
That gave the Dodgers their first lead of the night, a fulfilled pursuit of happyness that was absent the night before.
“I’ll always bet on our Will Smith,” manager Dave Roberts said.
It was also Smith’s first postseason home run, after a string of hard-hit balls that managed to find gloves. He entered Friday just 7-for-33 this postseason, hitting .212/.297/.303, though based on his batted-ball data at Baseball Savant had an expected .297 average and .503 slugging percentage.
“We’re producers, not directors,” Mookie Betts said of Smith. “He produces good swings, and you can’t really control it after that.”
Smith, who is usually pretty stoic, was pretty fired up after his home run.
“I was pumped up. It got the team going. You look over, they’re all fired up,” Smith said. “That energy bounce off each other, so I let the emotion go and just enjoyed the moment.”
How soon is now?
The Dodgers initially trailed 2-0 in this one, with the Braves building a picket fence in the early innings. After scoring in the first and second frames, Atlanta had two runners in scoring position with one out.
Dansby Swanson lined a ball to right field, snagged by Mookie Betts with a shoestring catch. His throw home was late, but upon further review Marcell Ozuna left third base too early.
Shoestring catch by Mookie & a double play‼️ pic.twitter.com/5rE1H7G2CV— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 17, 2020
The catch itself was impressive, but for Betts to be able to stay upright to make the throw home, triggering the review, was incredible.
“It’s definitely a tough play. A lot of it is just instinctual,” Betts said. “I knew I needed to stay on my feet in order to get a throw off, and have a chance at him at home.”
From potentially down 3-0 to the inning ending at 2-0 was the start of the comeback for the Dodgers.
“You talk about momentum shifts, that’s the play of the year for me,” Roberts said.
In the top of the fourth, Corey Seager took Tyler Matzek deep to pull the Dodgers within a run. Seager added a two-run shot off Jacob Webb in the seventh for insurance, continuing a red-hot postseason for the Dodgers shortstop.
“I’m just putting good swings on good pitches right now, and everything’s kind of clicking,” Seager said. “Other than that, I really don’t know.”
“He’s had a tremendous year. All the experience he had in the postseason is lining up,” Roberts said. “For me right now, there’s no better player.”
Starting off behind
One of the Dodgers’ greatest strengths is starting pitching, with their depth expected to be an advantage in their postseason matchups with no off days within the series. It just hasn’t played out that way at all in the NLCS, not yet anyway.
In Game 5, for instance, the Braves started A.J. Minter, a reliever who never started and whose longest outing this season saw him record five outs. He was to start a bullpen game, and did so amazingly for Atlanta, mowing down the Dodgers through three scoreless innings, striking out seven.
Minter lasted longer than actual starter Dustin May, who started 10 games for the Dodgers this season, though in fairness has been used only in relief or short bursts in the postseason. His two innings matched his longest outing since September, and he allowed a run in each inning, the first score aided by a pair of balls that hit gloves (of Muncy and Smith) but were not stopped.
Through five games of the NLCS, Dodgers starting pitchers have a 5.06 ERA in 21⅓ innings, with 26 strikeouts. Braves starters have a 4.12 ERA in 19⅔ innings, also with 26 strikeouts, and that includes Kyle Wright’s disaster inning (seven runs, two outs recorded) in Game 3.
The offense got the Dodgers the lead, but it was the bullpen that kept it. Having to scramble after May’s early exit, Joe Kelly, Blake Treinen, Pedro Baez, Victor Gonzalez, Brusdar Graterol, and Kenley Jansen combined to allow just one run in seven innings, after a mostly shaky first four games.
Game 5 particulars
Home runs: Corey Seager 2 (5), Will Smith (1)
WP — Blake Treinen (1-1): 2 IP, 1 strikeout
LP — Will Smith (2-1): ⅓ IP, 1 hit, 2 runs, 1 walk
Walker Buehler takes the mound in an afternoon start for Game 6 (1:38 p.m. PT, FS1), with Max Fried starting for the Braves in a rematch of Game 1.