ATLANTA — The showdown between baseball’s hottest teams is set, in no small part thanks to a big night from a player both teams in that showdown badly wanted in July.
That player is Manny Machado, who drove in four runs Monday to lift the Los Angeles Dodgers to a series-clinching 6-2 victory against the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers won the National League Division Series against the upstart Braves 3-1.
Next up for the Dodgers is a NL Championship Series matchup against the Milwaukee Brewers, one of several clubs who pursued Machado in advance of July’s non-waiver trade deadline. Of course, it was the Dodgers who ended up with Machado, and it was specifically for nights like Monday.
“Can’t say enough about him,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Obviously, with Manny and a player of his caliber, there are so many expectations put on him.”
Machado entered the game just 1-for-12 in the series, his only hit a two-run homer in Game 2. He doubled his hit total with an RBI double in the first inning of Game 4, kicking off his biggest performance since moving to the Dodgers.
Atlanta and Los Angeles exchanged the lead, each getting two-run, pinch-hit singles. The Braves went up 2-1 in the fourth on Kurt Suzuki‘s hit, but the Dodgers regained the advantage David Freese‘s two-out single in the sixth. It was just the latest big October at-bat for Freese, who was MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series when he was with St. Louis in 2011. Still, this is Freese’s first time in the postseason since 2014, and he’s learned to savor these fleeting moments.
“It’s crazy,” Freese said. “You never know what this game is going to give you, what opportunities arise for you. You just gotta be ready. That’s what I’ve learned over the years. Whether you’re in high school, college, whatever, just be ready.
“You don’t have to be the best player in the world. You don’t have to make the most money, but you’re going to have a shot to do something cool. I learned that early in my career, and just try and stick with it.”
When Freese made the “best player in the world” comment, he pointed towards Machado, who sat next to him at the podium. It was Machado who broke Monday’s game open. In the seventh, he launched a laser beam over the left-field bullpen off Braves rookie Chad Sobotka, a three-run shot that gave the Dodgers their final advantage.
Machado hit the ball hard all night. According to Statcast data, Machado authored the four hardest-hit balls of the night, with exit velocities of 104 mph or better in each of his first four plate appearances.
“I’ve been locked in all series,” Machado said. “The results haven’t shown, but you try to stick with the same approach and not try to change anything. I think you put yourself in bad situations when you try to change, and today I was just able to make hard contact and not miss two balls that were a big key to our win today.”
The young Braves battled, loading the bases with one out in the fifth, but Dodgers reliever Ryan Madson wriggled out of the jam by forcing a pair of popouts. That turned out to be the last gasp for a team that emerged as a budding powerhouse and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“It was a great ride,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “[The season] surpassed everybody’s expectations. It’s sad. I mean, you know, we got this far, and after winning a game last night, kind of thought, well, maybe we can pull this off. But they never quit. They never stopped fighting all year. It was an unbelievable group to be around.”
Machado was regarded as the biggest prize during the trading season. With free agency looming this winter, Machado was made available after his old team, the Baltimore Orioles, fell far from contention. Weeks of rumors ensued, and in the days before Machado was dealt, the whisper mill suggested that the Dodgers and Brewers were among the finalists for the All-Star infielder.
Los Angeles won those sweepstakes, sending a package of prospects to Baltimore for Machado, who they hoped could fill the void left by the injury to the Dodgers’ young star shortstop, Corey Seager.
That trade went down during the All-Star break and Machado joined his new club in, of all places, Milwaukee. His first news conference was at Miller Park, where Game 1 of the NLCS will be played Friday. Of course, he was asked about the possibility that he might have ended up a Brewer.
“I know they were in the running as well,” Machado said at that introductory conference. “It’s kind of weird being here right away, on the opposite side. It was always fine. Honestly, all the rumors going on, I was beyond grateful that they actually wanted me to help their ballclub out.”
The Brewers did just fine after losing out on Machado, adding key veterans for the stretch run like third baseman Mike Moustakas, reliever Joakim Soria, starter Gio Gonzalez and Machado’s old teammate with the Orioles, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who said he wept when Machado was traded away from Baltimore.
Milwaukee finished with the NL’s best record and thus will have home-field advantage in series. Machado could have been a part of that, but instead he is part of the Brewers’ next hurdle, and it’s a high one. The Dodgers will play in their third consecutive NLCS and fourth in the past six seasons.
“Just winning overall is always amazing,” Machado said. “Coming over from Baltimore midway through the season, new ballclub, new atmosphere, new teammates, new coaching staff, new front office, I mean, it’s always a bit of an adjustment. But they’ve been nothing but amazing to us, to myself and my family. And coming here to a winning ballclub who’s been determined the whole way since last year to get into this situation and further. I’m just sitting here enjoying everything, enjoying the ride.”
The Dodgers won their sixth consecutive NL West title during the regular season. They entered the campaign as heavy favorites to end up right where they are now, but their path to get here has been far from smooth. Los Angeles didn’t wrap up a playoff spot until the final days of the season and didn’t clinch the division until beating the Colorado Rockies in a tiebreaker last week at Dodger Stadium.
Still, recent trends have been strong. The tiebreaker win gave the Dodgers a 14-4 finish to the regular season. While the Braves squeezed out a 6-5 win in Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday to force Monday’s game, L.A. largely dominated the four games. After a season of fits and starts, the Dodgers seem to be playing their best baseball.
“I said that sometime in September,” Roberts said. “I felt we were playing our best baseball, collectively. And we took a hard path to get to this point. I do think it made us stronger and kind of galvanized our team. But, you know, we celebrate tonight, but we all know that there’s a lot more work to be done. We have eight more wins to go.”
The first four of those wins will have to come at the expense of the Brewers, and if there is a team hotter than the Dodgers, it’s Milwaukee. The Brewers also needed a tiebreaker win to secure a division crown, beating NL Central rival Chicago last week. That gave Milwaukee an eight-game winning streak to finish the campaign, a streak the Brewers have built to 11 after a three-game sweep of the Rockies.
After a season of parity and uncertainty in the National League, it sure feels like the two best teams in the circuit are getting ready to do battle. Machado will be ready. Ready to win and, especially, ready to have fun.
“To this day, I just try to enjoy the moment, enjoy everything that comes at you,” Machado said. “It’s going to be great. Both ballclubs have worked hard to get to this situation. They’re both two good ballclubs facing off in the championship. And we’re just going to go out there and play baseball, be ourselves, keep doing what we’ve been doing all year, and hopefully we come out on top.”