The image epitomized an opportunity fumbled, a chance lost, a game blown.
Chris Taylor, sitting on the dirt between second and third base, helmet in hand, head shaking, frozen in failure.
Yep, the Dodgers really messed this one up.
In what should have been yet another strong step in their seemingly preordained journey back to the World Series on Saturday, the Dodgers staggered, stumbled and ended up on their backs while staring at somebody else’s party.
The opener of the National League Championship Series featured a trademark Dodgers’ playoff game-winning hit, but this time the bat was swung by the Atlanta Braves’ Austin Riley, who singled home Ozzie Albies from second base with one out in the ninth to give the Braves a 3-2 victory at Truist Park.
This time, it was somebody else pointing to the sky, somebody else throwing off a helmet, somebody else running out of the dugout and dancing in an infield mosh pit.
This time, it was the Dodgers who disappeared into a night filled with more questions than answers.
Like, when your offense collects 10 hits, when your pitching staff records 14 strikeouts, when you whiff the great Freddie Freeman four times, when you mostly deaden a hostile crowd and have the potential winning run rounding second in the top of the ninth how do you not win?
“Anybody can win on any given day, it doesn’t matter what the odds say, what the numbers are, you’ve got to play the game,” said the Dodgers’ Trea Turner. “I’m a big believer that anything can happen.”
But what happened usually does not happen to a veteran Dodgers’ team that has won three elimination games in the past two weeks and appeared headed directly to the final week of October after hurdling what appears to be a vastly inferior Braves team.
Um, not so fast.
But Taylor, way too fast!
The game dramatically changed in the ninth inning of a 2-all tie after Taylor, the walk-off homer hero of the recent wild card win, drew a two-out walk against closer Will Smith.
Up stepped pinch-hitter Cody Bellinger, who, continuing his recent nifty October run, lined a single over a leaping Albies’ head and into right field.
The hit should have moved Taylor safely to second base with the hot Mookie Betts coming up. But Taylor didn’t stop at second. He rounded the base and kept running until he realized Joc Pederson had furiously charged the ball and was seemingly going to throw him out at third base.
So Taylor just stopped. Between second and third base. The worst place in this stadium he could have stopped. It was especially bad since Pederson threw to second baseman Albies, which meant Taylor couldn’t go back. After a brief rundown he was tagged out by shortstop Dansby Swanson, whose knee knocked Taylor in the head in the process. Taylor dropped to the ground and slammed his helmet and stared into nowhere.
The game wasn’t over, but it felt over, and sure enough, moments later, in the bottom of the ninth against Blake Treinen, Albies hit a bloop a single to center field, stole second, and scored on Riley’s familiar game-winning hit.
Remember, last year in the opener of the NLCS, Riley hit an eventual game-winning homer in the ninth inning for the Braves, also off Treinen?
Remember how they then streaked to a three-games-to-one lead?
The Dodgers charged back to win that series, and they should still win this series, but this certainly throws a wrench in their plans.
So what was Taylor thinking?
Said Taylor: ”It was just a bad read. I saw it barely got over Albies’ head, and I thought I could get to third. I didn’t realize Joc had it that quick and tried to stop. I should have kept going….As I was rounding second, I saw him get the ball sooner than I anticipated and thought
twice about not trying to get thrown out at third. And then he just threw back behind me.”
In the dugout, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts turned his head away from the carnage.
“I think, by the book, he should have probably stayed,” said Roberts. “It was hit softly… you just hold up with two outs and give Mookie a chance. Right there, he was caught in between, that’s when you get in trouble.”
In the other dugout, the Braves leaped in celebration.
“That’s a huge, huge out in the game,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker.
The Dodgers blew it again in the bottom of the ninth after Albies reached second with one out. With the first base open and the powerful Riley at the plate and the wildly inconsistent Joc Pederson on deck, why not walk Riley?
“It was a thought,” said Roberts. “The way that Blake has dominated right-handed hitters, you’ve got Joc on deck. If he was gonna get [Riley] out, I was thinking about walking Joc to get to (Adam) Duvall. I think in that spot right there, I didn’t like the matchup with Joc on deck.”
Yeah, the Dodgers let the Braves off the hook.
The loss was made worse because it was accompanied by the tomahawk chop, that racist appropriation of native American culture that is somehow still allowed in a sports world where both the football team in Washington and the baseball team in Cleveland both recently changed their native American-related nicknames.
The game was officially started when the “Let’s play ball!” cheer was shouted by Richard Sneed, principal chief of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. But that didn’t change the insensitivity of the ensuing chops, which began with the game’s third hitter and continued throughout the night. It is always accompanied by a thumping drum. Whenever the Dodgers made pitching changes, the stadium lights were dimmed and it was performed by the fan’s smartphone flashlights.
Some say the chop, which is also performed and celebrated by fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, celebrates Native-American culture. But most agree that it trivializes the culture and portrays Native Americans as war-mongering savages.
I once spoke about the chop with Vincent Schilling, an Awkwesasne Mohawk activist and co-owner of Schilling Media Inc. in Virginia, and he was clear about its racist overtones.
“It is a stereotypical native chant that is offensive to the truth of what native people are,” he said. “No one I’ve ever known has done anything like that. You go to a Native-American pow wow and you don’t hear anything like this.”
In all, it was a Dodgers letdown against a team that had 18 fewer wins and scored 135 fewer runs.
Well, this is a very big, it’s a big series, it’s a very big ball game,” protested Roberts before the game. “And I think that going into the postseason we expected there to be some high moments and some tough moments and it’s kind of how you respond. So knowing you’re going to have to deal with that…we know how we’re going to respond.”
He says that response can best be summarized in three words.
“But as far as kind of the psyche, the mentality, not a concern at all,” he said. “We’ll be ready.”
In the end, though, for once, they weren’t.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.