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Six pitches of separation: How the Dodgers' Will Smith won out in NLCS battle of tiny margins

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
·5-min read

There were six pivotal pitches in a National League Championship Series Game 5 between teams that are beginning to look a lot like each other, who score, defend and even carry themselves as though they could trade uniforms and play on. They even share Will Smiths. One of those, the Los Angeles Dodgers catcher, contextualized those six pitches.

He said, “I was just trying to push him out over [the plate], get a pitch to hit, not let him bully me in there and he made a mistake and I capitalized on it.”

The pitcher through those six pitches was also Will Smith, the well-traveled left-hander. This was something of an oddity, and perhaps amusing for some, though not, perhaps, for this Will Smith, whom Dodgers manager Dave Roberts afterward identified more than once as “our Will Smith.”

“It’s a common enough name,” said Will Smith, and it could have been either.

What rather carried this one at-bat, this 11th-hour momentum subtlety, after three Atlanta Braves wins and one Dodgers rout that by the hour seemed the anomaly, was how Smith viewed the arrival of fastball after fastball (and a slider) intended to pin him on his heels. That “their Will Smith,” as Roberts called the other, relented by a few inches on a 3-and-2 fastball, and that the Dodgers’ Will Smith had refused to budge, seemed significant. Because he then laid his bat barrel on that sixth pitch, this one not near his hands but actually a strike, and drove it into the left-field seats.

Dodgers catcher Will Smith's home run off Braves pitcher Will Smith swung NLCS Game 5. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Dodgers catcher Will Smith's home run off Braves pitcher Will Smith swung NLCS Game 5. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“That,” said Corey Seager, who hit two more home runs for the Dodgers, “was a great at-bat. He battled his ass off … Man, that was fun to watch.”

In that sixth inning, and with two out and two runners on base, and with the Braves a few more scoreless innings from advancing to their first World Series in 21 years, Will Smith — previously referred to as “our Will Smith” — stood in the batter’s box, at 25 years old, barely 100 games into his big-league career, and would not be, as he called it, bullied. In fact, he was going to darn near win that baseball game because he would not be bullied.

“It means probably a number of things,” he said. “It’s just not giving in to that at-bat. Not letting him do what he wants. And doing what I want.”

(Via Baseball Savant)
(Via Baseball Savant)

That was the game. It’s always the game. The Dodgers pitch Ronald Acuña Jr. like everyone does, hard and in, and Acuna refuses to be bullied. He’s also batting .176 in the series. Smith is batting .150 in the series. Cody Bellinger’s weakness is fastballs near his hands, among other areas. He’s batting .150 in the series and struck out three more times in Game 5. The offense, such as it is at times this series, is back to operating around Bellinger and his nine strikeouts in 20 at-bats.

What changed for a night, and what bought the Dodgers’ season another 18 hours, was their Will Smith’s stubbornness, the three-run homer he hit in a 7-3 win, and Seager’s two home runs (he has four in the series), and Mookie Betts’ run-saving, grass-scraping catch in right field. So all the stuff that is measured in grains of ash or maple, in a fleck of leather here or there, in the desperation of players one lousy decision and one splash of bad luck from spending another winter explaining how that happened again. The Braves, by the way, fight and live with the same hard judgments in their own town, just to make things fair.

So, while Will Smith — still the one cited as “our Will Smith” — is not much for overstatement, and in fact seems stoically averse to any statement at all, he did identify the critical element headed into a game or two this weekend. After five games of big innings and big swings and long home runs and the sorts of fastballs and results that measure large and breathtaking, the NLCS still must discern who is the bully and who will be bullied.

The Dodgers are about to play to who they thought they were all along, who everyone thought they were all along, and win the next two games and then four more next week, or the Braves are. The Dodgers will have had that restart with all that went right Friday night in Arlington, or they’ll only have put off what seemed inevitable on Friday afternoon in Arlington.

The Braves, too, holders of a three-games-to-one lead until their scheduled bullpen game went a man or two too deep, return Max Fried for Game 6 and, if they have to, Ian Anderson for Game 7. They, combined, allowed one run in 10 innings in the first two games of the series. The Dodgers counter with Walker Buehler in Game 6.

By virtue of their being very good, and also by virtue of their not doing enough with that recently (or for more than three decades), the Dodgers have seen their share of elimination games. They’ve also lost their share of those.

So there’s little comfort there, other than having one more game to play, which isn’t great or what they had in mind six days ago, and is better than the alternative. Buehler was asked Friday afternoon if he were nervous.

“Probably not personally, or anxiety about what I may do,” he said. “But this is a big deal. There’s a lot of people in that clubhouse who have put a lot of time and effort into making this thing run and run well … But that’s part of the game and part of the reason a lot of guys keep wanting to do this so bad. That feeling, it’s an interesting deal, you learn to enjoy that and kind of crave it.”

Not 24 hours later, they return to about where they were — the Dodgers defending what little they have left to defend, the Braves attempting to separate themselves finally from a team they so resemble. On Friday, the difference was six pitches, give or take a few. On Saturday, there’ll be another six to win or lose.

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