While Braves outfielder Eddie Rosario will rightly be remembered as the hero -- and MVP -- of the 2021 NLCS, the decisive Game 6 featured a second Atlanta savior. That was lefty reliever Tyler Matzek.
Going into the seventh inning of Game 6 on Saturday night, the Braves led the Dodgers 4-1 -- thanks in large measure to a three-run homer by Rosario -- and were nine outs from their first pennant since 1999. Reliever Luke Jackson, however, ran swiftly into peril.
Chris Taylor began the frame with a double. Then Cody Bellinger walked on four pitches. Then A.J. Pollock lashed a two-strike double to left to plate the Dodgers' second run of the game. At that point, Braves manager Brian Snitker called for Matzek to replace Jackson. With no outs and runners on second and third with a two-run lead against perhaps the best team in baseball, it was a jam on which the Braves' 2021 season hinged.
Braves' chances of winning Game 6: 58.6 percent.
Matzek got a called strike one against Albert Pujols, who at age 41 can still hit lefties. He followed up that 97-mph fastball with his hard slider for a ball. Then it was the fastball again for a swing and miss. Then it was back to the fastball for strike three swinging.
Braves' chances of winning Game 6: 67.8 percent.
When L.A. manager Dave Roberts called on Blake Treinen to pitch in the sixth, he didn't insert him via double switch. The Dodger rally in the top of the seventh, however, brought Treinen's spot up with one out. Roberts had no choice but to pinch-hit for him, which means his best reliever would face only one batter in an elimination game. Steven Souza was that pinch-hitter.
Matzek started Souza off with a slider for a called strike one. Then it was three straight fastballs, the first a ball and the second a swinging strike. The third one, at 99.2 mph, appeared to freeze Souza, who may have been expecting a slider after two straight heaters. Called strike three.
Braves' chances of winning Game 6: 79.1 percent.
Then it was Mookie Betts. Since pitchers must face at least three batters, Snitker had no choice but to cede the platoon advantage and let Matzek face Betts -- not that you play match-ups with a pitcher like the one Matzek has become. After all, he'd just struck out a pair of right-handed batters to reach this point.
Matzek almost exclusively throws a fastball and slider, with the fastball being his go-to about 70 percent of the time this season. That figure is pretty much the same regardless of whether the hitter is lefty or righty. Against Betts, he pumped in two straight fastballs that the Dodger outfielder, showing uncharacteristic passivity, took for two called strikes. Rather than, say, try to spot a chase slider out of the zone, Matzek confronted Betts with another fastball, this one a little higher than the others. Betts swung and missed for the third strike and the third out.
This is called chambering your fastball and going right at one of the best hitters in baseball:
Braves' chances of winning Game 6: 86.7 percent.
It all looked a little something like this:
He wasn't done. Matzek worked a perfect eighth -- a strikeout and two groundouts -- on six pitches (five of which were sliders) to get the ball to closer Will Smith. It marked just the second time this season that he pitched two innings. The first time was back on July 29.
With the clutch effort, Matzek lowered his 2021 postseason ERA to 1.74 with 17 strikeouts in 10 1/3 innings. Most essentially, we may be talking about the Braves' fading chances against the mighty Dodgers in Game 7 if not for Matzek's white-knuckled work on Saturday night.
It seems unlikely given that we're talking about a pitcher who was once a washed-out Rockies starting pitcher who was out of baseball as recently as 2017 and revived his career with an indy-league outfit called the Texas AirHogs. If you've watched the 30-year-old pitch since his Braves renaissance, however, then none of it was surprising. The Dodgers would surely "amen" all of that right about now.