Joctober: Pederson’s pinch-hit blast gives Braves 2-1 NLDS lead over Brewers

By Gabriel Burns

The Braves’ July trades changed their season. And one just changed the National League Division Series.

In a series starved for offense, Joc Pederson has been an exception. “Joctober,” as it’s called, is alive and well in Atlanta. Pederson’s three-run pinch-hit homer lifted the Braves past the Brewers, 3-0, in Game 3 at Truist Park on Monday. The Braves are one win away from advancing to their second consecutive NL Championship Series.

Game 3 unfolded similarly to the past two contests. Starters Ian Anderson and Freddy Peralta were matching zeroes. The contest changed in the fifth when the Brewers, trying to spark an anemic offense, lifted Peralta at 57 pitches for a pinch-hitter with two in scoring position.

The decision backfired twice. Milwaukee didn’t manage a run in that frame, wasting their best scoring chance against Anderson, then saw reliever Adrian Houser serve Pederson a middle-high fastball that was deposited into the right-field seats. A scoreless tie became a three-run Braves lead.

A stat to summarize the series: The teams are a combined 2-for-33 with runners in scoring position – but the Braves have both hits. The Brewers are 0-for-16 in that department. Their offensive struggles parallel the Reds’ woes during their wild-card series against the Braves in 2020, when Cincinnati failed to score over two contests and the Braves’ few key hits were enough.

Entering the series, attention centered on pitching – with an acknowledgement that the Braves’ offense was vastly more potent than Milwaukee’s. While the Brewers’ pitching has mostly nerfed the Braves’ bats, the offensive advantage has still come to light. Pederson is an advantage by himself, outproducing the Brewers, 4-2.

The long-time Dodger knows nothing but meaningful games. His first October with the Braves is off to a dashing start: Pederson is 3-for-3 with two homers. While the slugger was the least effective of Jorge Soler, Adam Duvall and Eddie Rosario – the July newcomer outfielders – in the regular season, he’s been the difference when it matters most.

Pederson is an adored teammate. The team constantly remarks about his personality and energy. He showed it in late August, when he showed up to the Braves’ series at Dodger Stadium with blonde hair. He’s shown it in the past week while wearing pearls around his neck. Pederson has repeatedly been asked about the “why” behind his pearls; he never elaborates.

In the past few days, Pederson’s play has done the talking. Runs are at a premium in this series, and Pederson has been a godsend for the Braves.

Pederson’s shot outscored the Brewers’ run production for the entire series (two). It positioned the Braves to finish the series Tuesday in front of their home crowd, a luxury they didn’t have a season ago, when the NLDS and NLCS were played at neutral sites due to the pandemic.

Early indications suggested Monday could become another memorable Braves postseason disaster after a baserunning gaffe. The Braves opened the second with third baseman Austin Riley’s soft infield single and outfielder Adam Duvall’s hit, positioning them to get an early run off Peralta.

Outfielder Eddie Rosario advanced Riley to third. Catcher Travis d’Arnaud then slapped a flyout into left field, allowing Riley to run home. But Duvall was nabbed inexplicably running to second, resulting in an inning-ending double play that erased the run.

Ultimately, it proved inconsequential. The Braves seemingly had a small margin for error Monday, but Pederson’s blast rendered Duvall’s miscue a footnote. Such is possible with the Braves’ mashing ability.

The Brewers squandered a scoring chance two innings later. They had runners at second and third against Anderson in the fourth. Shortstop Dansby Swanson, a Gold Glove contender, made an eye-popping diving stop to prevent Lorenzo Cain’s ball from reaching the outfield. Swanson fired home for out No. 1.

Then the game-deciding sequence: Brewers manager Craig Counsell lifted Peralta for pinch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach. Peralta, who surrendered three hits in four innings, would’ve faced the bottom of the Braves’ lineup before the third time through the order. Counsell knew his team couldn’t afford another missed offensive opportunity. He was right.

Vogelbach hit a chopper to third and Luis Urias was caught in a rundown between third and home for the second out. Kolten Wong, who’s among the many Brewers enduring a tough series, lined out to first to end the inning.

Anderson, meanwhile, pitched his best outing since returning from a shoulder injury in late August. He allowed three hits across five scoreless innings, striking out six without issuing a walk. In his second October, he appeared just as comfortable as a year ago, when he had a 0.96 ERA over four playoff starts.

The Braves’ starting pitching has been spectacular through three games. Charlie Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson have combined to allow two runs on nine hits over 17 innings. They’ve struck out 24 and walked one.

When the Braves clinched the NL East, they said they believed a postseason run was possible largely because of their starting pitching. Those starters – along with a bullpen that hasn’t allowed a run – have met or exceeded every hope, outdueling a staff that’s arguably the best in MLB.

The team that wins Game 3 of a best-of-give series advances 72% of the time. The Braves will try to do just that Tuesday at home. They planned to announce their pitching plans following Monday’s game.

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