MacAdam: NLCS moment wasn’t too big for Shen’s Ian Anderson

KEVIN JAIRAJ/USA TODAY SPORTSAtlanta Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson is all smiles as he walks off the mound after the first inning of the NLCS Game 7 in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday.

KEVIN JAIRAJ/USA TODAY SPORTS

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson is all smiles as he walks off the mound after the first inning of the NLCS Game 7 in Arlington, Texas, on Sunday.

Categories: Sports

There’s no crying in baseball.

Apparently there is laughing, however.

And numbers, with acronyms like WAR and DICE and VORP and BABIP and GIDPO. But not for everything (although some wizard with too much time is probably working on a way to calculate LAFFF, Laughter As Function of Firing Fastball).

That was Ian Anderson on the Atlanta Braves’ bench on Sunday night, having just struck out Max Muncy swinging to end the first inning. Game 7, National League Championship Series, World Series berth on the line. The real thing, not throwing at a tire swing in the backyard as a kid, imagining such a moment, and how you’d handle it.

The TV camera showed the former Shenendehowa High School star from Rexford cackling it up with his teammates, a 22-year-old starting pitcher thoroughly enjoying himself, despite facing the white-hot intensity and pressure of an NLCS Game 7 while less than two months removed from pandemic-induced alternate-site training ball in the minors.

Anderson got roughed up in the third inning, showed some 22-year-old nerves and collar sweat, and the Braves went on to lose to the L.A. Dodgers 4-3.

But he clearly showed that he belongs at this level now, after having worked his way up the ladder of the Braves’ organization. The numbers tell much of the story, but the way Anderson handled himself in the MLB postseason and fearlessly embraced the challenge are just as good an indicator that this is his home now.

“The first thing is he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity, and those opportunities don’t always come,” said Greg Christodulu, Anderson’s head coach at Shenendehowa. “There’s a lot of things that took place that were out of his control, teammates getting injured and so forth.

“So that opportunity presented itself, and that’s something we always talk about in our program. When he got the call-up, he knew that was his time.”

Leave it to Hall of Famer and FOX analyst John Smoltz to describe what it’s like to start on the mound in a Game 7.

As Anderson was facing the Dodgers in the third inning, Smoltz said “it’s going to be the longest game you ever pitch.”

“You’re concentrating on every hitter like it’s the last hitter you’re going to face. That’s the only way I knew how to approach it. You’d never do that in a regular-season game. You would be drained. There’s no way to get through five of those games.

“So what you find yourself doing is grinding on every pitch and hoping that, when you get through an inning, you do that again, and again. You can get into the fourth inning feeling like it’s the eighth, but that’s part of what goes into these kind of games.”

As relaxed and loose as Anderson looked early, his rookie stripes started to show in the second and third.

He got the signs crossed up with catcher Travis d’Arnaud for a passed ball in the second, then, as he did in the first, got out of that mess with a swinging strikeout.

His third inning was marked by some neck flexes to try to relax, lip-licking and several peeks at the sign system printed on the inside front of his cap.

The Dodgers, who scored 11 runs on two outs in the first inning of Game 3, will do that to a guy.

It didn’t help that the Braves had just been set down on five pitches in the top of the third.

“The two things I noticed, basically being glued to that game, was he had a short recovery after a 20-plus pitch [second] inning,” Christodulu said. “I noticed on the mound visit from the dugout that his breathing was heavy, and then I think he was reaching for some adrenaline to finish that third inning.

“Until now, he’s been a cool cucumber, and he was trying to slow things down, but his adrenaline and his heart rate were a little up.”

So was the velocity on Anderson’s money change-up, Christodulu noticed, while the spin on the curveball didn’t have its usual bite.

He was one strike away from getting out of the third, on a 1-2 count against Justin Turner, but walked him, and not long after, the Dodgers had tied it 2-2.

Those were the only runs Anderson gave up in four playoff games, a remarkable feat for someone who was called up in late August for his major league debut.

While he has been gradually working his way up the Braves’ system, Anderson made a rush into the spotlight this season that reminded Christodulu of Anderson’s sophomore year at Shen, when he helped a senior-heavy team led by Justin Yurchak (now in the Dodgers organization) reach the state championship. As a senior, Anderson spearheaded the Plainsmen’s run to their first-ever state title.

If Anderson didn’t appear to be nervous on Sunday — at least not to start — his former high school coach can’t make the same claim.

“Yee-eaah. I was blocking it out all day, then it was 5 o’clock, 5:30 started rolling around, and I had the same butterflies when he pitched for us, and I had the same butterflies when he pitched in the state semifinals and regionals and championship,” Christodulu said. “It’s a good feeling, though, and I’m sure Ian had similar feelings.

“And I like to think the experiences he had with us helped him in those moments where he knew how to channel his energy and his focus.”

“It was a lot of energy, that’s for sure,” Anderson said in the postgame Zoom conference call. “Wish I could’ve been out there a little bit longer, giving the team a little bit more. But at the end of the day, I felt like I left everything out there.

“I learned quite a bit, that I have what it takes to be up here and can contribute to the team.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker echoed that.

“He was off a little bit. That’s OK. He’s … ,” Snitker said, interrupting himself to let out a little chuckle. “He’s had an unbelievable postseason. He only gave up two runs the whole time in his whole postseason career so far as a major leaguer. That’s going to happen. It could happen to anybody. That kid had an unbelievable year, an unbelievable postseason and we’re really excited about this boy’s future.”

Having been assigned to do rewrites off the TV for both of Anderson’s NLCS starts, I’ve watched more baseball in the last week than I have in the last three years, probably. No kidding. That can happen, when you’re a lifetime Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

So I’ve watched seemingly endless pregame analysis of Anderson’s pitching, how his devilish change-up contrasts with his fastball, complemented by his curve, with colored graphic ball tracking.

What sticks, though, is that image of him cracking up in the dugout after the first inning of Game 7, a 22-year-old comfortable in his own skin and his station on this ballclub.

“I think it’s part of his DNA and personality, which helps,” Smoltz said. “Talking to Brian Snitker, he said, ‘Yep, that’s the way he’s been all year, even between games, he’s sitting on the bench.’

“That’s something you can’t measure. We’ve got measurable statistics for everything in this game, but the one thing we don’t have is the heartbeat and the mental toughness. We haven’t got, that I know of, a number that computes to that, and that’s where you rely on that particular person’s personality.” 

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