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Dodgers fail to put away Braves in Game 3; series lead now 2-1

Dodgers fail to put away Braves in Game 3; series lead now 2-1
Dodgers Matt Kemp is tagged out by Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki in the sixth inning on Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Justin Turner slipped off his helmet as red fireworks burst above the ballpark. Max Muncy hung his arms over the dugout railing while a techno song from 1999 rattled the rafters of SunTrust Park. Manny Machado had already disappeared inside the clubhouse, where the Dodgers gathered to lick their wounds after a 6-5 defeat to Atlanta in Game 3 of the National League Division Series cost them a chance for a sweep.

The game revealed the paradox of the Dodgers offense. The duo of Muncy and Chris Taylor slugged a pair of home runs early in the night, exhibiting enough might to erase a five-run deficit created by rookie starter Walker Buehler. Turner led a brigade of batters who kept innings alive. Yet as the game drifted toward its conclusion, the hitters could not find a lone tally to match a solo home run struck by Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman off Alex Wood in the sixth inning.

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“We did a great job battling back — had lots of opportunities,” Turner said. “We just fell a little bit short tonight.”

In October, a little can feel more sizable. The importance of this defeat might not be felt until after Game 4, but it still stung Sunday. The Dodgers went one for nine with runners in scoring position, stranded nine runners and struck out eight times. They took nine walks and collected seven hits, yet could not break through as the crowd grew uneasy during late innings of the first playoff game played at this ballpark.

The ninth inning encapsulated the frustration. Joc Pederson finished a 10-pitch leadoff at-bat by roping a hellacious single off Braves closer Arodys Vizcaino. Turner followed with a walk. Vizcaino threw three straight balls to Muncy, as the fearful fans sat on their giveaway props and murmured.

They would rise to their feet moments later. Vizcaino overpowered Muncy with a trio of fastballs. He fooled Machado with an 88-mph slider. Brian Dozier had no chance picking up the final wipeout slider of the evening, and the opportunity went for naught.

“We had our chances,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And those guys made some pitches and got out of some traffic, but our guys stressed them, got on base, and gave ourselves an opportunity. But to take us over the top and take the lead again, we couldn’t get that one extra hit.”

And so the Dodgers were forced to spend another day in Georgia, unable to secure a spot against Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series. Rich Hill will start Game 4 on Monday afternoon, facing Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz, who lasted only two innings in Game 1.

Atlanta may need to empty its bullpen as it did Sunday, using six pitchers behind starter Sean Newcomb.

Newcomb had finished one out shy of a no-hitter when he faced the Dodgers here July 29, but the team still had reason for confidence. Buehler was making his postseason debut after a triumphant finish to his regular season, silencing Colorado in Game 163 to clinch the National League West. Buehler thrived in the electricity that afternoon at Dodger Stadium. A different challenge awaited him Sunday.

In Atlanta, Buehler faced an offense in search of its first postseason run. Hyun-Jin Ryu logged seven scoreless innings in Game 1. Clayton Kershaw topped his teammate by going eight in Game 2. Buehler intended to lengthen the scoreless streak — except it ended in the game’s second inning.

After a five-pitch first inning for Buehler, the Braves tried something different their next time up. Their lineup does not overflow with patient hitters. But they could recognize a pitcher losing his command.

Nick Markakis, the All-Star outfielder, led off with a four-pitch walk. Buehler gave up a two-out single to second baseman Ozzie Albies. Cody Bellinger fumbled the ball in center field, which let Albies advance to second. With a base open, Roberts intentionally walked former Dodger Charlie Culberson so Buehler could face Newcomb.

Buehler promptly lost his grip on the game. He let fastballs leak up and away, unable to make contact with the strike zone. A visit from catcher Yasmani Grandal did not settle down Buehler. Grandal saw that Buehler “was battling something that he wasn’t feeling, at the time,” Grandal said. He tried to set a target, but Buehler could not connect. Newcomb walked on four pitches.

“Sometimes you just lose it,” Buehler said.

Inside the maelstrom of chanting fans, Buehler searched for both his release point and an escape route. Neither would appear against fellow rookie sensation Ronald Acuna. Buehler stuck with the fastball at 3-1. Acuna crushed the baseball into the left-field seats to become the youngest player in postseason history to hit a grand slam. Buehler tugged at his jersey and stared at the scoreboard.

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“There’s no excuse for the second inning,” Buehler said. “We’ll learn from it.”

The Dodgers produced a pair of runs in the third inning, yet missed a chance for more. After Newcomb issued two walks and exited, Turner hit an RBI single off Braves pitcher Kevin Gausman. An additional run scored when Acuna overran the baseball. Two batters later, Machado swung over a 3-2 splitter to strand two runners.

The disappointment evaporated in the fifth. A walk by Grandal set up Taylor. When Gausman hung a splitter, Taylor whacked it into the Dodgers bullpen to cut the lead to one.

“I was just trying to see something up, to not chase that pitch down,” Taylor said. “He left one up and in, and I was able to get inside of it.”

Gausman exited one batter later, with two outs and Muncy at the plate. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker sent left-handed pitcher Max Fried for Muncy. Despite his status as a platoon player, Muncy still produced an .891 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties during the regular season. He unleashed his brawn on a belt-high curveball. Muncy flipped his bat as the game-tying solo shot cleared the right-center fence.

At this point, the evening felt familiar. The Dodgers had hammered their way back into a deadlock. More runs looked certain. Machado flied out to the warning track to end the fifth, but still the momentum belonged with the visitors.

That feeling evaporated in the sixth. At the plate, they wasted a leadoff double by Matt Kemp, who was cut down trying to score from third base on a grounder from Enrique Hernandez, then failed to score with the bases loaded against skittish reliever Touki Toussaint. In the bottom of the inning, Freeman hammered a first-pitch curveball for a go-ahead homer off Wood.

The Dodgers blew another opportunity in the eighth. Brian Dozier came off the bench with a single against Braves reliever A.J. Minter. He advanced to second base on a wild pitch. A two-out walk by Grandal brought Yasiel Puig to the plate. Minter pumped an 0-1 fastball at the shins. Puig decided to swing. He tapped a grounder into Culberson’s glove for the third out.

Then came the ninth, when two more runners walked off the diamond, unable to be brought home by their teammates. The loss did not dishearten the group. The Dodgers can still finish this series Monday.

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They would have preferred a flight home instead.

“We scored five runs,” Turner said. “We scored runs. Just a couple times, didn’t get it done.”

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