The Dodgers’ latest late-inning, game-changing salvo began with a two-out single in their 8-3 win Friday night. Pinch-hitter A.J. Pollock, limited by a sore groin, supplied it off the bench against Atlanta Braves right-hander Mike Soroka in the seventh inning. It was an inconspicuous launch. Soroka had been keeping the Dodgers in check. Trouble did not appear forthcoming for the hosts as they tried to snatch the first of three games at SunTrust Park between the top two teams in the National League this weekend.
But Braves manager Brian Snitker decided to remove his ace there, after 95 pitches, while nursing a one-run lead with the top of the Dodgers’ order due up. He opted to turn to his flammable bullpen, the defect that has kept the Braves from running away with the National League East, and summoned left-hander Sean Newcomb. The Dodgers responded by pinch-hitting Kyle Garlick, a right-handed batter, for Joc Pederson, a left-handed batter. Los Angeles won the chess battle. Newcomb walked Garlick and danger suddenly loomed.
What followed was the conclusion to a stunning barrage few teams in the majors can conceive. Max Muncy fell behind 0-2 on two curveballs against Newcomb. The next pitch, another curveball, looped at Muncy’s knees, a smidge below the strike zone. Muncy, anticipating the breaking ball, laid off. Two pitches later, Muncy, after fouling off a 97-mph fastball, demolished a curveball over the right-center field wall. He admired it with his trademark bat flip. His dugout burst with commotion.
The three-run shot gave Los Angeles a two-run lead and Muncy his second straight season with at least 30 home runs.
“It’s a cool number,” Muncy said. “It’s fun. It means a lot, considering where I came from not too long ago. It’s fun.”
Just as the celebration ended, Justin Turner whacked Newcomb’s next pitch over the center-field fence for his fifth home run in five games, marking the 14th time the Dodgers have slugged back-to-back home runs this season. An inning later, Will Smith nailed the left-field foul pole for a two-run homer. The blast — Smith’s 10th home run this season — was the Dodgers’ 22nd homer over the last five games, setting a major league record.
“When you have a roster full of Justin Turners and Max Muncys,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “it makes me look really good, it makes the Dodgers look really good.”
Kenta Maeda was mercurial over 4 2/3 innings before Adam Kolarek tossed 1 1/3 scoreless frames and Julio Urias closed the win out with a three-inning save as the Dodgers (82-42) moved 10 games ahead of their closest competition in the National League.
Fastball command is the most important variable for Maeda. When he’s precise with the pitch, affording him a third option to complement his plus slider and changeup, he can become dominant. That was the case in his previous outing, when he recorded seven scoreless innings. When he’s not, it can get ugly. His outing Friday was an apropos demonstration.
Maeda’s command was absent in the second inning and, consequently, the results were disastrous. He allowed three hits and issued three walks, which the Braves (72-52) converted into three runs. It could’ve been worse for Maeda; Freddie Freeman crushed a 336-foot line drive to Joc Pederson in right field for the third out to leave the bases loaded.
Then it all clicked for Maeda. He struck out seven straight batters between the third and fifth innings. All were swinging. His victims included Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies and Freeman, the vaunted top third of Atlanta’s lineup. Then it quickly deteriorated for Maeda. With two outs in the fifth inning, he gave up a two-out single to Josh Donaldson and followed it with a walk to Brian McCann. It was Maeda’s fourth on the night, tying his season high. That spelled the conclusion to his night after striking out nine and throwing 87 pitches.
“He didn’t use the fastball effectively [early],” Roberts said. “Wasn’t convicted with it. And I think it was the fourth inning when he started to kind of go after it and start being on the attack more. You saw the swing-and-miss and that made his secondaries play up. And that’s what we’ve talked about with him time and time again.”
Soroka outlasted Maeda, but fell one out short of completing seven innings for the fourth straight start. The right-hander entered the night with the lowest home-run rate among qualified starters this season, but served one up to Cody Bellinger in the second inning. Bellinger turned on a 1-0 fastball and deposited it over the wall in right-center field for his 41st home run.
Los Angeles added another run in the third when Matt Beaty smacked a leadoff double and Pederson drove him in with a single. That was all the Dodgers would muster off Soroka. He delivered a quality outing, holding the highest-scoring offense in the National League to two runs on seven hits and three walks across 6 2/3 innings.
But the Braves’ bullpen, a group Atlanta hoped would improve after adding three relievers at the trade deadline, continued sabotaging the club, blowing the lead before it could get an out. The blows were suffocating, landing before the Braves could emerge for air, and the latest example of an offense capable of anything at anytime.
Dustin May was originally listed to start in Sunday’s series finale against the Braves, but Roberts said he will not make the start. Instead, the plan is for the 21-year-old prospect to pitch an inning or two out of the bullpen. Roberts said Tony Gonsolin, currently with triple-A Oklahoma City, could make the start and a bullpen game is also a possibility. … Utility players Chris Taylor (left forearm fracture) and Enrique Hernandez (left hand sprain) are tentatively scheduled to return “sometime in the middle of next week,” Roberts said. Taylor began a rehab assignment with single-A Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday. Hernandez was slated to begin his with the Dodgers’ Arizona Summer League team. … The Dodgers swapped right-handers with triple-A Oklahoma City on Friday, optioning JT Chargois and recalling Josh Sborz.