Sunday at SunTrust Park marked the conclusion of a possible playoff series preview, perhaps a matchup for the National League pennant, and only one team treated it that way.
The Atlanta Braves are scrapping to maintain their grip on the National League East. They are attempting to optimize their performance in the moment. Winning remains paramount. The Dodgers are thinking about October. They entered the series finale with an 18-1/2-game lead in the National League West. They will claim their seventh consecutive division title barring a monumental collapse. Homefield advantage throughout the playoffs is the only carrot dangling for them.
As a result, they continued holding auditions in their 5-3 loss Sunday, running players out as they experiment during this dress rehearsal for the playoffs they call a regular season.
Jedd Gyorko, acquired at the trade deadline, was activated from the 60-day injured list to make his first start at first base in two years for his Dodgers debut. It was his first game since June 7. Prospect Tony Gonsolin was recalled from triple A to make his third career start and Dustin May, another prospect, was used as a conventional reliever in a regular-season game for the first time since his first minor-league season in 2016.
The approach was a success until May entered in the sixth inning with a two-run lead. Cody Bellinger had struck again for a three-run home run and Gonsolin had pushed through the oppressive humidity to hold Atlanta to one run in four innings. But May served up a grand slam to Rafael Ortega to give the Braves a lead that allowed them to claim the series victory.
“It was a good series,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Those guys came in to win a series. They played well. And that was fun. But as far as a barometer, I don’t really think it was [one].”
The Dodgers (82-44) led in the first inning on Bellinger’s blast that Braves center fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. nearly robbed with a leap at the wall. But the ball bounced out of his glove. It was Bellinger’s fifth home run in seven games, league-leading 42nd overall, and 15th off a left-hander, the most in the majors.
The Dodgers had eight of their first 11 batters reach base. The Dodgers appeared poised for a rout against left-hander Max Fried. But Fried, a Studio City Harvard-Westlake High product, recovered to hold the Dodgers scoreless over his final four innings.
In the third inning, Acuna lofted a fly ball to right that he thought was landing over the wall. He admired it, slowly walking out of the batter’s box, before realizing it didn’t have the distance. The ball bounced off the wall and Acuna settled for a single. Moments later, he was caught attempting to steal second base. Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled him the next inning for the lack of hustle.
The All-Star’s blunders helped Gonsolin limit Atlanta (74-52) over his four innings. The right-hander allowed five hits and struck out five without a walk. Roberts said he noticed Gonsolin laboring in the fourth inning, when Adeiny Hechavarria hit a two-out RBI double, and chose to remove Gonsolin after 72 pitches.
“I wouldn’t say the stamina was getting down or anything like that,” Gonsolin said. “I think I can do a better job of staying hydrated, for sure.”
Gonsolin’s and May’s roles are not set. With Rich Hill’s status for the postseason still unknown — he could return as a reliever or starter — the Dodgers are keeping their No. 4 starter options open after Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. They could decide to fill the spot conventionally with Hill, Gonsolin, May or Julio Urias. Or they could have multiple pitchers throw three to four innings.
Before the game, Roberts said Urias, who began serving a 15-game suspension for his May arrest on suspicion of domestic battery, will build his endurance at Camelback Ranch during his ban in preparation to start games. He is eligible to go on a rehab assignment Aug. 27. Roberts said Gonsolin would remain in the starting rotation for at least one more turn, meaning he is in line to start against the New York Yankees at Dodger Stadium next weekend.
May will remain in the bullpen “for the near future,” but his role could change again, according to Roberts. May, the organization’s top pitching prospect, last pitched in relief in the Futures Game and spring-training contests. Those were exhibitions. Sunday provided a new challenge.
May began his outing by getting Josh Donaldson to ground out before walking Brian McCann after a borderline pitch that could’ve been strike three went in McCann’s favor. Matt Joyce followed with a soft single to left field and May plunked Hechavarria with two strikes to load the bases for Ortega. May had Ortega down 1-2 when he threw a center-cut sinker Ortega demolished for his second career home run and first since 2016.
“This is something that we didn’t expect to just be seamless,” Roberts said of employing May in relief. “[This is] to kind of give him an opportunity to learn and get his feet wet.”
It’s an experiment the Dodgers can afford with their eyes on October while others, even their closest competitors, are still clawing to get there.