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Dodgers still have reasons for optimism despite huge NLCS hole against Braves

Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy celebrates after hitting a two-run, ninth-inning home run against the Atlanta Braves.
Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy celebrates after hitting a two-run, ninth-inning home run against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Only one time this regular season did the Dodgers take a true “punch in the mouth,” as Mookie Betts called it.

It came on Sept. 14, when the San Diego Padres pulled within 1 ½ games of the Dodgers’ division lead with a 7-2 win at Petco Park. Afterward, the team “had a talk amongst ourselves,” according to Betts. They resolved to bounce back from the blindside blow.

Then, they closed the season on a 10-2 run, clinched the best record in baseball and swept the first two rounds of the playoffs.

“I’m glad it happened at the time,” Betts said recently. “Now we know what to expect.”

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Echoed manager Dave Roberts: “Everyone’s going to get punched in the mouth at some point in time. It’s how you respond.”

That resiliency will be tested again this week, with the Dodgers trailing two-games-to-none in the National League Championship Series following Tuesday’s 8-7 defeat to the Atlanta Braves.

“It’s never over until it’s over,” shortstop Corey Seager said. “This is a long series. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

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A challenge it will be. Of the 85 teams that have ever lost the first two games of a best-of-seven MLB playoff series, only 13 came back to win. The Dodgers accounted for three of those (the 1955, 1965 and 1981 World Series), but it’s been 16 years since the last time the sport has seen it happen.

“You’ve still got to win four of them,” said Roberts, a member of the Boston Red Sox team that most recently pulled off such a comeback by turning around a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 ALCS. “Our only focus is on tomorrow night now and how we can find a way to win a baseball game.”

What will it take for the Dodgers to begin digging out of this two-game hole?

Replicating their late-inning offense from Tuesday’s game would be a good place to start.

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Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger yells, "Let's go!" to teammates after hitting an RBI triple.
Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger yells, “Let’s go!” to teammates after hitting an RBI triple with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

After scoring only one run in the series’ first 15 innings, the Dodgers mounted a furious rally at the end of Game 2. Down 7-0 in the seventh, Corey Seager snapped a one-for-six skid with a three-run homer. In the ninth, he added an RBI double that got the Dodgers within 8-4.

Max Muncy hit his first home run of the postseason later in the ninth inning. Then Cody Bellinger ended an eight at-bat hitless streak with a triple that cut the Braves’ lead to one. The Dodgers didn’t complete the comeback, but every batter ended the game with at least one hit.

“I definitely think that’s some momentum we can take into tomorrow,” Roberts said, adding, “We were scratching and clawing, and they still got to beat us a couple more times.”

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The Dodgers could have an advantage in upcoming pitching matchups too.

Julio Urías will start Wednesday’s Game 3 after going 3-0 with a 3.27 earned-run average in the regular season. Clayton Kershaw could pitch Game 4 if the back spasms that caused him to be scratched Tuesday subside. And a potential Game 5 could go to swingman Dustin May or Walker Buehler on short rest.

Dodger Stadium hosted a watch party for fans to watch the NLCS in the parking lot from their cars, and though only 300 tickets were sold, it was enjoyable.

The Braves will give Game 3 to Kyle Wright, a right-hander who was 2-4 with a 5.21 ERA in the regular season but enters Wednesday’s game on a streak of four consecutive quality starts.

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After that, however, the only other pitchers on Atlanta’s roster with more than two regular-season starts are rookie Huascar Ynoa, who had a 5.82 ERA and didn’t work more than four innings in any game, and Josh Tomlin, who has been back in the bullpen since mid-September.

The Dodgers are optimistic they can wear down that Braves’ bullpen too. Closer Mark Melancon and set-up man Chris Martin each were needed in both of the first two games. The Braves have already used seven different relievers overall.

“The more we can see them,” Seager said, “the better off we’re going to be.”

The Dodgers though, are still the team with their back against the ropes. They still have the shakier looking bullpen. They’ve still hardly stopped Atlanta’s dynamic offense. And now they’ll have to balance a short-term survival plan with the need to sustain their pitching staff for a potentially long series.

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Photos from Game 2 of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

“You just can’t play every game regardless of score, like it’s life or death in a seven-game series,” Roberts said.

Only, it’s starting to feel more and more like a do-or-die situation.

The Dodgers can’t afford keeping their guard up much longer. They can’t sit back and absorb many more punches. Getting back in this series will require a non-stop flurry from a roster they’ve continually praised for its resiliency and depth.

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They’ve been punched in the mouth again. And they don’t have much time to get back up.

“Nothing’s gonna be given to us, obviously,” Seager said. “So come out and take good ABs, get in the strike zone, pitching, attacking people, and good things will happen.”


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