ATLANTA — Doesn’t this feel familiar.
For a second consecutive year, the Dodgers find themselves trailing the Atlanta Braves two games to none after the opening act of the National League Championship Series, returning home to Los Angeles after a draining, confounding and disappointing pair of defeats at Truist Park that ended on walk-off base hits.
“We’re tired,” utility man Chris Taylor said in the wake of Sunday’s 5-4 loss in Game 2. “We’re ready to get home.”
Once they get home, however, the Dodgers will still need to overcome the odds. Although last year they successfully rallied to win Games 3, 5, 6 and 7 of the NLCS en route to their World Series title, only 14 of 87 teams in major league history that faced a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series managed to come back and win.
For the Dodgers to do so again, here are five keys that could help.
Improve with runners in scoring position
Part of it might be attributed to a small sample size. Part of it might be a credit to the opposing pitchers.
But there’s no doubt the Dodgers’ approach in this series — and for most of the postseason so far — hasn’t been good enough with runners in scoring position either.
After going just one for eight with runners in scoring position in Game 1, the Dodgers stumbled to a one-for-10 performance in such situations (not including four walks and a hit by pitch) during their loss in Game 2.
And at this point, there doesn’t seem to be one simple fix.
Before Sunday’s game, manager Dave Roberts said it felt like his team was too often caught in between being too aggressive or too patient, looking for fastballs or secondary pitches, shortening up or trying to go for the big hit.
“It’s more about just the mindset of being aggressive in your zone and what you’re good at,” he said. “Everything outside of that, try not to offer at it.”
After the Dodgers’ offense left more opportunities on the table again in Game 2 — Taylor was responsible for the only hit with runners in scoring position, a bases-loaded double in the seventh on a soft line drive to center — Roberts offered an even blunter assessment.
Eddie Rosario’s run-scoring single off Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning lifts the Braves to a 5-4 win and a 2-0 lead in the NLCS as it heads to L.A.
“Not very good,” he said about the team’s approach with runners in scoring position. “I don’t need numbers to know what I see. And if we’re going to chase, then there’s no reason for them to throw the ball in the strike zone. So I think that we’ve got to kind of lock in more in the strike zone, and when we do that we’ll have more success.”
It’s becoming a concerning trend. In their eight playoff games, the Dodgers are batting just .191 with runners in scoring position, as opposed to .247 in all other situations. It explains how they’ve outhit their opponents in all but two postseason games this month but won only four of them.
On Monday, Roberts called that lack of situational success the biggest difference between the Dodgers’ performance this postseason compared with last.
And, for all the questionable pitching decisions they made over the weekend in Atlanta, it’s also one of the biggest reasons they find themselves in a two-game hole, needing to win four of the next five in order to keep their World Series title defense alive.
“Anytime guys are in scoring position, you want to try to not do too much and use the whole field, grind them out, take your knocks,” Taylor said. “We got to do a better job of that.”
Lean on Walker Buehler
About that pitching...
After the Dodgers’ intricate — and at times seemingly overcomplicated — plans on the mound blew up on them twice this past weekend, the team will need a workhorse effort from Walker Buehler during the next week, starting with his pivotal start in Tuesday’s Game 3.
“If the baseball sayings are right, you’re only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher,” fellow starter Max Scherzer said. “So we got Walk going on the mound, and we definitely believe we can win with him.”
The deeper Buehler can pitch Tuesday, when he will be coming off six days’ rest, the better it will be for the Dodgers as well.
Baseball’s brainiest team looked downright stupid after deciding to have Julio Urías pitch the eighth inning of a 5-4 NLCS Game 2 loss to the Braves.
That’s because in Game 4 and (potentially) Game 5, the Dodgers will need to lean heavily on their bullpen. Julio Urías will start one of those games — Roberts said that decision will depend on how Tuesday’s game unfolds — but is only expected to throw 75 to 80 pitches coming off his unsuccessful relief appearance Sunday. The other will be a bullpen game, similar to what the Dodgers did in Game 1.
The longer Buehler goes Tuesday, the lighter the burden will be on the bullpen this week.
“With Walker being on extra rest,” Roberts said, “I think to have him, to push him, [to have him] go deeper is certainly a very good option.”
Buehler’s effect might not be limited to only Game 3 either. If the series reaches a decisive seventh game, he would likely be lined up to start again.
Position Julio Urías for success
Whether the Dodgers have achieved this goal over the last week is up for debate.
They’ve defended their recent usage of Urías — first as a bulk reliever in Game 5 of the NLDS, then as a de facto setup man in Sunday’s NLCS Game 2 — but the fact remains that, even if it has been with the pitcher’s full buy-in, the team has asked Urías to pitch in situations he didn’t face during the regular season.
Last October, the Dodgers found the right balance with their burgeoning left-hander, making his transition between traditional starts, bulk relief outings and multi-inning save situations look almost seamless.
The Dodgers’ unnecessary but successful pitching moves in Game 5 of the NLDS vs. the Giants have led to bad decision-making against the Braves in the NLCS.
They will need to rediscover something similar in the coming week, when Urías will not only pitch in Game 4 or Game 5 but could also be needed out of the bullpen in Game 6 or 7 if the series gets there.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate him and trust him and respect him,” Roberts said. “He’s a man, he’s a star player. He’s not that 19-year-old rookie anymore that I think that sometimes I get that in my head, that he’s still this young guy. He’s a seasoned veteran. So whatever he feels today will impact the decision on Game 4 or Game 5. He’ll drive that.”
Pitch cleaner in the clutch
It hasn’t only been Dodgers hitters who have faltered in key situations.
In a series thus far decided on the margins, the Dodgers’ pitching staff has been punished for a few small late-game mistakes.
On Saturday night, Blake Treinen faltered in the ninth, first by allowing Ozzie Albies to steal second base, then by leaving an 0-1 slider over the middle of the plate that Austin Riley lined for the game-winning hit.
“If we execute that 0-1 pitch,” Roberts said Sunday afternoon, “I think that it would be a different conversation today.”
Similar sights resurfaced later in the night.
The Dodgers are in a 2-0 series hole against the Braves, but their penchant for stolen bases in the series is reminiscent of Dave Roberts’ playing prime.
With a runner at second and one out in the eighth inning, it was Urías who failed to execute an 0-1 pitch to Albies, leaving a curveball that was seemingly supposed to be near the inside bottom corner instead hanging over the heart of the plate. Albies shot it to right for an RBI single, then scored on Riley’s RBI double in the next at-bat, erasing the Dodgers’ two-run lead and setting the stage for the Braves’ ninth-inning walk-off.
Those were the kind of moments the Dodgers minimized in the first two rounds, yielding only two runs in the seventh inning or later in six games against the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.
So far, the Braves have already tallied four runs in the seventh inning or later over the NLCS’s first two games.
Combat the Braves’ depth
One of the most surprising aspects of the series so far: Braves slugger and 2020 NL MVP Freddie Freeman is 0 for 8 with seven strikeouts — a shocking stat line for a player who batted .300 with 31 homers this season and collected nine hits and six RBIs in last year’s NLCS meeting between the two teams.
“We still have so much respect for him, and he can get hot at any moment,” Roberts cautioned, before acknowledging, “I think we’ve done a great job of containing him.”
The same can’t be said for other members of the Braves’ lineup.
While Freeman has been silent, Eddie Rosario already has five hits from the leadoff spot, including Sunday’s game-winner. Albies and Riley each have three. And former Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson has two, including a two-run homer off Scherzer on Sunday night that wiped away an early 2-0 Dodgers lead.
Photos from Game 2 of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves at Truist Park in Atlanta on Sunday night, where the Braves won off a walk-off single by Eddie Rosario to win 5-4.
“This is a lot bigger than me,” Pederson said when asked whether it has been weird for him to face his former team. “This is 25 of us pulling and have one common goal. Obviously I’ve been a part of the Dodgers for a long time and they’re a really good team and organization, but right now they’re in the way of our common goal.”
It has given the Braves a balanced offensive attack, their lineup so far matching the Dodgers’ inconsistent bats step-for-step.
And while keeping Freeman in check the rest of the way will of course remain important, there are, as Roberts put it, “some other guys we got to sort of figure out” too.