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Dodgers’ mistakes, missed chances lead to walk-off loss to Braves in NLCS Game 1

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VIDEO | 02:05
Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and Trea Turner discuss NLCS Game 1 loss

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and second baseman Trea Turner talk about the team’s 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday.

The Dodgers were one timely hit, one blast, one crooked number away from withstanding the Atlanta Braves’ best punch Saturday night.

They successfully countered Atlanta ace Max Fried with a mix of relievers to give themselves chances against their opponents’ weakest link — a bullpen that doesn’t feature the depth of the Dodgers’ relief corps. All the Dodgers needed to take Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, a clash they’re heavily favored to win to advance to the World Series again, was some life from a lineup with blinding star power.

But the mercurial offense didn’t produce for the final five innings, and the disappearing act cost them in a 3-2, walk-off loss at Truist Park.

Moments after Chris Taylor blundered on the bases to squash a two-out rally in the top of the ninth inning, Atlanta’s Austin Riley went to the plate to face Blake Treinen with one out after Ozzie Albies singled. Albies then stole second base on the first pitch to Riley to get into scoring position, leaving first base open.

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Dodgers baserunner Chris Taylor is tagged out by Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson in the ninth inning Oct. 16, 2021.
Dodgers baserunner Chris Taylor is tagged out by Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson after being caught in a ninth-inning rundown.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

A year ago, Riley clubbed a go-ahead home run off Treinen in the ninth inning in Game 1 of the NLCS in the Texas bubble. On Saturday, Riley, who emerged as a dark horse most-valuable-player candidate this season, swatted a solo home run in the fourth inning to tie the Braves’ first NLCS game at home in 20 years.

After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he considered intentionally walking Riley. But he chose to have Treinen pitch to him with former Dodger Joc Pederson, a left-handed slugger, on deck because he liked the matchup against Riley better. The decision backfired. Treinen left a slider over the plate, and Riley lined it down the left-field line for a single to give the underdog Braves a 1-0 series lead.

“You dream of that as a little kid,” Riley said.

The Dodgers collect 10 hits and 14 strikeouts yet still manage to stagger and stumble to a disappointing loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the NLCS.

The Dodgers, who rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Braves last year, squandered prime chances to take the lead in the seventh and ninth innings. Taylor led off the seventh with a double and advanced to third base on Austin Barnes’ sacrifice bunt for the top of the Dodgers’ lineup. But Mookie Betts popped out in foul territory and Trea Turner struck out against left-hander Tyler Matzek to strand Taylor.

“God was that huge,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

The Braves' Ozzie Albies, right, celebrates with ex-Dodger Joc Pederson after scoring.
The Braves’ Ozzie Albies celebrates with ex-Dodger Joc Pederson (22) after scoring the winning run on Austin Riley’s ninth-inning single.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Two innings later, Taylor worked a two-out walk against Braves closer Will Smith before Cody Bellinger, pinch-hitting in the pitcher’s spot, looped a single to right field to set the stage for Taylor’s miscue.

Taylor raced around second base as if he was headed to third base but stopped a third of the way there as Pederson threw to second base. After a brief rundown, shortstop Dansby Swanson tagged out Taylor to end the inning. Taylor slammed his head into Swanson’s knee trying to avoid the tag and slammed his helmet in frustration.

“It was just a bad read,” Taylor said. “I saw it barely got over Albies’ head, and I thought I could get to third. I didn’t realize Joc had it that quick and tried to stop. I should have kept going.”

Photos from Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves at Truist Park in Atlanta on Saturday night, where the Braves won in the ninth with a walk-off single by Austin Riley.

Ultimately, despite compiling 10 hits, the Dodgers scored fewer than four runs for the fifth time in seven games in these playoffs. They went one for eight with runners in scoring position and left seven runners on base. The Braves, who have advanced this far without perennial All-Star Ronald Acuña Jr. since early July, struck out 14 times against eight Dodgers pitchers. Freddie Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, had four of the strikeouts. They put just two runners in scoring position, but both scored.

“We prevented runs all night,” Roberts said. “We didn’t not win the game because we didn’t prevent runs. We just didn’t get the hits when we needed.”

In the Dodgers’ previous game in Atlanta, Trevor Bauer started and saw his spin rate plummet days after Major League Baseball announced it would crack down on pitchers using banned substances to doctor baseballs. Bauer blamed the sudden drop on humidity. It went without saying that he stopped using sticky stuff.

That was June 6. Less than a month later, Bauer was placed on paid administrative leave after being accused of sexual assault. The next day, Clayton Kershaw suffered a forearm injury. The absences left the Dodgers with an unexpected problem. After breaking spring training with a starting pitching surplus, they had a shortage.

Instead of filling both holes with a conventional starter, the Dodgers used a four-man rotation and opted for bullpen games whenever the fifth spot came up. They used the same strategy for a stretch earlier in the season when Dustin May blew out his elbow May 1.

The Dodgers preferred not going that route. If they did, they wouldn’t have committed $102 million to Bauer in February. It was a blueprint championed by clubs, notably the Tampa Bay Rays, that couldn’t afford elite starting pitching. They figured out it was more effective — and cost efficient — to regularly deploy a stream of quality relievers. For the Dodgers, it was a last resort until they acquired Max Scherzer at the July 30 trade deadline.

Using pitchers as openers has strategic value but is it good for the game? Dodgers starter Max Scherzer doesn’t think it’s something fans like to see.

“I hated it,” Roberts said before the game Saturday. “It wasn’t baseball. I like to see the starters, and starters go deep, but when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line.”

The Dodgers went 11-9 in bullpen games during the season — defined here as a starter pitching three or fewer innings by design. That experience laid the groundwork for them to use an opener with Julio Urías in the chamber in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Corey Knebel opened, tossed a scoreless first inning, and the Dodgers won 2-1 to advance to their fifth NLCS in six years.

And there was Knebel on the mound to open Game 1 on Saturday, becoming the first Dodger to start back-to-back postseason games since Kershaw in 2017.

Dodgers starting pitcher Corey Knebel delivers a pitch during the first inning.
Corey Knebel was the Dodgers’ opener Saturday, starting a second consecutive playoff game. The Dodgers used eight pitchers in the loss.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers’ other option was having Scherzer start. But Scherzer said his arm was tired Friday after throwing 13 pitches in the ninth inning Thursday. He explained he probably would have been limited Saturday to somewhere between 60 and 90 pitches. He’ll instead start Game 2 on Sunday. Walker Buehler will follow in Game 3 and Urías will start Game 4.

“That’s what made the most sense, just go pitch Game 2 and then you’re on a full slate,” Scherzer said. “And we know how to navigate games when I’m at full capacity.”

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says it was an easy call to give Max Scherzer, 37, an extra day of rest and tab him to start Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday.

Unlike Thursday, Knebel didn’t survive his one inning unscathed. Eddie Rosario lined a leadoff single, stole second base, took third on a groundout and scored with two outs on a wild pitch that catcher Will Smith should’ve caught.

The Dodgers responded in the top of the second with their own two-out run. First, AJ Pollock hit a line drive off Fried to right field over Pederson, who would’ve caught the ball with a better route, for a double. Taylor then lined a curveball for an RBI single.

The seesaw continued in the fourth inning. Smith smashed an 0-and-2 fastball from Fried for a solo home run in the top of the inning. Riley matched him in the bottom of the inning with a solo shot off Tony Gonsolin.

The Dodgers' Will Smith celebrates his solo home run in the fourth inning Oct. 16, 2021.
Will Smith is pumped up after homering in the fourth inning, but the Dodgers scored fewer than four runs for the fifth time in seven postseason games.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Fried, meanwhile, gave the Braves a performance they needed against a lineup that featured seven right-handed hitters — pitcher not included. The Studio City Harvard-Westlake graduate gave up two runs over six innings, scattering eight hits without a walk. He was pulled with the game tied.

“He’s got four pitches that are unique,” Turner said. “He’s always a battle.”

The sides continued exchanging zeroes until the ninth inning when Riley stepped in the box for the fourth time. Treinen started the at-bat with a slider over the plate for a called strike as Albies stole second base. Treinen then went back to the pitch in nearly the same spot. Riley pounced the second time, leaving the Dodgers in another 1-0 hole to overcome.


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