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Dodgers-Braves Game 3 takeaways: Unsung relievers kept Dodgers close ahead of rally

Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford runs onto the field.
Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford takes the field during the fifth inning in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Last October, the Dodgers blitzed the Atlanta Braves with an 11-run first inning of Game 3 to get back in the National League Championship Series.

On Tuesday, facing an identical 0-2 deficit entering the third game of this year’s NLCS rematch against the Braves, the Dodgers needed late heroics to keep their season from reaching the brink.

With a dramatic 6-5 win at Dodger Stadium, decided during a rollicking four-run eighth inning in which Cody Bellinger tied the score with a three-run homer before Mookie Betts decided it with an RBI double, the Dodgers cut their series deficit in half and snatched all the momentum in the best-of-seven showdown.

“All it takes is a hit or two,” Betts said of the team’s Game 3 comeback. “Then you get some energy, and then you forget, you forget that you’re down 0-2 and whatnot.”

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Here are five takeaways from Game 3.

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Betts’ streaking bat

Dodgers' Mookie Betts hits a go-ahead RBI double during the eighth inning in Game 3 in the 2021 NLCS.
Dodgers’ Mookie Betts hits a go-ahead RBI double during the eighth inning.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He drew the walk that helped the Dodgers open the scoring.

He hit the double that gave them the lead back for good.

Betts might not have had the loudest performance — nor has he had the biggest highlights of these playoffs — but he quietly guided the Dodgers again in Game 3, collecting two hits and two walks.

Unlike in the regular season, when he battled a nagging right hip injury and finished with his lowest batting average (.264) and OPS (.854) in four seasons, Betts has been a model of consistency this month.

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In nine playoff games, he’s batting .300 and has reached on base in almost half of his plate appearances.

After dropping the first two games of the NLCS in Atlanta, Walker Buehler and the Dodgers look to turn the series around Tuesday at Dodger Stadium.

Tuesday was his fifth multi-hit game of the postseason, and the third time in the team’s last four contests he’s gotten aboard at least three times.

And after drawing a leadoff walk and scoring on Corey Seager’s two-run homer in the first, Betts broke a 5-5 tie in the eighth with a double into the right-center field gap three at-bats after Bellinger had leveled the game, collected his first game-winning hit in the eighth inning or later of his postseason career.

“It was a big hit … to build on that momentum [from Bellinger’s home run] and take the lead and not let the momentum we created subside,” manager Dave Roberts said. “They certainly had a lot of arms left in the pen, so to take the lead and get it to our closer was huge.”

Asked postgame what has been the biggest difference between Betts’ regular season and his October outburst, Dodgers hitting coach Brant Brown smiled.

“Hitting on one leg compared to two,” Brown said, referring back to the hip injury that landed Betts on the injured list twice during the second half of the season. “Having him back, with both legs underneath him, has been really nice for us.”

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Jansen’s vintage save

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen reacts on the mound during the ninth inning in Game 3 of the NLCS.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen struck out all three batters he faced.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen began the eighth inning seated in the bullpen. He started to stir once the Dodgers put men on base. Then, after Bellinger’s home run and Betts’ go-ahead double, he quickly got locked in for a sudden save opportunity.

Two nights after throwing one pitch — Eddie Rosario’s walk-off hit in Game 2 — Jansen didn’t give the Braves any late life Tuesday, striking out all three batters he faced in the ninth to pick up his first save of the postseason and continue an October run in which he’s made six appearances without being charged with a run.

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“I’m just trying to be at my best every time I go out there,” Jansen said. “Just do everything I can to help our team win ballgames.”

The last couple postseasons, that meant taking a backseat in some of the biggest moments.

In 2019, Jansen was infamously not used in the Dodgers’ decisive loss in Game 5 of the NLDS until the score was already out of reach. Though he recorded two saves in last year’s championship run, he suffered a postseason-career-worst 5.14 ERA and watched Julio Urías get the final outs of the NLCS and World Series.

The Dodgers have made 20-game winner Julio Urias more of a utility pitcher, and he is set to go on two days’ rest for Game 4 of the NLCS.

This year, however, Jansen has been back in vintage form. He was credited with the win in the wild card game after keeping the contest tied in the ninth. He earned the win again in Game 5 of the NLDS, preserving a tied score a half-inning before his team took the lead.

There wasn’t much he could do about Sunday’s game, inheriting a runner on second before Rosario hit a sharp one-hopper that got past shortstop Corey Seager.

But the Dodgers defense didn’t have to make a play behind him Tuesday. Jansen instead froze Austin Riley for a called third strike, fanned Joc Pederson with an elevated sinker, then ended the game by getting Adam Duvall to swing through another sinker over the outer edge.

“For me, it’s just keep competing,” Jansen said when asked if he feels like he’s proving something with his performance in the playoffs. “This game is bigger than me. You’re competing for your family. You’re competing for the organization. As long as I have a uniform on, I’m going to continue to compete and get better and do my best.”

Jansen will be a free agent at the end of the season.

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Bullpen keeps it close

Dodgers pitcher Evan Phillips delivers a pitch during Game 3 of the 2021 NLCS.
Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips recorded five outs in the seventh and eighth innings.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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During his postgame scrum with reporters, Jansen also gave credit to the relievers who pitched in front of him.

Instead of usual set-up men Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol, the Dodgers instead called upon the bottom half of their relief corps to keep what was a 5-2 game within reach during the middle innings.

Alex Vesia got out of the jam starter Walker Buehler left behind in the fourth, stopping the bleeding after four Braves runs.

The Braves scored a run off Corey Knebel and Phil Bickford in the fifth, but Justin Bruihl and Joe Kelly pitched a scoreless sixth, Evan Phillips recorded five outs in the seventh and eighth, and Tony Gonsolin was called upon to retire a batter before the Dodgers rallied for the lead.

The Dodgers’ season was on the verge of annihilation until Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts delivered one of the greatest comebacks in franchise history.

“As much credit as the offense got, we gotta give credit to all those young guys in the bullpen who stepped up,” Jansen said. “A lot of things could have gone so wrong for us. But the offense kept grinding and grinding, and they kept us in that game.”

Roberts also praised the group, noting that they helped save other arms going into the next two days.

“They not only helped us win today’s game,” Roberts said, “but they helped us win tomorrow’s game too.”

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Better situational approach

Dodgers' Cody Bellinger, right, celebrates with Will Smith and AJ Pollock.
Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, right, celebrates with Will Smith and AJ Pollock after hitting a three-run home run in the eighth inning.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Entering Tuesday’s eighth-inning rally, the Dodgers were two for 20 in the NLCS with runners in scoring position.

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Then, during the four-run frame, they went three for five in such situations.

Bellinger’s home run came with runners on second and first. Betts lined the winning hit with Chris Taylor standing on third.Even struggling Trea Turner reached in the leverage situation, beating out an infield single before the inning ended when Will Smith popped out.

Betts acknowledged the Dodgers “had some bad approaches” earlier in the series with runners in scoring position, but also credited Braves pitchers for preventing offense in those spots.

“They’re really good,” he said, before joking with Bellinger, who was sitting beside him on the postgame dais. “I know Belli drives a Benz, but they drive Benzes too.”

Cody Bellinger, who drove in the series-clinching run against the Giants after a dreadful season at the plate, sparks the Dodgers to victory over the Braves.

Bellinger’s hit came on a pitch well above the strike zone: A fastball armpit high that Braves reliever Luke Jackson said he would throw again.

But it was a pitch Bellinger was prepared for, too. As Brown explained, the Dodgers identified over the first two games of the series that the Braves bullpen arms largely “throw 97 [mph] at the top and then spin down below [the zone]. ... So you have to know what you’re willing to live with and what you’re willing not to live with.”

For Bellinger, the high fastball was worth the chase.

“It’s tough to calm down and relax and try and get a good pitch to hit,” Betts said. “But in the eighth right there, when Belli comes through, I think it’s kind of a sigh of relief. Like we finally did it, and now it becomes contagious.”

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Slumping Turners

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner leans back with his arms spread after popping out.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner reacts after popping out during the eighth inning.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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About the only negative from the Dodgers’ Game 3 comeback: The two Turners near the top of their lineup continue to struggle.

Third baseman Justin Turner returned to the lineup after being limited to a lone pinch-hit appearance in Game 2 because of a neck stinger. But he went 0 for 3 with a walk, dropping his playoff batting average to .143.

“I thought he was moving well, I think he’s competing,” Roberts said, mentioning Turner’s eight-pitch battle in the eighth inning that, despite ending with a pop up, wore down Jackson two at-bats before Bellinger’s blast.

Atlanta’s Luke Jackson, who gave up a game-turning home run to Cody Bellinger, doesn’t consider the loss to be a ‘dagger’ to the Braves’ World Series hopes.

“There’s fight, so that’s my bet,” Roberts added. “As far as kind of squaring up baseballs, having productive at-bats, it’s going to happen.”

The only other Dodgers starter to not reach base twice Tuesday: Trea Turner, who has gone cold in the playoffs after finishing the regular season on a 19-game hitting streak.

His infield single in the eighth snapped an 0-for-10 skid and raised his playoff batting average to just .214.

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