How the Dodgers can come back from an 0-2 NLCS hole

MLB

After one of the greatest second-place seasons in MLB history, after dispatching their rival San Francisco Giants in the National League Division Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in trouble. Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Just like in 2020, they’re down 0-2 to the surging Atlanta Braves. Back then, the Dodgers completed the comeback with a 4-3 series win. But this year, with their rotation no longer lined up favorably, perhaps the most-star-studded team in baseball needs someone to step up — and soon. As the series returns to LA, we asked Bradford Doolittle, David Schoenfield, Buster Olney, Alden Gonzalez and Tim Keown for their takes on how — if at all — the Dodgers can dig out of this hole.

How do the Dodgers get back in this?

Doolittle: Home runs. I realize that the Dodgers have had major clutch-hitting woes — 2-for-18 so far in the NL Championship Series — but in theory that should even out as the series progresses. Take-and-rake, on the other hand, is the Dodgers’ game and no one does it better. So far in the playoffs, the Dodgers have hit seven homers in eight games. Two former Dodgers and members of last year’s title team — Kiké Hernandez and Joc Pederson — have hit eight by themselves. In the game Max Fried started for Atlanta, the Dodgers put up a first-pitch swing rate over 50% for just the fourth time in a game all season. Maybe that was the game plan for Fried, but that’s not the Dodgers’ grind. Take-and-rake. The Dodgers need to get back to it.

Schoenfield: I’ll jump on this bandwagon as well. The Dodgers are hitting .233/.304/.361 in the postseason, which is what can happen when you face a lot of good pitching — and that won’t get any easier with Charlie Morton going for the Braves in Game 3. Obviously, losing Max Muncy has hurt the lineup perhaps more than we expected, but the Dodgers also desperately need the Turners to start producing. Justin Turner hit .278 with 27 home runs in the regular season but suddenly looks like he’s 56 instead of 36, hitting .107 with one walk in the playoffs and starting Game 2 on the bench with a stiff neck. Trea Turner, the NL batting champ, is hitting .200 with one RBI, no walks, nine strikeouts and as many double plays hit into (2) as extra-base hits (2). His career postseason line is now .225/.267/.291 and he hasn’t homered in his past 24 playoff games. The Turners need to hit.

Olney: ​​The cliché about momentum and the next day’s starting pitcher absolutely applies here, as the Dodgers can win the pitching matchups to crawl back into this series. Walker Buehler is fully capable of shutting down the Braves’ lineup, and so is Julio Urias. The L.A. offense, suffering without Max Muncy, is not as dynamic as it was last year, but the pitching can carry the Dodgers.

Gonzalez: I’m not going to let their situational-hitting woes go so easily. Two hits and nine strikeouts in 18 at-bats with runners in scoring position in an LCS is simply unacceptable for a lineup like this. The Dodgers had the leadoff man on in five of nine innings in Game 2 and scored him only twice. After the game, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts admitted that his offense isn’t implementing the right approach in that situation. “Certain times in scoring position,” Roberts said, “we’re expanding too much.” Roberts’ Dodgers have stranded 17 runners through two games. They’re clearly the better offensive team — even with Muncy out and Turner not right — and are simply not executing well enough.

Keown: The Dodgers need to stop treating every game as an elimination game — until it is. Their use and misuse of their pitching staff reeks of panic, and they’ve been too cute by half in their past three games. They have to do other things, too, like hitting home runs and getting their bodies in front of potentially game-winning liners up the middle, but mostly it seems like they just need to stop trying to prove they’re the smartest people in the room and just play the way they did all season.

How much will Sunday’s pitching decisions affect the rest of the series?

Doolittle: Dave Roberts said it best: Both teams are in the same position. I’m more worried about the Braves’ bullpen than I am about the Dodgers, because L.A. has better top-to-bottom depth in that area, and carried one more pitcher than Atlanta on the NLCS rosters. Brian Snitker has leaned awfully hard on Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith over the last two rounds. After the grueling Giants series, Los Angeles just had to get through the weekend. Obviously it would have been a heck of a lot better for the Dodgers if they had won one of the games. But for all the worry about their pitching merry-go-round in the first two games, I think things actually line up pretty well for them at home, after a travel day.

Schoenfield: Clearly, the Dodgers are obsessed with getting as many lefty-on-lefty matchups against Freddie Freeman as possible — which led to the questionable decision to remove Blake Treinen after one easy inning when he threw just nine pitches (after throwing just seven in Game 1) to bring in Julio Urias on two days of rest after he threw 59 pitches in Game 5 against the Giants.

Two issues here: Last year, with the expanded 28-man rosters due to COVID, the Dodgers had a plethora of lefties to choose from in the bullpen, with Urias and Victor Gonzalez (who had a very good postseason) the two main guys, but also Alex Wood and Jake McGee. Remember, Wood tossed four scoreless innings in two outings in the World Series. This year, Gonzalez stumbled and isn’t on the playoff roster, Wood and McGee signed with the Giants and the only trustworthy lefty reliever on the playoff roster is rookie Alex Vesia. Justin Bruihl, another rookie, has all of 18 innings in the majors. Thus, in comes Urias even though he’s also scheduled to start Game 4. Roberts had used Vesia in the fifth to get through the Eddie Rosario/Freeman part of the order (removing a self-proclaimed “dead-armed” Max Scherzer was the right move), so Roberts was left to choose between Urias or one of his right-hander relievers in the eighth.

The other issue is that the platoon advantage you gain against Freeman you lose against Ozzie Albies when he flips over to the right side — he had a .940 OPS against lefties, .749 against righties (Freeman was .949 against righties, .760 against lefties). The Dodgers’ strategy seems to be “Don’t let Freddie Freeman beat us,” but the actual tactical advantage is minor (even factoring in getting the platoon edge against Rosario). So it will be fascinating to see how Roberts operates moving forward — and that includes Kenley Jansen as it seems Roberts doesn’t really trust him, even though Jansen in 2021 has been a much better pitcher than in the past two seasons.

Olney: None. Urias threw 14 pitches in Game 2 and could easily come back to start in Game 4, and while it’s possible that Braves manager Brian Snitker could juggle his rotation after pulling Ian Anderson out of the game relatively soon in Game 2, it seems more likely that he’ll keep Max Fried, Anderson and Charlie Morton aligned for Games 5, 6 and 7, if necessary.

The pitching really hasn’t been an issue in this series. The larger question is whether either offense can break out.

Gonzalez: I’ll push back on that slightly while expanding to how the deployment of starting pitching has affected the Dodgers’ immediate future. They’re down 2-0, with three games in three days at Dodger Stadium, and the pitching outlook is suddenly ominous. Walker Buehler takes the ball coming off a short-rest start, and though he will do so with an extra day of rest, starters often say they feel the effects of starting on short rest in the outing after that. Next is Urias, who might not have thrown that many pitches over his past two outings but is someone who surpassed his previous career high in innings by the start of August — August! — and appeared in three games over a stretch of nine days. Roberts is concerned enough about his workload that he’s toying with the idea of pushing him back to Game 5 if the Dodgers don’t face elimination then. The other game — whichever it ends up being — will be handled by a collection of relievers, and it doesn’t seem as if the Dodgers trust Tony Gonsolin to pitch the bulk of the innings. Scherzer would’ve made a Game 5 start if he had gone in Game 1, but he was pushed back an extra day because he was needed to pitch the final inning of NLDS Game 5. The cost of that was two bullpen days in the first five games of this series instead of just one.

Keown: The Julio Urias decisions are baffling to me. He was 20-3 during the regular season with an ERA a tick over 3.00, and this is the postseason he gets? It’s one thing to acknowledge that Urias is the one guy in the rotation who has shown an ability to filter back and forth from starting to relieving, and it’s an entirely different thing to actually make him do it unnecessarily and repeatedly. The news that he will most likely be pushed back to start Game 5 affirms the obvious: The Dodgers blew it by bringing him out of the bullpen for Game 2. If they lose Game 3 — and as good as Walker Buehler is, Charlie Morton is no slouch — the Dodgers will face a Game 4 elimination game with no reliable starter. Imagine the possibilities.

What has been most impressive about the Braves so far?

Doolittle: Man, I hate to step this far afield from the terra firma of the empirical, but there is just a great energy about that team right now. It has a similar vibe to the Nationals in 2019, but while Washington was catching lightning in a bottle, the Braves feel like a group really reaching full maturity right before our eyes. And that’s without Ronald Acuna Jr. relegated to a cheerleading role. It’s the kind of energy that grows and can take on a life of its own when a team starts reeling off late wins. The sooner the Dodgers can flip that momentum, the better for them. Some early runs for Walker Buehler in Game 3 would be a good start.

Schoenfield: The bullpen. Ask Buster Olney’s son about the Atlanta bullpen. It was, umm, a little shaky at times throughout the season. But in six postseason games the bullpen has allowed just four runs in 23.2 innings while holding opponents to a .177 average. Closer Will Smith allowed 11 home runs in the regular season, but he has tossed five scoreless innings so far. Tyler Matzek has been scored upon in just four of his past 40 appearances going back to July. We knew the Braves had a chance with Morton, Max Fried and Ian Anderson in the rotation, but the bullpen had to perform — and so far it has.

Olney: Austin Riley. Last year, the Dodgers seemed to beat Atlanta with star power — Mookie Betts and Corey Seager playing at a high level. The notion that the Braves could beat the Dodgers with a slumping Freddie Freeman seems absurd — but Riley has become the Braves’ Batman to Freeman’s Superman. Last year, Riley couldn’t hit good pitching; this year, he can.

Gonzalez: Big picture — the Braves boast a 2-0 NLCS lead over a team that won 18 more regular-season games, even though Charlie Morton has yet to pitch, Freddie Freeman has struck out seven times in eight plate appearances, and Ronald Acuna Jr. can only watch from the bench. It is quite remarkable. The Braves’ hitters struck out 14 times in Game 1 and their pitchers issued nine walks in Game 2, and yet they won both games — by a combined two runs, but they won them nonetheless.

Keown: Take your pick: (1) They fell behind 4-2 late in Game 2, with the Dodgers’ best relievers waiting, and won; or (2) they’ve won the first two games with no contribution from Freddie Freeman. It’s difficult to explain, but the Braves appear to be staking a claim for all the teams and managers who understand all the numbers and still abide by one cardinal rule: They trust their guys. Ride or die and all that business.

The Dodgers will win Game 3 if …

Doolittle: Two homers from the offense and at least one batter faced by Buehler in the seventh inning.

Schoenfield: Yep, getting some length out of Buehler is vital. Roberts did have a quick hook for him in Game 4 against the Giants, pulling him with one out in the fifth, but that was on short rest. This start will come on six days of rest. So six — or seven — from Buehler and then Treinen and Jansen should get the job done. And hopefully something big from one of the Turners.

Olney: In the grand Dodgers tradition of Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela, Walker Buehler needs to hoist the Dodgers on his back, throw up a bunch of zeros and outpitch Charlie Morton.

Gonzalez: The Dodgers’ offense sticks with its approach in RBI situations. Their hitters have done a nice job taking walks and shortening up with two strikes, but for some reason they haven’t been doing so at the most critical junctures. With the bases empty or a runner only on first base, they’ve chased only 32.3% of two-strike pitches. With runners in scoring position, that two-strike chase rate jumps to 58.3%.

Keown: Simple: Walker Buehler goes deep into the game and makes all the bullpen decisions easy.

The Braves will go up 3-0 if …

Doolittle: Charlie Morton does his thing. Snitker isn’t afraid to let Morton go deep, so if he gets on a roll and the score stays low, the Braves have to love their chances in the late innings.

Schoenfield: The little things keep going their way. In Game 2 that included the aggressive baserunning from Rosario — not just on the play at home with the send from third-base coach Ron Washington, but the tag up from first base on the fly ball to left field. Joc Pederson made a key backup on the little flare that skipped past Guillermo Heredia, preventing Justin Turner from scoring. It also included miscues from the Dodgers: Steven Souza’s terrible throw from right field, Corey Seager unable to corral Rosario’s game-winning hit, or even A.J. Pollock’s throw from left when Rosario tagged up. Indeed, let’s see if the Braves remain aggressive in challenging the non-Mookie Betts outfield arms.

Olney: They push Buehler’s pitch count, get a couple of guys on base and set up somebody — Adam Duvall? Travis d’Arnaud? Riley? — for one big swing.

Gonzalez: Freeman comes alive. That the Braves have won both games without getting anything from Freeman should be very discouraging to the Dodgers. They’re just waiting for him to make his presence felt in this series, and if he does so in Game 3, it could push them to the brink.

Keown: They watch how the Giants approached Buehler and repeat it. In a September blowout of the Dodgers, and to a lesser extent Game 1 of the NLDS, San Francisco waited and waited until Buehler gave the Giants something to hit. They made him throw strikes to get outs, and they sat on hittable fastballs and did their damage in short bursts. Right-handed hitters like Austin Riley and Adam Duvall are key; they need to take Buehler’s high fastballs to right field for maximum effect.

So … do the Dodgers complete the comeback again? Who wins this series?

Doolittle: It would be hypocritical of me to jump off the Dodgers’ bandwagon after jumping on it way back in the spring. We have not seen the real L.A. machine yet in this series, but we will. But I am wavering because even if the Dodgers sweep the three games at home, they still have to win one before a Braves crowd that has been waiting to see another pennant clincher in Atlanta for a really long time. Still, I’m taking the Dodgers in 7.

Schoenfield: The Dodgers came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Braves in last year’s NLCS, which started with a 15-3 rout in Game 3. But the Atlanta rotation is in much better shape than last season, when Kyle Wright started Game 3 and allowed seven runs in the first inning, Bryse Wilson started Game 4 (which the Braves won as Wilson had a great game), and Minter started a bullpen game in Game 5. This time they turn to Morton, TBD in Game 4 and Fried in Game 5. Four wins in five games against an Atlanta team that is pitching well right now is a tough ask — especially with the Turners struggling. Braves in 5.

Olney: After way too many lousy predictions in the first rounds of the postseason, I’ve got the Braves beating the Dodgers, in part because their pitching was properly aligned coming into the series, and L.A.’s was not, owing to the Game 5 stress in San Francisco.

Gonzalez: I’m tempted to say the Dodgers will come back and win this series because they’re so much more talented, but I can’t. Yes, they did this last year. But they did it in the bubble, without having to play at the Braves’ home ballpark while facing elimination. And this is not last year’s team. Cody Bellinger isn’t the same player, Justin Turner doesn’t look right, Max Muncy isn’t in the lineup, Joc Pederson is on the other side, their starters are more taxed, and I just can’t see the Braves letting this happen again.

Keown: I picked the Dodgers in five, and I’m starting to think I might have been wrong. There’s no question the Dodgers can fight back — they were down 2-0 and 3-1 to the Braves before winning last season — but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Braves have Morton for Game 3 and Max Fried for Game 5, so it’s hard to envision them losing all three in Los Angeles. The guess here is the Braves go home ahead 3-2 and close it out in Game 6.

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