The Dodgers last week concluded one of the most thrilling five-game series in Major League Baseball history against their bitter rivals in a winner-take-all clash Thursday night in San Francisco, hopped on a cross-country flight to Atlanta on Friday and dug themselves a hole over the weekend.
When the whirlwind was over, after they fell behind 0-2 to the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series for the second straight year on two walk-off losses, it was obvious: The Dodgers were sapped. Max Scherzer admitted his arm was “dead” in his start Sunday after closing Thursday. Justin Turner was held out of the lineup with a neck injury. Chris Taylor said he couldn’t wait to return home.
The Dodgers wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility of a letdown after outlasting the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS. But all signs indicated the team was running on empty by the end of the weekend.
“It’s everything,” Taylor said after Game 2. “Physically and mentally draining. These games, they’re four or five hours long and the level of focus is a little bit different than a regular season game. It’s definitely exhausting, but that’s what you expect. Everyone on this team has experience with it.”
The Dodgers touched down in Los Angeles early Monday morning. Just a few players reported to Dodger Stadium in the afternoon for treatment and workouts. Most stayed away, taking the day to refresh their baseball palate before Game 3 on Tuesday when Walker Buehler takes the mound to play stopper against a club that was swept in three games at Dodger Stadium to begin September.
If they topple the Dodgers twice more in, if they pull off the upset and knock out the reigning World Series champions, Dave Roberts’ decision-making late in Game 2 will be dissected on bar stools for years to come.
Why use Blake Treinen against the bottom of the Braves’ order in the seventh inning? Why give the ball to Julio Urías, a starter all season, in the eighth inning when other quality options were available? Why let him face Austin Riley, a right-handed hitter, when Kenley Jansen was throwing in the bullpen? Why not use Jansen to start the ninth inning?
Why, why, why?
And beneath all those questions, in fine print, will be the reason the Dodgers found themselves in another tight game to begin with: the offense, so potent on paper and computer screens, vanished again.
Los Angeles needed six pitches Sunday to take a lead against Ian Anderson on Corey Seager’s two-run home run. The Dodgers appeared to be poised for an offensive explosion when Anderson was pulled after three innings, leaving the Braves bullpen to absorb 18 outs. The Dodgers at that point had three hits. They mustered one for the rest of the game — Taylor’s two-run double in the seventh inning.
The Dodgers scored the fourth most runs in the majors during the regular season, but they also experienced perplexing stretches of silence. In the postseason, where the pitching is consistently better, they’ve often found themselves unable to sustain rallies.
On Sunday, they went one for 10 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base. Through the two NLCS games, they are two for 18 with runners in scoring position and have left 17 runners on base.
“Any time 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.”
In their seven playoff games besides Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants, when they went six for 15 with runners in scoring position and left six runners on base, the Dodgers are seven for 51 with runners in scoring position and have stranded 50 runners. The troubles stem from a lack of discipline in the situations. The Dodgers’ chase rate with two strikes and no runners in scoring position is 32.3% in the series. It spikes to 58.3% with two strikes and runners in scoring position.
As a result, Los Angeles has been held to fewer than five runs in six of their eight games this postseason. It’s in a stark contrast to last October when the Dodgers set the major league record for most two-out RBIs in a single postseason.
“Not very good,” Roberts said when asked to assess the team’s at-bats 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 him 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.”
The droughts have given the Dodgers’ pitching staff little margin for error. The onus in Game 3 will fall on Buehler to stifle the Braves and spell a taxed relief corps that logged 12 2/3 innings in the series’ first two games.
Buehler will start on extra rest after pitching in Game 4 of the NLDS last Tuesday on three days’ rest. The right-hander logged 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball as the Dodgers stayed alive, forcing a Game 5. On Monday, Buehler said he dealt with a sickness when the team returned to San Francisco for the elimination game, but he declined to elaborate.
“I’m feeling alright,” Buehler said. “So, no worse for the wear.”
Buehler will work opposite 37-year-old Charlie Morton, a familiar foe for the Dodgers in October. The right-hander logged the final four innings in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series for the Houston Astros to close out the Dodgers. Last year, pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, he gave up five runs over 4 1/3 innings against Los Angeles in Game 3 of the World Series in the Texas bubble. This season, he yielded five runs and had 13 strikeouts in 11 innings across two starts opposite the Dodgers.
Buehler’s outing Tuesday could impact the Dodgers’ pitching plans for Game 4 on Wednesday. Roberts said the club would consider opting for a bullpen game in Game 4 and pushing Urías back to Game 5 on Thursday if Buehler pitches deep into the game and the Dodgers win to avoid facing elimination Wednesday.
Urías was one of the few players who appeared on the field at Dodger Stadium to work out Monday.
“I just can't tell you how much I appreciate him and trust him and respect him,” Roberts said. “But he's a man, he's a star player, and I said this earlier, it's like he's not that 19-year-old rookie anymore.
“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 and he'll drive that.”
After that, they would have Scherzer slated for Game 6 and Buehler for Game 7. That would take rebounding to win at least two games in Los Angeles. The manager is confident.
“I believe we're going to win this series,” Roberts said. “I believe we're going to win tomorrow.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.