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 both 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 MLB history who 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 may be attributed to small sample size. Part of it may 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 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position in Game 1, the Dodgers stumbled to a 1-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 mind set 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 again tried to come up with an answer.
“It’s an approach thing,” he said. “And I think that certain times [with] in scoring position we, we’re expanding too much.”
It’s becoming a concerning trend. In their eight playoff games, the Dodgers are now batting just .191 with runners in scoring position, as opposed to .247 in all other situations. It explains how they’ve out-hit their opponents in all but two postseason games this month, but won only four of them.
And, for all the questionable pitching decisions they made over the weekend in Atlanta, it’s perhaps the biggest reason 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.
“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.”
Lean on Walker Buehler
About that pitching…
After the Dodgers’ intricate — and at times seemingly over-complicated — plans on the mound blew up on them twice this 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’ll be coming off six days’ rest, the better it will be for the Dodgers, as well.
That’s because in Wednesday’s Game 4, the team might only get a handful of innings out of Julio Urías, who is still scheduled to start but, according to Roberts, will only be expected to throw 75-80 pitches after his unsuccessful relief appearance Sunday. And if the Dodgers get to Thursday’s Game 5, they might have no choice but to replicate the bullpen game they used in Saturday’s opener.
That means potentially back-to-back heavy workload days for the bullpen. And if Buehler gets knocked out early Tuesday, it could shift too big of a burden on the relievers.
“Walker’s ready to go,” Roberts said. “He’s got an extra couple days. So certainly for Game 3 we’re going to lean on him.”
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 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 set-up man in Sunday’s NLCS Game 2 — but the fact remains that, even if it’s 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.
They’ll need to rediscover something similar in the coming week, when Urías will not only pitch in Game 4, but likely be needed out of the bullpen in Game 6 or 7 — if the series gets there.
“Julio’s coming from a smaller pitch count,” Scherzer said when asked how comparable his pitching situation — when he said he felt fatigue in a Game 2 start that came three days after a relief appearance — is to what Urías will be in the coming days.
“I was coming from 110 to relief appearance to Game 2. He’s coming from probably 60 pitches in Game 5 [of the NLDS], to a relief appearance. So he’s going to have an easier recovery coming from 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.
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.
“This is a lot bigger than me,” Pederson said when asked if 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.