A grimly recurring theme for the Dodgers and their fans has been postseason disappointment. This season occasioned their eighth straight NL West title, but they’ve famously not won the World Series since 1988. Compounding those miseries is that the Dodgers have been a regular season juggernaut in three of the last four years, including this one. In 2017, the Dodgers won 104 games but fell to the Astros in seven games in the World Series. Last year, they won 106 games but were upset by the eventual champion Nationals in the NLDS.
The Dodgers this season authored the best regular season record in baseball and, scaled to a 162-game season, played at a 116-win pace. Still and yet, L.A. finds itself on the brink of elimination against the Braves in the NLCS.
The Braves thumped the Dodgers in Game 4 on Thursday and now lead the series by a count of 3-1. In the past, teams down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have come back to win that series just 14.9 percent of the time. In other words, the mighty Dodgers are very likely bound headlong for another October failure.
In this particular instance, it’s worth exploring how they got in this unenviable position — i.e., needing to win three games before the Braves win one. It’s not one single thing, as you would expect. Here’s a quick look at how the Dodgers have once again found themselves on the October brink.
1. One of MLB’s best pitching staffs has been anything but
During the regular season, the Dodgers’ pitching corps was among the very best in baseball. They led the majors in ERA and ERA+ and ranked second in runs allowed per game and K/BB ratio. In the NLCS, however, they haven’t lived up to advanced billing on the pitching front. Going into Game 5, the Braves for the series are batting .275/.362/.514, and in related matters, the Dodgers for the series have an ERA of 6.17. Breaking it down, the L.A. rotation in the NLCS has an ERA of 5.12, and the bullpen has an ERA of 6.98. Yes, the Braves have a strong offense, but the Dodgers’ pitching staff was arguably stronger during the regular season. Thus far, the Braves’ offense is dominating to unexpected extremes.
2. The Dodgers’ run scoring has been too clustered
The Dodgers are down 3-1, but they’ve been outscored by the Braves by only one run. That’s a function of the Dodgers’ ritual slaughter of Atlanta in Game 3, which they won 15-3. Look at the Dodgers’ overall slash line for the series of .236/.341/.479, and it suggests excellence. Overall, that’s true, but here’s the problem:
That outburst in the middle encompasses their near-comeback in Game 2 and that Game 3 in which they put 14 runs on the board in the first three innings. Outside of that isolated thunderstorm, the Dodger bats have been pretty well tamed.
In a weird way, that clustering benefited the Braves on another level. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker after getting buried early was able to churn through low-leverage innings in Game 3, with Huascar Ynoa doing most of the lifting. Across the way, Dave Roberts, for reasons sufficient unto himself, let Julio Urias work five innings and throw a career-high 101 pitches — all after being staked to an 11-0 lead when he took the mound for his first pitch. Had Roberts pulled Urias after the required first three batters, then he’d be available for Game 5. Things as they are, the Dodgers have an uncertain pitching alignment for that must-win affair.
Betts and Smith were two of the Dodgers’ best hitters during the regular season. Betts in his first season with L.A. batted .292/.366/.562 with 16 homers in 55 games. Throw in his standout defense and base-running, and Betts is squarely in the NL MVP discussion. The catcher Smith, meantime, in 37 games put up a line of .289/.401/.579, which by positional standards may be described as “especially special.”
In the NLCS, however, Betts has an OPS of just .437, and Smith checks in with an even worse mark of .313. Smith had been coming off a strong NLDS against the Padres, and Betts produced at a typically high level through the first two rounds. Against Atlanta, however, these two core bats haven’t been of much help.
4. Dave Roberts’ slow hook in Game 4
Given that the Dodgers lost Game 4 by eight runs, this might seem to be nitpicking to no end. However, determining how a game would’ve unfolded had a critical point gone the other way is an egg that’s impossible to unscramble. What we do know is that in the sixth inning of Game 4, Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw — he of the complicated playoff history — allowed back to back hits to start the frame. The second of those hits, a Freddie Freeman double, gave the Braves a 2-1 lead.
That brought Marcell Ozuna to the plate. Ozuna was one of the game’s best hitters during the regular season, and he’d already homered earlier in Game 4. He had the platoon advantage against Kershaw, and he was facing him for the third time in the game. Given that Kershaw had just given up two hits and the go-ahead run, this seemed an obvious time to summon a right-hander from the bullpen. Roberts, though, stuck with his starter. Here’s what happened:
From there, the game unraveled in the Braves’ favor. Had Roberts made the somewhat obvious decision to lift Kershaw and injected into the game different matchups and pitch sequences and counts and all the rest, things might have unfolded differently. There’s no knowing that, but despite the eventual margin of victory it’s fair to look upon that decision as a pivot point.
Simple enough, right? All the Dodgers need to do to defy their current deficit and the history that comes with it is to get better pitching, more consistent hitting, better tactical decisions from the dugout, and better luck. Yes, it’s going to take a lot for the Dodgers to flip the postseason script they’ve been reading from for far too long.