Mike Soroka exited the mound tipping his cap to a standing ovation from a sold-out crowd at SunTrust Park on Friday night. He departed with his Braves leading the National League-best Dodgers, 3-2, giving way to Sean Newcomb with two down in the seventh.
A home run barrage broke out from there. The Braves’ 8-3 loss was another one that highlighted an unsatisfactory bullpen. Even more so, it further illustrated just how mesmerizing the Dodgers’ lineup is – and how faultless the Braves will have to be to keep pace.
“They hit homers, that’s what they did last year, you have to make pitches on them,” manager Brian Snitker said.
Soroka gutted through tough situations, coaxing three double plays, including one from Edwin Rios to escape a bases-loaded jam in the sixth. He allowed three runs on seven hits through 6-2/3 innings, a line that fails to convey his effectiveness.
Cody Bellinger, the MVP favorite, homered off Soroka in the second inning. The 22-year-old was hit again the following frame on Joc Pederson’s RBI-single. He settled in from there, not allowing another run until his stranded baserunner scored after he departed.
“Sometimes I think we might give (their offense) a little too much credit,” Soroka said. “They have some great hitters. They might have the MVP over there. You have to be careful with that. But at the same time, they’re not invincible.”
But the Dodgers looked nearly invincible following Soroka’s exit. Newcomb issued a walk before his battle with Max Muncy – in which he had the batter in an 0-2 count - ended when the slugger put a hanging slider into the seats, putting the Dodgers up 5-3. Justin Turner homered in the ensuing at-bat.
In the blink of an eye, a one-run lead evaporated. The Braves found themselves down three. Will Smith’s two-run shot off Jerry Blevins in the eighth capped it. The Dodgers scored six runs in the span of two innings.
Newcomb has been a crucial part of the bullpen, but his latest stretch is concerning. The lefty has allowed 10 runs (four homers) in his past eight appearances (6-2/3 innings).
“For me, it’s just about getting aggressive and going after hitters,” Newcomb said. “I just need to do a better job sticking to my strengths and doing what works best. … I executed everything up until that slider obviously, it was an 0-2 count. I’d love to get down and out of the zone, maybe take a chase. Obviously that was the mistake that was made.”
It’s one game, but it continued a recurring theme against the Dodgers. The Braves haven’t kept them in the yard – they lead the league in homers – and even when they play well enough to win, it seems to slip away. This was the Braves’ 15th loss to the Dodgers in their last 18 meetings, including last year’s postseason.
Soroka appeared up to the challenge, which is one encouraging takeaway. The Braves were also facing them shorthanded, having lost Nick Markakis, Dansby Swanson and Austin Riley to injury, as well as Ender Inciarte early Friday night.
The Braves have the second-best mark in the NL, trailing only these Dodgers. They are the measuring stick. And while MLB regular-season series shouldn’t be used as a barometer, it’s hard to ignore the results the Dodgers seem to always generate against the Braves.
For as talented as the visitor is, the Braves ooze potential too. They’re again seeing the level they must reach to compete for a pennant.
And the NL East isn’t exactly locked down. The Braves’ lead over the Nationals dwindled to 4-1/2 games, the team’s smallest margin since June 21.
Saturday features a 2018 NLDS Game 1 rematch, when Mike Foltynewicz faces Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu, a lefty who’s arguably the Cy Young favorite, has been a nightmare for the Braves. He held them scoreless over seven innings in the playoff game, striking out eight without issuing a walk. He pitched a complete-game shutout against the Braves in May.