Braves put pressure on Dodgers to avoid another October flop

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves closer Mark Melancon addresses the Dodgers' attempt at a comeback in Game 2 of the NLCS.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

The Braves are putting the screws to the Dodgers. They’ve mended their own postseason wounds and shifted attention to those of the Dodgers, which are fresher and deeper. The Dodgers are in danger of another postseason flame-out and everybody knows it.

The Dodgers are supposed to go to the World Series. They still might do it. They’ll have to win four of the next five games against the Braves in the National League Championship Series. The Braves won 8-7 on Tuesday in Arlington, Texas, for a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Dodgers lost 4-1 in Game 1. They were down 6-0 after five innings in Game 2 and looking lifeless. The Dodgers closed the deficit to one with four runs in the ninth, aided by an error by Braves infielder Ozzie Albies.

After scoring one run in the first 15 innings of the series, the Dodgers produced seven over the past three. The Braves still won. The mighty Dodgers were left to take comfort in finally showing some spark.

“This team has got a lot of fight,” Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said. "We’ve done it all year. We were one swing away from taking that ballgame into extras.

“It’s never over until it’s over. This is a long series. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

Maybe that’s true. But surely the Dodgers must be feeling the creeping pressure of unmet expectations. They earned the NL’s top seed by winning eight more games than the Braves. Now the Dodgers face a two-game deficit and you can hear the echoes of their recent playoff flops.

The Dodgers won 106 games in 2019 and then didn’t even make it to the NLCS. The Nationals, a wild-card team, bested the Dodgers in their NL Division Series before going on to win the World Series. That was after the Dodgers lost back-to-back World Series in 2017 and 2018.

MLB determined that the Astros cheated in the 2017 World Series. The Braves are beating the Dodgers fair-and-square. L.A.'s celebrated lineup wasn’t hitting much until it was too late in Game 2. Its alleged pitching advantage hasn’t materialized.

ExplorePhotos from the Braves' Game 2 victory

There might be a chance for the Dodgers score earlier in Game 3 on Wednesday. Braves starter Max Fried was great Monday and Ian Anderson was good Tuesday. There’s a gap from those two to Game 3 starter Kyle Wright. There’s a bigger one from Wright to whichever pitcher Brian Snitker calls on for Game 4.

If the Dodgers really do have a pitching edge, it should start showing up in Games 3 and 4.

“For sure,” Seager said “But you’ve still got to come out and play. We’ve got to come out and perform tomorrow. Nothing is going to be given to us, obviously.”

It’s not a good situation for the heavy favorites to depend on the opposition to be not good enough. It’s also an iffy proposition based on what we’ve seen so far. It’s noteworthy that the runs the Dodgers scored in Game 2 weren’t against any of the top Braves relievers.

A.J. Minter gave up a three-run homer to Seager in the seventh. Josh Tomlin surrendered an RBI double to Seager and a two-run homer to Max Muncy. Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger smacked an RBI triple off closer Mark Melancon, but that was after Albies' error.

The Braves otherwise have pitched much better than the Dodgers. Fried was more effective than Walker Buehler in Game 1. Anderson pitched four scoreless innings in Game 2 while Dodgers right-hander Tony Gonsolin was charged with five earned runs in 4-1/3 innings.

“They have a good staff,” Seager said. “The starter (Anderson) was good. He kept us off-balance all night. It’s just been a battle for us the last two days.”

The Dodgers still have quality arms available. But their staff is starting to get worn down by attrition.

Buehler needed 100 pitches to record 15 outs in Game 1. The Dodgers scratched Clayton Kershaw from his scheduled Game 2 start because of back spasms. Dustin May, who manager Dave Roberts planned to use as a do-everything reliever, now might need to be saved for a start. Julio Urias will start Game 3 after pitching from the bullpen in the first two series.

Roberts said “we’ll see” if Kershaw will be able to start Game 4. If he does, who knows how long he can go? May is an option after he threw 21 pitches in Game 1 and didn’t appear in Game 2. But deploying May as a starter would mean removing him from a bullpen that has allowed seven earned runs over 8 2/3 innings in this series.

Braves (from left) Ronald Acuna, Cristian Pache, and Marcell Ozuna mix it up from the dugout in reaction to Ozzie Albies' solo homer in the 8th inning. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There’s urgency for the Dodgers. Roberts must balance the immediate need to win Game 3 with the possibility of a longer series.

“You can’t play every game, regardless of the score, like it’s life or death in a seven-game series,” Roberts said.

Isn’t an 0-2 deficit getting close to life or death?

“That’s a fair question,” Roberts said. “The game situation and the game score matters and who you are going to use, if you are referencing relief pitchers. The more in a deficit you are, the further the series goes, you have to make that decision.”

There will be a lot of scrutiny on Roberts' choices in the rest of the series. He has a stacked team. The Dodgers have been heavily favored to win the pennant for two years. Making the World Series is the lowest bar they must clear.

The Dodgers are an ideal organization. Their deep-pocketed ownership group enjoys massive revenues from a rich TV deal and lets their baseball people spend on player salaries. The talent is supplemented by a farm system that’s been strong for a decade. The front office also makes good acquisition on the margins.

The results have been great. It’s hard to knock eight consecutive NL West titles. And yet the money and their history means the Dodgers have underachieved because they don’t win bigger. Their last World Series title came in 1988. Following two World Series losses with two consecutive years of not making it would be a failure by their standards.

The Braves have them thinking about that now.

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