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Are the Dodgers Cooked, or Are They Just Warming Up?

After an 8-7 loss on Tuesday, the Dodgers are staring down an 0-2 hole in the NLCS. Will they suffer yet another disappointing playoff exit, or can they become just the second team this century to come back in a best-of-seven series after starting 0-2?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a subgenre of baseball analysis in which writers scramble to publish something about a small-sample trend before the trend disappears. Usually that happens early in the season, before the bounces even out, but it also occurs during the playoffs, where championships often hinge on streaks that would ordinarily go down as trivia.

After the Braves threw four shutouts in their first five playoff games, for instance, I wrote about expecting the trend to come to a screeching halt fairly quickly. They were soon to face the Dodgers, the highest-scoring team in baseball in 2020, with a lineup so deep that the reigning NL MVP, Cody Bellinger, is batting sixth. Talented though the Braves’ chorus of goateed wunderkinds may be, surely they’d give in sooner or later.

But they haven’t so far, and it’s getting quite late indeed. The Dodgers are down 0-2 in the NLCS, after losing 8-7 on Tuesday night; of the 85 teams in MLB history to have faced such a deficit in a best-of-seven series, only 13 have come back to win the series, and only one (the 2004 Red Sox) has done so in the 21st century. It wasn’t until the final three innings of Game 2 that the Dodgers even showed signs of life, as they came within 90 feet of tying a game they once trailed 7-0.

Will that near-comeback spark the somnambulant L.A. offense to life? Or was it a mere moral victory for a team that needs actual victories if it wants to still be alive by Friday?

In case you missed the most dominant story line of playoff baseball in the 2010s, the Dodgers are looking for their first World Series title in 32 years. They have yet to win, despite putting together one of the best multiyear runs, and one of the greatest assemblages of talent, in baseball history. Three of the Dodgers’ four best seasons since World War II, by winning percentage, have come in the past four years. Even in baseball, it’s hard for a team this good to come out of October with bupkes this many years in a row.

The Dodgers have nevertheless accomplished this ignominious feat, through a combination of bad fortune (running into the trash-can-banging Astros in the 2017 World Series), bad decisions (Dave Roberts’s mystifying use of Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS), and bad execution (Kershaw getting blown up in Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS, to cite just one example). A couple of times, as in the 2016 NLCS against the Cubs and the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox, they’ve lost to a team that was just plain better. Just for variety’s sake.

Anything can happen over two baseball games, and the Dodgers are definitely living out the Murphy’s law end of that truism. A team that averaged nearly six runs per game in the regular season and an even six runs per game in the first two playoff rounds scored just one run over the first 15 innings of the NLCS. The Astros are having similar offensive struggles in the ALCS—in three losses, Houston has gone 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position and left 31 men on base, a wondrous display of untimely hitting. But up until the seventh inning on Tuesday, the Dodgers were 0-for-4 in the series with men in scoring position, which is worse both on a percentage basis and because it means they couldn’t get anyone on base to begin with.

It doesn’t help that the Dodgers’ pitching staff has been just as maladroit as the offense. L.A.’s best starter this year, Clayton Kershaw, was scratched from Game 2 with back spasms. The team’s second-best starter this year was rookie sinkerballer Tony Gonsolin, who lasted less than five innings in place of Kershaw and allowed five runs. Walker Buehler, the Dodgers’ 2019 ace who is just getting over blister issues, looked uncomfortable in a Game 1 loss. (Perhaps his pants didn’t fit.) Buehler allowed just one run in five innings but walked five in that time, and ended his first four frames with a man on base. Game 1 turned when Braves third baseman Austin Riley, who brought a career OPS+ of 86 into this game, banked a homer off the facing of the second deck in the top of the ninth. The pitcher he faced, Blake Treinen, had allowed a single dinger in 27 appearances this year.

Given the Dodgers’ persistent postseason failures, it would be unsatisfying to chalk these losses up to generalized stochastic rottenness. And good news—the Dodgers can’t blame everything on bad luck.

The Dodgers had the second-best bullpen in baseball this year by ERA, and a top-10 bullpen by WPA. But this group gets less reliable the closer you zoom in. Closer Kenley Jansen has had at least a Hall of Very Good career, but his velocity has evaporated, and it isn’t even really accurate to refer to him as “Closer Kenley Jansen” anymore. Joe Kelly, ostensibly next in line to close, can knock out his own window but otherwise struggles to hit the broad side of a barn, and nearly blew Game 2 of the NLDS against San Diego. Treinen was the best reliever on the planet two years ago, but the Dodgers brought him in as a reclamation project. Rookie Brusdar Graterol is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers ever, but he pitched to a higher contact percentage than any qualified reliever in the league this year. Manager Dave Roberts must have a hard time knowing whom to trust in high-leverage situations.

Which might explain some of Roberts’s confusing tactical decisions. The Dodgers are the only team left in the playoffs with five playoff-quality starting pitchers, and yet even in a series with no off days, they’re using Dustin May as a one-inning reliever. Then there’s the Ozzie Albies problem. Albies, a switch hitter, has a gigantic platoon split, coming in around league-average while batting left-handed but hitting .346/.377/.575 for his career from the right side. In the first two games of the series, Albies has batted three times against three left-handed L.A. relievers, and he’s 3-for-3. Two of those hits ended up in Mark Melancon’s glove while he was warming up in the Atlanta bullpen.

And as the Dodgers have had problems with construction and deployment, they’ve also struggled to execute. Riley, for all his issues making contact, is strong enough to hit a boulder over the fence, and the pitch he hit out off Treinen was a dead-center fastball that might as well have been on a tee. The Braves got to Gonsolin, who didn’t have his best command in Game 2, but the Dodgers couldn’t return the favor against Braves starter Ian Anderson, who walked five in four innings.

Better lucky than good, perhaps, but through two games the Dodgers have been neither.

If L.A. does come back, however, the final three innings of Game 2 will be viewed as a retroactive turning point. Corey Seager was batting a conspicuous .214 in his playoff career heading into this game, but after consistently swinging over Anderson’s off-speed stuff, he drove in four runs in his final two plate appearances on Tuesday night. Maybe this offense has awakened en masse—a lineup as good as the Dodgers’ could show up on your doorstep tomorrow morning and score 13 runs without warning and it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise. In mid-August, for instance, L.A. dropped two consecutive games to San Diego, in which the team scored a combined three runs. They bounced back to win their next seven games and averaged 7.29 runs per game during that streak.

The Dodgers have Julio Urías lined up for Game 3 and Kershaw slated to return for Game 4, while the Braves have already burned their best two starters—perhaps their only two reliable starters—in Anderson and Max Fried. And the late offensive outburst forced Melancon, who should have had the night off, to warm up twice and pitch in a high-leverage situation. That’s not sustainable for Atlanta in a best-of-seven series.

But forcing Melancon into the game is only a win for the Dodgers because they fell behind 7-0 in the first place. Half of the Dodgers’ runs this series came in the ninth inning of Game 2. One was the result of a one-in-1,000 error by Albies on what should have been a game-ending grounder. The other three came off Josh Tomlin. Braves manager Brian Snitker brought Tomlin into the game because his team was up five runs with one inning to go. Any pitcher on any MLB roster ought to be able to get three outs before allowing five runs—even Tomlin, who ranks 15th on the team in average leverage index while entering the game (gmLI), one spot ahead of infielder Charlie Culberson.

Tomlin had not pitched in the playoffs before Game 2; barring some other blowout situation, he likely will not pitch again. That means the Dodgers need to figure out how to score off Atlanta’s better relievers if they want to avoid another winter of hard questions.

Can they? Well, anything can happen in a short series.