On Ghosts and Pickpockets: How the Dodgers Swiped NLDS Game 2

Baseball lends itself to stories, October baseball perhaps most of all. During the regular season, a team’s narrative can unfurl slowly. The postseason, by contrast, is marked by the frantic crowning of heroes and chokers. Subplots abound, and the identity of the game’s central character isn’t always clear until the late innings.

After losing to the San Francisco Giants, 4–0, in Game 1 of the NLDS, the Los Angeles Dodgers hoped to even the series on Saturday. The Giants, for their part, were looking to push the Dodgers to the edge of elimination. In the process, the two teams told three different tales.

The Hero’s Journey, Deferred
If you had told the Giants in June that Kevin Gausman would be starting Game 2 of the NLDS, they would have been thrilled. Heading into the All-Star break, he had posted a 1.73 ERA and a 2.57 FIP, led by a four-seam fastball that finishes batters high and a devilish splitter that wipes them out low and is among the best in the game.

But after a scintillating first half, Gausman faltered. He posted a 4.42 ERA and a 3.65 FIP. His splitter had less sink. He tinkered with his pitch mix, toying with throwing more sliders and what Pitch Info classifies as changeups, though not to particularly great effect. The final month of the season suggested a course correction, though not quite a return to form, an assessment seemingly shared by Gabe Kapler when he tapped Logan Webb to start Game 1 of the series.

And for the first few innings of Saturday’s game, you could see why. Gausman threw first-pitch balls to three of the first four batters he faced. In the second, Chris Taylor doubled. After a Cody Bellinger strikeout, Gausman fell behind AJ Pollock, 2–0, and Kapler opted to put him on intentionally to get to Julio Urías. But the pitcher and his .203 season average slapped a hanging splitter for a single, scoring Taylor; Mookie Betts followed with an RBI single of his own (his third hit this series and fifth this postseason).

It looked like Gausman’s night might end half an inning later, as Kapler almost pinch hit Tommy La Stella for his starter when San Francisco threatened after a Wilmer Flores walk and a Brandon Crawford single. Ultimately, though, he thought better of it when a Donovan Solano sacrifice fly plated a run and pushed the Giants to two outs, and Gausman rewarded that faith by settling down and retiring the next nine batters he faced. It seemed like it might be the sort of start that, provided the Giants rallied, would be described as gritty — not dominant, but necessary in the march to the World Series.

Then the sixth inning hit.

A Ghost Story
From August 1 to the end of the season, Taylor hit .187/.271/.293, good for a 57 wRC+. Bellinger’s woes extend further back and deeper: He posted a .165/.240/.302 line, a 48 wRC+, and the highest strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his career this season, finishing as the third least-valuable hitter in baseball among those with at least 350 plate appearances. Amidst that broader nightmare was a more discreet haunting: He mustered a mere .042/.148/.104 line and -22 (!) wRC+ against San Francisco, striking out 38.9% of the time.

Pollock’s ghosts had a fuzzier, less predictive edge. His .167/.224/.204 line in 58 postseason plate appearances for the Dodgers isn’t good (neither is the staggering -19.74% Championship Win Probability Added he’s been worth in those PA), but he had an excellent year and had hit well since returning from a September hamstring injury. Still, his results hadn’t been good in October’s early going, and this is the time of year for seeing specters in the shadows.

The sixth inning cast those spirits out. A Trea Turner double and Will Smith walk chased Gausman from the game; Dominic Leone entered and promptly surrendered a walk to Taylor, then hung a 95-mph first-pitch fastball to Bellinger, which the former MVP banged off the bottom of the left-center field wall for a two-run double. Pollock dumped a two-run double of his own into left field in the next at-bat to turn a close game into a rout. In Game 1, the Dodgers’ six-through-nine hitters (Matt Beaty, Pollock, and Bellinger, plus the pitcher’s spot) went 0-for-12; on Saturday, they went 7-for-15 and drove in six runs, with Taylor and Pollock both recording multiple hits (Beaty, benched in favor of Taylor, recorded a pinch-hit RBI single for good measure).

That isn’t to say Bellinger and Taylor are fixed; the latter seems to have recovered from the neck injury that sidelined him for part of September, but his struggles preceded that. And while Bellinger’s double cracked it open, he struck out in his other three at-bats, each of which featured the sort of flailing, ugly swings that have come to characterize his season. The Dodgers’ lineup still feels thinner than it did before Max Muncy got hurt. But staring down a potential 2–0 series deficit, the shakiest bats rallied big to exorcise their demons, at least for one night.

The Tale of an Artful Dodger(s)
For his part, Urías was steady if unspectacular, throwing five innings of one-run ball with five strikeouts and one walk. He leaned heavily on his four-seamer, never seeming particularly comfortable with his usually superlative curveball; the pitch induced just two whiffs and a mere 19% CSW rate. When he exited, the Dodgers led 2–1, but by the time Joe Kelly entered in the bottom of the sixth, the lead had stretched to 6–1.

But the Giants were not interested in going quietly. After Kris Bryant popped out to start the frame, pinch-hitter LaMonte Wade Jr. walked and Buster Posey singled. Flores followed by ripping a 97-mph sinker that didn’t sink. It looked like a base hit sure to score a run, but Trea Turner had other ideas:

The Dodgers’ thievery didn’t end there. After Crawford singled to drive in Wade, Flores tried to advance to third, only for Betts to nab him with a perfect throw for the inning’s third out:

The Giants had their own great defensive plays, with Bryant, Crawford and Evan Longoria all flashing the leather, but it was all in vain. Stolen outs just don’t stack up when you’ve already had your pocket picked of runs.

The stories we tell demand a protagonist, and baseball teams tend to be lousy with candidates: grizzled veterans, plucky kids, the middling bat who takes a step forward, the starting pitcher who emerges as the villain in another club’s yarn. I imagine that ball players are no different from the rest of us in assuming themselves to be bigger characters in other peoples’ stories than we likely are.

The Giants made their bones this season on old guys rejuvenated, and journeymen and post-prospect types who’ve made good on steady playing time, improved pitches, and smart platooning. Gausman is one of their pleasant surprises, albeit one who has also shown that within a successful season there can be long stretches where you look like your old, more middling self. But sometimes the other guys who are struggling come up big, too, even after you’ve settled down. Sometimes the former MVP looks like one again, if only for a single at-bat, and the guy who’s had a hard go of it in October has a 2-for-3 night. Sometimes the night after a shutout, the second best offense in baseball explodes for nine runs, buoyed by the bottom of the order, that evening’s starter, and some guy named Mookie Betts, while the best offense stays quiet. You think you’re in the midst of a redemption arc, only to realize you’re actually in someone else’s. For the first five innings of Game 2, Gausman and Urías jockeyed to be the hero, but after Webb’s dominance the night before, baseball sought out a different protagonist and found it in a collection of bats looking to right their story.

There’s nothing that says that the Giants can’t wrest the narrative back; 107-win teams aren’t often relegated to postseason footnotes. But then, they aren’t normally squaring off against 106-win teams ready to throw out Max Scherzer as their Game 3 starter, either. The series will shift to Los Angeles, knotted 1–1, a new best-of-three for the right to advance.

Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the co-host of Effectively Wild. Prior to joining FanGraphs, her work appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing, and Just A Bit Outside. You can follow her on twitter @megrowler.

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11 months ago

Fun article, worthy of a fun series.

(Wrest the narrative, not ‘rest the narrative’.)

Smiling Politely
11 months ago
Reply to  Meg Rowley

Yay for Meg Rowley articles! Thanks for pitching in on a weekend!