The Dodgers Offense Comes Alive in Time to Stave Off Elimination

For much of this postseason, the main storyline for the Los Angeles Dodgers has been a pitching staff that’s been stretched to its limit, but that focus neglects the fact that the Dodgers have also struggled to hit like they did earlier in the year. Entering Game 5 of the NLCS, they’d scored just 3.5 runs per game in their 10 previous playoff tilts. They were shutout twice by the Giants, and held to fewer than four runs four other times. It was an uncharacteristic slump for what had been one of the National League’s most potent lineups during the regular season. As a team, they were hitting just .231/.303/.356 (.286 wOBA) in October, a far cry from their .251/.339/.446 (.337 wOBA) regular season effort.

With their season hanging in the balance, the Dodgers bats finally came alive on Thursday night. They collected 17 hits against the Atlanta Braves — every position player in the lineup collected at least one hit except for Will Smith — and pushed 11 runs across the plate to force a Game 6 in Atlanta this weekend. This was the Dodgers’ seventh straight postseason win while facing elimination, the third longest streak in baseball history.

The hero of the game was undoubtedly Chris Taylor. He started his night by blasting a two-run home run off a center-cut fastball from Max Fried to give the Dodgers a 3-2 lead in the second inning — a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the night. In the third with runners on the corners, Taylor blooped a single into center for his second hit and third RBI of the game. He hit his second home run in the fifth inning, another two-run shot off Chris Martin, who had just entered the game in relief of Fried. Taylor came up again in the seventh inning with the bases empty and deposited a pitch into the left-center field bleachers — his third homer of the game and sixth RBI. His final at-bat came in the eighth and he came close to a fourth home run when he lined a hanging curveball down the left field line; it curved foul and he ended up striking out to end the inning:

This was the first three-homer game of Taylor’s career, the first three-homer postseason game since Enrique Hernández’s big Game 5 during the 2017 NLCS, and just the 12th three-home run game in postseason history.

After lifting the Dodgers to a walk-off win in the NL Wild Card game against the Cardinals, Taylor’s bat cooled off significantly during the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants. He collected just two hits in that series, driving in a single runner. Wild Card game heroics notwithstanding, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to see his struggles against the Giants as a continuation of his late season swoon. Battling a neck injury, he collected just seven hits during the season’s final month, bringing his overall line down to .254/.344/.438 (113 wRC+), this after he’d had a 130 wRC+ as late as August 28. In an otherwise phenomenal season, it was a disappointing end.

But against the Braves, Taylor’s bat has awakened, a sign perhaps that the nagging neck injury is finally behind him. Prior to his outburst in Game 5, he had collected five hits and three walks in the previous four NLCS games and led all Los Angeles batters with 8.05% Championship Win Probability Added in the series; he added an additional 3.83% cWPA for his efforts during Thursday’s game.

Taylor wasn’t the only Dodger to have a bit night. Not to be forgotten, AJ Pollock hit two home runs of his own. His solo shot in the second inning got the Dodgers on the board, only to be outshone by Taylor’s go-ahead homer just a few batters later. He added a three-run homer in the eighth inning, blasting a 3-0 fastball deep into the left-center field:

Taylor and Pollock launched five home runs between the two of them, just the third time in postseason history that teammates have hit multiple home runs in a single game. The previous two pairs of teammates to do so — Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Myers in Game 2 of the 2020 NL Wild Card Series and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series — combined for four home runs between them, which means Taylor and Pollock combined to hit the most home runs by two teammates in postseason history on Thursday night.

Like Taylor, Pollock struggled against the Giants in the NLDS, collecting just three hits in that series. He missed a little over two weeks in September due to a hamstring injury but hit well in the final 10 games of the regular season. He had collected just three hits against the Braves prior to Game 5, and even with his two-homer game on Thursday, Pollock has cost the Dodgers -4.37% cWPA this postseason. Perhaps this is the beginning of a turnaround for him at the plate; if it is, it couldn’t have come at a more important point in the Dodgers’ season.

Of course, before Taylor and Pollock’s fireworks, the game didn’t start out like Los Angeles would have hoped. Facing another bullpen game, manager Dave Roberts selected Joe Kelly to be his opener. He got one out to start the game but allowed a single against the shift to Ozzie Albies and then a two-run homer to Freddie Freeman to open the scoring. Kelly got another out in the inning but had to be removed in the middle of an at-bat due to an injury to his biceps. He’ll miss the rest of the postseason, with David Price likely to replace him on the Dodgers roster.

After Kelly exited the game, six other Dodgers relievers held the Braves scoreless for the remaining 8.1 innings, allowing just three more hits and striking out nine Atlanta hitters, with an at-bat from Brusdar Graterol thrown in for good measure. With the off day on Friday before the series resumes on Saturday, the heavy usage of the Dodgers relief corps shouldn’t be too big of a factor in Atlanta, though they have thrown a lot of innings this month.

It’s eerie how closely this year’s NLCS has tracked last year’s matchup. In 2020, Atlanta won Games 1, 2, and 4 while losing 3 and 5; the Dodgers took the last two and went on to the World Series. That same pattern has emerged again this year, and the Dodgers no doubt hope the same script has been written for series’ end. The Braves will hand the ball to Ian Anderson in Game 6 while the Dodgers counter with Max Scherzer.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Here’s an interesting factoid:

Braves’ runs when the Dodgers have had a bullpen game–3, 2
Braves’ runs when the Dodgers have had a regular starting pitcher–5, 5, 9

Olan
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Olan

Nothing but relievers from here on out!

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I was discussing this with a couple friends who are Braves fans last night, but I kind of think that starting pitchers are, in general, fried (as opposed to Fried). They have all thrown twice as many innings as last year; most teams do not allow pitchers to make such large jumps in IP year over year. Further, as an example, the Dodgers frequently try to build extra rest days into their rotation throughout the year. This year, due to the Bauer stuff and Kershaw missing half the season, they were not able to do this. Injuries of all sorts were up this year, including pitchers, so I imagine the Dodgers weren’t the only org that could do this.

That doesn’t mean we can’t see good outings from starters, but I suspect that starters, as a whole, are simply not going to be that reliable for any of the 4 remaining teams from now through the end of the World Series. Considering the burden that will place on bullpens, it could get interesting, and the starters who manage to find a way to a great outing will look really heroic.

indianbadger1
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indianbadger1

Speaking of the disappearance of the “Quality start Starter”, especially this playoffs where multiple teams are doing the Bullpen Starter routine; the four straight complete games by White Sox pitchers in the 2005 ALCS is a record that seems to be safe from ever being broken. I still can’t believe that was only 16 years ago. Looks like something from 1905 rather than 2005.

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Not sure why the weirdness of 2020 would affect starting pitchers more than relievers. As a general rule, relievers run out of gas late in seasons just as much as starters do, if not more.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

Teams tend to meter the innings of players as they move upwards through longer seasons as they progress through the minors, usually limiting them to 30-40 more IP than the previous season.

Many starting pitchers this year have pitched 100 more innings than they did last year, especially those who didn’t make the expanded playoff field (who may have just thrown 60-70, and may be near triple now).

To use two Dodgers as examples, last year Blake Treinen threw a combined 37 IP between regular and post-season. This year, he’s at 80.2.

Last year, Walker Buehler threw a combined 61.2 IP. This year, he’s at 222. For Julio Urias, who didn’t miss any time in 2020, it’s 78 vs 200.2 with a previous career high of 82.

Pitchers of both varieties wear down every year. The Dodgers instituted their policy of adding extra rest days for all their starters whenever possible when, after 2016, they concluded that they had been unnecessarily wearing Clayton Kershaw out in the regular season, leaving him depleted by playoff time.

The way that teams manage ramping even advanced pitching prospects up from NCAA/short season-length seasons to MLB length seasons is indicative that they have data that suggests that making huge jumps in workload from one season to the next is a risky thing to do. Many starters are up over 100 IP over last season.

The higher frequency of injuries has lead teams to not be able to provide the extra rest if they wanted to, on top of the significant increase in workload. I’d suggest these combine to make starters -more- worn down than they would usually be at this point. That may or may not extend to relievers, because their IP totals are a lot lower and a lot less consistent.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with bullpen games is that they work

Seamaholic
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Seamaholic

Yup. And they make the postseason even more random and unstable than it used to be (which was already a lot). Your postseason success now depends, in large part, in how many relievers you nab at the deadline and what your AAA staff looks like toward the end of their season. The regular season “best teams” are even less likely to actually win anything. Which in my opinion, is a bad thing.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

I’m not sure I agree with that, mostly because the best team from the regular season has historically almost never won. I believe it’s only 14 times since 1969.

Baseball is a game that requires large sample sizes. A 5-7 game playoff series is never going to truly accurately declare the better team

JamesD84
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JamesD84

MLS, which also has a playoff system with lots of teams, has a trophy for the team with the best regular season record. It’s not as big a deal as winning the playoffs, but it’s definitely something that organizations and fans care about. I’m not sure how you would get anyone to care about a similar MLB trophy now (other teams aren’t going to want to give more money or competitive rewards like draft choices to top teams), but because the best team so often doesn’t win the World Series, I’d like to see them try. That, or cut back the number of teams making the postseason to 4, which I’m sure is a total nonstarter for $ reasons.