Following his team’s Game 4 loss, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he simply wanted the chance to get back on a plane to Atlanta this weekend.
After the Dodgers punched that ticket with an emphatic 11-2 win in Game 5 of the NLCS on Thursday, staving off elimination and cutting the Braves’ lead in the best-of-seven showdown to three-games-to-two, Roberts laughed when asked about the upcoming cross-country flight.
“One of the happier flights I’ve been looking forward to,” he said, adding: “Our backs are against the wall and I don’t expect a letdown. But, yeah, I’m looking forward to that flight.”
Getting there was no easy task. On Thursday, the Dodgers needed an historic three home run effort by Chris Taylor, a two-homer outburst from AJ Pollock and impressive showing from the bullpen to win their fourth elimination game of the 2021 playoffs, and seventh dating back to last year when they overcame an identical 3-1 NLCS deficit to the Braves.
But they now have a chance to repeat history, heading back to Atlanta two wins away from a return trip to the World Series.
Here are five takeaways from Game 5:
In their lopsided Game 4 loss, the Dodgers went 0 for 14 in two-strike counts.
In their even more lopsided Game 5 win, they flipped that script.
On Thursday night, the Dodgers went 11 for 25 in two-strike counts — extending at-bats, innings and very likely their season by preventing the Braves pitchers from putting them away.
The Dodgers’ opening rally in the second inning was fueled by that approach, with Albert Pujols singling on a full-count slider one at-bat after Pollock’s first home run, and one before Taylor’s go-ahead two-run blast.
Pollock and Pujols beat Braves starter Max Fried with two strikes again in the third, each of them getting on base to set up Taylor’s RBI single.
The best examples were yet to come.
In the fifth, Will Smith and Pujols drew full-count walks, then Taylor barreled up an 0-2 fastball from reliever Chris Martin for a three-run home run.
In the seventh, Taylor homered again in a two-strike count, mashing his third long ball of the night on a 2-2 changeup over the outer half of the plate.
And in the eighth, the Dodgers finally put the game out of reach after Mookie Betts singled in a full count and Trea Turner drove him home with another two-strike hit, eventually setting up Pollock’s game-sealing three-run homer later in the inning (that one came in a 3-0 count, one of only three hits from three-ball counts for the Dodgers in the game).
For a Dodgers team that ranked 26th in the majors this year in two-strike batting average (.159) and never had more than nine such hits in any one game, Thursday’s production was unprecedented.
Roberts, however, said it was reflective of their overall attitude.
“I saw fight,” he said. “There were at-bats that in games past were ended and [we would] chase. [Tonight], I just saw us continuing to fight. I saw the ability and the desire to use the other side of the baseball field, to keep the line moving.
“That’s who we are when we’re at our best. We can slug, as you saw some homers tonight, but those shift busters, and Albert riding out a backdoor breaking ball — that’s stuff that really gets my juices going.”
Top to bottom production
Thursday was one of the Dodgers’ most balanced offensive displays of the postseason, too.
All eight position players reached base at least once, five had multiple hits and three players had at least three base knocks (Turner, Pollock and Taylor).
It was the bottom-half hitters that did the most damage, too.
The Dodgers’ Nos. 1-4 hitters on Thursday: 5 for 18 with one RBI, a walk and hit-by-pitch.
Their bottom five hitters in the lineup: 12 for 23 with five home runs, 10 RBIs and a walk.
“I think all year we’ve been a pretty deep team top to bottom,” Taylor said. “We pride ourselves on having good at-bats and grinding them out and kind of pass the baton to the next guy.”
There was a good sign from the top of the order, though. Turner finally halted his postseason slump, snapping a 6-for-40 skid since the start of the NLDS with his third career three-hit playoff performance. He also reached base via a hit-by-pitch and picked up just his second RBI of the month.
“It was just nice for Trea to break out another club, hit the ball the other way and beat the shift and stay on a baseball,” Roberts said. “When he gets on base, a lot of good things happen. . . . He was working on that in batting practice today with the hitting guys and for it to see it play out like that was great.”
Bullpen comes up big
There have been only two occasions in this series when the Dodgers’ bullpen has looked vulnerable.
When one of the relievers is serving as a starter. Or when a normal starter has pitched in relief.
The former happened again Thursday, after opener Joe Kelly gave up a two-run home run to Freddie Freeman before being removed with a postseason-ending bicep injury.
But from there, the rest of the Dodgers’ relief corps got back into a groove, with the next six pitchers combining to throw 8⅓ scoreless innings.
“Our bullpen kind of falls in the shadow, but they did an unbelievable job,” Pujols said. “Those guys came in and they put some zeros out there for us to allow us to score some runs for them and then end up winning the game.”
Even without the aforementioned caveats, the Dodgers bullpen has a strong 3.07 ERA in the series and postseason-best 2.32 mark overall in October.
But exclude Kelly and Knebel’s starts in Games 1 and 5, and the relief appearances of regular-season rotation members Julio Urías and Tony Gonsolin — leaving only the times normal relief pitchers have pitched in normal relief situations — and their numbers in this series become even better: 24 ⅓ innings, three earned runs, 34 strikeouts, four walks.
“All the guys were just fantastic,” Roberts said.
The only concern in the bullpen entering Game 6: Kelly is out, and Roberts said left-hander Justin Bruihl was unable to pitch Thursday after feeling arm soreness during his warm-up.
Freeman, Rosario stay hot
The one thing the Dodgers didn’t do — and that they may need to figure out in Games 6 and 7 — was slow down Freeman or Eddie Rosario, the Braves’ two hottest hitters.
Freeman’s two-run home run in the first seemed like a potential back-breaker, with the 2020 NL MVP winner punishing a hanging curveball to pick up his sixth hit and fourth RBI in the past three games.
Rosario, meanwhile, collected his third multi-hit game of the series, singling in the third inning and doubling in the seventh. He is batting .571 in the NLCS with a 1.609 OPS.
The good news for the Dodgers: Some of the Braves other key bats have cooled off.
Ozzie Albies is 4 for 17 (all singles) since Game 2. Joc Pederson went 3 for 12 in his postseason return to Dodger Stadium. Austin Riley went hitless in 14 at-bats over the three games in Los Angeles. And Jorge Soler, making his return from the COVID-19 list Thursday, struck out in his first action of the series.
Scherzer in Game 6
As the Dodgers head back to Atlanta, they now have the exact pitching plan they’d want in an elimination scenario.
Max Scherzer will take the mound for Game 6, with Walker Buehler awaiting a potential Game 7.
In his Game 2 start on short rest, Scherzer battled what he described as a “dead arm” during a 4⅓-inning outing. Asked how Scherzer has rebounded in the days since, Roberts said he‘ll have a better sense of exactly what to expect from Scherzer closer to Saturday.
“I don’t know until we get there, I really don’t,” Roberts said. “He’s doing his work and preparing. Obviously he’s been on the stage and to hand a ball to a guy like that you believe in, whatever he can give us we’re going to have guys around him to help us win a ball game.”