Alexander: Dodgers finding not all 0-2 NLCS deficits are alike

If there was a moment Sunday night that reminded us that this isn’t last year, it was the renewal of the Will Smith vs. Will Smith rivalry in the ninth inning in suburban Atlanta.

Will The Elder gave up a memorable home run to Will The Younger during the 2020 Dodgers-Braves National League Championship Series. When they faced each other Sunday night, Will the Younger struck out swinging on a slider for the second out of the ninth inning.

One vignette, true. But maybe here’s another: Julio Urías, the Dodgers’ accidental but oh, so successful closer of 2020, came into the game to start the eighth inning Sunday night with a 4-2 lead – and gave up three hits and the tying runs, only escaping further damage by striking out Joc Pederson and pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianza to strand the go-ahead run on second base.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters after the game that he considered Urías his best option at that point, even after Blake Treinen needed just nine pitches to get through the seventh.

“We talked about it before the series, and he was available (Saturday) night if it came to the situation, but it didn’t,” Roberts said. “He hadn’t thrown a bullpen and he was the best option at that point in time. He was prepared for it.”

Not only did Urías struggle, but those 14 pitches might have compromised him for his scheduled start on Wednesday in Game 4. Max Scherzer, with two days of rest after his 13-pitch save of Game 5 on Thursday night in San Francisco, made it through 79 pitches and, somewhat uncharacteristically but absolutely candidly, acknowledged to Roberts that he was spent.

Somehow, the idea of “five and dive, and be ready to throw a high-stress inning out of the bullpen in a couple of days” might not be a sustainable strategy. Atlanta’s Brian Snitker hasn’t seen the need to use any of his starters in relief yet, but he used every one of his relievers last night and has used Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and Smith (The Elder) each of the first two games. And, unlike last year, there are days off in this series.

One more reminder that it’s different? Joctober still exists, only now it’s dreaded instead of welcomed in the Dodgers’ dugout. Joc Pederson wiped out the Dodgers’ first lead with a two-run home run in the fourth – specifically, a booming, 454-foot drive off Scherzer. As this series goes on, Pederson – no longer just a platoon player – has to be reckoned with.

There is this thought, which could be comforting if you still hold onto memories of 2020: The Braves were up 2-0 in last year’s series. They’re up 2-0 in this series after Eddie Rosario’s shot up the middle and under Corey Seager’s glove drove in the winning run, on Kenley Jansen’s first and only pitch of the game in the ninth inning, for a 5-4 Atlanta victory.

But do you really want to have to run the elimination game gamut again? No matter how battle-tested you might be, when you roll those dice too often you’ll lose at some point.

And here’s the biggest difference, so far, between this year and last year: Those Dodgers were noted for scoring runs with two outs: 59 through 19 postseason games. That’s the sign of a team capable of cashing in opportunities and adjusting as necessary to get it done.

These Dodgers are hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position through eight games this postseason: 13 for 68, or .191. They were 1 for 10 Sunday night. The one was Chris Taylor’s two-run double in the seventh, a sinking liner that center fielder Guillermo Heredia – who had entered the game that inning – couldn’t get to and then overran, seemingly unsure whether to try to dive or to short-hop it.

Otherwise? They left 10 men on base. They had men on first and second with one out in the third, but Gavin Lux popped up and Taylor struck out. They had first and second with two outs in the fifth, after Mookie Betts walked and stole second and Smith (the Younger) was intentionally walked with two outs, and Lux flied to left.

They got Taylor to third with one out in the sixth, and AJ Pollock and pinch-hitter Albert Pujols struck out. They re-loaded the bases after Taylor’s hit in the seventh, and Pollock struck out. And Trea Turner hit the first pitch from Smith (The Elder) to the wall in left field, but Rosario ran it down.

It’s a problem we’ve seen all season, and now it’s recurring at the worst possible time. And yes, the approach has been an issue.

“It’s an approach thing,” Roberts said. “I think that certain times in scoring position, we’re expanding (the strike zone) too much.”

But here’s the biggest difference from 2020 (besides, of course, the fact that the core of this group now knows what it’s like to win a championship): They’re going to be playing the middle games at home, where they were 58-23 during the regular season and are 2-1 so far in the postseason.

And if ever they needed the extra push from a spirited home crowd, it’s now.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers-Giants series had to end this way, didn’t it?

The ending the Dodgers and Giants provided Thursday night in San Francisco, after 3 hours and 26 minutes of stress and tension and the best that baseball can offer, might be proof that there is indeed karma. Or at least Someone Up There has one heck of a sense of drama.

Remember July 22? That was the night first base umpire Ed Hickox ruled that the Giants’ Darin Ruf did not go around on a check swing that would have been strike three. That led to Manager Dave Roberts’ ejection and kept alive a rally that turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 loss, gave Kenley Jansen his second blown save in a row and pushed the Dodgers three games behind the Giants in the NL West standings. You can make the case that if it weren’t for that game, and the ultimate one-game margin between the clubs, Thursday night’s decider of the NL Division Series would have been in The Ravine instead of at Oracle Park.

Here come the #Giants fans whining about Flores’ check swing to end the game, conveniently ignoring Darin Ruf’s full count swing that walked in a run vs #LADodgers earlier in the season. pic.twitter.com/JdUxE03tbF

— Aaron (@aarondevandry) October 15, 2021

Fast forward, then, to the bottom of the ninth Thursday, two outs, a man on first and the Dodgers trying to hold on to a 2-1 lead and finish off the series. Wilmer Flores tried to hold up on Max Scherzer’s 2-and-2 slider and … well, maybe he held up and maybe he didn’t. The check swing is maybe the toughest call in baseball to get right, although to some (many?) umps just finding the strike zone is particularly challenging.

But first base umpire Gabe Morales ruled it a swing, and that was that.

Wilmer Flores and the check swing heard ’round the world. pic.twitter.com/nZWVre7U1v

— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) October 15, 2021

Ruf, who had tied Thursday’s game with a monstrous 452-foot home run to center field in the sixth inning, acknowledged the juxtaposition afterward.

Darin Ruf recognizes the irony: “ it didn’t look like he went but a checked swing early in the year helped us out too, It’s kind of funny how it comes down to those two events.”

— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) October 15, 2021

Darin Ruf on the check-swing calls coming full circle for both #Dodgers and #SFGiants this season. Logan Webb on how he felt tonight as well. #Postseason pic.twitter.com/G3DCnChRI4

— Michael J. Duarte (@michaeljduarte) October 15, 2021

But it was fitting that this series, and an entire season that has been so competitive between these ancient rivals, would be decided by the smallest of margins and the most difficult of calls.

Maybe it was only right that after the conversation and consternation in the afternoon about the Dodgers’ decision to use Corey Knebel as an opener en route to Julio Urías, the chain from Knebel to Brusdar Graterol to Urías, Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen and Scherzer ran as smoothly as it did. And maybe it was coincidence, or maybe not, that Scherzer nailed down an elimination game on two days of rest, 56 years to the day after Sandy Koufax pitched a 2-0 shutout of the Minnesota Twins on two days of rest to win the 1965 World Series.

It’s baseball. What can we say?

This was 3 hours and 26 minutes of tension and nervous energy and waiting to see who would be responsible for the big hit or the big pitch or the big play – or big miscue – that would spoil an entire season’s work for one of these ancient rivals.

“I mean, the Giants are an incredible team,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told media members after it was over. “Talented one through 26, Kap (Gabe Kapler) deploys them really well. So we knew it was going to be a really tough series. I don’t think we appreciated the full extent of it until living it. But it was an incredible series. Obviously, we feel really good about being on the side of it that we were. But we appreciate how razor-thin the margins were.”

Beyond the rivalry, and the history, and the enmity between Dodgers fans and Giants fans (and the trolling was underway not long after the final pitch), there seemed to be mutual respect among the competitors. Maybe it’s because these teams are so similar, with former Dodger GM Farhan Zaidi and former Dodger farm director Kapler using many of the same principles to assemble this Giants roster and get it into fighting shape a year or two earlier than those on the outside had anticipated. That team is good, and it’s likely going to be a threat for years to come.

And after both teams had won 109 games in 2021, counting the postseason, and after the Giants had won 12 and the Dodgers 11 head-to-head, shouldn’t a taut pitchers’ duel have been the only way it could end?

For the record, dating to the first meeting between NL champion New York and American Association champion Brooklyn in the 1889 “World’s Series” – you know, the one nobody remembered when they kept calling this the “first ever” postseason meeting of the franchises – the Giants have won 1,277 meetings between the teams and the Dodgers (aka Bridegrooms, Grooms, Superbas and Robins) have won 1,249, according to Baseball-Reference.com. It must be noted that Brooklyn was 121 games under .500 against New York from 1903 through 1938, a period when the Brooklyn club seldom contended and was often lousy. Since the teams came to the West Coast in 1958, the Dodgers have a 575-550 edge following Thursday’s victory.

Yes, there have been memorable moments and winner-take-all games that catapulted one of these teams into the World Series. But no less an authority than Vin Scully, who witnessed most of those battles over the years, tweeted Thursday afternoon that this might be the biggest one in the teams’ shared history.

To my knowledge, tonight’s game between the @Dodgers and @SFGiants is the most important game in the history of their rivalry. With nearly identical records, and so much at stake, I believe this to be the case.

— Vin Scully (@TheVinScully) October 14, 2021

If Vin says it, I believe it.

“It was great every time we played those guys, just bringing the rivalry back to life, really playing for relevance,” Roberts said.

San Diegans probably will object, but this season and particularly this series served as a reminder of the importance of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, not only its history and the way both franchises embrace it but its renewed relevance on the national stage.

And while this wasn’t the first postseason meeting between the rivals (again, see the link above), may it not be the last, either. This stuff is too good to keep to ourselves.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers’ Walker Buehler aces another big-game moment

LOS ANGELES — It was evident in Walker Buehler not long after he wedged his way into the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 2018. He might be young, but he’s strong-willed and he does not scare.

“That’s why aces are aces,” Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday afternoon. “They don’t run from fights.”

They’re just as likely to jump in.

So Saturday night, when Buehler informed his manager after the Dodgers won Game 2 of the National League Division Series in San Francisco that he would be available to pitch a Game 4 three nights later, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After Monday’s crushing 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 3, then, the choice was obvious. The Dodgers had gone through the charade of trotting Tony Gonsolin to the interview room before Monday’s game, the implication being that Gonsolin would somehow take down bulk innings in some sort of a bullpen game. But afterward, there were hints Buehler would be involved, and Albert Pujols pretty well let the cat out of the bag when he went to the postgame interview room and said, “Walker is throwing the ball real well all year long. I think he’s going to go out there and we expect the same thing.”

They got it. Buehler was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time as a starter in the majors. But he was also pitching in the fourth elimination game of his career, and that muscle memory overrode the short rest and helped the Dodgers extend their season at least one more game.

The assignment, Roberts said, was to “go as hard as you can as long as you can.” Buehler, who threw 99 pitches in Game 1 on Friday in San Francisco, came back with 71 pitches in 4-1/3 innings Tuesday night, giving up a run and three hits and starting the Dodgers toward their eventual series-extending 7-2 victory.

If Julio Urias can take the baton from Buehler and take the Dodgers the rest of the way Thursday night at Oracle Park when he faces the Giants’ Logan Webb, let’s at least hope Buehler’s effort will be remembered with the significance it deserves.

This was an ace doing what aces do. This was what the Dodgers had asked of Clayton Kershaw so many times over the years, to pitch on short rest and bail out a beleaguered or short-handed pitching rotation.

Buehler handled it like a charm, belying the fact he was doing it for the first time. Of his 71 pitches, 42 were strikes. He threw the four-seamer most of the time (34 pitches) but got most of his swings and misses on his slider (three of 13) and changeup (two of 13), as well as four called strikes on the changeup.

“Honestly, I want to say he had better stuff than he had the other night,” Roberts said afterward, jokingly suggesting maybe the solution was to “have him go short more often.

“He just seemed relaxed,” he added. “Sometimes, when you might be a little more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you don’t try to do too much. All night long he stayed in his delivery. The stuff, the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches were really good. He used the change when he needed to, and I thought it was really good all night long.”

Catcher Will Smith said Buehler’s velocity was actually up from his previous start – he averaged 96.1 on the four-seam and 95.7 on the sinker – but the changeup has become a true weapon.

“Yeah, over the whole course of the year it’s just developed and gotten better and better,” Smith said. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”

As a rookie in 2018, Buehler pitched and won Game 163 against Colorado for the NL West title, and started Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee (one run allowed in 4-2/3 innings). In 2019 he started Game 5 against Washington in the Division Series (one run, four hits and seven strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, only to have the bullpen waste it). And last year, when the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against Atlanta, Buehler pitched Game 5 and delivered six shutout innings with six strikeouts.

Clearly, the moment does not get too big for him.

“With an elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball,” he said. “And I feel good about what I did. I wish I could have gotten a little bit deeper, but … we have the talent and the guys in the back end of the bullpen to cover it.

“To be completely honest, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been going on that I would have told him that I didn’t want the ball, so as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”

When he decided to volunteer for Game 4, he remembered, he didn’t talk to anyone about it before asking, “and then I spoke to everyone after I said it to make sure I wasn’t being an idiot.

“Luckily we have the players in that room, (Max) Scherzer, Kersh, guys that have been asked to and have (done) that, that I was able to (say), ‘Hey, am I doing anything wrong? Should I be doing anything different?’ … It’s not something we want to do all the time, but I felt that if things didn’t go our way (Monday), I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.

“I’m very happy that it worked out and kind of fortunate in a lot of ways. Our offense took care of a lot of it. Bullpen took care of a lot of it. But it’s just kind of another thing in terms of trying to become the baseball player that I am and that I want to (be). And I’m glad it worked out for us.”

This has probably been an ongoing process rather than one huge conversation. It is not uncommon to see Buehler, Kershaw and Scherzer in conversation on the dugout railing during games when they don’t pitch, talking pitching and sharing knowledge. Any questions Buehler might have asked about this situation in particular probably have had their base in all of those mid-game conversations.

Buehler talked as a rookie about drawing on the experience of Kershaw and then-teammate Rich Hill. But even then, Roberts trusted him in big games. And while the Dodgers need to be careful with usage on short rest – and ideally won’t need to lean on him often in those situations – they know they can depend on him.

After all, he’s an ace. And that’s what aces do.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Alexander: Dodgers’ Walker Buehler takes the ball and delivers

LOS ANGELES — It was evident in Walker Buehler not long after he wedged his way into the Dodgers’ starting rotation in 2018. He might be young, but he’s strong-willed and he does not scare.

“That’s why aces are aces,” Manager Dave Roberts said Tuesday afternoon. “They don’t run from fights.”

They’re just as likely to jump in.

So Saturday night, when Buehler informed his manager after the Dodgers won Game 2 of the National League Division Series in San Francisco that he would be available to pitch a Game 4 three nights later, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

After Monday’s crushing 1-0 loss to the Giants in Game 3, then, the choice was obvious. The Dodgers had gone through the charade of trotting Tony Gonsolin to the interview room before Monday’s game, the implication being that Gonsolin would somehow take down bulk innings in some sort of a bullpen game. But afterward, there were hints Buehler would be involved, and Albert Pujols pretty well let the cat out of the bag when he went to the postgame interview room and said, “Walker is throwing the ball real well all year long. I think he’s going to go out there and we expect the same thing.”

They got it. Buehler was pitching on three days’ rest for the first time as a starter in the majors. But he was also pitching in the fourth elimination game of his career, and that muscle memory overrode the short rest and helped the Dodgers extend their season at least one more game.

The assignment, Roberts said, was to “go as hard as you can as long as you can.” Buehler, who threw 99 pitches in Game 1 on Friday in San Francisco, came back with 71 pitches in 4-1/3 innings Tuesday night, giving up a run and three hits and starting the Dodgers toward their eventual series-extending 7-2 victory.

If Julio Urias can take the baton from Buehler and take the Dodgers the rest of the way Thursday night at Oracle Park when he faces the Giants’ Logan Webb, let’s at least hope Buehler’s effort will be remembered with the significance it deserves.

This was an ace doing what aces do. This was what the Dodgers had asked of Clayton Kershaw so many times over the years, to pitch on short rest and bail out a beleaguered or short-handed pitching rotation.

Buehler handled it like a charm, belying the fact he was doing it for the first time. Of his 71 pitches, 42 were strikes. He threw the four-seamer most of the time (34 pitches) but got most of his swings and misses on his slider (three of 13) and changeup (two of 13), as well as four called strikes on the changeup.

“Honestly, I want to say he had better stuff than he had the other night,” Roberts said afterward, jokingly suggesting maybe the solution was to “have him go short more often.

“He just seemed relaxed,” he added. “Sometimes, when you might be a little more fatigued and not too amped up or too strong, you don’t try to do too much. All night long he stayed in his delivery. The stuff, the velocity, the characteristics of his secondary pitches were really good. He used the change when he needed to, and I thought it was really good all night long.”

Catcher Will Smith said Buehler’s velocity was actually up from his previous start – he averaged 96.1 on the four-seam and 95.7 on the sinker – but the changeup has become a true weapon.

“Yeah, over the whole course of the year it’s just developed and gotten better and better,” Smith said. “He can throw it for a strike when he needs to. He can keep it below, get some chase on it. And, yeah, he had a good feel for it tonight so we leaned on it a little more and he was executing with it.”

As a rookie in 2018, Buehler pitched and won Game 163 against Colorado for the NL West title, and started Game 7 of the NL Championship Series in Milwaukee (one run allowed in 4-2/3 innings). In 2019 he started Game 5 against Washington in the Division Series (one run, four hits and seven strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings, only to have the bullpen waste it). And last year, when the Dodgers came back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS against Atlanta, Buehler pitched Game 5 and delivered six shutout innings with six strikeouts.

Clearly, the moment does not get too big for him.

“With an elimination game and having been here a little bit, I wanted the ball,” he said. “And I feel good about what I did. I wish I could have gotten a little bit deeper, but … we have the talent and the guys in the back end of the bullpen to cover it.

“To be completely honest, there probably wasn’t anything that could have been going on that I would have told him that I didn’t want the ball, so as long as I could walk into the clubhouse, I think I was going to pitch.”

When he decided to volunteer for Game 4, he remembered, he didn’t talk to anyone about it before asking, “and then I spoke to everyone after I said it to make sure I wasn’t being an idiot.

“Luckily we have the players in that room, (Max) Scherzer, Kersh, guys that have been asked to and have (done) that, that I was able to (say), ‘Hey, am I doing anything wrong? Should I be doing anything different?’ … It’s not something we want to do all the time, but I felt that if things didn’t go our way (Monday), I would feel really weird not pitching a game that we could lose a series.

“I’m very happy that it worked out and kind of fortunate in a lot of ways. Our offense took care of a lot of it. Bullpen took care of a lot of it. But it’s just kind of another thing in terms of trying to become the baseball player that I am and that I want to (be). And I’m glad it worked out for us.”

This has probably been an ongoing process rather than one huge conversation. It is not uncommon to see Buehler, Kershaw and Scherzer in conversation on the dugout railing during games when they don’t pitch, talking pitching and sharing knowledge. Any questions Buehler might have asked about this situation in particular probably have had their base in all of those mid-game conversations.

Buehler talked as a rookie about drawing on the experience of Kershaw and then-teammate Rich Hill. But even then, Roberts trusted him in big games. And while the Dodgers need to be careful with usage on short rest – and ideally won’t need to lean on him often in those situations – they know they can depend on him.

After all, he’s an ace. And that’s what aces do.

jalexander@scng.com

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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Whicker: Dodgers’ margin of error disappears, but they’ve handled that before

LOS ANGELES — This would have been Clayton Kershaw’s game. Or Dustin May’s. Or, if not for a series of unfortunate events, Trevor Bauer’s.

Instead, the Dodgers will try to extend this season with a pitching plan that Manager Dave Roberts did not divulge Monday night, either because he didn’t know what this 1-0, Game 3 loss did to the original plan, or because he didn’t want to tell the San Francisco Giants that they would see Walker Buehler two nights before they were supposed to.

They probably won’t be surprised. They never are.

Buehler pitched in San Francisco on Friday night. He has not performed on three days’ rest in his career, and this season he carried 207-2/3 innings into the playoffs.

But then the Giants got the final six outs from rookie Camilo Doval, and he hadn’t done that before either.

Precedent isn’t particularly meaningful when the Dodgers, the only National League team to average five runs in 2021, have been blanked twice in the first three games of this series.

Roberts admitted to “frustration” as the Giants kept playing Whack-A-Mole with nearly every hard-hit ball. The signature play came from shortstop Brandon Crawford, who skied to snag Mookie Betts’ line drive with two on and two outs in the seventh inning.

But Donovan Solano, who came in to play second base when Tommy La Stella’s Achilles tightened up, also ranged to his left to retire AJ Pollock for the first out in the seventh.

And the winds, apparently imported from Candlestick Point in San Francisco where an infuriating old ballpark once stood, made it typical for a home run-dependent team to hit home runs.

The final hitter, Gavin Lux, watched his squared-up shot hit the wall of wind and get tracked down by Steven Duggar. Roberts thought it was gone, and Giants third baseman Evan Longoria admitted his “heart sank” when he saw the trajectory.

“Those winds were super strange for L.A.,” said Giants manager Gabe Kapler, a graduate of Taft High in Woodland Hills.

Only Longoria brought a big enough hammer to pierce the gusts and reach the seats, as he did on a straight, 0-and-2 fastball from Max Scherzer in the fifth.

Most of the day the Dodgers acted as if Tony Gonsolin, a spot starter for most of the season, would be the leader of the pitching parade in Game 4. That, of course, was before they lost Game 3. They only used Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen for one inning apiece, and there is an off-day between Tuesday and a potential Game 5 in San Francisco.

But you’d rather have Buehler, who was second in the National League in innings, third in ERA, seventh in strikeouts and fourth in WHIP.

“I think he’s going to throw the ball pretty well,” Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols said, even though no one had announced Buehler would be going. “I know he’s coming in on short rest, but I think he’s going to be pretty excited.”

In 2014, Vanderbilt needed Buehler to imitate a relief pitcher in a College World Series game against UC Irvine. Buehler struck out seven in 5-1/3 no-hit innings. It is not ideal, but it’s hard to believe Roberts would go into such an emergency situation and leave Buehler behind.

The Giants have Anthony DeSclafani, a well-rested starter, locked in for Game 4. He went 13-7 in 2021 with a 3.17 ERA, but he was 0-3 with a 7.33 ERA with six home runs allowed in six starts against the Dodgers. Much of that ERA is weighted by a 10-run, 2 2/3-inning outing on May 23, and he did throw six scoreless innings against them the last time he faced them.

If that doesn’t work they can lean on Logan Webb, who snake-charmed the Dodgers in Game 1, against Julio Urias in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday. Urias would be pitching on his regular schedule.

Is that how it ends for a team that won 106 regular-season games? Maybe, but then the Dodgers have learned how to deal with the brink.

They needed Chris Taylor’s home run to get past the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card game last week. They trailed Atlanta, 3-1, in last year’s NL Championship Series and wound up winning, with Buehler excelling in his Game 6 start.

Much of this team remembers 2018 in Milwaukee, when Buehler started Game 7 and Kershaw finished it, and the Dodgers won that NLCS.

Roberts seems to think the Line Drive Gods will intervene for the Dodgers and place baseballs outside the reach of San Francisco’s defensive octopus. After Alex Wood left the game with two outs in the fifth inning, the Dodgers had a shot at three Giants relievers, sent up 16 batters who struck out only three times, and still got nothing. They ended the game with no extra-base hits.

The enormity of the night and the obvious reluctance to face the aftermath of such a sudden defeat will put a fearsome game face on every Dodger. That’s yet another reason to use a guy like Buehler. He rarely leaves home without his.

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Whicker: Dodgers’ beefed-up bullpen helps send them to NLDS

LOS ANGELES — Chris Taylor’s home run landed hard. Hard enough to spring the joyful playoff noise from Dodger Stadium for the first time since Game 1 of the 2019 National League Division Series.

Hard enough to justify Max Scherzer’s prediction that it would turn out exactly that way, that Cody Bellinger would draw a walk in the ninth inning and Taylor would bury Alex Reyes’ slider into the left field bleachers.

“I thought (Albert) Pujols would actually hit the home run,” third baseman Justin Turner said later, “and he almost did.”

The point is that key people in the Dodgers’ dugout knew it would end in the ninth and, for that matter, how it would end.

Taylor’s two-run shot finally subdued the Cardinals, 3-1, in one of the most involving games of any kind that the Dodgers have played in the Guggenheim era.

“I think we made them a little nervous,” said Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals’ starting pitcher. “But they were relentless. They were who they are.”

However, there was a calling card that landed even harder, and it should have resounded throughout the Bay Area, as the Dodgers and Giants prepare for a Golden best-of-five series that begins Friday night in San Francisco.

The real message of this victory is that the Dodgers are playing with a couple of full decks in their bullpen these days, and those who assume they can still hang around until the end and watch the Dodgers dissolve might be sadly mistaken.

This game was not supposed to be a job from the relievers, not with Max Scherzer performing. But Scherzer was all over the place in his 4-1/3 innings, throwing 94 pitches and watching Manager Dave Roberts come out with the hook.

Roberts extended his right hand and quickly realized the ball was not going to be placed in it. He instead shook hands with his right-hander and then plucked the ball out of Scherzer’s glove.

It went to a better place.

Joe Kelly got two outs in the fifth and stranded Paul Goldschmidt at third base. Brusdar Graterol faced four hitters and was back in the dugout in five pitches, getting three grounders and holding his stuff at 100 mph.

Blake Treinen, unaccustomed to getting five outs, did so. It was laborious, since he had to pop up Nolan Arenado with Tyler O’Neill on second. Corey Knebel, who was once a nuclear closer in Milwaukee, struck out Harrison Bader with two out in the eighth.

It all led up to Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side in the ninth. Tommy Edman, who played a fabulous game at both ends for the Cardinals, got his third hit and stole a base in the ninth, but Jansen fanned Goldschmidt and then cranked a high 94 mph fastball that O’Neill waved at. You could hear it pop Will Smith’s glove in Eagle Rock.

“In terms of having a lot of neutral guys, then, yeah, it’s probably as good as we’ve had,” Roberts said, referring to relievers who don’t mind which side of the plate the hitter occupies.

“They’ve been our backbone all year,” Justin Turner said. “I thought Max did a great job battling tonight, and then the guys came in and did what they always do.”

Roberts did some roster shuffling because this was a win-or-stay-home situation. He left David Price off the roster and he thought he might have to use Julio Urias. Instead, Urias was a cheerleader and can now work Game 2 in San Francisco without a problem on Saturday night. Walker Buehler is the Game 1 starter Friday night, and Scherzer can come back for Game 3 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

It’s basically what they wanted.

The bullpen has always been the foreboding theme for the Dodgers, with appropriate “Twilight Zone” music in the background whenever the innings begin to dwindle. Only two years ago Clayton Kershaw was involved in the bullpen mix. In 2017 Brandan Morrow was worked into exhaustion. In 2018, a wrenching seven-game NLCS with Milwaukee wore down the relievers, and even though they rallied to extend Game 3 of the World Series to 18 innings, there wasn’t much left, before or after.

On Wednesday the Dodgers were able to outlast the Cardinals’ distinguished bullpen without having to use either Alex Vesia or Phil Bickford. They all await another roster alteration before Game 1 at Oracle Park.

“I really thought the winner of this game would go on to win the World Series,” Wainwright said. “I think we got to see that we could compete with a great team in this atmosphere.”

But it takes years of bonding, through champagne and through silence, to develop the keen antennae for winning that the Dodgers have.

Taylor was told that Scherzer had predicted this Hollywood ending perfectly.

“Good call,” he said, smiling. But not a hard one.

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Dodgers hit 4 home runs in 8th inning to beat Padres

LOS ANGELES ― The Dodgers saved their best for last Wednesday night.

With four games left in the regular season, they’ll have to make it a recurring theme.

Trailing the San Diego Padres by three runs with six outs to go, the Dodgers hit four home runs in the eighth inning to complete a wild, come-from-behind 11-9 victory.

Home runs by Max Muncy, AJ Pollock, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager pushed five runs across the plate, allowing the Dodgers to erase a 9-6 deficit. Seager’s two-run blast off right-hander Nabil Crismatt was the final dagger.

“Just trying to get the run in,” Seager said. “That was the only thought.”

The win allowed the Dodgers (102-56) to keep pace with the first-place San Francisco Giants (104-54) in the National League West standings.

The Giants beat the Arizona Diamondbacks, 1-0, earlier Thursday night. They lead the Dodgers by two games with four to play themselves, and their magic number to clinch the division title is down to three. The NL West runner-up will host the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card game on Oct. 6.

Pollock also homered in the first inning to give the Dodgers an early 4-0 lead. Mookie Betts began the Dodgers’ comeback from a 9-5 deficit with a solo home run in the seventh.

Seager went 3 for 5 with three RBIs. Pollock and Muncy each had two of the Dodgers’ 12 hits. Trea Turner extended his hitting streak to 15 games with an RBI single in the first inning.

Justin Turner came off the bench to hit a double in the eighth inning ahead of Seager’s game-winning blast. Turner’s 357-foot fly ball clanged off the left-field wall, falling a few feet shy of a five-homer inning.

David Price (5-2) was credited with the victory after pitching a scoreless eighth inning, and Kenley Jansen tossed a perfect ninth to convert his 37th save. The Dodgers have won eight consecutive games against the Padres (78-80).

This one will be remembered for a homer-happy inning unlike any other.

“That was a crazy inning,” Bellinger said, “maybe the craziest I’ve been a part of.”

After blowing leads of 4-0 and 5-1 early, the Dodgers saw the Padres rough up starter Max Scherzer for six runs (five earned) in 5⅓ innings. In the seventh inning, San Diego scored three more runs against Brusdar Graterol to take a 9-5 lead.

The same Padres team that committed two errors in the field just one day earlier turned the tables against Scherzer. The right-hander threw 97 pitches and induced only nine swing-and-misses.

For Scherzer, his last two starts amount to a rare lapse of dominance. He’s allowed five earned runs in back-to-back outings. He began the day with a 2.28 ERA, best in the National League, but now trails Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, 2.46 to 2.29.

“He just didn’t have good command,” Manager Dave Roberts said of Scherzer. “At times the curveball was good. The cutter and changeup just weren’t commanded. He’s picked us up many times over. We picked him up.”

In what might have been his final start of the regular season, Scherzer also went 0 for 2 at the plate. He has failed to reach base in any of his 61 plate appearances this season, which would break the previous record held by Wei-Yin Chen.

On a night when hard contact was easy to come by for the Padres, the Dodgers’ defense was porous. San Diego tied the score at 5-5 in the fourth inning when Seager allowed a routine ground ball to glance off his glove, turning the potential third out into an unearned run. Chris Taylor flubbed an easy ground ball earlier in the same inning.

The Dodgers’ most costly error was officially recorded as a triple off the bat of Wil Myers in the sixth inning. It came at the expense of Gavin Lux.

Lux, making his sixth career start in center field, took his eye off Myers’ deep fly ball at the last second. He dropped the ball then crashed violently into the wall.

Lux sustained a neck stinger, Roberts said, and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning. He was replaced by Bellinger, whose defense in center field has been steady.

Bellinger’s bat is another story. He began the day hitting .158, the lowest batting average of any hitter with at least 300 plate appearances this season. He ended the day by treating the announced home crowd of 45,366 to a game-tying home run.

“He’s in a good place mentally, a good place physically,” Roberts said of Bellinger. “He was ready when called upon. His teammates were really excited for him.”

The teams will play once more Thursday as the Dodgers attempt to catch the Giants. A wild card berth would end their streak of division titles at eight.

Seager Smash for the lead!

The @Dodgers hit 4 homers in the 8th!!!! pic.twitter.com/wqHOFHSSFj

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

A Belli 💣 ties the game in LA! pic.twitter.com/Flthm4G83S

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

Muncy starts the inning off with a bang ⚡ pic.twitter.com/s2nJzJhlzt

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) September 30, 2021

“Its special, that team in there has got a lot of fight in them.” @coreyseager_5 on the #Dodgers electric 5-run eighth inning. pic.twitter.com/5vQrJNbI5b

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) September 30, 2021

Win 102.

The reigning champs are ready for October. pic.twitter.com/9aTIgQQzMV

— MLB (@MLB) September 30, 2021

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Dodgers win as Clayton Kershaw makes 1st start since July 3

LOS ANGELES — It’s just one three-time Cy Young Award-winning future Hall of Famer after another for the Dodgers now.

In his first start since July 3, Clayton Kershaw rejoined the Dodgers’ starting rotation by allowing just one run and pitching into the fifth inning of an eventual 5-1 Dodgers victory Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

Kershaw gave up four hits and a walk in his 4-1/3 innings, striking out five and throwing 50 pitches (short of the targeted total of 60 in his first start in two months – but he was only expected to pitch four innings).

“There’s not a lot of better feelings in the world than getting to pitch here and getting a win,” he said after his 193rd career start at Dodger Stadium. “It’s a special thing. I missed it. It was good to be back. We got a win today and everything worked out.”

A three-inning rehab start last week in Triple-A left Kershaw predictably dissatisfied – he said he told catcher Austin Barnes that he spent “the past two months trying to get healthy. Now I’ve got four or five days to learn how to pitch again.”

“There’s just no way to simulate a big-league game. There’s really not,” he said Monday. “You can do all the bullpens, all the rehabs, all the working out you want. But for whatever reason, pitching in a big-league game is just different and the only way to do it and to get better at it is to do it, to go out and compete. So I’m glad I got this first one behind me.”

He appears to have been a quick study. The first inning didn’t go particularly well. Three of the first five Diamondbacks hitters reached base on a double, a walk and an RBI single. But Kershaw struck out Henry Ramos to end the inning.

Starting with Ramos, Kershaw retired 11 of the final 13 batters he was allowed to face. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled Kershaw after he had gone through the Diamondbacks’ lineup twice, retiring one batter in the fifth inning.

“I think there’s still some things I need to work on pitching-wise,” Kershaw said. “Today, it was good to get back out there. But at the same time, we’re in a race so there’s not a lot of time to work the kinks out. For me, I was throwing a lot more curveballs today than I probably had in the past, but that just seemed to be what was working. Gotta get that slider working. Fastball too was okay at times. But there’s definitely some things I need to work on.”

The familiar sight of Kershaw on the mound at Dodger Stadium brought “a lot of positive energy” to the team, Roberts said.

“It was awesome. So good to see him back out there, taking the ball,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “We talked before the game, how hard it is for him not to be able to go out there and compete every fifth day. We’re all excited to see him back out there.

“Kersh is our guy. He’s our leader. When he takes the ball, we know we’ve got a really good chance to win a ballgame. That was special.”

The Dodgers topped the Diamondbacks’ first-inning run with three of their own against Zac Gallen.

Four of the first five Dodgers batters reached base, starting with a double by Mookie Betts (who is now 7 for 16 with a double, two home runs, six RBIs and six runs scored since moving back into the leadoff spot last week).

Corey Seager drove in the first run with an RBI single then scored from first base on Justin Turner’s two-run double into the left field corner.

Gallen got out of that and stranded two runners in the second. The Diamondbacks right-hander threw 52 pitches to get through those two innings and it didn’t look like he would be around for long.

But the Dodgers couldn’t land a knockout blow and Gallen pitched into the sixth inning.

The Dodgers nearly got to him again in the fourth inning when Gavin Lux and Barnes led off with back-to-back singles. After a sacrifice bunt by Kershaw, Betts sent a fly ball into shallow right field. Lux tagged and headed home, arriving in sync with the throw from right fielder Jake McCarthy.

Originally called safe, Lux was ruled out after a lengthy replay review (approximately 2½ minutes) overturned the call.

The Dodgers finally scored again in the sixth inning, driving Gallen from the game. Barnes did the damage with an RBI double.

Justin Turner made his a three-RBI night with a solo home run in the seventh inning. After going 84 plate appearances between home runs, Turner now has four in his past 24 at-bats.

“Just putting in the work,” said Turner, whose only hits were home runs in that time. “I feel like I kind of got my timing back. I feel like I was late there for awhile.”

The first-place San Francisco Giants won their eighth consecutive game Monday, clinching a playoff berth for the first time since 2016 and keeping the Dodgers 2½ games back in the NL West with 17 to play in the regular season.

“I’m thankful,” Kershaw said of getting back in action. “I didn’t really know what it was going to look like at the end of this season. So for me to be a part of it is huge. I will never take that for granted ever – to be in a playoff race, to be a part of it. And it’s a good one right now. The Giants aren’t losing. They’re not making it easy for us. It’s going to be fun.”

“There’s not a lot of better feelings in the world than getting to pitch here and getting a win. It’s a special thing. I missed it. It was good to be back.” @ClaytonKersh22 on his first outing back from the IL. pic.twitter.com/VLY5ohZQ3O

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) September 14, 2021

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Whicker: Even Buster Posey finds new adventures as Giants outlast Dodgers in 11 innings

Buster Posey had played 1,347 major league games before Friday night. He’s running out of unprecedented things. But on Friday night, he was back in the dugout waiting out a video review that would either wrap up an imperative game for his Giants or sentence him to a 12th inning of catching, crouching, thinking, grinding.

He got the call he wanted. He was indeed safe when impromptu Dodgers first baseman Will Smith came off the bag as he tried to glove a high toss by still-developing second baseman Trea Turner. Posey had made the “safe” sign as he crossed the bag, but nobody really knew, especially the assembled pitchers in both clubhouses who were watching Oracle Park replays and knowing they were delayed.

“We were listening for the crowd,” said Anthony DeSclafani, the Giants’ starter. “It seemed like it took 20 minutes.”

They heard it soon enough. Posey was safe, the Giants had scored in the 11th and beaten the Dodgers, 3-2, to regain sole possession of first place in the National League West, and now his teammates were partying.

“That’s the first time I’ve celebrated a walk-off in the dugout,” Posey said. “But the guys weren’t hitting me. I’m a 34-year-old catcher. They know they have to be careful.”

September is the time when baseball escapes the chain and explores the possibilities around it, tries to see what it can see.

Game One of this three-game series, the last rendezvous of the season, lasted long enough to involve every position player and even some of the starting pitchers, as Walker Buehler pinch-ran for Albert Pujols in the 10th – after The Machine had thundered his way from second to third on a fly ball – and scored as a ghost runner.

Seventeen people pitched, all of them effectively. The ninth and 10th pitchers for the Dodgers reminded you of the clerks in a studio mailroom who wind up punching out the villain and riding off with the girl. Andrew Vasquez had an ERA of infinity, which means he’d never retired a major league hitter, and Evan Phillips had a 7.13. Vasquez got two outs in the 10th and Phillips finished up and then would have steered the game into the 12th if not for Turner’s poor throw.

That is how deep the Dodgers are digging, in these bullpen games. Six times their relievers retired the Giants with two outs and a man in scoring position. Now they have Julio Urias and Walker Buehler for the rest of the weekend, and the Giants are the ones averaging an arm per inning, which isn’t the recommended mileage in September. Logan Webb, their best starter, was already ticketed to play the outfield in the 12th, had there been one, because Alex Dickerson came up gimpy. This time of year makes Ohtanis of us all.

Because of that, San Francisco needed the win more than the Dodgers did, but both were willing to risk health and dignity, not to mention discord. Giants manager Gabe Kapler pinch-hit Austin Slater for LaMonte Wade Jr., one of his most consistent hitters, in the third inning. Why? Because the bases were loaded and the Dodgers had just brought in lefty Alex Vesia. Slater dutifully singled home the first run of the game, and it held up until the ninth, when Chris Taylor gouged a two-out RBI single that tied it 1-1 and followed another play that had one hand scratching the head and another reaching for the rulebook.

“I thought it was like being in the seventh or eighth inning,” Kapler said. “Runs would be hard to come by. I immediately explained it to LaMonte. I told him I knew he could have driven the run home, too, but Austin is on the roster for this reason.”

The Giants are in first place because their orchestra has no soloists, or at least no divas, although shortstop Brandon Crawford buttressed his MVP case by throwing out Justin Turner at the plate in the 11th.

Another tag of Turner would have ended the game two innings earlier. Turner had singled and Corey Seager (four hits) had doubled with one out. Smith grounded hard to Crawford, who threw home, and Turner’s only hope was to get into a rundown and hope the Giants made a hiccup. He ran back to third, where Seager already was, and Posey followed him and tagged them both.

Turner was the surviving runner because he had already occupied third. Seager was out and he walked off the base. But then, as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts gasped, so did Turner. And then, as Kapler gasped, Posey made a move toward Seager, who was already gone, and let Turner get back to the bag. Once Posey realized he should have tagged Turner, he shook his fist in disgust, because the Giants would have won, 1-0. Instead, Taylor tied it, and the two sides radioed headquarters for fresh bodies and provisions.

“I messed that up,” Posey said.

Nothing to do but guide more pitchers through the Dodger minefield. DeSclafani is 11-2 when he doesn’t face the Dodgers. He was 0-3 with a 9.43 ERA in his previous five starts against L.A. this season, but he gave up just two hits in six innings and didn’t let a Dodger past third base. His breaking stuff provided cover for a fastball that kept clipping the edges.

Next thing you know Posey is trying to reach third gear down the baseline, as he runs out a grounder the way every coach in his life told him to, long before every close play had to be examined twice.

“He was just fast enough,” DeSclafani said, although he could have been talking about the game.

The @SFGiants win and reclaim sole possession of first place in the NL West! pic.twitter.com/wE6p0YiyMa

— MLB (@MLB) September 4, 2021

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Dodgers hit 4 home runs in first 3 innings to beat Braves

LOS ANGELES — Opportunity had been knocking persistently. The Dodgers finally answered.

With the first-place Giants losing for the third time in their past four games, the Dodgers took advantage, peeling a game off the NL West lead by beating the Atlanta Braves, 5-3, Monday night.

“Baseball is so … what can you do for me today?” Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts said with a verbal shrug of his shoulders. “We had a good day today and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

What happened twice over the weekend was the Giants lost – and the Dodgers went out and lost as well, the two teams moving in tandem as if it were a sack race. With Monday’s win, though, the Dodgers moved within 1½ games of first place, as close as they have been able to get since a loss to the Giants on July 21.

“It does (feel good to gain a game). Yes, it does,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I’ll be honest. Absolutely it does.”

They did it by beating a Braves team that had hung those two losses on the Giants over the weekend in Atlanta and had been just a tick (18-6) behind the Dodgers (19-6) as the National League’s hottest team in August.

The Dodgers’ offense had not been very hot recently, not even lukewarm. In their 10 games before facing the Braves, the Dodgers hit .187 as a team and averaged 3.4 runs per game, culminating in a shutout at home by the Colorado Rockies on Sunday.

They had just one hit after the fourth inning Monday, but they had already done enough damage, hitting four home runs in the first three innings off Braves left-hander Drew Smyly.

“I thought we took good at-bats,” Roberts said. “I thought tonight was more indicative of what we can do. I hear your point (one hit after the fourth inning) but I thought tonight overall balls in our ‘nitro’ zones we were ready to fire on and balls that were not we were more passive and that’s what I want.”

Max Muncy started the power display with one out in the first inning. Will Smith went deep with two outs in the second. Betts had just one hit in his first 12 at-bats since returning from the injured list last week before leading off the third with a line drive into the left field seats.

Corey Seager broke the solo parade with a two-run shot later that inning, putting the Dodgers firmly on top, 5-0.

It was the second time this season the Dodgers hit four home runs in the first three innings of a game – they also did it on Aug. 4 against the Houston Astros – and the first time in franchise history they’ve done it twice in a single season.

The Braves nearly matched the Dodgers’ homer total. But it took a while.

Dodgers starter Julio Urias was perfect through four innings, retiring the first 12 batters he faced. The Braves got a couple of singles in the fifth inning to end Urias’ perfect string then Jorge Soler and Freddie Freeman hit back-to-back home runs in the sixth.

Urias finished the sixth, his longest outing since July 21. In eight starts since then, he has a 2.03 ERA while holding opposing hitters to a .191 batting average. He is baseball’s first 15-game winner this year.

“I felt good. All three pitches were working early,” Urias said through an interpreter. “I felt good all the way through. I went as hard as I could as long as I could.”

Adam Duvall hit the Braves’ third solo homer of the game in the seventh off Dodgers reliever Phil Bickford. Corey Knebel and Blake Treinen combined to get the final six outs, but Treinen had to strike out Adam Duvall and get Stephen Vogt to fly out with the tying runs on in the ninth to get there.

Muncy mash. pic.twitter.com/NFCvYMZGHx

— MLB (@MLB) August 31, 2021

.@mookiebetts bobblehead night wouldn’t be complete without a first pitch by his mom and a homer by Mookie! pic.twitter.com/IagD539LO3

— MLB (@MLB) August 31, 2021

Will Smith homer vs. Atlanta memory unlocked. pic.twitter.com/dVP6llKaDX

— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 31, 2021

Seager smash. 💪 pic.twitter.com/wmnuAt1nPH

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) August 31, 2021

Dave Roberts with a few takeaways from tonight’s win, Julio Urías’ outing and more. pic.twitter.com/nU8dNEL53S

— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) August 31, 2021

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