It may be 2-0, but the NLCS is far from over

October 14th, 2020

One moment, Mark Melancon was in the ‘pen at Globe Life Field, playfully reeling in his second Ozzie Albies homer in as many nights with his Braves ahead in a literal laugher. The next, Melancon was on the mound, sweating the final out with the potential tying run at third base.

The postseason is like that, its tone ever tottering. And Game 2 of this National League Championship Series, in which Melancon did wind up achieving that final out of Atlanta’s 8-7 victory over Los Angeles on Tuesday night, was definitely like that.

So although the Braves do have a 2-0 edge -- an advantage that 85 percent of teams in best-of-sevens have converted into series wins -- don’t dismiss the possibility that an earnest NLCS, which resumes with Game 3 on Wednesday night, will still take shape.

A Dodgers team that just lost back-to-back ballgames for only the fifth time this year does not figure to go quietly into that good night. The seven runs they scored in the final three innings of Game 2 were evidence.

“We were one swing, one anything away from tying that ballgame and going into extras,” Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager said. “It’s never over until it’s over.”

No question, this series is not over yet.

But we do have a few questions about where we go from here.

1. Did the Dodgers gain momentum … in a loss?
It’s a potentially ludicrous suggestion, because a loss is a loss is a loss. And the Dodgers' offense only awoke when the Braves summoned A.J. Minter, the seventh man in their bullpen pecking order, in the seventh inning (leading to Seager’s shutout-snapping three-run homer) and handed an 8-3 lead to long man Josh Tomlin in the ninth.

In other words, a Dodgers offense that ranked fifth all-time in weighted runs created plus (122) this season has still been mostly silent against the Braves’ best arms.

But the Dodgers did succeed in working deep counts against Braves starter Ian Anderson in Game 2, prompting manager Brian Snitker to go to the ‘pen in the fifth. This, on the heels of a six-inning start from Atlanta ace Max Fried in Game 1. The result is that Tyler Matzek pitched two innings in Game 2, and Chris Martin and Melancon were used on back-to-back days. In a series sans off-days, every little bit counts, and the Dodgers’ late offensive awakening after being limited to a single run in the first 15 innings of this series could be a confidence-builder.

“It doesn’t matter the score,” Melancon said of his opponent. “They’re not letting up.”

2. Can Kyle Wright keep the Braves’ rotation run going?
Anderson didn’t go deep into Game 2, but he did further lower a staff starters’ ERA that now stands at 1.16 through seven postseason games. The Braves are getting Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz-type results from kids who aren’t exactly household names outside Atlanta.

Wright, set to go in Game 3 on Wednesday, did his part with six scoreless innings against the Marlins in Game 3 of the NL Division Series, continuing his late-season turnaround after he was sitting on an 8.05 ERA as recently as Sept. 8.

But even though Wright has had good results after shifting to the first-base side of the rubber and increasing the use of his two-seam fastball, the sample is not yet large enough to take his gains as gospel. The Dodgers’ lineup will be a stern test of the 25-year-old, who can either put the stranglehold on this series or let L.A. back in it.

3. Will Dave Roberts push the right bullpen buttons?
Second-guessing Roberts’ pitching maneuvers in the wake of Game 1 felt forced, given the absence of offense. But it was open season after Game 2.

When Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin fell apart in the fifth and the Braves had a 3-0 lead with two onboard, Roberts turned to Pedro Báez in lieu of a high-leverage option such as Brusdar Graterol or Blake Treinen. Though Roberts understandably didn’t want to go to lefty specialist Adam Kolarek to face lefty Freddie Freeman (given the three-batter minimum and the looming righties in the Braves’ lineup), Báez -- whose left-handed opponents had a .774 OPS this season -- proved a sub-optimal matchup for Freeman, who singled home the second of the Braves’ four runs that inning.

With the Dodgers down, 6-0, in the seventh, Roberts used Alex Wood, who had a 6.39 ERA in 12 2/3 innings this season, and the Braves scored what later turned out to be an essential insurance run.

Did Roberts raise a white flag too quickly, or will playing it safe prove prescient, given the schedule?

“You just can't play every game, regardless of score, like it's life or death in a seven-game series [with no off-days],” Roberts said.

That’s true. But what’s also true is that “life or death” is approaching quickly for Roberts’ club.

4. Will Clayton Kershaw recover quickly?
Back spasms led to a late change in the Dodgers’ direction for Game 2, and Gonsolin ultimately ran out of gas after a strong first turn through the Braves' order. Combined with Walker Buehler’s double-blister-hampered short start in Game 1, the Dodgers are scrambling for length from their starters.

Los Angeles will be counting on the 24-year-old Julio Urías -- who will be making his 15th career postseason appearance (and third this postseason) but just his second start (and first since 2016) -- to go deeper in Game 3.

“I expect to give him a runway,” Roberts said, “and [for him to] pitch well and give us a chance to win a baseball game.”

That would leave Thursday's Game 4 for Kershaw, if and only if his back cooperates. And perhaps Roberts can stay away from the high-octane Dustin May, who piggybacked Buehler in Game 1, and have him available to provide a starters’ length in a potential Game 5 on Friday.

But Kershaw’s back is the axis around which everything revolves right now.

5. Can Melancon catch another Albies homer?
Hey, maybe the answer isn’t elemental to the outcome of this series, but this is the question on everybody’s mind right now.

Having teamed up for two dinger deliveries in the first two games of the NLCS, Albies-to-Melancon has replaced Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones as Atlanta’s great touchdown tandem, and it’s only natural for many of us -- Melancon included -- to want to see the run of receptions resume.

“That’s more home runs than I’ve caught in my entire life, let alone one season,” Melancon said. “Hopefully [Game 3] is No. 3.”