LA-ja vu? Keys to another NLCS comeback

October 21st, 2021

LOS ANGELES -- They’d prefer not to be facing another 3-1 deficit in the National League Championship Series. But, yes, the Dodgers have been here before.

For the second consecutive year, Los Angeles finds itself trailing Atlanta 3-1 in the NLCS, following its 9-2 loss in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday. The Dodgers rallied in 2020, but the task might be taller in '21 -- with Braves ace Max Fried starting Game 5 on Thursday, then a trip to Atlanta looming for Games 6 and 7. L.A. needs to win all three.

“You never want to have your back against the wall,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “That's not how you draw it up. But we have a very resilient team, a very tough team. It's not going to get much tougher than facing Max Fried in an elimination game. But we've done it before.”

Indeed they have. So how do they do it again? Here are three ways the Dodgers can avoid an early exit and climb back into this series:

1. Consider a major lineup shakeup
No Max Muncy, who has been out all postseason with a left elbow injury. No Justin Turner, who injured his left hamstring on Wednesday. The Dodgers still need to find a way to score, and it might be time to get creative on the lineup card.

In Games 3 and 4, Roberts has used near identical lineups. For Game 5, Roberts noted that Cody Bellinger will start in center field with Albert Pujols at first base against the lefty Fried. But the Dodgers’ current predicament might require more than a platoon or two.

Trea Turner’s at-bats have been poor, yet he has remained in the No. 3 spot. Chris Taylor, meanwhile, continues to hit near the bottom of the order, but he’s batting .417 in the NLCS. The Dodgers might consider moving Turner down and Taylor up.

If the series goes back to Atlanta, the red-hot Bellinger might be moved up, too, against Braves righties Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton. The Dodgers could also reassess the merits of Gavin Lux in center field. Lux is hitless in a small NLCS sample, and his defense has been costly.

And, of course, there’s this near-impossible question: How do the Dodgers replace Justin Turner and all that he represents? Sure, Turner has struggled this postseason. But he’s a Dodgers staple and has produced some of the franchise’s biggest moments.

“Somebody has to step up,” said outfielder AJ Pollock -- and, lineup-wise, it just might be him. Pollock figures to start in left on Thursday, with Taylor sliding to third. If Pollock continues to hit, he might also get the nod over the weekend against those righties.

2. Neutralize the Braves' lefty bats
Hoo boy, is this easier said than done.

Even considering the fact that Freddie Freeman opened the series with seven consecutive strikeouts, the Braves’ trio of Freeman, Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson has combined to bat .408 with four home runs this series.

The Dodgers’ current game plan isn’t working. Here are a couple of changes Roberts might consider:

Use Blake Treinen early, if need be
Treinen has been arguably the Dodgers’ best reliever against left-handed hitters this season. (Lefties batted just .140 with a .496 OPS against Treinen during the regular season.) Say there’s a big spot in the early stages of Game 5. Say, it’s Rosario and Freeman due up. The Dodgers can’t afford to pass up their best option against lefties. Don’t be surprised if Treinen gets the ball much, much earlier than usual on Thursday.

Make Alex Vesia and Justin Bruihl more than just specialists
The Dodgers don’t have many lefties in their bullpen. But their two lefties have actually been quite effective this series. The problem is, Vesia and Bruihl have been used almost exclusively as specialists. They’ve faced one Braves left-hander, maybe two, and when the inning ends, their night is done. Frankly, it might be time to let Bruihl and Vesia face an extra right-handed hitter or two, if it means they get an extra matchup with Freeman, Rosario or Pederson. The Braves’ righty hitters aren’t the ones doing the damage right now, after all.

3. Just get it to Atlanta -- whatever it takes, pitching-wise
Sure, things look bleak right now. But win at home on Thursday, and this series looks very different.

“No one really needs to tell anyone that we can do it,” Pollock said. “We've done it. We’ve been here. … We win tomorrow, we're not in a bad spot.”

Pollock is right again. The Dodgers have National League Cy Young Award candidates Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler lined up to start Games 6 and 7 in Atlanta. Now, how do they get there?

L.A. plans to use a string of relievers in Game 5, and it hasn’t named a starter. This bullpen day should look a lot different than it did in Game 1. This bullpen day is do-or-die. This bullpen day comes with the Dodgers' biggest arms very fresh -- and with the knowledge that an off-day follows on Friday.

Kenley Jansen threw only 17 pitches in Game 3 and didn't pitch Game 4. Treinen didn't appear in either of those games. Neither did Brusdar Graterol. Thus far, the Dodgers have avoided using Jansen, Treinen and Graterol for multiple innings. They've been playing something of a long game, keeping their best relievers fresh. Suddenly, there’s no more long game to play.

If the Dodgers are going to go down, they need to go down using their best arms. Multiple innings from Jansen, Treinen and Graterol would shorten the game significantly.

“I would love to go to Atlanta,” Roberts said. “For us, we're just trying to win tomorrow, and I feel good about it. And Game 6, we're going to have Max Scherzer on the mound with extra rest.”

Send the series back to Atlanta, and all bets are off. If anyone would know how to mount a comeback against the Braves in the NLCS, it’s these Dodgers.