Chris Taylor fuels Dodgers with three home runs in Game 5 win over Braves

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Chris Taylor was late heeding to the roaring crowd’s pleas. The spotlight isn’t for him. The soft-spoken Dodger prefers to sidestep flattery. But 51,363 people are difficult to ignore, and his teammates urged him to absorb the adulation. Not every day do you hit three home runs in a postseason elimination game at Dodger Stadium.

So Taylor eventually emerged from the Dodgers’ dugout for a curtain call, a little late and only halfway, not reaching the top step to tip his batting helmet to the mass of jubilant fans grateful for the best performance of his baseball career Thursday night.

“That was my first one,” Taylor said. “I think anytime you do something cool, when you do it in Dodger Stadium, it makes it that much sweeter. This is a special place.”

On a day that began with a waft of despair for a club staring at a long winter, Taylor supplied the Dodgers’ season oxygen masks in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The All-Star utilityman, needed at third base Thursday, went four for five with three home runs and six RBIs to propel a mercurial offense as the Dodgers staved off elimination with an 11-2 win over the Atlanta Braves.

Instead of ending their season with a whimper, the Dodgers forced a Game 6 in Atlanta on Saturday with Max Scherzer scheduled to start on extra rest. They are two wins from erasing a 3-1 deficit against the Braves in the NLCS for the second consecutive year, riding a seven-game winning streak in elimination games.

“I guess when our backs are against the wall, we play our best and fight,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Taylor, an impending free agent, played hero in the Dodgers’ first elimination game at home in these playoffs when he belted the walk-off home run in the wild card game against the St. Louis Cardinals. On Thursday, he clubbed each of his three home runs off a different pitcher in the game’s first seven innings.

There was a two-run blast in the second off Max Fried. Next was a two-run shot against Chris Martin in the fifth. Two innings later, he swung himself into rare territory with a solo homer off Dylan Lee to give Los Angeles a five-run lead.

He became the first Dodger with three home runs in a playoff game since Kiké Hernández collected three in Game 5 of the 2017 NLCS against the Chicago Cubs. He is the second player in Major League Baseball history with at least three home runs, four hits and six RBIs in a postseason, joining teammate Albert Pujols, who recorded those numbers in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series with the Cardinals.

“It’s definitely surreal feeling for me,” Taylor said. “I never thought I was going to hit three homers in a game, let alone a postseason game. It just still hasn’t really sunk in.”

Taylor wasn’t alone in demolishing Braves pitching. AJ Pollock went three for five with two home runs and four RBIs. Trea Turner went three for four to snap out of an icy patch. Cody Bellinger compiled three hits. Pujols, the 41-year-old first baseman, added two singles and a walk one spot ahead of Taylor. It was an explosion for a sputtering offense that had scored fewer than five runs in seven of 10 postseason games. The 11 runs are the most they’ve scored since Sept. 29. A night after mustering just four hits, they accumulated 17, 11 with two strikes.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Roberts said of the offense’s turnaround. “I’m happy it happened tonight.”

The fireworks were in support of a stout relief corps deployed for another bullpen game. Joe Kelly opened, giving up a two-run home run to Freddie Freeman before exiting with a season-ending right biceps injury. After his departure, six relievers combined to hold the Braves to three hits without a walk over 81/3 scoreless innings.

“Our bullpen kind of falls in the shadow,” Pujols said, “but they did an unbelievable job.”

The dominant all-around display was a fantasy just hours earlier when Mookie Betts took his seat on the dais in the bowels of Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers were clinging to life, but they were still breathing. That’s usually enough for them. Last year, they roared back from the same deficit against the same Braves in the same series before going on to win the franchise’s first World Series in 32 years. They were familiar with the survival formula.

But this situation wasn’t the same. Betts said so in his demeanor, overtly resigned to the bleak circumstances, before verbalizing the reality.

“It doesn’t feel similar,” the superstar outfielder said. Why not? He noted the obvious.

They were already without Max Muncy for the postseason before Justin Turner limped off the field in Wednesday’s Game 4 loss. On Thursday, the third baseman was replaced on the roster by Andy Burns, making him ineligible to play in the World Series if the Dodgers advance. Taylor started at third base in his place and will continue at third base for the remainder of the postseason.

Then there was the fact that the Dodgers, who have elite starting pitchers available, were down a starter because of the organization’s decision to overuse Scherzer to survive a draining five-game Division Series against the San Francisco Giants.

“We were kind of behind the eight ball at the start,” Betts said. “But that’s not an excuse.”

The Dodgers won 18 more games than the Braves during the regular season. They posted the best run differential in the majors by a mile. And yet the $260-million reigning World Series champions were somehow the underdog Thursday.

The disparity was built on the pitching matchup. The Braves had Fried, their ace, on the mound after the Studio City Harvard-Westlake product gave up two runs in six innings in Game 1. The Dodgers had a bunch of relievers in a bullpen game with Kelly moonlighting as the opener for the first time this season. The gulf between the schemes appeared too vast for the Dodgers to overcome in the first inning.

Ten minutes and three batters into the game, Freeman upper-cut a curveball to give the Braves a quick 2-0 lead. Moments later, Kelly walked off with a trainer The Dodgers were already on their heels.

That changed in a flash in the second. Pollock cracked a leadoff home run. Pujols followed with a scalded single. Taylor launched the next pitch — a middle-middle 95-mph fastball — into the Dodgers’ bullpen. The Dodgers registered four hits— as many as they tallied in Game 4 — in the three-run blitz. Dodger Stadium was rocking. Fried was flustered and toiling with his pitch count already ballooned to 43 pitches.

Pollock, Pujols and Taylor — the Dodgers’ five through seven hitters — tormented the left-hander again in the third. Pollock lined a one-out single. Pujols smoothly placed a single in center field to advance Pollock from first to third base. Taylor then landed a flare to shallow center field to score Pollock.

The troika’s third act against Fried was in progress in the fifth inning — Pujols worked a two-out walk —when Braves manager Brian Snitker pulled his pitcher. He didn’t want Fried facing Taylor a third time. He chose Martin instead. The prudence was moot. Martin got ahead 0-2 on Taylor but fired a fat fastball over the half of the plate. Taylor steered it over the wall in right-center field for a two-run shot.

“I remember in ’17, from afar, like mancrushing on his game,” Dodgers reliever Blake Treinen said of Taylor. “He plays so hard and doesn’t really promote himself. I love that attribute. Seeing him do what he’s doing right now, couldn’t have picked a better time.”

A four-run eighth inning afforded Taylor the chance to become the first player in Major League Baseball history to hit four home runs in a postseason game. Taylor said he tried not thinking about the possibility. Pujols, one of the 10 other members of the three home run postseason club, said he was rooting for another from the dugout. Bellinger said he had goosebumps watching from the on-deck circle.

Fans rose to their feet. Finally, on the eighth pitch, Jacob Webb struck him out, whiffing on a changeup. The crowd reacted with cheers, again recognizing the night the quiet Dodger gave them when his team needed it the most.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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