Elliott: Dodgers vs. Braves series a showcase for baseball's illogical unpredictability

·6 min read
Los Angeles, CA - October 21: Los Angeles Dodgers' Chris Taylor rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run.
Chris Taylor rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run during the fifth inning of the Dodgers' 11-2 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Each game of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves has had a life of its own, so unlike the one before it that neither team has created momentum even after mounting the most dramatic of comebacks or producing the most powerful of hitting sprees.

It defies reason that the Dodgers, who were pushed to the brink of playoff elimination after they were held to four hits by a parade of relievers in Game 4 and lost spirited third baseman Justin Turner to a hamstring injury, pounded out 17 hits in a season-saving 11-2 romp in Game 5 on Thursday against ace starter Max Fried.

It defies belief that Chris Taylor, who wasn’t in the Dodgers’ starting lineup when postseason play began, hit three home runs and drove in six runs at an exuberantly rocking Dodger Stadium to cut Atlanta’s series lead to 3-2 and keep alive their hopes of repeating as World Series champions. Taylor’s three home runs and an additional two by left fielder AJ Pollock allowed the Dodgers to tie a franchise record for home runs in a postseason game; together Pollock and Taylor accounted for seven of the team’s postseason-record 17 hits.

This from a lineup that lacked Turner, who is eight for 19 with two home runs against Fried during his career, and injured first baseman Max Muncy, who is five for 11 with two home runs against Santa Monica native Fried.

“I don't know how to explain it. I'm happy it happened tonight,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We have a ton of respect for Max Fried, a local guy, and he's had our number.”

On Thursday, the impressive numbers belonged to the Dodgers. The next important numbers for them are Game 6, which will be in Atlanta on Saturday and, if they win, Game 7 on Sunday in Atlanta. “It seems like this whole series, we’ve been switching off games here,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “We won late, they win late. We scored a lot [on Wednesday], they scored a lot [on Thursday]. That’s just kind of how it’s been going. It’s two good teams going at it, and this is kind of what we figured.”

But no one could expect the swings in mood and results to be so wild and illogical as they were Thursday. “A lot of it is, it’s baseball,” Pollock said, and if you think about it, that’s profound.

Baseball’s appeal lies in its unpredictability, in sudden reversals of slumps or hot streaks, in unexpected big hits and the kinds of determined pitching performances the Dodgers’ relievers strung together Thursday under extreme duress. After losing opener Joe Kelly to a bicep strain after only two-thirds of an inning, six relievers stepped up and allowed only three hits and no runs after the first inning.

“Hey, they've been doing it all year,” center fielder Cody Bellinger said. “And for them to come in today and shut the door on a really good lineup, just can't say enough about them starting off with, I don't even remember, but they all did great.” To refresh his memory, after Kelly came Evan Phillips (who was credited with the win), followed by Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Cory Knebel and Kenley Jansen.

Baseball’s appeal also lies in Pollock, who didn’t start Game 4, leading off the second inning Thursday with a home run to give the Dodgers confidence and give fans something to cling to after the Braves had built an early 2-0 lead on Freeman’s first-inning home run. Taylor fed off that example and that energy, and he followed Albert Pujols’ single with a home run to left.

“AJ hitting the homer right there kind of gave us some life,” Roberts said, “and then CT with that two-run homer, and then you follow it up with two more homers from CT, and then AJ had a huge night with the three-run homer [in the fifth inning]. It’s like you can't always play for slug [home runs], but those guys stepped up big and allowed us to win a baseball game.”

The enduring appeal of baseball, which its caretakers seem intent on drowning out in noise and fluff and ruining it with inane rule changes like starting extra innings with a runner on second base during the regular season — a rule that thankfully is not in effect in the postseason — lies in watching the Dodgers win for the seventh straight time over two seasons while facing playoff elimination.

There’s no magic to the Dodgers’ ability to navigate a postseason tightrope, Taylor insisted. “I think for us it's always just been about winning one game and we try to keep that mentality all year, do everything we can to win tonight, and just sort of take it one day at a time,” he said.

Taking it one day at a day guaranteed them at least one more game, maybe two, and that’s all they could ask for.

The Braves, meanwhile, are still dealing with the narrative of having squandered a 3-1 series lead over the Dodgers in last year’s NLCS and facing repeated questions about whether they’re experiencing déjà vu all over again. “Every day it’s brought up the last couple days. I don’t think we have a choice until we kill that narrative,” Freeman said. “We’re up 3-2. We’re going home. It’s a great position to be in.”

Maybe not such a great position after they were up 3-1, but they need only one win to advance to the World Series and the Dodgers need two. At this point, it would be foolish to guess how it will go. The idea the Dodgers’ late rally in Game 3 had put them in control of the series was quashed by Atlanta’s 9-2 victory in Game 4. It makes sense to think that the Dodgers’ show of power and bullpen strength on Thursday puts them in good position to win behind a rested Max Scherzer in Game 6, but not very much has made sense in this series.

“It’s the playoffs. You put some pressure on a pitcher and you hope for them to crack and if they don't, you tip your cap,” Pollock said. “But if they do, like you saw [Thursday], then you can get some runs.

“And so I think it's a combination of us needing to do a better job of putting pressure on, but at the same time there's other times where it’s just baseball.”

For the Dodgers, the baseball season will last at least one more game. The possibilities are infinite for heartbreak or joy, and it's why we watch.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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