An important development for the Dodgers was obscured by their defeat on Thursday night: They scored seven runs in a game in which the Atlanta Braves’ starter was a pitcher described by manager Dave Roberts as the best in the National League.
In the six innings pitched by All-Star right-hander Spencer Strider, the Dodgers scored four runs. Over the remaining three innings of the 8-7 loss, they scored three more.
“Gave ourselves a chance,” said Mookie Betts, who homered twice and drove in four runs.
These are the kinds of games the Dodgers will have to play in October. These are the kinds of games they will have to win.
By now, they know they can’t rely on their pitching to mount an extended postseason run. The Dodgers are going to have to hit their way to the World Series.
Their lineup might be even more top-heavy than it was last year, when they were upset by the San Diego Padres in the divisional round, or the year before, when they were eliminated by the Braves in the NL Championship Series.
Trea Turner signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in the winter. Will Smith played in the All-Star game and has barely hit since. J.D. Martinez is still recovering from a groin injury.
Not every top-heavy team is constructed the same, however, and these differences are why Roberts remains hopeful the Dodgers’ offense won’t suddenly falter as it did in each of the last two seasons.
After a couple of years in which they tried to develop greater lineup continuity, the Dodgers are back to stocking their roster with platoon players — right-handed hitters such as Kiké Hernández and Amed Rosario who are often deployed against left-handers, and left-handed hitters such as Jason Heyward and David Peralta, who play almost exclusively against right-handers.
The Dodgers have a couple of legitimate MVP candidates in Betts and Freddie Freeman but Roberts said it’s the variety of offensive options on the roster that will allow the team to create favorable matchups and ultimately advance to the later stages of the postseason.
Two years ago, in the NLCS against the Braves, Roberts called on no-chancer Steven Souza Jr. to pinch hit in what amounted to the Dodgers’ final gasp. Last year, in the NLDS against the Padres, Roberts turned to .168 hitter Austin Barnes for a critical at-bat in Game 2. The improved depth should provide Roberts with better options late in games.
“It’s easy to just expect Mookie and Freddie [to carry the team],” Roberts said. “But the truth of the matter is that teams are not gonna let those two guys beat them. So the fact is that those other seven guys are gonna have to do their part.”
The Dodgers often have four or five platoons, depending on how healthy they are. When they faced Strider in the opening game of a four-game series at Dodger Stadium, Roberts lined up four left-handed-hitting platoon players behind left-handed-hitting cleanup hitter Max Muncy. Roberts said he expected to field a radically different lineup the next day against left-hander Max Fried.
The approach has worked, the Dodgers scoring 5.7 runs per game, almost a half-run more than their 111-win team from last year. They should clinch the NL West title in the next couple of weeks.
“What we’ve done to get here is what we’re going to do throughout the postseason,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to get caught up in overthinking things, reinventing.”
Many of their runs have been scored against some of the worst teams in baseball: 65 in nine games against the Colorado Rockies, 25 in four games against the Angels, 25 in three games against the Oakland Athletics.
Which is why Roberts was encouraged by the team’s production this week. They have encountered the quality of pitching they expect to see in October, and they continued to produce.
On Monday, they torched All-Star Zac Gallen of the Arizona Diamondbacks for six runs in 5 ⅓ innings. A day later, they put up seven runs in five innings against Gallen’s rotation mate, Merrill Kelly.
In the opener of a four-game series against the Braves on Thursday, the Dodgers had a fifth inning that represented Roberts’ vision for their offense.
Heyward, the No. 6 hitter, started the bottom of the inning with a single to right. James Outman, another left-handed hitter, followed up with a walk.
Three batters later, Betts drove a 98.7-mph fastball by Strider over the right-field wall.
The Dodgers reduced their deficit to 7-4.
“Guys fought,” Roberts said.
Roberts praised the consistency of the team’s focus, which he said was lacking in the NLDS last year against the Padres. He said the team’s improved mentality was a reflection of how the team’s platoon players have accepted their roles.
“The hardest guys to manage in the past have been the platoon guys because they’re always wanting for more [playing time],” Roberts said. “That’s a good thing, as a competitor. But I think the guys now we kind of match up really have bought into it. I think that they all realize that they’re put, and the team’s being put, in the best position to have success.”
The level of buy-in is why Roberts has called these Dodgers his favorite team he has managed. Whether they can do in October what they’re doing now will determine whether he will also be able to call them champions.