It wasn’t hard to boil down the Dodgers' 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Saturday’s Game 1 of the NLCS to a simple explanation.
Manager Dave Roberts did it in two sentences.
“We didn't not win the game because we didn't prevent runs,” Roberts said. “We just didn't get the hits when we needed.”
Indeed, on a night when it seemed like the Dodgers’ patchwork pitching plan in a bullpen game would be their biggest obstacle, they were instead tripped up by another not-very-clutch, not-very-consistent performance from the lineup, dropping the club to 1-7 in its past eight NLCS openers going back to 2008.
The good news for the Dodgers? They’ve overcome Game 1 losses in their last two NLCS appearances (last year against the Braves and in 2018 against the Milwaukee Brewers) to still go on and win the pennant.
But, Saturday presented signs that, despite the 18-win gap between two teams during the regular season, this series has the potential to be a lot closer than expected.
Here are four takeaways from the game:
1. Chris Taylor’s baserunning mistake
The script was playing out as it had so many times before.
Stuck in a low-scoring battle after a sluggish night at the plate, there was a brief moment in the ninth inning Saturday night when the Dodgers offense finally appeared to be coming to life.
After a two-out walk by Chris Taylor, the first for either team all game, pinch-hitter Cody Bellinger lifted a two-out single into shallow right field, a spinning line drive that floated just over the glove of second baseman Ozzie Albies and landed softly in the outfield grass.
The opportunity to break a 2-2 tie, however, was gone in a flash. Instead of stopping at second base or charging hard for third, Taylor wound up in no man’s land as right fielder Joc Pederson fielded the ball, getting caught in a rundown that ended the inning and set the stage for Austin Riley’s walk-off single in the bottom of the frame.
So what exactly happened on the play?
Taylor provided a succinct explanation postgame, saying he made “just a bad read” that was compounded by an even worse decision.
“I saw it barely got over Albies' head, and I thought I could get to third,” said Taylor, who made a big turn around second that left him too far from the bag when he tried to stop and go back. “I didn't realize Joc had it that quick and tried to stop. I should have kept going.”
Albies, who had retreated into the outfield trying to make the catch, initially didn’t expect the Braves to have any chance on the play.
“I thought he was going to be at third already, once I jumped and the ball went over my head,” Albies said.
Similarly, Roberts thought if Taylor committed to a decision either way — either going all-in for third or stopping all the way at second — he would have been safe.
“It's kind of one of those where you got to pick,” Roberts said, noting the by-the-book play probably would have been for Taylor to stop at second with Mookie Betts coming up to the plate.
“You either are going to go hard [to third] — and I don't know if Joc would have thrown to third right there and just conceded that base — or just hold up with two outs and give Mookie a chance. But I think right there he was kind of caught in between. That's kind of when you get in trouble.”
Converting the out still required clean defensive execution from the Braves. Pederson short-hopped his relay throw to second base, but shortstop Dansby Swanson was able to collect the ball and prevent Taylor from returning to the bag. From there, Riley and Swanson traded a couple throws before Taylor finally fell down to end the pickle, getting tagged out before slamming his helmet down in frustration.
“You don't want to make the last out when you're in scoring position,” Taylor said.
2. Struggling to be clutch
Of course, even if Taylor had safely stopped in scoring position, there’s no guarantee his teammates would have brought him home.
At that point, the Dodgers had already failed to cash in on a long list of scoring chances, finishing Saturday’s game 1 for 8 with runners in scoring positions (Taylor had the lone hit, an RBI single in the second) and leaving seven men on base.
There was no one reason for the poor situational results.
Sometimes, Dodgers hitters paid for being overly aggressive.
In the third, Justin Turner and Corey Seager made quick outs on pitches barely in the zone following a Trea Turner single.
In the seventh, when the Dodgers had the potential go-ahead run at third with one out, Betts chased high, popping out on a fastball above the zone, while Trea Turner chased low, whiffing on a Tyler Matzek slider to end the threat.
“I think I might have been a little bit too aggressive, but I'm OK with that, because that's what I told myself I wanted to do,” Turner said of his strikeout. “He made some good pitches, I swung at some balls. Obviously I would like to have that at-bat back.”
In other instances, the Dodgers seemed too hesitant, such as when Seager took a called third strike (it was borderline, but in the zone) with two aboard in the fifth.
And occasionally, they were both, including a first-inning at-bat in which Justin Turner took two fastballs over the heart of the plate before later whiffing on a slider in the dirt to strand a runner at second base.
“We just couldn't get the hit when we needed,” Roberts said, adding: “We just couldn't push enough runs across.”
What is clear: The Dodgers either need to hit more home runs (in their four playoff wins, they tallied five long balls; in their three losses, they have only one) or be more consistent during clutch situations.
So far in the playoffs, they are batting just .206 (12-for-58) with runners in scoring position, compared with a .260 mark in all other situations.
3. Patchwork pitching plan delivers
Even after the Dodgers decided to push ace Max Scherzer back to Game 2 to give him an extra day of rest, their patchwork pitching plan in Saturday’s bullpen game still positioned them with a chance to win.
Corey Knebel started for a second-straight game and yielded a first-inning run on a wild pitch that grazed the tip of catcher Will Smith’s glove. But the Dodgers excelled playing matchups the rest of the night.
Right-hander Phil Bickford got four outs in the second and third. Left-hander Justin Bruihl struck out all three batters he faced. Tony Gonsolin pitched the longest, surrendering one run in 1 ⅔ innings. And lefty Alex Vesia completed the bridge to the back end of the bullpen with a scoreless sixth.
Overall, the Dodgers got either right-on-right or left-on-left matchups in 17 of 31 plate appearances.
“We prevented runs all night,” Roberts said.
That included in the eighth inning, when the Dodgers opted to use Kenley Jansen before Blake Treinen.
Roberts reiterated Jansen is the Dodgers closer, but thought he was better suited for the matchups in the eighth inning, when Swanson, pinch-hitter Ehire Adrianze and leadoff man Eddie Rosario came to the plate. The result: A one-two-three inning on eight pitches, Jansen’s fourth-straight scoreless appearance to begin the playoffs.
Treinen, however, couldn’t replicate the same in the ninth, giving up a single to Albies, who then stole second and scored on Riley’s walk-off hit.
4. Braves bullpen poses problems
While the Dodgers spent all game matching up, Braves manager Brian Snitker threw his leverage relievers out one inning at a time, trusting them against hitters on either side of the plate the way he has all year.
It was a reflection of the talent in the back of Atlanta’s bullpen — a three-headed monster of Matzek, Luke Jackson and Will Smith that could pose a serious problem for the Dodgers in this series.
While the Braves might not have the same quality of relief depth as the Dodgers, their final three are as good as any.
Matzek is a hard-throwing lefty with reverse splits, using that versatility to retire Betts and Turner in consecutive at-bats in the seventh inning to stand a runner at third.
Jackson, a right-hander who didn’t pitch in the postseason at all last year but had a team-best 1.98 ERA in the regular season, retired the heart of the Dodgers’ order in the eight.
“[Matzek] and Luke to me are interchangeable, they're not match up guys,” Snitker said, adding: “We kind of look at the lineup and then just pick and choose and it's really like getting a hat, and I don't think we're going to go wrong with those two guys.”
Smith, the closer, rounds out the trio. Though he only had a 3.44 ERA this season, he still converted 37 of 43 save opportunities and on Saturday earned the win after escaping the top of the ninth on Taylor’s base-running blunder.
In the Braves’ division series win against the Milwaukee Brewers, those three pitchers combined for 10 2/3 scoreless innings.
And in the NLCS opener, they looked like they could be a weapon for the Braves once again.
“It just goes to show again what this bullpen has done,” Riley said. “We kind of have that vibe of we're not out of it until the very last out. Our bullpen kept us in the game, and we were able to pull one out.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.