At the outset of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, it took mere minutes for the Los Angeles Dodgers to go from merely disadvantaged to something more like doomed.
Several hours later, though, the NLCS suddenly had a whole new feel to it as the Dodgers wrapped up an 11-2 romp over Atlanta.
After Joe Kelly's opening act at Dodger Stadium on Thursday saw him get exactly as many outs as the number of runs he surrendered allowing a two-run home run to Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers needed a hero to stand up to Atlanta ace Max Fried and, ultimately, save the home team from elimination.
Like he did in the National League Wild Card Game, Chris Taylor heard the call and came running.
Or, more accurately, swinging. The 31-year-old All-Star drove in six of the Dodgers' 11 runs with the help of not one, not two, but three home runs:
According to Sarah Langs of MLB.com, Taylor is the first player in Major League Baseball history to homer three times with his team facing elimination in a postseason game. He's also up to nine runs batted in elimination games just in this October.
As they now trail 3-2 in the series, the defending World Series champions will play another one of those in Game 6 on Saturday. Obviously, they'll have to win it to force yet another in Game 7 on Sunday. This is to say they're not out of the woods yet, which isn't even to mention that the next two games will be in Atlanta's backyard at Truist Park.
Yet the Dodgers ought to be feeling good right now, and not just because this wouldn't be their first time climbing out of a 3-1 hole in the NLCS against Atlanta.
Dodgers Players of the Game
- 3B Chris Taylor: 4-for-5, 3 HR, 3 R, 6 RBI. In addition to being the first to do it in an elimination game, he also became just the 11th player to hit three home runs in any playoff game. If he can do it again, he'll join Babe Ruth as the only players to do it twice.
- LF AJ Pollock: 3-for-5, 2 HR, 3 R, 4 RBI. On any other night, he would have had center stage all to himself. As it is, he'll gladly take his second multi-homer game in the last 30 days.
- 1B Albert Pujols: 2-for-4, 1 BB, 2 R. The future Hall of Famer's still got it, folks. Or at least some version of "it," as he became the fifth-oldest player to reach base three times in a playoff game on Thursday.
Atlanta Players of the Game
- 1B Freddie Freeman: 1-for-4, 1 HR, 1 R, 2 RBI. Remember when he was 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts in the first two games of this series? He's now 6-for-12 with two home runs since then. It's almost as if he's the reigning NL MVP.
- LF Eddie Rosario: 2-for-4, 1 2B. He stayed in the yard after going deep twice in Game 4, but he's nonetheless now 12-for-21 in the series. Not bad for a guy who was literally traded for Pablo Sandoval in July.
For All Their Problems, the Dodgers Still Have Hope
Should a team that won 106 games in the regular season before dispatching a 107-win team in the first round of the playoffs even be in the position that the Dodgers are in, wherein a mere 88-win team has pushed them to the brink?
Sans context? Probably not. But with context, it makes sense.
The current iteration of the Dodgers is a diminished version of what was the most talented team in either league for much of the regular season. And they're only getting more diminished, as they began the postseason without ace Clayton Kershaw (forearm) and slugger Max Muncy (elbow) and also lost veteran Justin Turner (hamstring) on Wednesday.
So it went in the first inning of Thursday's game.
After starting aces Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias in Games 2, 3 and 4, it was pretty much due to a lack of better options that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts opened with Kelly in Game 5. He just didn't have it, and he became yet another injury bug casualty upon leaving with bicep tightness. He won't appear again this postseason.
At that point, FanGraphs put the Dodgers' chances of winning Game 5 at about 33 percent. Put another way, there was a 67 percent chance that their quest to become the first repeat champions since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees would come to an end on Thursday.
This did not come to pass.
Credit how Roberts managed his bullpen and, even more so, how emphatically his relievers shut the door. After Kelly served up two runs on two hits in the first, Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Corey Knebel and Kenley Jansen shut Atlanta out on three hits, no walks and nine strikeouts the rest of the way.
A heavy workload, to be sure, but those guys will get to rest up on Friday's travel day. Come Saturday, they'll be in for light duty in Game 6 if Scherzer can find the same form with which he produced a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts for the Dodgers down the stretch.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner didn't do that as he got knocked around in Game 2, which he chalked up to a "dead" arm resulting from his ninth-inning work against the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. But this time around, he'll be on full rest and then some after sitting for five days.
If Scherzer can lead the Dodgers to victory in Game 6, Roberts will be able to turn to Buehler on regular rest in Game 7. The two-time All-Star has had his ups and downs over the last two months, yet his four starts in postseason elimination games have yielded a stellar 1.25 ERA.
On the other side of the ball, it's perhaps a good omen for the Dodgers that their offensive outburst in Game 5 gave them the edge in runs scored for the entire series, 25-24.
Even aside from Taylor's heroics—"I was hoping for four," quipped Pujols—out of the No. 7 spot, there were positive signs aplenty for the Dodgers offense on Thursday. Pujols' good night was a tease that, even at 41, he can handle extra work with Turner sidelined. Cody Bellinger continued his October resurgence with three hits, while batting champion Trea Turner busted out of a slump with three hits of his own.
There's also, of course, Pollock.
He went into Game 5 sitting on just six hits in 26 at-bats this October, as well as just one home run in 101 career plate appearances in the playoffs. At 107.7 and 108.2 mph, respectively, he busted out of these slumps with his fourth and fifth hardest-hit home runs of the season.
None of this guarantees further success from these guys in Games 6 and/or 7, but the Dodgers will gladly take the signs of life amid a postseason in which they've scored two or fewer runs in five of their 11 games. And in Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Will Smith, they already had three hitters who didn't necessarily need warming in Game 5.
As far as Atlanta's comfort goes, Brian Snitker's club is indeed still in the driver's seat. It's also not exactly short-handed.
Though aces Ian Anderson and Charlie Morton struggled in Games 2 and 3, both can easily cut through an opposing lineup when they're on. Atlanta also has some hot offensive hands in Freeman, Rosario and Ozzie Albies, and it got a key player back when slugger Jorge Soler came off the COVID-19 injured list on Thursday.
Nevertheless, Atlanta is in about as precarious a spot as a team with a 3-2 lead and home-field advantage can be. Because if Game 5 proves to be a springboard for the Dodgers offense in support of Scherzer in Game 6 and Buehler in Game 7, there will be only so many scenarios in which they don't steal another NLCS from Atlanta.
What's Next for the Dodgers and Atlanta?
Barring any unexpected switcheroos from Roberts or Snitker, Scherzer and Anderson will indeed oppose each other in Game 6 on Saturday at Truist Park.
First pitch is currently scheduled for 5 p.m. ET. If the Houston Astros defeat the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Friday, Game 6 of the NLCS will be moved to the prime-time slot at 8 p.m. ET.