ATLANTA — Mookie Betts slowly walked out of the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse late Sunday night, hung a quick right, strolled down the long corridor at Truist Park toward the team bus and could still see Atlanta fans partying like it was 1999.
There was no anger, just frustration.
No excuses, just respect and admiration for the other side.
Betts, the Dodgers’ All-Star outfielder and unofficial captain, would love to declare the Dodgers will recover from their stunning 2-0 deficit in the National League Championship Series to the Braves.
But after what he just witnessed the past 48 hours, he wanted to deal with reality, not fantasy.
The Braves are talented. They may have won 18 fewer games (106 to 88) than the Dodgers during the regular season — in an inferior division — but Betts is here to say they are hardly a fluke.
“They’re good,” Betts said. “The Braves are really good. They’re getting timely hits. They got a really good offense.”
Atlanta delivered back-to-back walk-off hits for the first time in their postseason history since the 1991 World Series.
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In Game 1, Austin Riley struck with a ninth-inning RBI single, and on Sunday, Eddie Rosario hit a run-scoring single with two outs in a 5-4 Braves victory.It was only the fourth time in postseason history that a team had walk-offs in the first two games of a postseason.
The Dodgers, who had a lead or were tied until the final at-bat in all but one inning, could easily be up 2-0.
Instead, the series is headed to Dodger Stadium beginning Tuesday afternoon (5:08 p.m. ET, TBS), where the Dodgers must beat Atlanta in four of the next five games to defend their World Series title.
Then again, if they don’t suddenly start hitting, if they can’t get a hit in the clutch, if they can’t make a play in critical situations, if they can’t get a shut-down ninth inning, it will be over with no need for a return flight to Atlanta.
“We got to hit, man,’’ Betts said. “That’s all it really is. Going to be hard to win playoff games scoring three or four runs.”
The popular narrative is that the Dodgers are emotionally and physically exhausted after their grueling five-game NL Division Series against the San Francisco Giants. Betts remembers the days when the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees would go head-to-head for a weekend series, and then take a week to recover.
Sorry, but it’s not the same, Betts said. Sure, the Dodgers are physically tired, but to cry that they’re emotionally drained, he said, would be discrediting Atlanta. Besides, you’re not going to win many games producing four hits, stranding 17 baserunners in the series, while hitting .111 with runners in scoring position.
“There ain’t no letdown,” Betts said. “Got to give credit to them boys, they’re playing really well. We’re not. … Not an excuse, but we haven’t had a break really. A day off. We’re constantly playing catch-up. But it is what it is. That’s what we signed up for.”
The Dodgers, beginning with their wild-card victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, have now played eight postseason games in three different cities over the past 11 days, with only two off days.
“I just think it’s everything,” Dodgers third baseman Chris Taylor said. “It’s physically and mentally draining. These games, they’re long. The level of focus is a little different than regular-season games. That level of intensity is up there, especially the last game in San Francisco. …
“We’re tired, we’re ready to go home.’’
Meanwhile, Atlanta has played just two games in the last five days. They’ve slept in their own beds nine consecutive nights. And they’ve now won four consecutive postseason games and are two wins away from their first World Series appearance since 1999.
You know things are going their way when Freddie Freeman, the heart and soul of their franchise, can strike out seven consecutive times, go hitless in eight at-bats, and they keep winning.
“They’re deep,” Betts said. “They got Riley playing really, really well. Rosario. It’s all up and down the lineup, they’re finding ways to score runs. The arms are finding ways to put up zeroes. It’s part of it.
“They just apply pressure on us, over and over again, and we finally cracked.’’
The crack now looks as wide as the Grand Canyon with the Dodgers’ pitching in disarray. They out-smarted themselves Sunday: With a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning, they went to 20-game winner Julio Urias instead of a reliever. Urias blew the save, and instead of immediately turning to closer Kenley Jansen, they opened the eighth with Brusdar Graterol. The analytic spreadsheets went up in smoke when Rosario hit a 105-mph shot that clipped off the glove of shortstop Corey Seager into center field.
“Nine times out of 10 times, he makes that play,” Betts said. “It’s a tough play. It’s a tough play for anyone. It’s not Seager’s fault at all.”
Still, it’s a play that should have been made, and a lead that never should have been blown.
The Dodgers opened the game without third baseman Justin Turner in the starting lineup for the first time in 77 postseason games because of a stiff neck, and if the outlook couldn’t get worse, Dodgers ace Max Scherzer sounded like a man who might have thrown his last pitch of the season.
“My arm’s dead,” Scherzer said after throwing 79 pitches and lasting just 4 1/3 innings. “It wasn’t like I’m dealing with tendons or ligaments, just my arm was tired.’’
So now the Dodgers will go into Game 3 with a rested Walker Buehler on six days’ rest, but then must turn again to Urias for Game 4, who will have only two full days of rest. Then, if they get that far, a bullpen game with Corey Knebel in Game 5 … and who knows about Game 6, if the series even returns to Atlanta.
“Well, I think if you look at both clubs, as far as usage and leverage uses, they’re in the same position we are,” Roberts said. “But the thing is that they have got a two-game lead in the series.’’
And a rested veteran starter in Charlie Morton in Game 3, perhaps a bullpen game in Game 4, ace Max Fried in Game 5, and, if needed, Ian Anderson in Game 6 and Morton in Game 7.
The series could be over soon, with the Dodgers’ only advantage that they have beaten Atlanta in seven consecutive games and 10 of the last 11 at Dodger Stadium.
And, if they want to play psychological warfare, Atlanta was in this same situation a year ago and blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers. But that NLCS was played in a bubble during the pandemic, with neither team traveling or having home-field advantage.
Different times, different teams and certainly different momentum shifts.
“I’m not shocked by what they’re doing,” Scherzer said. “I mean, this has always been a tough hitting lineup. This lineup, from top to bottom, they can put the bat to the ball and they can do great things.”
If it wasn’t painful enough for the Dodgers to watch Atlanta get the last laugh for the last two nights, it was former Dodger Joc Pederson who delivered a key two-run homer in the fourth inning. And in the American League, it’s former Dodger Kike’ Hernandez who has produced a record 13 hits in the last four postseason games.
The Dodgers let them walk without offering them a free-agent contract.
“Obviously, I’ve been a part of the Dodgers for a long time and they’re a really good team and organization,” Pederson said. “But right now, they’re in the way of our common goal.’’
The goal is simple, as heard over and over at Truist Park all weekend.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Braves have Dodgers reeling in NLCS after two walk-off wins, big lead