Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Dodgers need Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman to wake up, plus these three other things to save season in NLDS

The Los Angeles Dodgers are a loss away from heading home for the winter after dropping the first two games of the National League Division Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Dodgers will now attempt to pick up the pieces on Wednesday, when the best-of-five series shifts to Chase Field in Arizona.

“Obviously everything’s more magnified. It’s two games, but our backs are against the wall,” manager Dave Roberts said following the Game 2 defeat. “We’ve got to make some type of adjustments, and we have no more margin.”

Coming back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five series is rare. According to CBS Sports’ research, only seven teams have done it in the wild-card era, and none more recently than the 2017 New York Yankees. Those Yankees lost those games on the road, however, whereas the Dodgers lost theirs at home.

Here are four things the Dodgers must do to get back in the NLDS.

1. Get a decent start in Game 3

The Dodgers will pin their season on Lance Lynn’s right arm. Realistically, it’ll be difficult for Lynn to perform worse than Clayton Kershaw or Bobby Miller, the Dodgers’ starters in Games 1 and 2. Indeed, Kershaw and Miller combined to surrender nine runs on 10 hits and three walks in two innings pitched. 

Lynn had an uneven regular season. In 21 starts as a member of the Chicago White Sox, he amassed a 6.47 ERA (69 ERA+) and a 3.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A midseason trade to Los Angeles led to improved pitching, as he lowered his seasonal ERA to 5.73 across 11 starts out west. 

Lynn tweaked his arsenal upon joining the Dodgers. He became far more aggressive with his fastball, upping its usage rate from 40.9% to 48.6%. Additionally, he reduced his cutter usage in favor of a modified slider that featured less depth and slightly more horizontal sweep.

It’s worth noting that Lynn did not face the Diamondbacks during the regular season. Perhaps that will give him a leg-up come Wednesday night. 

2. Have Betts, Freeman wake up

Bad teams often blame their best players. The Dodgers aren’t a bad team, they’ve just played like one through two games. Part of the fault does indeed fall on their best players, specifically Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman.

Betts and Freeman are two legitimate Most Valuable Player Award candidates who had fantastic regular seasons. Betts batted .307/.408/.579 (163 OPS+) with 39 home runs, 107 RBI, and 14 stolen bases. Freeman, for his part, hit .331/.410/.567 (161 OPS+) with 29 home runs, 102 RBI, and 23 steals.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, you wouldn’t know about the pair’s regular-season brilliance based on the first two games of this series. Betts and Freeman have combined to go 1 for 13 with three walks. (This postseason has continued a rough stretch of October play for Betts, who is now 6 for his last 44 dating back to the 2021 NL Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves.)

“I mean, they’re our two best players. I think that they know that, so it’s pretty much — we all know that. The last thing I want to do, though, is be redundant in the sense of, ‘we need these guys,'” Roberts said following the Game 2 loss. “When you start getting into that kind of mindset, it’s just — in baseball and hitting, in particular — it’s just not helpful. They understand their responsibilities, their role on this ballclub.”

There’s no sense overreacting to two games or pretending it’s bigger than it is. Still, the Dodgers’ chances of getting back into this series hinge on Betts and Freeman showing up like they did night after night during the regular season. 

3. Command the zone

The Dodgers were one of the most disciplined teams during the regular season. They had the second highest walk rate in the majors, as well as the fifth-lowest chase rate. Even with two strikes, the Dodgers expanded the zone just 36.1% of the time, the sixth-best mark in the majors and nearly three percentage points better than the league-average. 

Through the first two games, the Dodgers have gotten away from that disciplined approach — especially in two-strike counts. Take a look at the Dodgers’ plate-discipline breakdown in this series as compared to how they performed against the Diamondbacks during the regular season:

Split Overall chase% Two-strike chase%

Regular season

23.7%

34.9%

NLDS

27.5%

50%

Net

+3.8%

+15.1%

You have to give the Diamondbacks’ pitchers credit for getting the Dodgers into swing mode and for then executing pitches that caused them to pursue out of the zone. At the same time, the Dodgers would be wise to take a breath and remember what got them here ahead of Game 3: that being disciplined approaches, even when faced with a two-strike situation.

4. Get some help

Let’s face it, the Dodgers need luck to be on their side to pull off the comeback. The NLDS schedule, complete with an off day between Games 1 and 2, benefits teams with top-heavy rotations like, well, the Diamondbacks’. Whatever happens Wednesday, Arizona can rest easy knowing that Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen can and will take the ball in Games 4 and 5. Of course, before the Dodgers can start worrying about Kelly and Gallen, they have to win Game 3. Based on how the Dodgers have played so far, that itself will be a tall ask.

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