ARLINGTON, Texas — Before conducting the autopsy of the blowout that was Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night, a reminder: There is no physical prize for winning a baseball game by a gargantuan number of runs. The Los Angeles Dodgers would have benefited every bit the same from a 4-3 victory as they do from the real score, 15-3. They still trail the Atlanta Braves in the series 2-1. Bonus points and extra credit don’t exist in baseball.
Preface over. What the Dodgers did, particularly over the 32-minute show they put on in an 11-run first inning, was more than a simple win. The Dodgers saved their season in Game 3. Teams that go down 3-0 in seven-game series don’t recover. Teams that totter along fecklessly in the most important games of the year don’t win championships. And these Dodgers, as talented as they are, as much of a resume as they built in a 43-17 regular season, are not inclined to find themselves on another list of failures.
“We know who we are,” first baseman Max Muncy said.
Who they are depends on what they accomplish over the next two weeks. Here’s who the Dodgers were in the first inning Wednesday: a wrecking crew that not only broke records but the will of the team that had beaten it twice in a row. The walloping Los Angeles unleashed on Braves rookie Kyle Wright was swift, severe and singular. Never before had a team scored 11 runs in one postseason inning, let alone the first, and Wright found himself responsible for seven of them. His ERA for the game resembled an FM radio station: 94.50, playing the hits.
The last 10 Dodgers runs came with two outs. They hit three home runs in the inning, capped by a grand slam from Muncy, who had grounded out to second base for the second out. They set all sorts of team records and looked primed to challenge a few postseason records but couldn’t muster a run over the final six innings.
Even still, the Dodgers got what they needed in both the win and that resurgent feeling of superiority. Difficult though it might be to measure, the psychological boost of a game like Wednesday’s can’t be overlooked. The simple math does not reflect the difference between down 3-0 and down 2-1. One is a TL-30 safe to an amateur cracker. The other is a lock with a key taped to the back.
And now it’s Clayton Kershaw‘s to grab. His specter loomed over Game 3. Kershaw was supposed to start Game 2 for the Dodgers until his back seized. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts declared him better and ready to pitch Game 4 on Thursday. And as the Braves face the prospect of throwing Bryse Wilson — he of two starts and 15 2/3 innings this season — against the finest pitcher of his generation, even Kershaw’s postseason hiccups in years past can’t dim the good vibes emanating from the Dodgers following Game 3.
All of them, from Roberts to Corey Seager (3-for-4 with a home run) to Joc Pederson (4-for-6 with a homer), cited the ninth inning from Game 2, when Los Angeles plated four runs and turned a Braves blowout into a one-run loss, as a turning point. That feels like the sort of narrative a struggling team sells itself. Perhaps the real answer is that L.A. scored its 19 runs between the two games off Josh Tomlin, Wright and Grant Dayton, who gave up the final eight in Game 3.
Whatever. Just like a win is a win, a run scored is a run scored, and the Braves’ perceived weakness heading into this postseason — pitching depth — finally might be exposing itself. This is no death knell for them, not with a lineup that can devastate a pitcher even of Kershaw’s ilk. It’s more an acknowledgment that shutting down the Cincinnati Reds‘ and Miami Marlins‘ lineups over five games combined is wildly different than keeping the Dodgers in check over a seven-game series.
This outburst started at 5:07 p.m. local time with Mookie Betts chopping a ball down the third-base line and legging out a ball that a replay review turned into a single. Seager scored him with a double. Following groundouts by Justin Turner and Muncy, the Dodgers went double, walk, homer, homer, walk, pitching change, walk, single, hit by pitch, grand slam. In the inning, they hit five balls at 105-plus mph. They feasted on fastballs, with six of their seven hits coming off heaters. By the time 5:39 p.m. rolled around and Dayton struck out Will Smith, the Dodgers had turned those among the crowd of 10,664 at Globe Life Field wearing Braves jerseys into human mute buttons.
There was, as Atlanta learned last year, no answer for an inning like that: The Braves had experienced it in the first inning of their win-or-go-home Game 5 in the division series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Because this one came with a far better cushion — one more time, just in case you forgot, Atlanta still leads this series — it wasn’t nearly as painful. But one wouldn’t deem it pleasant, either.
“Quite honestly, we’re in better shape than if we grinded out a 7-5 loss,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “We wanted to win the game and all, but when you look, I can say the last four hours were not a lot of fun. If we had to lose the game, that probably was the best possible way.”
It’s a healthy tack for Snitker to take and one he can, knowing he won’t need to bring his ace, Max Fried, back on short rest for Game 5. He still could and then follow the same with Anderson, but one more win ensures both are capable of pitching on full rest in this series, so Snitker’s sanguineness amid getting boat-raced is not unreasonable.
In the same fashion, as much as the Dodgers could get caught up in what they did — become the first team in postseason history to put up 18 total bases in an inning as well as the only one to homer five times in the first three innings of a playoff game — their optimism is laden with caution. Sure, they kept intact their season-long run of never losing more than two games in a row. Their ability to blow teams out to avoid three-game streaks — they outscored opponents 29-12 in four regular-season games to steer clear of such skids — is similarly impressive. They also would be only the third team ever to win an NLCS after trailing 2-0 — and the last time it happened was 35 years ago.
The Dodgers last won the World Series 32 years ago, so doing things that haven’t been done in decades is already on their checklist. Their latest step toward that involved doing things that haven’t been done in history. That’s who the Dodgers want to be.
But who they are? We’ll find out soon enough.