Lun. May 27th, 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Late Friday night, minutes after the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers staged a tightly contested, 11-inning game, Dodgers outfielder Teoscar Hernández was asked if it was indicative of how closely matched these two teams remain. A smile crept in.

«We’re pretty close,» Hernández said, «but I’m always going to say we’re better.»

A mere 38 hours later, Hernández delivered the definitive blow of what seemed like a defining series — a sixth-inning two-run homer that extended a Dodgers lead, propelled Los Angeles to another victory and sealed a three-game sweep over the mighty Braves at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers overcame the Braves on Friday (final score: 4-3), overwhelmed them Saturday (11-2) and outlasted them Sunday (5-1). Their offense combined for eight homers — all by Shohei Ohtani, Max Muncy and Hernández — and their pitchers held the Braves to six runs and 17 hits in 29 innings.

Asked for his biggest takeaway from this series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said: «If we pitch well, we can keep any team at bay. With our offense, every game is winnable.»

The Braves arrived in L.A. with the best record in the major leagues and left with the second-best record in the National League East, falling two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies — not to mention one game behind the Dodgers. But the season is young. Sentiments fluctuate. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a reasonable baseball observer who doesn’t still believe the Dodgers and Braves are the two best teams in the NL and perhaps, even after the Braves’ miserable weekend, the entire sport.

So what, exactly, could we glean from their first head-to-head matchup this season? Below is a look at what we learned.


What was the biggest question going into the series? Did either team answer it?

Alden Gonzalez: Heading into the series, it was shocking that the Braves held the best record in the NL even though Ronald Acuña Jr., a unanimous MVP last year, had hit just one home run and had yet to look much like his typical superstar self. Nothing drives this offense quite like Acuña from the leadoff spot. And yet the Braves began the weekend ranked second in the majors — behind only the Dodgers — in OPS, with Acuña’s mark sitting at just .689. I wondered if a series like this was the type that might spark Acuña — and it might have. Acuña homered Friday, then went 3-for-4 with a double in Saturday’s blowout loss. He began the month of May with three consecutive multihit games before an 0-for-3 showing Sunday. If he truly gets hot, this Braves offense will elevate to yet another level.

David Schoenfield: To beat the Dodgers, you have to hold the top of the order in check. The Braves did a reasonably OK job of that on Friday; the Dodgers’ top four hitters — Mookie Betts, Ohtani, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith — went 3-for-17 with three walks, including an 0-for-5 effort from Betts. After the Braves scored in the top of the 10th, Ohtani tied the game up with a base hit on a soft line drive up the middle in the bottom of the inning — some bad luck for Raisel Iglesias, who made a good pitch, but Ohtani reached out and just poked it past a diving Orlando Arcia. Andy Pages would then win the game for the Dodgers in the bottom of the 11th on a blooper to center field with a 63-mph exit velocity.

Saturday was a different story, though: The Dodgers’ top four went 8-for-18 with two walks, including a home run from Ohtani. Of course, the big story in the 11-2 blowout was Muncy, the No. 5 hitter, blasting three home runs — a reminder that the Dodgers lineup doesn’t necessarily end after Smith. Sunday was the Ohtani show: 4-for-4, 3 RBIs and two home runs, including a two-run blast in the first inning off Max Fried that set the Dodgers on their way to the sweep. So, no, it’s hard to say the Braves did enough to contain Ohtani & Co.


What surprised you the most?

Gonzalez: For as menacing as the top half of the Dodgers’ lineup has been, the bottom half has been sorely lacking — which is why the emergence of Pages has been so important. Pages, a 23-year-old outfield prospect from Cuba, had four hits in Friday’s series opener, including a walk-off single in the 11th inning. He followed that by going 2-for-5 with a home run Saturday. Pages has yet to draw his first walk this season, but he’s OPS’ing .903 in 74 plate appearances. He was looked at as a temporary replacement while Jason Heyward works through a back issue, but given the struggles of Chris Taylor, James Outman and Gavin Lux — they’ve combined for a .153/.247/.203 slash line — Pages has evolved into a crucial contributor.

Schoenfield: Matt Olson’s struggles at the plate continue. He actually started the season off well, with three doubles on Opening Day and hitting .293 with a .973 OPS through 14 games. He looked primed for another monster season. Instead, je’s hitting a few too many grounders and too many fly balls with too high of a launch angle. After going 1-for-10 in this series, he is 6-for-59 (.102) over his past 18 games with just one double and no home runs.

The good news, though: He should be fine, as it appears he’s hitting into a lot of bad luck. A hard-hit ball is one hit at 95 mph, and Olson remains in the 98th percentile among all hitters in hard-hit rate. Entering Sunday, the MLB average on hard-hit balls was .480, but he has just three hits and a sac fly on his past 23 hard-hit balls. In the previous series against Seattle, Olson got robbed a couple of times on hard-hit balls. Still, seeing him with a sub-.200 average and just three home runs is a surprise.


What was the biggest concern for either team?

Gonzalez: My biggest concern is for opposing pitchers’ ability to tame the top half of the Dodgers’ lineup. The L.A. offense got so much hype heading into this season, and somehow the top of their lineup has exceeded expectations — with the prowess of Betts, Ohtani and Freeman in the first three spots, but also with the continued emergence of Smith, Muncy and Hernández behind them. Betts and Smith didn’t do much this series, but Ohtani and Hernandez homered a combined five times, Freeman doubled and tripled Saturday and Muncy registered his first career three-homer game that same night. Keeping them all in check has seemed impossible all season — as the Braves just learned. Betts, Ohtani, Freeman and Smith in particular have combined for a .337/.432/.567 slash line with 18 home runs this year — even though Freeman hasn’t necessarily felt right for most of it. Ridiculous.

Schoenfield: The continued slow starts in the power department for not just Olson but Acuña and Austin Riley, too. Last year, the three averaged a home run every 14.3 at-bats; this year, it’s one every 46.9 at-bats. As a result, the Braves are way down as a team in home runs, averaging exactly one home run per game compared to last year’s onslaught of 1.9 per game. Olson and Riley are striking out about the same rate as last season, so for them that hasn’t been the issue. Acuña, however, has seen his strikeout rate climb from 11.4% last season to 26.8% in 2024 — similar to where he was in 2021-22, when he struck out 23.6% of the time. After a stretch of 13 strikeouts in his five previous games before this series, maybe it’s a good sign that he went 2-for-5 with a home run and just one strikeout Friday and then 3-for-4 with no strikeouts Saturday. (He did, however, go hitless with one walk and one strikeout Sunday.)


Which team is better set up for October?

Gonzalez: The recipe for October success in this era is either highly complex or nonexistent. Last fall provided a glaring example, with the Braves and Dodgers each bounced in the division series by two teams that finished a combined 30 games below them in the standings. Still: If there is a list of ingredients necessary for thriving in the playoffs, it’s premier talent, pitching depth, big-game experience and health. As far as the Dodgers and Braves are concerned — check, check, check and, well, we’ll see. Nonetheless, both teams are clearly built to win a championship.

If I’m forced to pick one, I’m choosing the Braves for something Roberts alluded to this weekend — their string of effective left-handed relievers in A.J. Minter, Aaron Bummer, Dylan Lee and Tyler Matzek. They all have a history of being tough against opposing left-handed hitters, which could be a factor if you’re facing, say, Freeman, Ohtani and Muncy in the late stages of an NLCS. Will it ultimately matter? Who knows. It certainly didn’t when Minter served up Ohtani’s 464-foot shot in Sunday’s eighth inning. But if there’s one staff built to handle an offense as devastating as the Dodgers’, it’s probably the Braves’.

Schoenfield: Honestly… it’s too early to tell here. I’m old school in believing that two top-flight starters will go a long way in October, and the Dodgers have that in Tyler Glasnow and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Glasnow held the Braves to two runs with 10 strikeouts Friday, and while Yamamoto didn’t pitch in this series, he has a 1.64 ERA since that first-inning disaster against the Padres in Korea. On the other hand, despite the results of this series, the Braves could still match up with the Dodgers in October not only with all those lefty relievers, but with Max Fried and Chris Sale in the rotation. Though Fried has never had much of a platoon split in his career, Sale remains tough on lefties with that wipeout slider (.167 average this season) and that could be trouble for Ohtani, Freeman and Muncy.


What will you be watching for either team moving forward?

Gonzalez: Walker Buehler returns to the Dodgers’ rotation Monday after a 20-month-long rehabilitation from a second Tommy John surgery. Will he be the electric Buehler we remember from the early part of 2022, or some diluted version of that? Perhaps the same can be asked for Bobby Miller, who’s nursing shoulder inflammation but should soon face hitters again and begin his progression in earnest. Clayton Kershaw, who threw his first bullpen session Friday — precisely six months after offseason shoulder surgery — won’t return until sometime in the second half. Glasnow (2.70 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 50 innings this season) and Yamamoto look dominant. But the Dodgers’ success in October could hinge greatly on who follows them.

Schoenfield: The back end of the Braves’ rotation — which looks even more important now with the Phillies off to a hot start (that wasn’t the case the past two seasons, when the Braves ran away with the NL East title). Bryce Elder was an All-Star last season, but he struggled in the second half and is in the rotation only because of Spencer Strider’s injury. The Dodgers knocked him around for seven runs and three home runs Saturday. Reynaldo Lopez has been terrific so far with a 1.50 ERA through five starts, but let’s see if he can continue to avoid the home runs that plagued him in his previous stints as a starter. Then there’s Sale. Can he make 30 starts, which he hasn’t done since 2017? The Braves might need him to do so to hold off the Phillies.

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