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Four games into their World Series title defense, the Dodgers are already facing elimination for the second time.
After navigating the winner-take-all wild card game last week against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team is suddenly right back in a corner, trailing a best-of-five NLDS against the San Francisco Giants two games to one following a 1-0 loss on Monday night.
If the Dodgers mount a rally and advance to the NLCS, Monday’s game might become a footnote in the grand scheme of the season.
Fail to beat the Giants in back-to-back games, however, and the shutout loss at Dodger Stadium will go down as a turning point that led to the eventual end of their season.
Here are four takeaways from Game 3:
Good approach, bad results
When the Dodgers were shut out in Game 1, it was easy to pinpoint their biggest problem at the plate: They were over-aggressive and undisciplined, too often chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
Monday night was different.
Their approach was sound, leading to only six strikeouts and five swing-and-misses outside the strike zone. Of the 26 balls they put in play, all but five came on pitches over the plate.
The Dodgers made solid contact too, finishing with 13 hard-hit balls with exit velocities of 95 mph or more. The Giants, by comparison, had only five.
“I thought we took some good at-bats,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We just didn't get rewarded.”
Indeed, where the Dodgers fell short was in the margins.
One example: Situational hitting, where they went 0 for 4 with runners in scoring position (though sharp Giants defense deserves credit).
Another: The Dodgers didn’t punish enough mistakes from Giants pitchers. Alex Wood threw sliders down the middle that were either taken for strikes or hit softly for easy outs. Closer Camilo Doval did the same, getting away unscathed after a few center-cut offerings were fouled off or turned into outs.
Granted, those opportunities were few and far between on a night Giants pitchers largely executed well, consistently painting the corners and working ahead in the count.
But, as Dodgers pitcher Max Scherzer put it, “You get to the postseason, you can always lose by one pitch.”
After the Dodgers offense failed to finish off any of their chances, that’s exactly what happened — with one mistake from Scherzer on Evan Longoria’s solo home run proving to be the difference in the one-run game.
Welcome back, McGee
Before Monday’s game, Giants reliever Jake McGee reflected fondly upon his time with the Dodgers last year.
It wasn’t just that he had been part of a World Series championship, or that the club had given him a chance following his release by the Colorado Rockies earlier in the year.
During his season with the Dodgers, McGee said the team developed a plan that, even in his mid-30s, helped him get better.
“When I got released from the Rockies, they were one of the teams that called and they said, ‘We have three, four things to make you better,’” McGee recalled. “I took the opportunity and came over here and I learned a lot. Everything from the analytical [side of the game] and how my pitches move and my fastball and just to help my body move better too. Everything from top to bottom they helped out a lot.”
Those changes enabled McGee to post a 2.66 ERA with the Dodgers last year, making the left-hander a surprise contributor in the bullpen.
After McGee signed with the Giants during the offseason, however, he has used those improvements (plus several more he said he made in San Francisco while posting a 2.72 ERA this season) against his old club, including Monday when he inherited a two-on, one-out jam in the seventh and escaped by striking out Austin Barnes and getting help from Brandon Crawford’s leaping catch on a line drive by Mookie Betts — a sequence that extinguished what proved to be the Dodgers last best chance at mounting a rally.
‘I got it, papi’
In his 29 regular-season appearances this year, Doval had pitched more than one inning only twice — a two-inning outing at the end of a blowout against Colorado in August and 1 1/3 innings of middle relief in a game against the Dodgers in early September.
While the hard-throwing 24-year-old rookie eventually ascended to the Giants closer role down the stretch, a save situation of more than one inning was not something he had ever attempted before being summoned in the eighth Monday night.
Doval delivered, retiring the heart of the Dodgers order in his first inning, then returning for the ninth to finish the game.
“It’s one thing to ask a guy to close out big games without a long track record of success,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “It's kind of another step to do what he did.”
After watching Doval handle Trea Turner, Corey Seager and Justin Turner in the eighth inning on 15 pitches, Kapler was confident his new closer could handle the ninth. Still though, he wanted to double-check that Doval felt the same way.
Asked postgame what his response was to Kapler, Doval — who responded to his other questions after the game in Spanish with the help of an interpreter — smiled and answered in English.
"I got it, papi,” he said he told Kapler. “I’m ready."
Counting on the ‘pen
The Dodgers haven’t had many close late-inning leads to protect in these playoffs, but their bullpen has been stellar nonetheless.
Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen provided the latest examples Monday, throwing perfect innings in the eighth and ninth, respectively — Jansen struck out all three batters he faced — to keep the team’s deficit at one.
With those performances, the Dodgers bullpen now has a 1.93 ERA in 9 1/3 innings in the postseason. In three of the four games, they haven’t allowed a run.
That could be good news for Game 4.
While Roberts said the team hasn’t finalized its pitching plans, it’s hard to imagine the bullpen not playing a crucial role in the elimination game. If Walker Buehler makes the start, he’ll do so on short rest and possibly a limited pitch count. If Tony Gonsolin is handed the ball, he’ll likely be on a short leash similar to last postseason.
The Dodgers could opt for a partial bullpen game, too, playing matchups throughout the night against a versatile Giants lineup.
“Everything's on the table,” Roberts said.
Whatever the case, a unit that was a major strength for the team during the regular season will need to be so once again. The club’s campaign will be on the line. And if the game comes down to the final few innings, the Dodgers will have reason to be confident in the pitchers being summoned from the bullpen.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.