Dodgers vs. Giants: Five observations going into winner-take-all Game 5

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Los Angeles, CA - October 12: Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger catches the ball to force out San Francisco Giants' Brandon Crawford during the fifth inning in game four of the 2021 National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger catches the ball to force out Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford in Game 4 of the NLDS on Tuesday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

For the second time this postseason, the Dodgers will face a winner-take-all contest when they face the San Francisco Giants on Thursday in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.

While both teams would have liked to wrap up the series sooner, neither seemed all that surprised that a series between the two clubs with the best records in baseball this season — and whose battle in the NL West division race was decided by one game — is coming down to a decisive fifth game.

“I was hoping it wouldn't come to this,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I was hoping we would win in three straight. But ... the way that the regular season played out, absolutely, I'm sure it was inevitable, yeah.”

Echoed Logan Webb, who will be the Giants’ Game 5 starter: “We knew it was gonna come down to a Game 5.”

Ahead of Thursday’s showdown, here are five observations from the series so far:

Big part of field, big-time success

Aggressiveness can take many forms at the plate.

Swinging too early in counts. Swinging at too many pitches outside the strike zone. Or swinging too soon at individual offerings.

The latter was something Roberts has emphasized throughout the series, saying he wanted to see his club use “the big part of the field” more often and wait a split second longer to swing to drive the ball up the middle or to the opposite field.

“It just allows us to see the baseball a little bit longer,” Roberts said. “Make better swing decisions.”

The Dodgers’ seven-run, 12-hit outburst in Game 4 backed up that approach.

Of the 30 balls the Dodgers put in play, 17 were hit either to center field or the other way. Eight of those were hits, including home runs by Mookie Betts and Will Smith. And the tone was set early, when Corey Seager and Trea Turner drove a single and double in consecutive first-inning at-bats, respectively, to the opposite field to open the scoring.

“We talked after Game 1,” Roberts said. “I think when we’re at our best is when we use the big part of the field.”

In the series’ opening game against Webb, the Dodgers struggled to do that. Excluding their five groundouts back to the pitcher, they went to center or the opposite field only seven times and just once for a hit.

In the last three games, however, they’ve not only been more disciplined in their swing decisions, but seemingly more intentional in where they’re trying to drive the ball.

“I think tonight it could have been a lot more skewed, the score,” Roberts said of the 7-2 Game 4 win, in which his team went one for 11 with runners in scoring position. “I thought we took some great at-bats and didn’t get rewarded, but if we continue to take those at-bats, I like our chances.”

Two sides of Giants pitching

San Francisco Giants pitcher Anthony DeSclafani throws against the Dodgers.
San Francisco Giants pitcher Anthony DeSclafani throws against the Dodgers during the first inning of Game 4 of the NLDS Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

As they’ve done all series, the Dodgers feasted against the underbelly of the Giants' pitching staff, knocking around their No. 4 starter, Anthony DeSclafani, and one middle relief arm after another.

In the series, Giants pitchers not named Webb, Camilo Doval or Tyler Rogers have combined for a 6.23 ERA, 1.615 WHIP and nearly half as many walks (10) as strikeouts (21).

The problem for the Dodgers: Against the aforementioned trio — all of whom probably will play a key role in Game 5, with Webb starting and Doval, the closer, and Rogers, the submarine right-hander, almost certain to come out of the bullpen — the numbers are concerning.

In 13⅓ innings against those three, the Dodgers have yet to score. They have only eight hits, have drawn one walk and struck out eight times.

Adjusting to Webb’s groundball-inducing mix of sinkers, sliders and changeups will be particularly important for the Dodgers, who could never get their offense going in Game 1 against the 24-year-old right-hander.

“I think we’re going to go back, talk as a group, come up with a better game plan than we had last time, make some adjustments, and go from there,” Smith said.

Dodgers deep bullpen

Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch.
Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen delivers a pitch during the ninth inning in Game 3 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on Monday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Roberts said earlier in the playoffs he thought this was the best bullpen the club has had for a postseason during his tenure.

So far, the relievers have backed that up.

In this series, Dodgers relievers have combined for a 2.19 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12⅓ innings. Perhaps more impressively, they’ve walked just one batter in that span, giving the Giants’ lineup little room to breathe late in games.

Closer Kenley Jansen has been good, following up his scoreless inning in the wild-card game by striking out the side in the ninth inning of Game 3. Blake Treinen and Joe Kelly have also navigated jams at various points.

Another impressive reliever: Brusdar Graterol, who has tossed 2⅔ scoreless innings and fired two 102.5 mph fastballs in Game 4.

“He’s really shown a lot of poise,” Roberts said of Graterol, who still isn’t racking up strikeouts but has yet to give up a run in any of his four appearances in the playoffs. “You look at the outings that we’ve run him out there, he’s made good quality pitches and the moment isn’t getting too big for him.”

Will Smith’s hot bat, cool glove

Dodgers' Will Smith tosses his bat after hitting a two-run home run.
Dodgers' Will Smith tosses his bat after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning in Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Smith had two of the most memorable moments during the Dodgers’ World Series run last year, producing an historic five-hit performance in Game 3 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres and hitting a crucial home run in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, helping spark the team’s comeback in that series.

But on the whole, his 2020 postseason finished somewhat underwhelmingly. He batted just .203, spent half the time serving as a designated hitter, and struggled to consistently make smaller contributions to complement his headlines.

This year, his role is different. And so far, so too have been the results.

Smith has cemented himself as the Dodgers’ full-time catcher, matching his improved pitch framing from the regular season (he was just above league average at that skill this year, according to Baseball Savant, after ranking among the worst in baseball last season) with a strong execution of game plans, with Walker Buehler’s Game 4 start serving as the latest example.

More importantly, he has been the Dodgers’ most dangerous batter as well, crushing his second home run of the series in a two-hit performance Thursday after being bumped up into the cleanup spot.

In five postseason games, Smith is batting .333 with three RBIs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.206.

No surprises

As they prepared for their 24th meeting against each other this season, neither team said they’d been all too surprised by what they’ve seen from the other in this series.

Both sides have pitched well. The Giants have succeeded at the plate by hitting home runs and in the field with a versatile defensive lineup. The Dodgers have been at their best when getting production from the bottom of the order.

And going into Game 5, “I'm not going to be surprised by anything, Dodgers aren't going to be surprised by anything,” Giants manager Gabe Kapler said. “It's where we are.”

So what will it take for one of the division rivals to finally separate and advance to the National League Championship Series?

“I think it's just going out there and executing a plan offensively,” Roberts said. “Preventing runs from Julio [Urías, the Dodgers' Game 5 starter], to the guys behind him, and doing enough to win a ball game. It's fun that all that we've gone through, both sides, comes down to one game.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.