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Mookie Betts homers twice, but Ronald Acuña Jr.'s historic night lifts Braves over Dodgers

Atlanta Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr., right, hits a grand slam as Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Will Smith watches during the second inning of a baseball game Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Dodgers tried to downplay the significance of their marquee matchup against the Atlanta Braves this weekend.

They sidestepped speculation about the series being a potential postseason preview between the National League’s top teams.

But if Thursday night was any indication, these four games might not be the last the teams play against each other this season.

If the clubs weren’t already on an October collision course before, a dramatic 8-7 Braves win at Dodger Stadium left little doubt that they might be now.

What seemed destined to be an early blowout instead turned into a star-studded, back-and-forth, crowd-stirring thrill ride in front of a lively crowd of 47,623 at Chavez Ravine.

There were dueling blows from MVP frontrunners Mookie Betts (who had two home runs) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (who had a grand slam).

There was a late Dodgers comeback bid that fell just short, with the team leaving the tying and go-ahead runs stranded in the bottom of the ninth.

Most of all there were ample reminders about why these two clubs — who are now separated by five games in the standings in the race for the NL’s top playoff seed — have ascended above the rest of the pack.

“Atmospheres like this,” Betts said, “are what make baseball fun.”

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The game wasn’t headed that direction early.

Acuña helped the MLB-leading Braves (88-45) build a big, early lead, clobbering a grand slam off Dodgers starter Lance Lynn to punctuate the Braves’ six-run rally in the top of the second.

The home run was Acuña’s 30th of the year, making him the first player in MLB history to have 30 homers and 60 steals in the same season.

It also came just hours after he held an impromptu wedding ceremony in Los Angeles, getting married to his longtime girlfriend before her visa expired.

“Just look at his stats and it’s self-explanatory, as far as how dynamic he is,” said Betts, who entered the night neck-and-neck with Acuña in the MVP race. “He changed the game today for sure.”

The Dodgers' Mookie Betts watches the ball go out for a solo home run.
The Dodgers' Mookie Betts watches the ball go out for a solo home run during the seventh inning. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Three innings later, though, Betts provided his own resounding answer.

Trailing 7-1 entering the bottom of the fifth inning, the Dodgers (83-50) put two runners aboard for Betts’ third at-bat against Braves ace Spencer Strider.

Betts worked a full count, laying off a low slider and high fastball with two strikes. Then, he got the barrel to an outside 99-mph heater, blasting a line drive to right that eluded a leaping Acuña — who else? — and bounced off the top of the wall for a three-run homer, the 250th of Betts’ career.

“He did most of the heavy lifting for me,” Betts said of Strider’s high-velocity fastball. “I’m just glad it went over.”

Betts wasn’t done chipping away at the Braves lead either.

With Atlanta leading 8-5 in the bottom of the seventh, Betts went yard again on a first-pitch solo blast off Braves reliever Joe Jiménez.

The home run was Betts’ 38th of the season, third-most in the majors. It was also his 51st hit of August, breaking a Los Angeles franchise record for hits in a single month.

“It’s been pretty impressive,” teammate Max Muncy said of Betts’ historic August. “It’s been a lot of fun having a front row seat the whole year.”

While Betts didn’t indulge in MVP discourse postgame — “I’m not playing against Ronald Acuña,” he said, “I’m playing against the Braves” — the race between the players was impossible to ignore.

With his two homers (plus a first-inning walk), Betts finished the night with a .317 batting average and NL-best 1.033 on-base-plus-slugging percentage on the season. Acuña went three for four with a walk and a steal (his MLB-best 62nd of the year), raising his batting average to .337 and OPS to .993.

"You're watching the game, you're trying to win the game, but it's hard not to watch those two guys go head to head,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Fans, media, people want to see the best perform. So to see what Ronald did and then to see how Mookie answered, it was good to see him respond like that."

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It still wasn’t enough for the Dodgers, whose comeback bid was also aided by a seventh-inning homer from Michael Busch, to completely erase their six-run deficit.

Lynn bemoaned his execution after a 4 ⅓-inning, seven-run start, his worst with the Dodgers since being acquired in a trade last month.

“Didn’t make pitches,” he said. “I cost us the game.”

A two-out throwing error by Muncy in the sixth inning that led to an unearned Braves run didn’t help either — though Muncy redeemed himself with a solo home run in the eighth that made the score 8-7 and gave him an extra-base hit in nine straight games.

In the end, the game came down to a couple of squandered chances in the final two innings, as Amed Rosario struck out to end the eighth inning, stranding a couple of runners, before Kiké Hernández did the same in the ninth.

“We gave ourselves a chance,” Muncy said. “A hit falls here, we make a pitch there and it’s a different game.”

Still, the experience was valuable for a Dodgers team that — by virtue of their 24-5 record in August and massive 13 ½ game lead in the NL West division — likely won’t face a more intense atmosphere than this weekend the rest of the regular season.

“You could see the intensity of the game, quality of at-bats, the energy in the crowd — it was signs of a playoff game,” Roberts said. “The major league season's a grind. It's a long season. But you play to put yourselves in games like this, situations like we expect to be in in October.”

After all, the Dodgers and Braves seem increasingly destined to cross paths then once again.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.