Spirited ninth-inning surge not enough for Dodgers in NLCS Game 2 loss to Braves

After 16 innings, after a listless loss and another one possibly ahead, the Dodgers' offense finally swung to life in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday.

The Dodgers had compiled just two hits in the first six innings. The offense they were so confident would not fail them entering the series was failing them again. Then, with Los Angeles trailing 7-0, Corey Seager cracked a three-run home run into the Braves’ bullpen beyond the wall in left-center field in the seventh inning.

Two innings later, with the Dodgers down 8-3, Seager lined an RBI double. Two batters after, with the Dodgers down to their last out, Max Muncy smashed a two-run home run. Next, Will Smith reached on an error. Cody Bellinger lined an RBI triple to right against Braves closer Mark Melancon, cutting the deficit to one. Suddenly, the Braves, riding a high just moments earlier, were reeling. The Dodgers, late-game offensive specialists, were poised to overcome their bullpen’s second collapse in 24 hours.

“This team’s got a lot of fight,” Seager said. “We’ve done it all year.”

It was up to AJ Pollock, with the tying run 90 feet away, to keep the game alive — or, wondrously, win it. But he grounded out to third to conclude the 8-7 defeat in front of a limited crowd of 10,624 at Globe Life Park.

The rally was the silver lining to a grim cloud hanging over the team that posted the best regular season record in the majors. The Dodgers face a daunting 2-0 series hole. They’ve lost consecutive games for the first time since Sept. 5 and 6. They’re the only team in baseball that hasn’t endured a three-game losing streak in 2020. That distinction will be put to the test in Game 3 on Wednesday against a club that has opened the postseason on a seven-game winning streak.

“Just one game at a time,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I know it sounds cliche, but that’s the only way to do it and to approach it.”

Tuesday began with the Dodgers announcing Clayton Kershaw, their most reliable pitcher this season, was scratched from his scheduled start because of back spasms.

Roberts said Kershaw first experienced the problem while throwing a bullpen session Saturday. He said the spasms were unrelated to the injury that forced Kershaw to land on the injured list hours before he was slated to start on opening day.

That day, the Dodgers gave the ball to rookie Dustin May. On Tuesday, they turned to another rookie: Tony Gonsolin.

It was Gonsolin’s first career playoff start and his first appearance of the 2020 postseason. He had last pitched in a game against the Angels on Sept. 26. Roberts said Gonsolin threw four innings in a simulated game last week in addition to occasional bullpen sessions. But Tuesday was his first real action in 17 days.

He didn’t show any signs of rust early. The right-hander needed 28 pitches to retire the first nine batters he faced. He was untouchable. But he cracked his second time through Atlanta’s lineup.

First, Ronald Acuña Jr. worked a walk to become the Braves’ first baserunner. Freddie Freeman then swatted a hanging 3-and-2 split-changeup over the right-field wall for his second home run in two nights.

Gonsolin didn’t get back on track in the fifth. He surrendered an RBI double to Cristian Pache, a 21-year-old rookie, and walked Acuña again to end his outing. He threw 60 pitches to the final 10 batters he faced.

Freeman, a left-handed hitter, was up next, followed by the two right-handed batters in the middle of Atlanta’s lineup. The Dodgers had left-hander Adam Kolarek and right-hander Pedro Báez warming up. In the past, before the three-batter rule was implemented, Kolarek would’ve been the choice to face Freeman, the best left-handed hitter in the majors in 2020.

But with one out Kolarek would have needed to get a double play to end the inning and avoid facing the next hitter — the dangerous right-handed-hitting Marcell Ozuna. So Roberts chose Báez, who held left-handed hitters to a .100 batting average (three for 30) during the regular season. None of those hitters, however, were Freeman, the presumptive NL MVP favorite.

Freeman snuck a run-scoring single through the Dodgers’ shift to pad Atlanta’s lead. Báez then methodically doused the fire with gasoline, walking Ozuna and Travis d’Arnaud. Ozzie Albies followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 6-0 and chase Báez.

“Pedro’s been good for us,” Roberts said. “Seeing-eye grounder [for] Freeman. And then, from that point on, just didn’t execute.”

On the other side, the Dodgers made Ian Anderson, the Braves’ 22-year-old rookie starter , work, but couldn’t take advantage. Anderson issued five walks and threw 85 pitches in four innings. He still held Los Angeles without a run to extend his scoreless-innings streak to 15-2/3 to begin the postseason.

Five Braves relievers combined to log the final five innings. Left-hander A.J. Minter, the third reliever used, gave up the home run to Seager. Josh Tomlin pushed the door further open for the Dodgers in his two-thirds of an inning. The debacle forced the Braves to use their closer, Melancon, for the second consecutive night to secure the final out.

It didn’t come easy. The Dodgers finished the regular season second in baseball with 122 runs scored after the sixth inning. They needed nine Tuesday. They fell two short and are two losses away from another lost season.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.