HOUSTON — Know this: Baseball players lose all the time. They handle this stuff better than fans do. If they didn’t, they’d grind themselves into a pulp after each defeat, closing the drapes in their hotel rooms and refusing to crawl out of bed for the next game. The Los Angeles Dodgers lost 58 times in the regular season. Heck, they lost 16 times in 17 games during the most famous bad stretch of baseball since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
So the Dodgers understand losing.
It’s a little more pressing, however, when you lose to fall behind in the World Series while playing a Houston Astros team that is now 7-0 at Minute Maid Park in the postseason. It’s a little more pressing when you play a terrible game and miss on opportunities to come back. It certainly feels more pressing when you’re playing in a house of noise where the energy level seems to boost the confidence of the home team, and knowing that even if you split the next two games, that still means you’re down three games to two and staring at Justin Verlander on the mound for Game 6.
So, what do you? You simply look ahead to the next day.
“We had probably the worst fundamental game that we’ve played in a while and it was still a super close game,” Cody Bellinger said after Friday’s 5-3 defeat in Game 3. “And we’re gonna take that into tomorrow. If we play normal Dodger baseball, we’re going to go out and have an opportunity to beat these guys.”
The Dodgers had gone 8-2 this postseason by hitting home runs, getting good pitching and playing good defense. They’ve been the one team not to beat itself. Even with the loss in Game 2, the Astros deserve credit for their dramatic, homer-filled comeback. Other than Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers aren’t flashy on defense, but they ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved in the regular season. They issued the second-fewest walks. They don’t chase pitches at the plate.
Game 3 was a disaster in all those areas. Yu Darvish had as bad of an inning as you’ll see in World Series play, when the Astros took what was essentially batting practice off him, scoring four runs in the second. They hit seven line drives off him, and the damage would’ve been worse except two of those were hit directly to fielders.
There were other mistakes. Tony Watson threw away a swinging dribbler to Evan Gattis, allowing Houston’s fifth run to score in the fifth inning. Justin Turner threw wide to first base on a grounder for another error in the sixth. The Dodgers had Lance McCullers Jr. on the ropes in the third after he opened the inning with three consecutive walks. But with the count 1-0, Corey Seager swung and missed at a curveball and then grounded into a 3-6-1 double play on another curve. Both pitches were in the strike zone, so you can’t fault him too much, but it was a missed opportunity to fight back with a big inning.
The Dodgers went 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and are now 1-for-12 the past two games. With one out in the fourth, Puig singled off Alex Bregman’s glove down the left-field line. Puig ran past the bag at first, stopped and then took off for second. He was thrown out when Carlos Correa hustled to shallow left to field the rebound off the wall.
Then there was Bellinger. He fanned three times against McCullers on 10 pitches. Facing Brad Peacock in his fourth at-bat, Bellinger struck out again. He’s 0-for-11 in the World Series with seven strikeouts, and the Dodgers need him to get going.
“There were a couple good swings, but I think he’s just in that funk right now where he’s chasing balls out of the strike zone,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think he’s been a little too quick. And tonight you saw balls below the zone.”
Bellinger has some swing-and-miss in his game — he fanned 146 times in 132 games in the regular season — but his miss rate in three games in the World Series has been 55 percent, up from 33 percent in the regular season. Yes, that’s just three games, but for the entire postseason he now has 19 strikeouts and just two walks, much worse than the 146-64 ratio he had in the regular season.
The other issue facing Roberts in Game 4 will be how he handles his bullpen. Alex Wood has pitched just once in a month, when he started Game 4 of the National League Championship Series and allowed three home runs in 4⅔ innings. While the postseason is kind to relief pitchers with all the days off, it’s not necessarily as kind to fourth starters, who might not end up pitching all that much.
Given that Roberts has had a quick hook with his starters all postseason, it seems unlikely that Wood will pitch deep into the game. Roberts pulled Rich Hill after four innings in Game 2 rather than letting him face the top of the Houston order a third time. Like Hill, Wood is left-handed. Wood also has struggled with home runs in the second half, allowing 16 in 76 innings. He’ll have to deal with a Houston lineup that has ripped out 26 hits the past two games compared with nine for the Dodgers.
Roberts said Kenta Maeda is unavailable in relief after he threw 42 pitches after Darvish was lifted in Game 3. That leaves Ross Stripling and — gulp — Brandon McCarthy as the long men. In comparing the bullpens, this was an issue overlooked when everyone declared the Dodgers had the dominant bullpen in this series. A.J. Hinch rode Peacock in Game 3. This is a guy who had a 3.00 ERA on the season working primarily as a starter. Hinch hasn’t even used Collin McHugh, another starter who had a 2.61 ERA over his final eight starts.
Then there’s the crowd. “Our crowd, they bring it,” McCullers said. “I’ve played in a decent amount of stadiums now, at least for postseason ball, and when Minute Maid gets rocking, there’s no place louder. So credit our fans, and we really feed off that energy.”
Bellinger said that’s not a reason for his struggles. “Obviously, it’s an electric crowd, and when you’re feeding off that, it’s hard. But you come into the World Series knowing that the atmosphere is going to be like that.”
It’s the biggest test the Dodgers have faced all season — a season that, really, didn’t force any big tests on them. They cruised to the division title, they caught some breaks in the first two rounds of the playoffs when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs had to use starters in relief just to get to the Dodgers, and they won the opener of the World Series behind Clayton Kershaw.
Now they’re behind. Lose two more and those will be losses that’ll definitely sting.