Hopefully, Dodgers-Braves series is an October preview

LOS ANGELES — If this is how the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves are going to have at it at the end of August and the start of September, trading haymakers and bringing huge and raucous crowds to full voice, just imagine what an October series between the National League’s two best teams would be like.

There is a distance to go to get there, of course, and may we remind you that the Dodgers and Braves seemed on a collision course last year as well, except the Padres and Phillies got in the way. Strange things happen in the postseason, as Dodger fans of all people should be well aware.

Still, this week’s four-game series at Chavez Ravine has an October vibe, heightened by the presence of four National League MVP candidates in the same place at the same time. And Thursday night’s series opener did not disappoint, save for Lance Lynn’s performance.

The Dodgers right-hander gave up seven runs, six alone in the second inning, creating a hole that his teammates almost dug their way out of before falling short in an 8-7 loss.

“I wasn’t good tonight,” he said. “Wasn’t comfortable. Didn’t make pitches. I cost us the game.”

Exhibit A: A 2-and-2 high fastball to Ronald Acuña Jr. in the second inning, with one out and the bases loaded. It was strength against strength – “Obviously a strikeout pitch,” Lynn said – but Acuña was way stronger, hitting it 429 feet for a grand slam to give the Braves a 5-1 lead.

Beyond the implications – it was his 30th home run, which made him the first player to have 30 homers and 60 steals in a major league season, and it had Braves partisans woofing on social media as if the MVP race had been decided right then and there – it was just the exclamation point on a very good day. Acuña got married earlier Thursday, and maybe there was some karma involved.

But Thursday’s game was not going to be a walkover. Mookie Betts made his MVP case with two homers: A three-run bomb just out of Acuña’s leaping reach at the right field fence in the fifth and a solo shot to left in the seventh that cut Atlanta’s lead to 8-6. Max Muncy made it 8-7 with a solo homer in the eighth, and the Dodgers had the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth, with “loud environment” warnings pinging on smartwatches throughout the stadium, when Raisel Iglesias fanned Kiké Hernández to end the game.

These are the kind of environments the Dodgers will face in the postseason.

And while this four-game set might seem like a novelty series for two teams that have healthy leads in their divisions, there are stakes involved, mainly best record and home-field advantage in the postseason. While both managers tried to make it seem like just another game or just another series when they spoke before Thursday’s game, there are tells.

“The way that they managed their ’pen spoke to how important the game was,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Thursday’s game. “You can see the intensity of the game, the quality of at-bats, the energy and the crowd. So it was signs of a playoff game. I think so.”

Meanwhile, those on both sides who haven’t already been through the October crucible are picking up some valuable intel in what to expect and how to deal with it.

Michael Busch might be a quick learner. Batting eighth as the DH on Thursday night (despite a .172 average and .526 OPS in 23 big-league games) as part of a string of five straight left-handed hitters against Braves right-hander Spencer Strider, Busch whacked a home run down the right field line in the seventh off Joe Jiménez, two batters before Betts hit his second.

Roberts used the term “gathering information” during his pregame briefing, referring to not only what the Braves are doing these days but also how his own newbies would handle it.

“It’s a chance to see how guys can compete in that type of atmosphere,” Muncy said. “For a lot of us that have been here, I think the staff knows what we got. But we have a chance to have Michael Busch have a big at-bat there off a lefty (in the eighth against A.J. Minter, when he struck out). It’s a really good opportunity. … And you know, Shelby (Miller, fresh off the 60-day injured list) gets back out on the mound and he looked really good.

“You see that kind of atmosphere, it’s good because they’re going to have to make decisions for the roster, for playoffs. And so it’s always good to see how guys can perform.”

Center fielder James Outman, who has been here the whole season, has already gotten a taste of the pressure of being on a team that is expected, and expects, to win. But this is just a smidge different.

“You can see Mookie’s poise, you can see Freddie, you can see guys that have been there, Will Smith, Max Muncy,” Roberts said. “But guys like James, this is different. And I said about a month ago I don’t consider him a rookie anymore, but, you know, playing in games like this for James, for Michael, how you respond when your nerves and your emotions start to ramp up. It’s something that you can only gain through these experiences. And this is good for them.”

Good for them, and good for the rest of us.

These are high-caliber games between teams that are, again, playing for something tangible – and don’t think that the prospect of a deciding game played before the home fans in Los Angeles, rather than in Atlanta, doesn’t matter.

But there are also statements to be made and messages to be sent between teams that have met twice in the NL Championship Series the past three seasons and split the two series, the Dodgers winning in seven games in the 2020 bubble and the Braves winning in six in 2021.

This weekend is a tasty appetizer. Another best-of-seven between these teams this October? Let’s hope so.


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