Dodgers letting series get away with their best on the bench

BOSTON — Max Muncy watched Matt Kemp hit a harmless grounder to the left side and began to leave the on-deck circle, the final out evolving into an inevitability. He grabbed the barrel of his bat with his left hand, looked off toward center field and disappeared into a visiting dugout that was quickly beginning to empty.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost 4-2 on Wednesday night, face a 2-0 World Series deficit to a Boston Red Sox team that might be among the greatest in baseball history. They’ll return to Los Angeles with hope, mindful of all the adversity they have previously overcome. But this series — this season — might have ended with two games at Fenway Park.

The worst part: The Dodgers didn’t go down with their best.

The Red Sox started a lefty in each of the first two games, with Chris Sale going first and David Price going second. And so the Dodgers, matchup-reliant throughout their run to a sixth consecutive division title, rode all-righty lineups on both nights, the first such occurrence in World Series history.

Enrique Hernandez, who began the World Series with three hits and 10 strikeouts in 26 postseason at-bats, got six plate appearances in the first two games. Muncy, owner of baseball’s fifth-highest OPS this season, got only three.

Brian Dozier, a .182/.300/.350 hitter from the start of August to the end of September, also got six plate appearances. Cody Bellinger, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year and National League Championship Series MVP, got only three.

When Muncy, Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Yasmani Grandal all were out of the starting lineup Tuesday, the Dodgers became the first team in history to begin a World Series game with their four regular-season home-run leaders on the bench, according to research from the Elias Sports Bureau. On Wednesday, it happened again.

“It’s hard to have guys that slug like Pederson, Muncy, Bellinger on the bench,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts allowed, “but this is something that we’ve done a lot in September and throughout the postseason, and it’s proven to be successful. And those guys are still getting in games and staying current. When guys are in there, they’ve just got to be productive.”

The Dodgers had openings in each of the first two games, but they were unable to break through.

They forced Sale to expend 86 pitches through the first four innings of Game 1 but finished only 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position. They put five of their nine hitters on base the second time through the order against Price in Game 2, but the last 16 Dodgers were retired in order by Price and the Boston bullpen.

Sitting Grandal, who clearly has struggled defensively and is 7-for-71 in his postseason career, makes sense. Sitting Pederson, whose OPS was 381 points higher against righties than lefties this season, is totally justified.

But you can make a reasonable case that Bellinger should be a fixture in the Dodgers’ lineup. Even if his production against lefties — .681 OPS this season — doesn’t jump off the page, he might be the second-best all-around player on the roster. Muncy, meanwhile, finished the regular season with an .891 OPS against lefties, trailing only Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman and Robinson Cano among left-handed hitters. His benching has been confounding.

“Yeah, I mean, we both want to be in the lineup,” Bellinger said, pausing to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know. We both want to be in the lineup every day.”

The Dodgers took advantage of their unmatched depth and versatility to accrue the sixth-most plate appearances with a platoon advantage in 2018, according to Elias research. But they were appreciably worse against lefties than righties, a circumstance that had more to do with personnel than lineup configuration. It’s why they acquired Dozier and David Freese, even though they each played positions at which L.A. already had considerable depth.

But the Dodgers could have had the best of both worlds in these first two games. They could have leaned on the matchup advantages they wanted by starting Kemp in left field, Freese at first base and Taylor at second. And they could have integrated two of their best players by starting Muncy at designated hitter and Bellinger in center field, where he is close to elite defensively.

They didn’t have to sell out entirely for the sake of the matchup. It was easier to get away with that in the NLCS, against a Milwaukee Brewers team that consistently turned to its bullpen early in games. But the Red Sox use their starting pitchers conventionally, which means more innings passing by without key plate appearances by impact bats.

Dozier, who led off the past two nights, is 0-for-4 in the series, but he has drawn two walks, and Roberts said he liked the “quality” of his at-bats.

Roberts said Hernandez, 0-for-6 with three strikeouts, was over-swinging but added: “There’s just certain players that I believe in, and I think he’s on that list.”

“We’ve got a lot of good players,” Roberts said after Game 2, “and we’ve got a long way to go.”

But the Dodgers’ backs are against the wall like never before. Teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win 84 percent of the time. And few of those teams were as good as the Red Sox, who won 108 games during the regular season, then cruised past the 100-win New York Yankees and the defending champion Houston Astros in the first two rounds.

The Dodgers will go home now, which is good.

The best part: They probably will face a right-handed starting pitcher in back-to-back games, which means Muncy, Bellinger and Pederson should have their say.

“They’ll definitely be excited to get in there and get a start,” Taylor said. “I know they’re hungry for at-bats.”

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