ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Dodgers needed a change to their offensive disposition Monday in the National League division series with the Atlanta Braves.
For the first three games of the series, and through five innings of Game 4, the Dodgers had been harum-scarum with bats in their hands. They were virtuous in taking their walks, but shameless in swinging for the fences and refusing to take measured, two-strike cuts with runners in scoring position. It was all-or-nothing with their swings.
Then the veteran David Freese, 35, who joined the Dodgers on Aug. 31, took some of that strut out of their offense. His at-bat could be a defining moment for Los Angeles this postseason.
The Dodgers trailed by 1-0, and runners were on second and third when Freese came to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the sixth. That situation had been doom for the Dodgers in the series. They were 3 for 23 with runners in scoring position at the time.
Facing the Atlanta right-hander Brad Brach and with a 3-2 count, Freese bounced a single up the middle. Two runs scored, and Los Angeles had the lead for good on its way to a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series win.
“I wasn’t trying to do much, just looking for something to handle,” Freese said.
It is a mind-set the Dodgers need to coalesce around as they move on to the N.L. Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, starting Friday. The Dodgers scored 20 runs against Atlanta, 14 with the help of a home run. But they left many more runs on base because hitters came to the plate unable, or unwilling, to cut down on their swings and punch a run in.
The Dodgers batted .210 in the series and struck out 35 times in 34 innings.
Manager Dave Roberts was asked before Game 4 if his team needed to take more two-strike swings than in Game 3, when they were 1-for-9 hitting with runners in scoring position. He had to pause before answering because his team has created a conundrum for the baseball veteran.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think that you always want to see a guy have a two-strike approach, because in the big leagues half of your at-bats are going to come with two strikes, so logically speaking, it does make sense to have a two-strike approach. Some guys are geared to shorten up. Justin Turner shortens up. But not every hitter, I guess, has that ability.”
Freese and Turner work up the middle in batting practice, just letting the ball travel deep and then taking measured swings. It is the most vulnerable area of the field, and Freese and Turner know how to use it.
“My job is just to keep the train moving and get on base and do that,” Freese said. “I don’t hit many home runs.”
Turner Ward, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ hitting coach, stood behind the batting cage before Game 4 and called out situations to Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman and No. 2 hitter.
“Second and third, infield in,” Ward said.
Turner hit a fly ball to center — a sacrifice fly for a run if it had been a game.
“Man on second, no out,” Ward said.
Turner laced a line drive to right field behind the imaginary runner. Ward called the same situation a few moments later, and Turner bounded a ground ball to second to move the imaginary runner to third.
Turner executed every situation to the delight of his hitting coach. “Woo hoo,” Ward shouted.
The sluggers Matt Kemp, Manny Machado, and Yasiel Puig followed Turner in the cage, and Ward did not call for any situational hitting. They just aimed for the outfield fence and swung away.
The Dodgers may not regularly strategize with two strikes; few players in the big leagues do these days in the era of the home run. But Los Angeles hitters are not careless free-swingers. It can be difficult to get the Dodgers to expand their strike zone. After all, they led the majors in drawing walks (647).
“Patience is a message we have been sending on a daily basis here, and the front office has done a good job of getting guys like that,” said Ward, who has been the Dodgers’ hitting coach for three seasons. “We’re keeping things kind of simple. We are trying to get the ball in our zone, and we’ve been getting better each year shrinking the strike zone and creating damage.”
Milwaukee figures to offer a bigger challenge for the Dodgers’ offense. The Brewers’ pitchers are fifth in opposing team batting average (.229), fourth in home runs allowed per nine innings (1.07), fifth in E.R.A. (3.73), and their bullpen is in the top five in many statistical categories.
Machado at least understands the value of the shortened swing. He hit a three-run homer in the seventh inning Monday, but said after the game, “My home run wasn’t even the biggest hit of the game.”
He was referring to Freese’s two-run single. If the Dodgers follow his lead with two strikes, Freese may have had be one of the most significant hits of the entire postseason for Los Angeles.