The crowd was on its feet again Sunday in the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ 6-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants. Another batch of “Beat L.A.” chants vibrated through Oracle Park. Albert Pujols had just come off the Dodgers’ bench to belt a pinch-hit, two-run home run to reinvigorate the masses, producing a scene befitting for October, down to the sweater weather.
Max Muncy stood at first base. Mookie Betts populated the batter’s box. Giants closer Jake McGee toed the mound. The Dodgers had two outs to make up a two-run deficit to avoid losing the three-game series, dropping the 19-game season series, and sinking back into second place in the National League West.
The rally fell short because Betts struck out on a pitch inside, out of the strike zone and Giants right fielder Mike Yastrzemski caught Justin Turner’s flyball down the right-field line against the netting to give San Francisco sole possession of first place.
With the win, the Giants claimed the season series, 10-9, meaning they will have home-field advantage against the Dodgers if the clubs need a 163rd game to settle the division race and if they meet in the National League Division Series next month. The Dodgers (86-51) are one game behind them with 25 games remaining.
“We have a month left,” Dodgers starter Walker Buehler said. “This was a big game, a Sunday night game, and tied in the division and all that, but what it boils down to is playing a better month of baseball than they do.”
For the second straight day, the Dodgers, on paper, held a significant pitching advantage. Short-handed in the starting rotation, San Francisco decided to roll with bullpen games Saturday and Sunday while the Dodgers had Julio Urías, the majors’ leader in wins, start Saturday and Buehler, a front-runner in the NL Cy Young Award race, on Sunday. Urías did his part in a win Saturday. Buehler uncharacteristically floundered on a big stage while the Dodgers’ perplexing offensive struggles continued.
Buehler had dominated the Giants (87-50) in five starts before Sunday, surrendering just three earned runs over 34 innings. But his stuff was flat Sunday, lacking its usual life, and he gave up five extra-base hits for the third time in 89 career major-league starts.
The trouble started when Brandon Belt smashed a four-seam fastball that leaked over the plate for a home run in the first inning. In the second, Buehler issued a leadoff walk to Brandon Crawford to set up trouble. Yastrzemski doubled, Steven Duggar tripled and Darin Ruf lined a single to complete a three-run splurge.
San Francisco added two more runs in the third inning on back-to-back doubles from LaMonte Wade Jr. and Crawford and Curt Casali’s RBI single. Buehler then hit for himself in the top of the fourth inning, but he didn’t take the mound in the bottom of the frame. His day ended after 53 pitches. He yielded a season-high six runs on seven hits across the three innings. He walked one and had one strikeout. His earned-run average rose from 2.05 to 2.31, denting his case for the Cy Young honor.
“Not a whole lot was very good,” Buehler said. “Probably one of the worst I’ve thrown in a long time.”
The Dodgers offense, meanwhile, left the bases loaded in the third and fifth innings after tallying one run in each. Nine Giants relievers held Los Angeles to six hits. Overall, the Dodgers scored 12 runs over 29 innings in the series.
“We left those guys off the hook and they put up some zeroes and added on,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Situationally, they were better than we were and got hits when they needed to and that was the difference in the game.”
Not having AJ Pollock didn’t help. Pollock was placed on the 10-day injured list before the game after sustaining a Grade-2 right hamstring strain Saturday. The team recalled right-hander Mitch White to replace Pollock on the roster, giving the club 16 pitchers on their 28-man roster.
Roberts said the team is optimistic that Pollock will return this season after he reported to Oracle Park feeling better Sunday, but his absence is a blow in the thick of a division race.
Pollock has been one of the most productive outfielders in the majors over the last two seasons. He started slowly this season before going on a tear starting in early July. Since July 7, he’s hitting .353 with eight home runs and a 1.001 OPS in 187 plate appearances across 47 games.
“Obviously, AJ’s been one of our better performers all year long,” Roberts said. “So, to miss out on that player is a big loss.”
Without Pollock, the Dodgers plan on giving Cody Bellinger more playing time. Bellinger had been relegated to a platoon role, only starting in center field against right-handed starting pitchers since Betts came off the injured list Aug. 26, as he slogs through a dreadful offensive season. He’ll seemingly become the Dodgers’ everyday center fielder again with Betts in right field and Chris Taylor in left field.
Bellinger entered Sunday batting .169 with nine home runs and a .556 OPS in 77 games this season. His batting average was the second lowest in the majors amongst players with at least 250 plate appearances this season. Just four players owned a worse OPS.
The numbers dropped again Sunday when he went 0 for 3 with a strikeout before Austin Barnes pinch-hit for him in the ninth inning. In 14 games against the Giants this season, he’s two for 48 (.041) with 21 strikeouts.
And yet the Dodgers still generated chances to score, to provide enough run support on a day they thought they wouldn’t need much with Buehler on the mound, down to the last out. They came up short and the road to another World Series title got a little tougher.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.