MLB playoffs 2021: Is this the end of the road for the Los Angeles Dodgers?

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LOS ANGELES -- Joc Pederson's blooper hit the grass in shallow center field, and Julio Urias raised both arms in disgust. It was the third inning of the fourth game of the National League Championship Series, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were already trailing the Atlanta Braves by three runs. Gavin Lux, a 23-year-old second baseman playing the outfield out of necessity, had sprinted forward, but he didn't fully commit. He stopped early, fielded the baseball on a hop and watched another run cross the plate. For the second straight night, the Dodgers' offense found itself in an early hole.

This time, there would be no awakening.

This time, there would be no comeback.

One night after Cody Bellinger's improbable home run lifted a lifeless team to a Game 3 victory, the Dodgers languished to a 9-2 defeat on Wednesday, giving the Braves a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven series.

The Dodgers won 106 regular-season games in 2021 -- 18 more than these Braves -- and led the sport in run differential. But they have looked especially vulnerable ever since the postseason began. They needed a walk-off homer to get past the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Wild Card Game, went the distance against the San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series and had to overcome a three-run deficit with five outs remaining to capture their first victory in the penultimate round.

Now the Dodgers find themselves in an eerily familiar place from 2020, facing the same deficit against the same team in the same round, a comforting coincidence.

"We did it last year," Urias noted in Spanish. "Why not this year?"

The easy rebuttal lies in the unlikelihood of a similar outcome -- no team has ever overcome 3-1 series deficits in back-to-back postseasons -- but there's a more important aspect at play: This is an inferior Dodgers team to last year's, a reality that didn't truly show up until the Braves exposed it.