The Dodgers won the World Series last year, followed that up with an 106-win regular-season performance this year and, thanks to a 2-1 victory on Thursday, made the NLCS for a second consecutive year.
In spite of all that, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was widely questioned for a decision he and team executives made ahead of Thursday’s deciding Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants.
Roberts told reporters that reliever Corey Knebel would open the game. It’s something the Dodgers and Knebel did multiple times in the regular season. Julio Urias would follow later.
The opener decision came “from the tippy top of the organization on down,” Roberts says. Asked if he gets more than one vote he says no, “I only get one vote” with a smile.
— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) October 14, 2021
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Part of the reason for using an opener was strategic and based on handedness. Giants manager Gabe Kapler countered Roberts’ decision by adding a left-handed hitter to his Game 5 lineup (Tommy LaStella) and moving another lefty swinger (Brandon Crawford) up to fourth in the order, making things potentially tougher for the right-handed Knebel.
Knebel opened four times in the regular season. In 5 2/3 innings, he allowed one run on six hits and struck out four. So there was a sample size to show it could work. And yet, Roberts was criticized heavily on Twitter by fans and media alike who questioned whether the decision was “too cute” or a product of overthinking.
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Even it was all of the above, the fact is, the strategy worked and made history in the process.
Tonight the @Dodgers became the first team in MLB postseason history to have their relievers pitch 8.0+ innings with 12+ strikeouts and no walks in a game.
— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) October 15, 2021
After Knebel came Brusdar Graterol, followed by Urias, Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen and Max Scherzer, who recorded the first save of his career. Those are all pitchers fans could expect to see over the course of a must-win playoff game, albeit in a different order.
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Here’s how Roberts’ management of his pitching staff shook out:
First inning: Corey Knebel; one hit allowed, one strikeout
As planned, Knebel came out to start the game. He retired the first two batters on just five pitches, but Buster Posey quickly made things interesting by roping a first-pitch double to right field.
Whatever trouble the hit may have caused Knebel ended quickly as he struck out Crawford to end a seven-pitch at-bat.
Second inning: Brusdar Graterol; two hits, one strikeout
Graterol got off to a rough start in relief of Knebel, giving up a two-strike single to Kris Bryant to lead off the bottom of the second. He retired Mike Yastrzemski on a popout, but then Wilmer Flores followed with a single to put another Giants runner in scoring position.
The right-hander worked out of the jam by getting Evan Longoria to pop out and pitcher Logan Webb to strike out. All told, Graterol threw 22 pitches in his inning.
Third through sixth innings: Julio Urias; three hits, one run (earned), five strikeouts
Urias was originally slated to start Game 5, but he entered in the third for his first relief outing of the season. Aside from a Darin Ruf home run that tied the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, Urias looked sharp, throwing 41 of his 59 pitches for strikes and notching two 1-2-3 innings.
Seventh inning: Blake Treinen; two strikeouts
Treinen has been a do-it-all reliever for the Dodgers since joining them last year. He has closed games, set them up and worked in lesser relief roles. He was lights out in his inning Thursday, striking out Longoria and Alex Dickerson in a 1-2-3 frame to keep the game tied.
Eighth inning: Kenley Jansen; two strikeouts, win
Jansen has been dominant this season as the Dodgers’ closer. He converted 38 of 44 save opportunities and struck out 86 as he pitched to a 2.22 ERA. The strikeouts and ERA were both his best since 2017. But here he was asked to pitch in a setup role and he excelled.
Donovan Solano — who had hit for LaStella leading off the third when Urias entered — ripped a bullet to third baseman Justin Turner for the first out before Jansen struck out Ruf and Posey to send the game to the ninth inning still tied.
Max Scherzer: two strikeouts, save
Before Thursday, Scherzer had made four relief appearances in the postseason and history wasn’t on his side.
fwiw, Scherzer has made four career relief appearances in the postseason (2011, 2013, 2017 and 2019).
He’s allowed runs in three of those four; in 5 1/3 innings, he has a 6.75 ERA
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) October 15, 2021
Scherzer got the first out in the ninth, but then Bryant reached on an error by Turner, giving the Giants late life. He struck out frequent late-game hero LaMonte Wade Jr. to move the Dodgers one out away.
Up came Flores as the Giants’ last hope of continuing their surprising season. Scherzer quickly got ahead of him 0-2. On the next pitch, Flores was rung up on a questionable check-swing call by first base umpire Gabe Morales that ended the game and placed Morales under the microscope.
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The bold strategy had worked. Don’t be surprised if Roberts and the Dodgers employ it again in the NLCS, which starts Saturday in Atlanta (8:07 p.m ET, TBS).