What a difference two days makes. What a difference two PITCHES makes! After dominating the Padres in historical fashion, the ’27 Yankees 2016 Dodgers took their roadshow up north. Initially, it seemed to be more of the same, as the Dodgers took a 4-0 lead into the 5th inning at AT&T Park, a mere one inning away from the MAJOR LEAGUE RECORD for pitching the most innings of shutout ball to start a season. Ultimately, the team missed its mark. Boy, did it ever.
Dave Roberts got his first taste of what it truly means to be a Dodger manager, in the post-Gagne era. With the team looking comfortably ahead against the Giants, Alex Wood suddenly became hittable, as we often saw in 2015. Rather than give him the early hook, Roberts stuck with his starter, only to watch the once comfortable lead become a deficit in the 6th inning. The somewhat debatable move of leaving Wood in too long was made moot by an all too familiar site- the Dodger middle relief, throwing gasoline on the fire, leading to the Dodgers’ first loss of the season.
But those managerial decisions and pitching performances pale in comparison to what happened the next game, the fifth of the season for the Dodgers overall. Ross Stripling had an impressive minor league career halted by injuries, leading to Tommy John surgery. With the Dodgers’ rotation in dire straits, Stripling won out the #5 spot, albeit with little expected from him. That changed Friday night, in a game that will no doubt go down in Dodger infamy.
It all started ordinarily enough, with the rookie battling command issues, rookies often do. When he DID get the ball over the plate early on, the results didn’t seem anything special. Sure, he hadn’t allowed a hit, but that was largely thanks to spectacular plays by Joc Pederson and a newly revived Yasiel Puig. But as the game continued and Stripling settled down, his performance got stronger, to the point where Stripling did something that hadn’t been done since a previous century. That’s a previous century, not THE previous century, as in the 19TH century- in front of friends and family, including his fiancee, Ross Stripling had taken a no hitter into the 8th inning. The whole thing seemed surreal, as Dodger fans wondered if the 26 year old could really do it. We’ll never know.
The Fire, Or The Frying Pan?
One of the great ironies of the night, for an organization that seems to specialize in irony these days, is that the move to take Ross Stripling out of the game wasn’t as controversial as it initially seemed. He was at 100 pitches on a cold, rainy night, still recovering off of a potentially career threatening surgery. Had he been at 100 pitches in the 9th inning, it would have been a different story. But given that there were 5 outs left, new manager Dave Roberts was in an extremely tough spot- imagine if Stripling had gotten another 2 or 3 outs, but needed 20 pitches to do it. At that point, he’s in the 9th inning at 120 pitches, at a point where Dave Roberts REALLY has to make a brutal decision- take him out, to preserve Stripling’s career while denying a chance at Major League history, or leave him, and risk another Johan Santana situation, minus Santana’s financial security. Roberts’ deserves credit for making a difficult decision, and not being phased by public pressure in doing so.
You Don’t Have Don Mattingly To Kick Around Anymore
The initial reaction of Twitter was actually fairly supportive of Roberts, given the circumstances, along with the fact that Roberts is a new manager, with a certain Doc Rivers-style gravitas that his predecessor seemed to lack. However, the result of the decision seemed all too Mattinglyesque- on the second pitch from reliever Chris Hatcher, the Giants did something they hadn’t done in the previous hundred against Stripling- they not only got a hit, they got a hit over the fences, tying the game at two. After working so hard to get out of the doghouse last season, Hatcher managed to get right back in it, on one lousy pitch- and we do mean lousy!
Hatcher seemed to realize it, too. After being squeezed by the home plate umpire on the next pitch, he lashed out in a way that probably had little to do with the pitch. Dave Roberts came rushing out of the dugout, protecting his pitcher, getting himself ejected from the game in the process. It’s just as well, because he probably didn’t want to be in the dugout at that point, anyway.
At that point, the baseball gods turned against the Dodgers quite viciously. A couple of well struck fly balls in the top of the 9th died at the warning track. Against Joe Blanton in the 10th, Dodger nemesis Brandon Crawford’s did not. Game over.
As this move has historic consequences, Dave Roberts is going to have to answer it, and he should. The case for what he did was strong, but that hardly makes it a “no-brainer”, as some of the new-age baseball folks appear to believe. (Many of these are the same people who have no problem with THIS play ending a game, but that’s for a whole other discussion.)
Many fans are also seething about Kenley Jansen not ever being brought into the game. The argument about bringing closers into tie games on the road has gained serious traction in recent years, which is the height of second guessing. Making this move at the “right” point is totally arbitrary, because it guarantees that either the manager will be bringing in middle relievers later in the game, or will be wearing out the closer’s arm. If this philosophy had been embraced for this game, Jansen would have been brought into the 9th inning, meaning those middle relievers that have everyone fuming would have been seen in extra innings, anyway. It is a no win situation. Literally.
Less second guessing goes into the argument about Joe Blanton. He should not be on the roster, let alone in this game. Watching sabermetric bloggers convince themselves that the Blanton signing was a good one, supposedly based purely on analytics instead of loyalty towards Andrew Friedman, was either amusing or infuriating, depending on one’s point of view. (I’d highly recommend seeing it as amusing- it’s much healthier that way.) Keep in mind this conclusion was based on two admittedly outstanding months from Blanton with the Pirates at the end of the 2014 season. Also keep in mind that this is from the same group that dismissed- to the point they even acknolwedged- two outstanding months from Matt Kemp in 2014, with a much larger sample size than Blanton’s…not to mention an overall career far more distinguished, as well. Some of Friedman’s moves might be vindicated at the end of the season. This one almost certainly won’t be, and if the Dodgers need to go to Blanton in other critical, non-Kenley situations, they’re in trouble.
In spite of two losses in San Francisco, every bit as dispiriting as the three wins in San Diego were dominant, there are a lot of good signs for the Dodgers so far. Stripling and Kenta Maeda are the obvious ones. The “good” Scott Kazmir showed up for his Dodger debut, and Alex Wood at least looked decent through most of his start. Nearly everyone is hitting, and quietly, Yasiel Puig has returned to from- an amazing feat, considering Yasiel Puig doesn’t usually do ANYTHING quietly. Oh, and Clayton Kershaw will be pitching the next game for the Dodgers. So, there’s that.
We’ll need to see the rotation a full 3 or 4 more times before we can reasonably conclude what this team is capable of, but the earliest indications seem to be that the 2016 Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with. Just don’t get too comfortable, until you hear this song playing in the 9th inning!