Dodgers vs Cubs, Game 1 NLCS Recap- What Kind of Manager Is Dave Roberts, Anyway?

Looking at the rosters for the two teams on Opening Night of the National League Championship series, one might wonder how the Dodgers could possibly win Game One, particularly with postseason legend and potential Cy Young award winner Jon Lester going for the 103 game winning “Lovable Losers”.  For those who ended up watching the game, one might wonder how the Dodgers ended up losing.  The team hit into an astonishing six line drive outs, which actually accounted for seven outs total, given that the one which ended the game was a double play off the bat of an unlucky Chase Utley.  That doesn’t even account for the line drive single from starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, ultimately resulting in the fateful out of Adrian Gonzalez at home plate.  But for a short time late in the game, the team who had been beating the odds since Clayton Kershaw’s season altering injury- that is, altering in a good way, somehow- seemed poised to do it again.

fowler

He did this TWICE!

Even with all the bad luck- and great defense, particularly from Dexter Fowler- the Dodgers  appeared to be copying the script from the fateful NLDS Game Five against the Nationals, knocking a potential Cy Young award winner out of a game, scrapping to comeback.  With the Cubs leading by two, but facing a bases loaded and no one out situation in the top of the 8th, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went to closer Aroldis Chapman an inning earlier than usual. (Wait- he’s with the Cubs now? I can’t keep up anymore.  Anyway…)  Chapman made fairly easy work against a sadly struggling Corey Seager, and a sadly declining Yasiel Puig.  Up stepped Adrian Gonzalex, who hit…you guessed it…a line drive.  This one was not caught, and suddenly, we had a tied game and a quieted Wrigley Field.

But unlike the deciding game against the Nationals, this time, the shocking late inning comeback only resulted in a tie, instead of a lead.  In other words, it more closely resembled the setup for NLDS Game Four, when the Nationals tied the game after a Clayton Kershaw exit at Dodger Stadium, only to have Chase Utley put the home team ahead for good.  But this time, the Dodgers were the road team, ending up on the wrong end of the emotional roller coaster ride.  Like the Nationals at Dodger Stadium, they almost escaped the bottom half of the innings unscathed.  Almost.  But a couple of intentional walks would ultimately seal the Dodgers’ fate.  If the Cubs end up in their first World Series appearance since the end of the previous (and hopefully last ever) World War, this series of moves will be discussed for a very, very long time.  But why wait ’til later to try figuring it all out?

Deconstructing Dave

daveWe here at DodgersFYI have made it perfectly clear that the entire staff are fans of Dave Roberts- all one of us!  Of the many, many, MANY roster moves that the front office has made over the past year, signing him has been the best one.  He is at least as good of a “player’s manager” as Don Mattingly was, and certainly superior to him from a tactical standpoint.  The Fox Sports broadcast showed an incredible stat during the course of the game- prior to 2016, of the five teams that had the most single season pitching changes in baseball history,  the MOST wins one of those teams had was 73.  Dave Roberts’ squad had more pitching changes than any of them, and somehow managed to win 91.  This is a man who knows what he’s doing, and if there’s any justice, he will be voted in as National League Manager of the year.

With all that in mind, baseball is more dependent on luck than any other major American sport, and prior to Saturday night, Dave Roberts’ short postseason record has been as charmed as Mattingly’s was snakebitten.  Riding a string of understandable but controversial decisions that worked in his favor over the previous week, the Dodger skipper doubled down in the 8th inning, with a runner already on second base- actually, tripled down, opting to turn one Cub baserunner into three, via intentional walks from Joe Blanton.  The first walk was to Jason Heyward, a guy who crushed a triple against the right-handed Maeda, finally looking like a $20 million man after a subpar season.  Seeing how Heyward was a .207 hitter against lefties in 2016, it’s unlikely that Maddon would have let him hit against the capable southpaw Dodger reliever, Grant Dayton, one of the unsung heroes that’s helped make Dave Roberts look good.  So walking Heyward and sticking with Blanton for the next batter appeared to be the right move at that time.  But then, Roberts ordered another intentional walk, this time to pinch hitter Chris Coghlan, whose batting average on the season was .188.  (To put that in perspective, Madison Bumgarner’s was .186.)  So not only were the Dodgers adding an extra baserunner, but they were advancing the two that were there already!  All this was to get to Chapman’s spot, to force Maddon’s hand, to see if he’d take Chapman out for a pinch hitter.  (Reading all this, can you believe some people want to add the DH to the National League?)

From one perspective and only one perspective, this series of moves is understandable- Chapman is probably the best closer in the game, two blown playoff saves notwithstanding.  Facing anyone else in the 9th inning would be desirable- desirable in a vacuum, as they used to say in Physics class.  However, this situation was the opposite of a vacuum- this was a bases-loaded-in-the-playoffs situation, with an overworked pitcher, now throwing for the fifth time in nine days.  In addition, for all his improvements this year, Blanton still gives up the long ball from time to time.   Seeing that the batter was Miguel Montero, a guy who had an off year but also hits the long ball from time to time, it seemed as likely a time as any for Dave Roberts postseason luck to finally betray him- and betray him it did.  Montero hit an 0-2 pitch way into the right field seats, in what could be the most critical home run in Cubs’ postseason history.  (We’ll know for sure in about a week.)

Considering how instantly visceral fan reaction can get in the age of social media, the hostility towards Dave Roberts was comparatively mild.  To be sure, there was lots of criticism in his direction, but he had a fair share of defenders, and the most heated rage was aimed in Blanton’s direction, for throwing such a lousy 0-2 pitch.  (I can only imagine what Vin Scully, who LOATHED hitable 0-2 pitches, would be saying!)   And really, it would be nice to live in a world where everyone didn’t want to fire the manager after a single move backfires, no matter how critical that move is.  But given how much Roberts has dealt with this season, and how well he’s handled it, no rational person can POSSIBLY consider him a lost cause after this.

At the same time, now that we’ve FINALLY seen something backfire on him, it seems like a good time to scrutinize the Dodgers’ first year manager a little bit.  After listening to the platitudes about how “he does what it takes to win”, it’s worth considering what “it” actually is.  Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it seems that he’s a fan of Russian Roulette, where the payoff is huge and percentage for success is huge, but the consequences of a loss are catastrophic.  In this case, facing a pitcher besides Chapman in the 9th gives his team a far better chance of winning, but in order to setup that scenario to begin with, Roberts has to voluntarily give the other team a shot at scoring four runs with one swing.  This is a calculated risk, but it is a risk all the same.  Roberts was willing to take it, and he paid a heavy price for it.  (Ironically, he was somewhat justified in his thinking, by the fact that the Cubs pitcher in the 9th was far easier for the Dodgers to handle than Chapman.  But with such a large deficit, the point was moot.)

Going forward, the scrutiny of Roberts’ gambles will come into more focus.  Consider how pundits and fans alike have profusely praised his use of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen as “gutsy”.  Without reliving the entire previous two postseasons, at least recall the 7th inning of the 2014 NLDS in St. Louis, an inning that cemented many (if not most) Dodger fans’ hearts and minds about Don Mattingly’s ineptitude.  With a 2-0 lead, Clayton Kershaw gave up two relatively cheap back-to-back singles to the St. Louis Cardinals.  With Matt Adams at the plate, Kershaw threw the worst curveball of his career to a left handed hitter, and it ended up going over the wall.  But most of the blame went to Mattingly, for supposedly overusing the Dodger ace.  That “overusage” of that NLDS was NOTHING compared to what we’ve seen in 2016, with Kershaw throwing pitches into triple digits on short rest, then coming back two days later to close out the series.

As for Jansen, he threw 51 pitches in that same game, by far a career high.  You have to go back to Joe Torre, leaving Jonathan Broxton to wilt against the Yankees on 48 pitches in 2010, to recall such heavy usage of a closer.  Broxton then got several days off, but the 2016 Dodgers don’t have that luxury- not when they’re already down 1-0.  Luckily, he’s already had two days off, so perhaps he will be ready for game 2.  He’d better be, because while “anything can happen” is one of the most cited mantras of Major League Baseball, it’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.  To put it another way, the chance of everyone forgetting about the bases loaded gamble, is tied directly to how the (over?)usage of the Dodgers’ two best pitchers effects them, going forward.

In The Bigger Picture

The Dodgers offense was far better than the box score indicates, and the fact that they didn’t give up, even in the 9th, is very encouraging.  But Dodger fans can be forgiven for feeling a little bit concerned, if not downright morose.  For nearly a decade now, in spite of all the roster changes, front office changes, even ownership changes, the Dodger postseason always seems to follow a pattern.  Since 2008, each postseason the Dodgers participate in contains at least one dramatic, “I WAS THERE!” triumph, and at least one gut wrenching, heartbreaking defeat.  Given how this franchise hasn’t won it all since 1988, the heartbreaker always comes last.  It remains to be seen for 2016’s Boys in Blue, whether the heartbreaker that was NLCS Game 1, will also end up being a back breaker.

Some Random Observations

dont_call_me_vedder

Isn’t He From Seattle?

The Cubs, for some reason, came out to the “Rocky” theme, which is normally used for Philadelphia teams.  Maybe they’ll come out to “I Love LA” for Game Two…Javy Baez is getting praised for his baseball IQ, yet he still didn’t run right out of the box, on what ended up as a bloop double.  His electric steal of home, which actually started as a baserunning miscue, somehow seems like a microcosm of everything he’s involved in…Cub fans in the first row of foul territory started to go for a popup, then pulled back in horror, realizing they almost “Bartmanned” Anthony Rizzo.  Seriously, how does everyone in the front row not think at the BEGINNING of a game, “If the Cubs are on the field, DO NOT REACH OUT”?!…Seeing Eddie Vedder, Bill Murray, John Cusack (and Chris Chelios) in the crowd was kind of funny, for some reason…Andre Ethier’s home run, which unfortunately no one will remember now, was off of a left handed pitcher.  So all he needed was a few months off to figure out how to do that…

April 8th, 2016- We’re Not In San Diego Anymore

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.

stripling

He’s earned another start.

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?

just_one_of_those_days

Just one of those days.

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!

hatcherHatcher 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.

What Next?

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.)

kenleyMany 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.

Mr. Brightside

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!