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.
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?
We 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
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…