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.

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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

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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…

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The Dodgers Are The 2016 NL West Champions- But How?!

On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season.  That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point.  Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission.  The Dodgers would end up losing that game.  Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury.  At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader.  Instead, it became a turning point.

Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West.  But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago.  Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise.  And yet…

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The 2016 Dodgers, tipping their caps to the man whose been with the team, since before their parents were born. (Source: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense.  One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season.  (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.)  In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss.  Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after.  Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on,  while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings.  Even Andre Ethier, as unlikely a Dean of The Dodgers as there ever was, made a cameo appearance in September, after recovering from an unfortunate fluke injury that took him out for nearly the entire season.

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In a somber moment before the game, Puig pays tribute to his friend Jose Fernandez. (Story here: http://wp.me/p1UqDw-9R)

 

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.  I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again.  After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster.  It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star.  The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can.  Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!

But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling.  Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning.  Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts.  The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA.  The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT.  It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee.  It was such a mess, Rich Hill became the first Major League pitcher ever to be pulled while throwing a perfect game (!) after 7 innings, because that’s just how fragile the Dodgers’ starting pitching situation was.

And how about Dave Roberts, the man in charge who made that controversial but understandable decision?  (It wasn’t even his first one this season.)  If anything, he deserves a bonus for the arrows he took for his tough decision making, and ultimately should be rewarded by being named NL Manager of the Year.  Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster.  Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances.  Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team.  He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly.  We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.

As for the front office?  That’s a tough one.  Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball.  The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening.  But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail.  This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did.  Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all.  But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due.  So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi.  Two cheers for them each.  We’ll see what October brings.

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Does this really need a written description? (Source- Los Angeles Dodgers)

And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note.  It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of.  Absolutely unheard of.  But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season.  (Naturally.)  And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing!  (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)

Three games remain in San Diego, then another three in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…