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Dave Roberts Didn’t Blow Game 2, but Changing His Approach Now Could Blow the World Series

The Dodgers skipper is taking heat for pulling Rich Hill early, but his process is sound—and 98 percent of the time, so is Kenley Jansen

World Series - Houston Astros v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Two Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There is no way that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wanted Josh Fields throwing a high-leverage inning this series. There’s even less of a chance that he wanted Brandon McCarthy doing so. But there Roberts was, with his main relief options exhausted by the time Game 2 of the World Series shifted to extra innings, hoping that the back end of his recently unhittable bullpen could survive a suddenly awakened Astros offense.

It couldn’t. José Altuve led off the 10th inning with a homer against Fields, and Correa followed with a momentous blast and bat flip two pitches later. In the 11th, one wild Dodgers comeback later, McCarthy allowed a leadoff single to 10th-inning substitute Cameron Maybin, then a George Springer homer that doubled as Houston’s eventual game-winner, in a game that could’ve had half a dozen of them but ultimately ended in a 7-6 Houston win.

Fields and McCarthy couldn’t prevent the Astros from sending baseballs into orbit after baseball’s best closer, Kenley Jansen, couldn’t secure a save for the first time in his playoff career and the Dodgers’ bullpen allowed its first runs since Game 2 of the NLDS, a span of 28 innings. A World Series that looked squarely in L.A.’s favor is now tied, with the next three games in a ballpark where Houston is 6-0 this postseason.

That sequence of implosive bullpen events led many to retrospectively question Roberts’s decision to pull starter Rich Hill and go to his bullpen in the top of the fifth inning. But in the moment, Roberts made the smart call, indicative of sound process, and even now, the fact that it backfired shouldn’t affect how the Dodgers skipper manages his bullpen going forward in this series.

Here’s a reminder of the situation, because after a string of progressively more delirious late-game acts of heroism, the exact details might be obscured. In the top of the fifth inning, with the Dodgers trailing 1-0, Roberts relieved Hill, who had thrown just 60 pitches, struck out seven, and allowed one run, with Kenta Maeda. The substitution represented a historical anomaly. Counting Hill, Baseball-Reference has pitch count data for 121 World Series starters who allowed one run or less. Only seven of those pitchers who predated Hill left before throwing 60 pitches: two due to injury, two for an early pinch hitter, and only three, like Hill, for a legitimate relief reason.

But Roberts made the call nonetheless, for a number of defensible reasons. First, despite just one run scoring against Hill, he had sweat through his outing. He was lucky to escape the third inning with just a single run allowed, after a line drive took a fortuitous hop off center fielder Chris Taylor’s hat, preventing it from rolling to the wall with speedy runners circling the bases, and he ended both the third and fourth frames with multiple men on base.

He also was set to face the top of Houston’s order in the fifth inning, after striking out pitcher Justin Verlander to end the fourth-inning threat. Leadoff hitter Springer had walked and singled his first two times up; second batter Alex Bregman had lashed the lucky liner in the third; and Altuve and Correa were up after them. Counting fifth hitter Yulieski Gurriel, also a dangerous bat in these playoffs, Hill was lined up to face five right-handed hitters for the third time. Hill hadn’t faced a right-handed hitter for the third time in either of his first two October starts, despite allowing just three runs combined in those games.

“I just felt that right there at the top of the order coming up,” Roberts said, “and with the way our bullpen has been throwing—you look back behind that, we had three scoreless innings after that.”

Entering Wednesday’s game, the right-handed Maeda had thrown five perfect innings as a reliever in the playoffs, and he did his job, recording four outs while allowing just a single and churning through the best hitters in Houston’s lineup without surrendering a run. Lefty Tony Watson relieved Maeda in the sixth with a runner on base and induced a first-pitch double play, and two innings later, Roberts handed the ball to Jansen with a 3-1 lead as all the writers in the Dodger Stadium press box went to work on their gamers, assuming that an L.A. win and 2-0 series lead were a lock.

They should have been, as Jansen converted 98 percent of his save opportunities this year and has looked unhittable for his entire playoff run. He had coasted through a 14-pitch save in Game 1 and made scoreless appearances on no rest twice already this month; between the regular season and playoffs, L.A. had won all 97 games it led entering the ninth this season. But he allowed an inherited runner to score on an eighth-inning Correa single, then a stadium-quieting and game-tying Marwin González homer to lead off the ninth.

An inning later, Fields was the best option Roberts had left, and McCarthy an inning after that, and Houston’s top three hitters each homered in extras to tie the series.

“The bottom line is I’ll take Kenley any day of the week with a one-run lead going into the ninth inning,” Roberts said, adding that Jansen’s entrance into the game in the eighth came at “a great spot for him. It just doesn’t always go as planned.”

Projecting forward, then, Roberts should remain confident in his plans rather than deviate from his bullpen strategy on the basis of one high-pressure collapse. Game 3 starter Yu Darvish might go longer just because he’s better suited to face Houston’s righty sluggers, but in Game 4, lefty starter Alex Wood should have the same tight leash that reined in Hill. Roberts’s relief management this month has focused on leveraging his pitchers’ various strengths and putting them in the best situations to succeed, and he did the same Wednesday. Maeda threw to Houston’s five best hitters, all righties; Watson threw one pitch, to a slow lefty in a double-play opportunity; setup man Brandon Morrow and Jansen received the ball with a 3-1 lead, just as they had in their Game 1 win the night before.

Jansen did the unthinkable—and certainly the unforeseeable—in blowing that lead, but nobody would be questioning Roberts’s decision not to save more reliable arms for extra innings had the Dodgers did what they should have and closed the game in nine. Sound process doesn’t always yield sound results, so Roberts shouldn’t compromise the former the rest of the series because the latter didn’t manifest in this game. Any strategy designed to give Jansen the ball with the lead is one worth repeating, because odds are Wednesday’s results won’t.