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Dave Roberts Has Been Managing Like an Underdog—and Now the Dodgers Actually Are One

The L.A. manager has long used unconventional pitching tactics to try to help his teams in the postseason. But now, down 2-0 in the NLCS, it appears his strategy is hurting the should-be-favorite Dodgers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in a tight spot. Down 2-0 in a best-of-seven series isn’t an automatic death sentence—particularly not when you consider that these very Dodgers came back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits in last year’s NLCS against these very Braves. But it is (consults gigantic bank of computers) not ideal.

The Braves deserve a lot of credit for putting the Dodgers in this situation. Should the Cobb County club prevail, Ron Washington’s aggressive third-base coaching in Game 2 will go down as a legendary gambit. Max Fried’s bend-but-don’t-break performance in Game 1 set the tone for the Braves’ exceptional run prevention. And Austin Riley has been so on fire it’s hard to believe he was drafted by the Braves and not placed in the vicinity of Atlanta by General William T. Sherman’s Union Army.

And any list of the Dodgers’ failings has to start with the team’s performance with runners in scoring position—2-for-18 through two games—as well as the injuries that took Max Muncy and Justin Turner out of the starting lineup. Los Angeles has allowed only eight runs through two games; run prevention, on the whole, has not been the no. 1 problem.

But it’s not like Dave Roberts can flip a switch and make his players hit better. So let’s talk about something the L.A. manager can control: His pitcher usage, specifically the one curious tactical decision that might end up deciding his team’s fate.

In Game 5 of the NLDS, Roberts had 20-game winner Julio Urías available to start on full rest. Instead of going with the Urías from the start, though, Roberts used an opener (right-hander Corey Knebel) and brought Urías in as a bulk reliever in the top of the third.

Baseball is a game of thin margins, and rarely has that been more true than this Game 5, the decisive contest in a series between two teams that were separated by one game in the standings. Starting Knebel got Roberts (and the Dodgers brain trust with whom he communes) a few small advantages. It limited lefty-killer Darin Ruf—who in Game 5 hit a home run that landed in the Philippines, along with about 750 additional feet of deep fly ball outs—to two plate appearances against a left-handed pitcher. It also allowed the Dodgers to waste only one at-bat on a pitcher.

The Giants, by contrast, let Logan Webb take an inning-ending strikeout with two men on base in the second inning, and considering how well Webb pitched, they were wise to do so. Knebel and Brusdar Graterol allowed base runners, but no runs. Urías was outstanding, allowing Ruf’s moon shot but no further offense. And the back-end trio of Blake Treinen, Kenley Jansen, and Max Scherzer faced 10 batters in the last three innings, struck out six, and allowed only one to reach base (as the benefit of an error). The Dodgers weathered Webb and Ruf’s standout performances and won the game 2-1, and the series.

The opener in Game 5 of the NLDS: unqualified success. But by shortening Urías’s contribution, Roberts made his first unorthodox decision: using Scherzer for the save.

Had Urías gotten through the sixth inning of that game on his own, Roberts could have used Graterol to bridge to Treinen in the eighth and Jansen to close it out. Even with Graterol already spent, Roberts could’ve coaxed another couple outs from Treinen, who had thrown only 12 pitches. Or he could’ve handed the seventh inning to Phil Bickford or Joe Kelly.

Which kind of illustrates the problem. The Giants were one of the highest-scoring teams in the National League this year, and they also had an additional ineffable whiff of magic—the kind of magic that gives managers pause before mixing Kelly with the late high-leverage innings of a close playoff game. Scherzer is the best pitcher Roberts has, and the famously competitive three-time Cy Young winner was willing to chew his own nondominant hand off in order to get into this game. As much as the rest of this column will be about the deleterious downstream effects of not saving Scherzer, had Roberts used a different pitcher, and had said pitcher blown the lead while the Dodgers’ ace fidgeted in the bullpen, that would’ve been an even bigger story. Just ask Gerrit Cole about Game 7 of the 2019 World Series.

So it made all the sense in the world for Roberts to use Scherzer in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. But it came at a cost. Had Scherzer stayed on his normal schedule, he would’ve been in line to start Game 1 of the NLCS on four days’ rest. But even the 13 pitches he threw against San Francisco took him off his normal routine. Urías, who’d thrown 59 pitches, was likewise unavailable, as was Walker Buehler, who’d thrown 71 pitches on three days’ rest in Game 4.

So Roberts went with the opener again two days later, this time with Tony Gonsolin as the designated bulk guy. Knebel gave up a first-inning run on a wild pitch, and when Gonsolin caught too much of the plate on a fastball, Riley made like Janet Jackson and went deep.

Generally speaking, the opener was once again a success. Bickford struck out three of the four batters he faced; Roberts managed to get left-hander Justin Bruihl into the game to face Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman without having to leave him in against Ozzie Albies, a switch-hitter who crushes left-handed pitching; and the Dodgers got through seven innings without using Jansen or Treinen, and the game was tied 2-2. If Scherzer had done that, it would’ve been considered a victory. Treinen later gave up a walk-off single to Riley, but that doesn’t diminish Roberts’s tactical validation in Game 1.

The Dodgers’ pitcher usage in the past three games is the latest extension of a yearslong postseason trend: the gradual deterioration of traditional pitching roles in high-leverage situations. Gone are the days when you knew what inning it was by which pitcher was on the mound. Roberts, who took over the Dodgers before the 2016 season and has made the playoffs each year of his tenure, knows this better than anyone.

In Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS, Roberts ripped up the postseason blueprint. Starter Rich Hill lasted just 13 batters. Urías pitched two innings of scoreless relief. Jansen, as much of a one-inning relief specialist as you’ll find, threw 51 pitches before Clayton Kershaw came out of the bullpen to get the last two outs. A year later, Roberts lost the World Series to an Astros team that had almost no structure past its top two starters. In the decisive Game 7, Houston started Lance McCullers Jr. and used Charlie Morton in four innings of relief, reversing their roles from Game 7 of the previous series. In 2018, the Dodgers went to Game 7 in the NLCS against a Brewers team that reinvented its pitching staff on the fly. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell feinted and dodged in an attempt to prevent a more powerful opponent from landing the decisive blow. And when the Dodgers finally overcame Milwaukee, it was Kershaw who once again recorded the final out out of the bullpen.

In Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, Roberts brought Kershaw in for another relief appearance, wherein he surrendered a pair of home runs that let the Nationals back into the game. Washington went on to win the World Series by using its three top starters—Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin—to help bolster an undermanned bullpen. And in 2020, Roberts and the Dodgers finally broke through and won a title, thanks to Urías’s work as a multi-inning reliever.

There is no rotation anymore, there is only the next out, and Roberts—along with almost every other manager in the league—is willing to do whatever it takes to get it, down-the-line consequences be damned.

But the Dodgers’ Game 2 loss to Atlanta is the downside of that approach. When you rob Peter to pay Paul, sometimes Peter shows up at your house with a cricket bat with a nail through it, demanding repayment with interest.

Scherzer, pitching on two days’ rest after his NLDS-ending save, wasn’t 100 percent, a foreseeable consequence of riding a 37-year-old pitcher like a rented Chevy Cavalier. He lasted only 79 pitches and 4 1/3 innings and did not talk back or roll his eyes when Roberts came to get him (Scherzer said after the game that his arm was dead and that he knew after three innings that his night would be over soon).

Nevertheless, Atlanta starter Ian Anderson was no better, lasting three innings to Scherzer’s 4 1/3, and the Dodgers held a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth. The next five Atlanta hitters due up: Rosario, Freeman, Albies, Riley—a right-handed hitter with a giant reverse platoon split—and the left-handed Joc Pederson.

Treinen was already in the game, and though he isn’t routinely throwing multiple innings like he did with Oakland three years ago, he had thrown only nine pitches and could presumably have stayed in. Or Roberts could’ve called on Jansen an inning early and left the bottom half of the Atlanta order to a weaker reliever in the ninth. Or he could have brought in Bruihl, who had quite easily dispatched Rosario and Freeman the night before. Albies would’ve presented a major challenge, but with a two-run lead, Bruihl could’ve pitched around him and attacked Riley and Pederson if the switch-hitter reached.

Instead, Roberts called in Urías, his scheduled Game 4 starter. Earlier that evening, Roberts had lifted a starter early after he failed to recover fully from an unscheduled relief appearance. Just three innings later, Roberts was willing to invite exactly the same scenario later in the series. And to make matters worse, this unorthodox tactical decision backfired immediately. Urías, ordinarily one of the Dodgers’ most reliable postseason performers, surrendered the lead within six pitches. So not only did the Dodgers introduce an unnecessary variable into Urías’s preparation for Game 4, they lost Game 2 as a result. That’s if Urías is even available for Game 4—Roberts said Monday that depending on his preparation, Urías might not start until Game 5 now.

The Dodgers have been so aggressive using starters out of the bullpen in the past several seasons because they’re chasing every marginal advantage they can. But they’re also making the game less predictable by disrupting their starters’ preparation.

Imagine a confrontation between two unevenly matched opponents: a poker game, a schoolyard fight, or a sporting event. In any case, the weaker contestant—knowing that if they employ orthodox tactics they’ll likely lose—will try to make the confrontation as chaotic as possible. The poker player with worse cards might bluff, the smaller kid might hit below the belt, or the coach of the weaker team might break out trick plays. This is why service academy football teams run the triple option, why Villanova broke out the four corners offense against Georgetown in 1985, why Jacques Lemaire’s Devils employed the neutral zone trap. It’s been this way since the Battle of Marathon.

And in Game 5 of the NLDS, the Dodgers were arguably the weaker team. Particularly on the road, with Webb on the mound for the Giants, and with offense on both sides so difficult to come by. It made sense to get weird then.

But not now. The Dodgers were 17.5 games better than Atlanta in the regular season, and even without Muncy and Kershaw, they are the superior team on paper. Their rotation is stronger, their lineup is better, their bullpen is deeper. Under those circumstances, the smart play is to simplify the game, play it straight, and win by brute force.

Ironically, by playing like an underdog, the Dodgers have now become one. No baseball team is good enough to spot its opponent two games in a playoff series and still be considered the favorite. Now they’ll have to be even more creative if they want to get out of this hole.