LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers bullpen has been a formidable weapon this postseason, ready and rested to be deployed in an aggressive fashion in October after a season of planning.
So far in the National League Championship Series, Dodgers relief pitchers have retired 24 of 25 batters faced, striking out nine. The only batter to reach base against the Dodgers bullpen was Anthony Rizzo, who was hit by a pitch by Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game 2.
Last year in the NLCS, Dodgers relief pitchers had a 4.76 ERA and allowed four home runs. They lost in six games.
So far this postseason, opposing batters are 8-for-65 against the Dodgers bullpen, with one home run, one double, one walk, one hit by pitch, and 19 strikeouts, hitting just .123/.149/.185. Dodgers relievers have a collective 1.37 ERA this postseason, after posting a 3.99 ERA in the previous four Octobers combined.
“They're just executing pitches and they're ready when called upon and they're competing,” Dave Roberts said. “Those guys know exactly what they want to do, and they're going out there and executing.”
Kenley Jansen is the one bullpen constant in this five-year playoff run for the Dodgers, but the problem has always been the bridge from the starting pitchers to get to him. At times in the last four years, that link has been more of a tightrope, but the current group is as fortified as they have ever been.
Dodgers playoff bullpens
Brandon Morrow signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers last winter, and by the second half established himself as the primary setup man. He has been excellent all year, with a 2.06 ERA, a 1.55 FIP and 50 strikeouts against just nine walks in 43⅔ innings. Opposing batters hit just .194/.241/.213 against him.
Morrow retired all six batters he faced in Game 2, on just 18 pitches, and has a 1.42 ERA in his 6⅓ innings. He allowed a three-run home run to Brandon Drury in Game 2 of the NLDS, the only home run allowed by the Dodgers bullpen this postseason, and the only home run allowed by Morrow all season.
“He's become obviously incredibly valuable,” Roberts said. “When you look at the stuff, the velocity is plus-plus, and the slider plus-plus. So now you take those components as far as the head, the preparation, the feel, and the pitch mix, that makes an elite back-end guy.”
The Dodgers acquired a pair of left-handers at the non-waiver trade deadline, snatching Tony Watson from the Pirates and Tony Cingrani from the Reds. Both Tonys have been excellent, with Cingrani holding left-handed batters to just .188/.212/.219 over the final two months and Watson limiting lefties to .212/.257/.394.
This postseason, lefties are 1-for-5 against Watson. Cingrani has retired all three batters he faced — all left-handed — and recorded four outs.
The final piece of the Dodgers bullpen puzzle was Kenta Maeda, the rug that really tied the entire room together. A starter by trade, Maeda has unleashed a fastball/slider combination out of the bullpen that has been death on right-handers. In seven relief appearances he has a 1.64 ERA, with 14 strikeouts and one walk in 11 innings.
In the playoffs, Maeda has retired all nine batters he faced, with four strikeouts.
“We saw a little bit of it this summer, and the stuff really played up,” Roberts said. “The credit goes to Kenta as far as buying in and understanding that every out in the postseason is important. So when he gets his opportunity, he's been light's out.”
Seizing the opportunity, and recognizing the importance of each out has led to aggressive use of the bullpen by Roberts, who has pulled his starting pitchers after four, five, five, and five innings in the last four games, with that group collectively allowing six runs in 19 innings in those starts.
“These playoff games, as we've seen throughout the entire playoffs, are completely their own animal,” said starter Rich Hill, who has allowed three runs in nine innings in his two starts this October, with 13 strikeouts. “You do whatever it takes to win that game. Depending on how many pitches that might be for the starter, for the bullpen, however we play the chess match moving forward throughout each game really is going to kind of depend on how the game is flowing.”
So far, Roberts has deftly guided through the October waters, which haven’t been choppy at all. Nothing will make a manager look better than when his bullpen gets outs, and the Dodgers have done that.
It sure beats leaving your best reliever in the bullpen, like the Cubs did with Wade Davis in Game 2, only to watch John Lackey surrender a walk-off bomb to Justin Turner.
Opposing batters hit .252/.316/.469 this season against Lackey, who surrendered a National League-high 36 home runs. Furthermore, Lackey has 469 career starts had just six relief appearances in his career. One of those bullpen outings came in Game 1 on Saturday, when Lackey recorded five outs. Sunday was the first time in his career that Lackey pitched on consecutive days.
Davis had a 2.30 ERA in 59 games for the Cubs this season, saved 32 games with 79 strikeouts `in 58⅔ innings. Opposing batters hit .186/.290/.310 against him.
“I really just needed [Davis] for the save tonight. He had limited pitches,” Maddon said. “It was one inning only, and in these circumstances you don't get him up and then don't get him in. So if we had caught the lead, he would have pitched. That's it.”
That was it for the game as well.
Meanwhile, Jansen and Morrow have each pitched in all five postseason games for the Dodgers so far, and will likely be relied on heavily for the duration of October as well. The regular season prepared them for this.
“There have been times you look back in the season and Kenley was down. As a manager, that's not a good feeling essentially to make that decision prior to the game that your closer's not going to pitch even in a save situation,” Roberts said. “But taking the long view, that's something that we believe as an organization.”
Eight different Dodgers recorded saves during the regular season.
Using Jansen as an example, a cursory glance at his usage might not tell the story. He pitched 68⅔ innings in 2016, and 68⅓ innings this year. Jansen faced 251 batters last year, and 258 batters in 2017. But the Dodgers were more careful with Jansen this year than last, knowing the reins would loosen come October.
In 2016, Jansen pitched on back-to-back days 21 times, including three times pitching on three straight days. In 2017, he was used on back-to-back days just 15 times, and never three days in a row.
“That was the plan,” Jansen said of his regular season. “But we know that this moment's going to come, and we know that I'm going to throw multiple innings, so I was ready for it.”
The entire bullpen was used similarly this year, relative to 2016. Last year, the club used a reliever three days in a row 20 different times, including Louis Coleman once on four straight days. In 2017, it happened just four times, and none after Memorial Day. In April, lefty specialist Luis Avilan pitched three days in a row twice, and Sergio Romo did it twice in May. That’s it.
“It's a long season. But the way you can execute that is when you have good players and you have depth in the pen,” Roberts said. “You look into that clubhouse, and guys that are active, and there are a lot of guys that aren't active on our roster that really played huge roles for us — eating innings for us, taking at-bats, playing innings in the field.
“The organizational philosophy was to not expend guys too much, understand we still have an extra month to play.”
So far, so good in that extra month.