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Dodgers will start Corey Knebel, not Julio Urías, in Game 5

Knebel was used as an opener four times during the regular season

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

Trying to close out the National League Division Series, the Dodgers are using an opener in Game 5 against the Giants. Presumably.

Right-hander relief pitcher Corey Knebel will start for the Dodgers on Thursday night, not left-hander Julio Urías. Knebel will be used as an opener, a choice that manager Dave Roberts said was a collaborative one.

“It’s from all the way to the tippy top of the Dodger organization on down,” Roberts said. “It was a decision that we all made together.”

In Game 2, Gabe Kapler stacked the Giants lineup with seven right-handed position players, with shortstop Brandon Crawford the only starting left-handed bat.

Perhaps it’s not as simple as handedness. Maybe the Dodgers prefer Knebel face particular hitters, and lining him up in the first inning ensures that more than perhaps later in the game, should pinch-hitters be introduced.

But it’s worth noting that both Urías and Knebel have done better against opposite hands both this year and in their careers. But perhaps most notably, there isn’t much of a difference in either split. It might be different if, say, Phil Bickford were the choice, trying to get him facing more right-handers (.251 wOBA) than lefties (.290), with the caveat of a small sample size.

Handedness splits, by wOBA

Pitcher 2021 v. RHP Career v. RHP 2021 v. LHP Career v. LHP
Pitcher 2021 v. RHP Career v. RHP 2021 v. LHP Career v. LHP
Urías LHP .274 .273 .263 .294
Knebel RHP .245 .311 .213 .269
Source: FanGraphs

Knebel started four games as an opener, twice pitching only the first inning and recording five and six outs in his other such appearances. In those games, Knebel allowed one run on six hits in 5⅔ innings, with four strikeouts and no walks.

Knebel last pitched in Game 2 of the NLDS, so he’s on four days rest heading into Thursday night. The right-hander has retired all four batters he’s faced this postseason, with three strikeouts. Two of those strikeouts came against the Giants, and both were left-handed batters, Tommy La Stella and Alex Dickerson.

The timing is a little odd, considering most of the last two days talked about how much the Dodgers were looking forward to Urías pitching in Game 5.

“I don’t think we could have any more confidence in someone going than we do in Julio on whatever day it is,” Walker Buehler said Tuesday night.

Or maybe whatever inning it is.

Roberts said the choice to start Knebel and have Urías pitch afterward was made on Wednesday afternoon, by a group that included Mark Prior, Knebel, and Urías.

“The two biggest players were Cory Knebel and Julio Urias, because if we felt that they felt uncomfortable in any way, we wouldn’t do this,” Roberts said Thursday. “We weren’t tied to this at all.”

While the first instinct is that the Dodgers are overthinking this just a bit, it’s worth noting that Urías doesn’t seem to be rattled by much. He proved his mettle in last postseason, starting, pitching in bulk relief, and closing out the final two series.

“This year I think he just continued to build on that experience, that confidence,” Roberts said Wednesday. “It’s kind of propelled him to this season to just be an outstanding performer all year for us.”

Urías also pitched following an opener in Game 3 of last year’s NLDS. Dustin May pitched a scoreless first, then Adam Kolarek ran into trouble in the second, facing seven batters while only recording two outs. Instead of entering in a clean inning, Urías came into a mess with the bases loaded and two outs, down 2-1. The unflappable left-hander struck out Fernando Tatis Jr. to finish the frame, then pitched five innings, allowing only an unearned run in the Dodgers closeout win.

It just seems a little odd after a season in which all 33 appearances by Urías were starts. But playoff baseball can be weird sometimes.

“You can’t do a job for fear of failure or potential criticism. I think you have to do your job, giving whatever you feel is the best way to win the game,” Roberts said. “It does open us up for potential criticism, which I’m imagining is already out there. But I feel great that we’re all aligning as an organization, and the players are with us in lockstep.

“The bottom line is we still have to go out there, executive and make pitches.”