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The Dodgers pitching plan worked, even though they lost Game 1 of the NLCS

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“I’ve learned to kind of soften on it,” Dave Roberts said of bullpen games. “Different isn’t always bad.”

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Atlanta Braves Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers used a bullpen game in Game 1 of the NLCS, a situation forced by circumstance. And though the move was unconventional, the gambit helped Los Angeles navigate through the Braves lineup effectively, and more importantly had the support of everyone involved.

Atlanta won Game 1 by taking advantage of the scant few opportunities they had, but the lack of Dodgers offense was a bigger factor in the 3-2 defeat.

“We didn’t not win the game because we didn’t prevent runs,” manager Dave Roberts said after the game. “We didn’t get the hits when we needed it.”

Max Scherzer would have been the choice to start Game 1 under usual circumstances, though things turned unusual when Scherzer was summoned to save Game 5 of the NLDS against the Giants on Thursday. With only one day of rest, Scherzer was unsure how effective he would be in a Saturday start, and that he wasn’t sure how long he could have pitched.

So Scherzer was pushed back to Game 2, with one more day of rest to provide what he described as “a full slate” in his start.

That opened the door for Corey Knebel to start his second straight postseason game. He allowed a run on a wild pitch, but even with that, Dodgers arms were effective. Eight Dodgers pitchers combined to allow three runs on six hits in 8⅓ innings, striking out 14 with no walks. That’s a winnable game.

Roberts said he’s come around on the idea of bullpen games, openers, using matchups over the years.

“I hated it. It wasn’t baseball,” Roberts told reporters in Atlanta before the game. “I like to see the starters, and starters go deep, but when you sit in this chair, you’re trying to win games. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter how appealing it is or what it is. The goal is to prevent runs on the pitching side.

“I’ve learned to kind of soften on it. Different isn’t always bad.”

Different got the Dodgers two different trips through the lefty-heavy top of the Braves batting order for their two left-handed relief pitchers. Both Justin Bruihl and Alex Vesia struck out Freddie Freeman, Atlanta’s most dangerous hitter.

Bruihl, just added to the roster on Saturday, retired all three batters he faced — all lefties — in his postseason debut, just 10 weeks after his major league debut. He was put into a situation with his best chance to succeed, and knew his role to a tee.

Getting buy-in from the players is crucial to any strategy, especially if it deviates even slightly from the norm. Scherzer said though he might not like such a move during the regular season, he’d be okay with following an opener during the playoffs.

“As players, all we want to do is win, so if you tell us this is going to help us win, yeah, we’re all on board. Let’s go for it,” Scherzer told reporters in Atlanta. “When you get down to elimination games, you get into postseason games, you do whatever it takes to win.”

In an ideal situation, the Dodgers would have a fourth starting pitcher to turn to in a game like this. Clayton Kershaw would have started on Saturday, for instance, if he was healthy. Or maybe in a season in which Tony Gonsolin didn’t spend two long stints on the injured list with shoulder inflammation, he might have been given a longer leash.

On Saturday, Roberts mentioned before the game 60 or more pitches for Gonsolin was possible. But after five hard-hit balls at least 96 mph in his seven batters faced, Gonsolin was pulled after 1⅔ innings. He only allowed one run — a rocket home run down the left field line by Austin Riley — but with the margin of error so thin in a close game, he wasn’t allowed to face Freeman.

The Dodgers were faced with plenty of non-ideal pitching situations in the second half of the season, with several pitchers on the injured list, and churning through relievers due to heavy reliance on the bullpen.

Los Angeles used an opener 15 times during the regular season, then again in each of the last two postseason games. Nearly half (eight of 17) of them featured a bulk pitcher following with at least three innings. Some, like Game 1, were more of a traditional bullpen game.

In those games, the Dodgers have used an average of 6.5 pitchers, compared to 4.5 in all other games. LA in these bullpen/opener games has a better ERA, lower walk rate, and higher strikeout rate.

Dodgers pitching plans, 2021

Pitching game Games W-L BB rate K rate ERA
Pitching game Games W-L BB rate K rate ERA
Bullpen/opener 17 11-6 (.647) 7.2% 29.1% 2.41
Traditional starter 152 99-53 (.651) 8.1% 26.8% 3.04

They are 11-6 (.647) in those games, many times doing the best with what they had available.

With the players on board, and a collaborative effort between the coaching staff and front office, it’s hard to say the pitching plans haven’t worked. At the very least, it’s worth appreciating the openness to think outside the box, even to try to gain the slightest edge.

“What got me and I think a lot of people into baseball is the players and the superstars in the game itself,” Roberts explained. “But the game within the game I think is something that I learned to appreciate more.

“I think that, for some reason, baseball fans are hesitant to hop on board of the game within the game. When you’re talking about an opener, or having relievers face certain parts of the lineup, that’s the game within the game, and dig on why that particular manager wants to use that pitcher in that lane instead of saying, ‘It’s stupid, I don’t like it, it’s not sexy to me.’ I mean, that just doesn’t make sense.”