I know better than to write the Dodgers’ eulogy now. We’re just where we’ve been before. The series should be over, and if it wasn’t for Cody Bellinger guessing right on a high fastball on Tuesday, it would be. The Braves’ 9-2 win in Game 4 only makes it 3-1, which is exactly where they were against the Dodgers last October. You may have forgotten, because it was such a weird set-up and we’re all trying to erase 2020 from our minds. This time around, the Dodgers would have to win two games on the road instead of three in a neutral venue, which is certainly not beyond them. But this one feels a bit different. The Braves have Max Fried lined up for Game 5, the Dodgers don’t have any idea who will start, and they’ve been burning through their pen already.
Once again, a starter that manager Dave Roberts just had to use out of the pen came back flaccid for his start the next time out. First it was Max Scherzer in Game 2, who willingly came out of the game in the 5th. Normally, any attempt to pull Scherzer out of the fifth inning of a game would involve hostage negotiators.
Julio Urias came into the 8th inning of that Game 2, promptly blowing the Dodgers’ lead. Which didn’t make Roberts hesitate to bring Urias in to start three days later for Game 4. Urias got worked for five runs in five innings, watching his fastball get whacked pretty heavily all over the park (97.5 MPH average exit velocity). The Dodgers could only paw at making it a game from there, before Tony Gonsolin came in to the 9th to tip the fireworks launch-tubes onto their side and make a real mess.
Again, as I’ve written before, this was a 106-win team that got there with a former MVP in Cody Bellinger caught in a feedback loop and various injuries. This was not a team that needed patching over weaknesses in the playoffs where they can get exposed. It did not need its pen shoved aside for starters working roles outside of their usual job description to prove how smart Roberts is. The Dodgers were one of the first teams, if not the first, that used their minor league shuttle bus to keep rotating in and out relievers to come in, throw cheese for a couple weeks, and then cycle out again to be replaced by yet another slob throwing smoke.
To cover my bases (apt metaphor, don’t you think?), the Dodgers could still score 38 runs in the next three games and give the Braves more Joy Division material for the second straight year. But if they don’t, what will people say about Roberts? More importantly, what will the Dodgers FO think?
It seems Roberts has always had an excuse to run to when the Dodgers fall short. In 2016 they lost to a better Cubs team. In 2017 they lost by a whisker to an Astros team that was... cheating. The Red Sox were superior in 2018. 2019...well, who could have seen Howie Kendrick coming?
And when it wasn’t those safe havens for Roberts, it was Clayton Kershaw who took most of the bullets. Whether or not he was a playoff choker, as Roberts bounced him from start to relief appearance year after year. But Kershaw isn’t around this time.
Did Roberts cost the Dodgers this series, should they lose one more game? No, not totally. Their situational hearing would be first on the list. But that can come and go. The Dodgers foundation was its rotation, and that they could count on quality starts almost every night. Roberts kneecapped Scherzer and Urias from providing those.
The argument for Scherzer will be that losing to the Giants would have been a special sting. The counter is that losing in the Division Series or LCS makes no difference to the Dodgers, when winning the World Series is the only acceptable outcome. And he went to Scherzer in a Game 5 after a day off and a Game 4 win that saw no reliever throw more than 20 pitches. Elimination games remove considering tomorrow in any decision. But that doesn’t mean Scherzer was necessary.
It would be awfully harsh on Roberts if he were to lose his job over this, but the margin of error for the Dodgers is smaller than any other team in baseball, and perhaps in sports. The roster is turn-key. It will win 100 games or more with a glass of orange juice as manager. It’s 162 practice games until October. This is what they have to get right. When Roberts has had to negotiate seven months, instead of just three, he’s found a way to not finish the job.
Kershaw isn’t around to deflect this year. Roberts has nowhere to hide.