New World Series, same problem: Dodgers’ convoluted pitching plans backfire in Game 2 loss
ARLINGTON, Texas — They won 72% of their games this season, are appearing in their third World Series in four years and feature what seems like a bottomless trough of talent. Objectively, in both a short-and long-term sense, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best baseball has to offer.
So as casual viewers tuned into Game 2 of the World Series and saw a parade of pitchers head to the mound, only to get yanked, touched for a run or two here, slowly watching the game slip away and control of the series tilt back toward the Tampa Bay Rays, it was fair to wonder:
The best team in baseball can’t do any better than this?
The Dodgers tossed seven pitchers at the Rays, partly out of necessity but mostly by design, and almost all of them got nicked by a team that for the last eight games has been offensively impotent, coming nowhere near the 10 hits and six runs they produced Wednesday night.
The Rays won the game, 6-4, gladly taking advantage of the “Opener” strategy they largely pioneered, one meant to mitigate deficiencies for pitching- or revenue-poor teams.
Yet these are the Dodgers, with payrolls annually north of $200 million, with a Hall of Famer in Clayton Kershaw and a playoff-tested fireballer in Walker Buehler and …
And that’s where this franchise makes you scratch your head.
In the off-season, the club jettisoned stalwart starters like Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Hyun-jin Ryu, and traded useful swingman Ross Stripling midseason. All reasonable moves: The Dodgers couldn’t have known a pandemic would wreak havoc on the season and that projected No. 3 starter David Price would exercise his right to opt out of it.
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They placed some faith in young starters Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin, and May was more than serviceable, throwing as many as 88 pitches in a game, producing a 2.09 ERA as a starter and 1.09 overall WHIP.
Yet, come playoff time, the Dodgers envisioned a different assignment for May: Put out fires. Attack the opposition’s most potent batters, regardless of inning. Relinquish the role of traditional starter in service of covering perceived deficiencies in the Dodgers bullpen.
It’s a fine idea in a best-of-three or best-of-five series, and the Dodgers went 5-0 in steamrolling the Brewers in the wild-card round and Padres in the NL Division Series to reach the NL Championship Series.
But in the best-of-seven format, the Dodgers, unsurprisingly, have been a starting arm or two short.
They fought gallantly out of a 3-1 hole against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, but at the expense of putting May and Gonsolin in compromising positions.
Gonsolin had not pitched in two weeks when he was summoned to start after Kershaw suffered back spasms before Game 2. May, meanwhile, saw his viability out of the bullpen diminish with each outing.
Dustin May reacts after giving up a two-run homer to Brandon Lowe in the fifth inning. (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)
He has pitched six times in the postseason, no stint longer than two innings, and his baserunners allowed keep spiking: zero, one, three, five, three, and finally, Wednesday night, when he allowed four hits to the Rays but recorded just four outs.
Three of the four hits scored, the last a two-run, fifth inning homer from Brandon Lowe, who earlier in the game took Gonsolin deep. The shot off May provided the winning margin and left manager Dave Roberts in a familiar position but with a different theme, trying to explain away a different sort of playoff pitching shortfall.
“They understand every out we get is important,” Roberts said when asked about the spots in which organization has put May, 23, and Gonsolin, 26. “So that’s probably a question for them.”
Ramping May down from starter to reliever was an organizational choice, one that helped navigate the early-round waters that sunk them in a five-game NLDS loss to the Washington Nationals in 2019.
It is a pattern with the club, one that began with Julio Urias, who debuted as a 19-year-old in 2016. The club handled him carefully then, and understandably so, yet four years later, Urias remains a premium talent with an undefined role, a situation Roberts has acknowledged bothers the lefty on occasion.
He was arguably the Dodgers’ most important pitcher in the NLCS, covering five innings in a must-win Game 3 start, and then coming back on three days’ rest to pitch the final three innings, allowing no hits, to claim Game 7, after which Roberts said the kid gloves are coming off.
Yet that offered Urias no defined role in this World Series. He was just another guy in the bullpen during Game 2, likely to be used if Gonsolin and May and the bats carried them into the middle innings with a lead.
A Game 2 win, and the Dodgers could all but go for the kill in Game 3 with Buehler.
Instead, they made World Series history in the weirdest way, becoming the first club to use seven pitchers who all recorded at least three outs.
That's one way to do it, and though every arm on the Dodger staff is quality, the chances of them all executing seamlessly seems far more remote than leaning on a defined starter, with bullpen arms in reserve.
"That’s a tough one," said Lowe, who was 6-for-56 (.107, with a .180 OBP) this postseason before his multi-homer performance. "I don’t know that facing three guys or facing seven guys really changes, with the arsenals in that bullpen, in that staff.
"They’ve got guys that are extremely good pitchers, and I don’t think facing two of them or facing seven of them is going to change the outcome."
Nonetheless, the Rays and Dodgers are all square after two games, this Series following the same pattern as their seven-game loss to the Houston Astros in 2017: Win Game 1 behind Kershaw, lose a Game 2 filled with non-traditional pitching maneuvers.
On that night, it was lifting Hill after four innings, 61 pitches and just one run. A caravan of four relievers could only get them through the seventh inning, forcing closer Kenley Jansen into a two-inning save.
That night they were a pitch short, ultimately finishing one win shy of a title. In 2020, they are, from a manpower standpoint, better than the Rays relative to the toe-to-toe battle the Astros presented.
Yet their plight is the same: 1-1 going forward, leaning again on Kershaw in a Game 5, facing a similar bullpenning game in what could be a crucial Game 6.
At least Urias knows his role now: Roberts said he’ll start Game 4.
It’s a simple decision. That’s probably too rare an occurrence for an organization that’s the envy of baseball, yet somehow manages to get in its own way.
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