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Did Dave Roberts' pitching decisions put the Dodgers behind the eight ball in the NLCS?

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After the Los Angeles Dodgers came up maddeningly short for the second straight night in the National League Championship Series, Dave Roberts and Max Scherzer each ventured to the podium with some explanation for a pitching roadmap that has felt increasingly inscrutable.

Scherzer — the world-beating ace and midseason trade acquisition — started Sunday’s NLCS Game 2 against the Atlanta Braves, instead of Game 1, to gain extra recovery time after closing the Dodgers’ do-or-die NLDS Game 5 triumph over the San Francisco Giants. Even with that extra day, he lasted only 79 pitches, leaving a tie game with one out in the fifth and explained afterward that his arm still felt dead.

After Scherzer exited, three relievers ferried the game safely to the eighth inning without allowing a run as the Dodgers grabbed a 4-2 lead. Then, with six outs to procure, Roberts turned not to another bullpen arm, but to planned Game 4 starter Julio Urías — who was himself working on two days' rest having pitched four innings of that NLDS Game 5. 

It didn’t work. 

That brings us to Roberts. Sitting at the same microphone where Scherzer had explained the physical challenges of his start, Roberts insisted Urias would still be good to go in Wednesday’s Game 4. Predictably, that certainty eroded in less than 24 hours.

If Urías can’t pitch, or is limited, the same bullpen Roberts apparently didn’t trust to complete its usual assignment — late-game outs in one-inning bursts — could be asked to cover vast swaths of a game with elimination in the offing. It could mean that a team already in a 2-0 NLCS hole is at risk of entering a must-win Game 4 with none of its trusted starters fully ready to go.

Unconventional or counterintuitive doesn’t equal bad in the postseason. Far from it. But the Dodgers’ 0-2 hole looks far more dire in large part because of how those starters have been thrust into action. Is this a case of sound strategy hitting a snag, or one of tactical overdrive steering a finely tuned machine toward the ditch?

Are the Dodgers overthinking the pitching plan?

As Scherzer or Urías would attest, the deployment of top starters in relief situations is anything but a non-starter in the playoffs these days. On the contrary, it’s downright trendy.

The Dodgers successfully rolled with an opener in that crucial Game 5. The 2018 Boston Red Sox and 2019 Washington Nationals won rings by leveraging deep starting rotations and October’s regular off days to paper over less reliable bullpens. Mixing and matching up is par for the course.

Still, the decision to use Urías in that Game 2 setup spot deserves some scrutiny because of the taxing ripple effects. The Dodgers may now roll two bullpen games in the four games of the NLCS, alongside a shortened Scherzer start and one fully rested Walker Buehler outing that’s coming in Tuesday’s crucial Game 3 (which the Dodgers are -175 favorites to win at BetMGM).

That’s particularly worrisome considering how comparatively on rhythm the Braves have managed to keep their best arms. Max Fried has gone six innings in each of his postseason starts — including Game 1. And Charlie Morton, set to face off with Buehler on Tuesday night, will be on extra rest this time after going 3 1/3 frames on short rest when the Braves eliminated the Milwaukee Brewers.

In a postseason where starters are eating fewer innings than ever — 4.06 frames on average, per FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe — the Braves have gotten three six-inning starts and saved their bullpen for nights like Sunday when their starter doesn’t have it.

Roberts, pushing back on criticism of the Urías move, has countered that the Dodgers would be looking at a bullpen game in either Game 4 or Game 5 regardless. Since they lost Clayton Kershaw before the postseason, they have been rolling with only three real starters, preferring not to expose Tony Gonsolin to the full starting experience. 

But for a team down 2-0, Game 5 is not guaranteed to exist. So let’s examine just how worthwhile the Urias gambit was.

Did using Julio Urias in Game 2 make sense?

There are three main reasons starters are pressed into relief duty:

Tactical plays to win an advantage: This is the opener idea. Sometimes switching the pitcher’s handedness early in the game can back an opposing lineup into difficult situations, as Roberts demonstrated against the Giants. Game 2 against the Braves was not one of those cases.

Scant reliable bullpen options: This was the catalyst for other recent teams to pull their starters into duty. That isn’t the case for the Dodgers. They had the second best bullpen in the game in 2021 by ERA and adjusted ERA. That remained true of the September iteration that most closely resembles the playoff roster. Batters mustered only a .188 batting average against Los Angeles relievers in the season’s final month.

In that Game 2, the Dodgers had just run out a bullpen game the night before, but the duo of games were sandwiched between off days. Justin Bruihl, a lefty like Urias, had thrown a perfect inning in Game 1 (15 pitches, 11 of them strikes) and was presumably available for work that night. Closer Kenley Jansen only got into the game with the winning run in scoring position, and saw his margin for error evaporate in one pitch.

Moments of finality: Roberts’ previous postseason exploits paint a good picture of when starters are most reasonably pushed to bullpen action. Elimination games where extra innings could become needed — which was the case when Scherzer began warming in Game 5. Or tight contests where top relievers have always been expended, like the NLDS Game 5 where he used Kershaw to relieve a spent Jansen a few years back.

The other strong play is to use a starter to drive a stake into the opponent, rendering the future ripple effects irrelevant. That was the case when Urias came in for one spin through the lineup to close out the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 World Series. And over in the AL side of the bracket, that is how Red Sox manager Alex Cora used Nick Pivetta, for instance, locking down the ALDS and winning him a lengthy recuperation before he had to return to starting.

The idea is for rotation stalwarts to build a bridge, not the whole road.

Game 2 was none of those things. Even if the Dodgers win the game, using Urias forces them to scramble for answers down the line — and perhaps exacerbate the bullpen crunch if Urias experiences the same sort of aftereffects as Scherzer. 

It may yet work out, of course. The Dodgers remain uber-talented regardless of which arms are tired — but that almost proves the point. With a roster this fully stuffed, they may have overcomplicated their ultimate path to victory in a moment that did not call for desperation.

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