Commentary: Dodgers channeling their inner Dave Roberts with aggressive NLCS baserunning

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Atlanta, GA - October 17: Los Angeles Dodgers' Mookie Betts, right, dives to steal second base.
Mookie Betts dives to steal second base as Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson jumps to catch a throw during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Dave Roberts played 844 games in the major leagues. He is remembered for one game, and one play in that game.

That is not a knock on Roberts. That is a tribute to a signature accomplishment.

A stolen base.

For one night, at least, the Dodgers took on the identity of their manager.

The Dodgers stole four bases Sunday, more than they had stolen in any game this season. In the end, it did not matter. The clutch hitting was close to nonexistent, all but one of the thieving baserunners stranded. Roberts was left to explain a series of questionable pitching decisions — some his, some organizational — rather than bask in any strategic glow.

The Atlanta Braves hung another loss on the Dodgers, this time by a 5-4 score. The Braves lead the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, two games to none.

Roberts might have a hard time making a major league roster today. He was about stealing bases and hitting for contact, not about the power hitting and shame-free strikeouts that define the modern game.

In 2006, Roberts stole 49 bases and did not rank among the top five in the majors. No one in the majors stole 49 bases this season.

In this regular season, the Dodgers ranked 17th in stolen bases. Their stolen-base totals for the each of the first three months of the season, in order: 10, seven, seven.

In the first eight games of this postseason, they have stolen 11 bases. It is what a team with Mookie Betts and Trea Turner should do, but Roberts said he would not hesitate to send any player in the right situation, even if he might not have asked that player to steal in the same situation during the regular season.

“If the situation calls for it, it wouldn’t be crazy to see Corey Seager steal a base, absolutely,” Roberts said.

Seager did not steal a base Sunday. Neither did Turner, who went 0 for 5.

Betts stole two. Gavin Lux stole one. Chris Taylor stole one. No one was thrown out trying to steal.

“In the postseason where things are more magnified,” Roberts said, “you just can’t be afraid to fail. I just think that careful in the postseason doesn’t play.”

Better pitching means fewer chances to score, and that means every offensive opportunity is critical.

Playing for a single run can mean a sacrifice bunt, except most modern players do not bunt often or well enough to justify the risk in October.

If the Dodgers field a starting lineup that excludes Taylor, all the position players in that lineup would have delivered a grand total of zero sacrifice bunts this season.

Playing for a single run also can mean a stolen base.

“I can’t live in a world of, ‘If it works, it’s a great decision,’” Roberts said.

As any contemporary front office executive likes to recite: it’s about the process, not the results. But here’s the thing: the results are surprisingly good.

With teams generally prioritizing pitch calling, pitch framing, pitch blocking and offense as desired skills for catchers, arm strength can be lacking.

The Dodgers have stolen 11 bases this postseason, with no one caught stealing. Among all postseason teams, runners have stolen 27 of 29 bases, a success rate of 93%.

Dave Roberts slides home to score the tying run against the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
Dave Roberts slides home to score the tying run against the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

In this NLCS, the Dodgers’ problem has been getting runners home, not getting them on base. The Dodgers with runners in scoring position: one for 10 Sunday, two for 18 in the series.

Sunday marked the 17th anniversary of the great Roberts stolen base, the one that sparked the Boston Red Sox to a comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series and, the following week, to their first World Series championship in 86 years.

The base itself is prominently preserved in a display case at Fenway Park.

Of course, Roberts did not score on his stolen base. If Bill Mueller does not drive in Roberts with a single, that stolen base is long forgotten.

On Sunday, the official Twitter account of Major League Baseball commemorated the anniversary of what it breathlessly called “the greatest comeback in baseball history” by hyping Roberts — oops, nope, by hyping David Ortiz.

Ortiz hit the walk-off home run in the 12th inning, but the game does not get to extra innings unless Roberts steals second base in the ninth inning, then scores the tying run.

All respect to Ortiz, but that game will forever be remembered as the Roberts game.

The difference between Roberts as a Boston immortal and Roberts as an answer at trivia night at “Cheers”: the Red Sox roared back to win the league championship series, then the World Series.

The Red Sox came back from a three-game deficit to win the league championship series. The Dodgers need only come back from a two-game deficit to win the league championship series.

That is about all that can pass for a positive Dodgers development. The Dodgers can run on the bases all they want, but the Braves are running away with the series.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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