The Los Angeles Dodgers will attempt to keep their World Series hopes alive on Thursday night when they take on the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The Dodgers trail the Braves in the best-of-seven series by a 3-1 margin, meaning another loss will trigger their elimination.
The old saying in baseball is that momentum is as good as the next day's starting pitcher. What happens, then, when the team in question forgoes a starting pitcher? The Dodgers, by all accounts, intend to do just that by running a bullpen game.
The Dodgers have strayed from the traditional starting pitcher model a few times already this postseason. In Game 5 of the Division Series, they had Corey Knebel "open" before handing the reins to Julio Urías, who delivered four innings as the "bulk" pitcher. Then, in the first game of the NLCS, the Dodgers had Knebel "open" as part of a Johnny Wholestaff approach: none of the eight pitchers manager Dave Roberts called upon that night recorded as many as six outs on their own.
The Dodgers would seem to be without a "bulk" pitcher entering Game 5. Roberts used Tony Gonsolin to mop up late in Game 4, limiting if not outright eliminating his availability. Meanwhile, the Dodgers can't realistically ask Max Scherzer to return on short rest given he's been dealing with a dead arm that delayed his series debut. Walker Buehler, the Dodgers starter in Game 3, would also seem off limits.
So, who is available for the Dodgers?
The Dodgers have nine non-Gonsolin relievers on their roster. Only two of them appeared in Wednesday's contest: righty Phil Bickford threw 21 pitches and lefty Justin Bruihl threw five. Both also appeared in Tuesday's contest, with Bickford throwing an additional 13 pitches then. Bruihl threw 14 pitches of his own, but his (comparatively) light workload makes him more likely to appear in Game 5.
With that in mind, Roberts has the following eight relievers to mix and match with:
How might Roberts manage his staff? Let's spotlight four possible dynamics.
1. Knebel (probably) goes first
It stands to reason the Dodgers will have Knebel pitch the first inning. He's done so twice already this postseason. In Game 5 of the NLDS, he held the San Francisco Giants scoreless. In Game 1 of this series, he surrendered a run. The difference between those occasions and Thursday night is that Roberts will likely allow Knebel to work past the first inning, provided his results allow for it.
Roberts has not used Knebel for more than three outs this month. During the regular season, however, Roberts had Knebel notch at least four outs on four occasions, including a Sept. 3 "open" in which he threw two scoreless frames. That particular game was the only time this year Knebel threw more than 30 pitches.
2. Bridge to Vesia
The Braves, by virtue of having the weakest bench among remaining clubs, are locked into starting players with wide platoon splits, like Eddie Rosario and Joc Pederson. Factor in how Freddie Freeman is also worse against southpaws, and Roberts has to know going in that he can leverage those three unfavorable matchups by using Viesa (and perhaps Bruihl, though he's shown less confidence in him this series).
With the exception of Game 4, started by the left-handed Urías, Atlanta manager Brian Snitker has batted Rosario first, Freeman second, and Pederson fifth. Presuming that remains the case on Thursday, the optimal time to use Vesia might be at the start of the second time through the order -- that way he can face all three of those left-handed batters within a five-batter span. (The same entry point would make sense for Bruihl, but again, it's unclear if Roberts will employ him at all).
If Knebel opens and all goes well for an inning or two, Vesia's optimal entry point could come as late as the third inning. Of course, if Knebel experiences some turbulence, or if Roberts isn't committed to letting him go beyond an inning, then the Dodgers might have to turn to Graterol or Kelly to bridge the gap.
3. Jansen and Treinen for three-plus?
So far, this exercise has been worked in chronological order, from the game's start through the third or fourth inning. Working backward also makes sense in these cases. You can bet your bottom dollar that Roberts is open to having his top late-game relievers, Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen, combine for at least nine outs in Game 5.
Jansen has made 14 career postseason appearances in which he recorded more than three outs. He's gone at least two innings in seven of those. Thursday is the perfect opportunity to add to one, if not both of those statistics.
Treinen, for his part, has recorded 13 regular-season and two postseason outings this year in which he's pitched across innings. He completed two innings multiple times last October, suggesting Roberts trusts him to do so when it's necessary.
Unless the Dodgers have a significant lead heading into the late innings, it seems probable that the seventh inning onward will belong to Jansen and Treinen alone. And who knows, Roberts might pull the trigger an inning earlier if the situation calls for it.
4. Between the dust and the stars
Based on the points above, the Dodgers' inning-by-inning blueprint could look something like this:First: KnebelSecond: Knebel and/or GraterolThird: Graterol and/or VesiaFourth-sixth: Kelly and TBDSeventh: TreinenEighth: Treinen and JansenNinth: Jansen
The previous subheads have laid out the first and last three-plus innings. There's still a chunk of the game in which Roberts will likely turn to Joe Kelly and/or Graterol (if he hasn't already been used in conjunction with Knebel and Vesia by then).
The true challenge for Roberts will lie in those areas that might be left uncovered by his most trusted arms. How much confidence does Roberts have in Phillips and Bruihl? Would Roberts just as soon bring back Bickford on back-to-back-to-back days? Or will Roberts risk overexposing his trusted arms by asking them to do more?
It's worth noting that Phillips and Bruihl have been better against lefties in their careers (though Phillips has a gnarly 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio against southpaws). The catch is that Atlanta's lefty batters -- Rosario, Freeman, Pederson -- are the hitters Roberts would least likely want to entrust to an untested hand.
Game 5, then, is going to test Roberts' discipline as well as his pitchers' execution and his bullpen's depth. The Dodgers will have to ace those tests on all fronts; otherwise, their season will end on Thursday -- and this time there won't be a parade.