This is the thing about trying to be the smartest guy in the room, or the smartest team in the game: When it doesn’t work out, the only ones you fool are yourselves. But sometimes you get a second chance.
The Dodgers, and ostensibly Dave Roberts, overthought their pitching plans for Game 7 of the National League Championship Series Sunday night. But they escaped, overaking the Braves in the late innings with the home run ball, winning 4-3 and qualifying for their third World Series in four seasons, as was expected of the team with baseball’s best regular season record.
This is part of baseball, 2020. Some folks are still having trouble with that concept, like the email correspondent who was convinced the Braves removed A.J. Minter from Friday’s game too soon. Mind you, it was widely heralded as a bullpen game, Minter hadn’t started a game since he was in college (before Tommy John surgery), and he threw 42 pitches in three innings and went longer than the Braves expected.
And it showed when he came back in Sunday’s Game 7. We’ll get to that later.
Then there was the note suggesting that Walker Buehler’s six-inning performance to keep the Dodgers alive in Saturday’s Game 6 was somehow lacking, that Buehler wimped out by only pitching through the sixth.
Again: This is modern baseball. Starting pitchers don’t pitch nine any more, or eight, and often not even seven. This isn’t 1965, and Sandy Koufax isn’t walking through that door to pitch a Game 7 on two days rest with a compromised elbow. (An elbow, we might add, that drove him to retirement a year later at age 30.)
Sometimes starting pitchers don’t even pitch two innings. This is where we get to overthinking.
It was Tony Gonsolin’s turn Sunday night, but his 4-2/3 innings in Game 2 – mainly the last inning and two-thirds – undoubtedly made Dave Roberts nervous. So he used Dustin May as an opener, even though May’s two innings in Game 5 weren’t any better. And May’s first nine pitches of the game were balls. He left trailing 1-0, Gonsolin started the second and gave up a homer to Dansby Swanson to make it 2-0, and Dodger fans were almost certainly cursing Roberts from their side of the TV screen.
It worked out, mainly because after some early concern about how the ball carries in Globe Life Field, the Dodgers figured it out. Kiké Hernández tied the game with a pinch-hit home run leading off the sixth, against Minter. Cody Bellinger untied it in the seventh with an absolute missile into the right field seats. And Mookie Betts made his daily highlight reel catch, robbing Freddie Freeman of a home run in the fifth.
And Julio Urias was the pitching hero, retiring the last nine hitters in order on 39 pitches and providing the perfect illustration of the quirks of baseball. Four nights after starting and throwing 101 pitches in L.A.’s 15-3 Game 3 win, Urias was dazzling in the late innings of Game 7. He looked like the phenom everyone expected when he first arrived in the big leagues in 2016.
For the deciding game of this series, the Dodgers and Braves pitching staffs resembled two heavyweights staggering to the center of the ring for the 12th round, possessing more will than energy. Postseason series scramble pitching staffs under normal circumstances. A series with seven straight days of play scrambled them even more, although we never did get to the point of aces coming out of the bullpen.
The narrative was that Braves rookie Ian Anderson baffled the Dodgers in Game 2. He did, but he only pitched four innings. Atlanta had to use six relievers in that game and had to hang on, 8-7.
Anderson only went four again in Game 7, followed by a parade of relievers. Meanwhile, after May and Gonsolin, Blake Treinen restored order in the fourth and got the side in order the fifth (thanks to Betts’ catch on Freeman), followed by Brusdar Graterol for an inning and Urias.
This was, you remember, a strategy that Roberts fooled around with late in the regular season, using an “opener” to match up with the top of the opposition’s batting order, then a “bulk” pitcher) to handle most of the innings before going to more conventional bullpen usage.
It’s entirely possible that this idea originated with Andrew Friedman and the deep thinkers in the front office and analytics department. When you have two traditional starters and guys who you are (kind of, sort of) confident in, this is the approach you use.
Which means we will be in for a lot more of the same in the World Series. Two organizations that Friedman built will be on stage Tuesday, and the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays popularized the “bullpen game” and the concept of, when possible, avoiding a pitcher going through the opposition batting order three times.
(Little known fact, however: The Rays didn’t invent the bullpen game. The Washington Senators did it in 1924 to win Game 7 of the World Series, with Hall of Famer Walter Johnson the closer. And, actually, the 1965 Dodgers used a bullpen game, on Sept. 4. Look it up on baseballreference.com.)
Trust me, there will be lots of second-guessable pitching decisions over the next week or so. And off of what he’s done so far in the postseason, Julio Urias probably will – and absolutely should – be right in the middle of them.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter