I don’t fault the Dodgers for deciding to go with Clayton Kershaw on three days rest in Game 4. It’s better than relying on Alex Wood, right? And you can complain about how they didn’t go get a better third starter — as though the injuries to Brandon McCarthy or Hyun-jin Ryu never happened, or that David Price hasn’t been a playoff mess of his own, or that Johnny Cueto hasn’t scared the hell out of Royals fans, or that any of it would have been possible without surrendering Corey Seager — but that’s really not relevant right now. All you can do is go with what you’ve got. What the Dodgers have right now is the best pitcher on earth, not fully rested, and with a growing history of playoff failures.
So while the narrative about Kershaw grows, carefully balanced between ignoring how fantastic he usually is before losing it at the end against the fact that this keeps happening, it’s important to have a game plan tonight. As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty simple:
- Don’t push him further than is realistic.
- Don’t force the first reliever up into an impossible situation.
- Don’t let this series end with Kenley Jansen throwing one inning.
Let’s take those in order.
1. Get your 15-18 outs and get the hell out of there. Look, I know Kershaw is “your ace” and “he’s the guy you want to win/lose with” and whatever other memes you can come up with, but none of that matters now. We’ve seen what happens when Kershaw loses the script. We know what happens when he tires in the playoffs. We saw it in Game 1. We’ve seen it in previous Octobers. Don’t push your luck. Just don’t.
2. Put your reliever in a spot he can work with. In the aftermath of Game 1, much of the discussion was about whether Mattingly should have gone to Chris Hatcher or Yimi Garcia or someone else rather than Pedro Baez. But the truth is, no matter who was selected, he was entering a situation with the bases loaded, David Wright up, and Yoenis Cespedes on deck. That’s a no-win scenario for anyone, particularly if worries about passed balls prevent you from throwing breaking pitches, making your fastballs too predicable.
Baez didn’t get hit hard — Wright’s hit was only 85 mph off the bat — but with no margin for error, his well-placed hit got through. It’s the kind of situation where only a strikeout will do, and even if you had brought in Jansen there (which no manager would do), 60% of the plate appearances against Jansen don’t end in whiffs. This is obviously not entirely on the manager; Kershaw needs to do better towards avoiding these situations. But man, was that a no-win spot for Baez.
3. Use your best reliever. Me, one week ago today:
In fact, with a whole lot of questions up and down the pitching staff outside of Jansen, Clayton Kershaw, and Zack Greinke (depending on how you feel about Chris Hatcher‘s late-season resurgence), and days off between Games 2 & 3 and Games 4 & 5, there’s really no excuse to not use Jansen as much as possible.
Guess how many innings Jansen has pitched in the first three games: One, closing out Game 2’s 5-2 win. Now, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, because again no manager in the world puts his closer in the seventh inning (Game 1), and last night’s Game 3 was such a mess that there was really no point in using him and risk having him unavailable for tonight.
Now you have him fully rested in an all-hands-on-deck situation. Barring a massive early blowout in one direction or the other, you absolutely have to use him, even if it’s not a save situation. Now you know as well as I do that this isn’t going to happen — that he’s going to be watching idly by as J.P. Howell or Luis Avilan gives it up in a huge spot. But still. We can at least get the words down.
Presumably, every pitcher other than Brett Anderson, Wood, and Zack Greinke should be available tonight. Get five innings, six at the most, from Kershaw, and get him out of there. Trust Hatcher. Avoid Baez. Get four or five outs from Jansen if you need to. Don’t be a hero. Don’t push Kershaw too far just because he’s competitive and he wants to.
It’s possible that there’s no right combination of buttons to push tonight, as hard as that is to swallow. But we’ve seen what doesn’t work. Kershaw being pushed beyond his limits on short rest doesn’t work. There are options. Use them. Please. (Oh, and it’d be nice if the offense could actually support their ace, and I imagine Yasiel Puig & Justin Ruggiano start in the outfield tonight against Steven Matz. That’d be nice too. But that’s a separate conversation.)