Knebel opens Game 5 for LA; Giants counter

October 15th, 2021

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a surprise move just hours before first pitch, the Dodgers announced on Thursday that they were starting right-hander in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Giants, and not left-hander as was originally planned.

The decision is definitely a shocker, but one the Dodgers made strictly based on strategy and not due to an Urías injury. Knebel will serve as the team’s opener, and Urías will likely come in after to pitch the bulk of the innings.

“Corey's a guy that I expected to pitch tonight, and just changing up when he pitches is a part of it,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who sent a courtesy text to Giants manager Gabe Kapler on Wednesday night to inform him of his team’s decision. “The Giants have been a tremendous ballclub all year, and just speaking to the offensive side, they have been the best team in baseball as far as getting matchup advantages, platoon advantages. This ... potentially gives us some matchups going forward through the game.”

After making 32 starts this season, this will be the first time Urías comes in behind an opener in 2021. He isn’t a stranger to coming out of the bullpen, however, as the Dodgers deployed a similar strategy with Urías in Game 3 of the 2020 NLDS against the Padres. Knebel also has experience as an opener, making four starts this season, including two scoreless innings on Sept. 3 against the Giants.

Why are the Dodgers doing this?
No team in baseball plays matchups quite like the Giants, who regularly sub players into and out of the lineup depending on whether they’re facing a left-hander or a right-hander. Had Urías started, Kapler would’ve loaded his starting lineup with right-handed hitters. Then, when Urías got the hook, Kapler would’ve executed what he calls a “line change,” inserting a number of lefty bench pieces -- Mike Yastrzemski, Steven Duggar and Tommy La Stella among others. Almost all of the Dodgers' top relievers are right-handed.

By starting Knebel, Los Angeles is doing its best to neutralize that strategy -- to force the Giants into some tricky decisions before the game.

If San Francisco stuck with its Game 2 lineup, the righty Knebel would’ve faced a handful of right-handers. Instead, the Giants tweaked their lineup plans a bit. The Dodgers are certainly taking a big gamble in not starting Urías, who has been one of their best pitchers this season. If the move doesn’t work out, it could be the end of the Dodgers’ season.

How do the Giants counter?
“It's understandable,” Kapler said of the move. “I don't think it was unexpected. Certainly changes the way we were thinking about today's game, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

So what, specifically, changes? Here’s the Game 5 lineup:

Tommy La Stella, 2B (left-handed hitter)
Darin Ruf, LF
Buster Posey, C
Brandon Crawford, SS (LHH)
Kris Bryant, CF
Mike Yastrzemski, RF (LHH)
Wilmer Flores, 1B
Evan Longoria, 3B
Logan Webb, RHP

Left-handed hitters La Stella and Yastrzemski did not start Game 2 against Urías, and Crawford moves up one spot from his place in Game 2.

This lineup raises the question of whether the Giants would lift La Stella ahead of his second at-bat, which would presumably come against Urías. La Stella has a .549 OPS this season against left-handed pitching. If the situation is big enough, that might prompt a pinch-hit at-bat from Donovan Solano. But doing so would cost San Francisco La Stella’s left-handed bat late in the game against a tough righty like, say, Blake Treinen or Kenley Jansen.

The addition of Yastrzemski comes at the expense of the right-handed-hitting Austin Slater, who is now available for a potential pinch-hit at-bat against Urías.

It’s unclear whether the Giants would plug another lefty into their starting lineup -- perhaps LaMonte Wade Jr. or Mike Yastrzemski -- to take advantage of Knebel. But one other option would be moving Crawford up in the order to ensure him an at-bat against Knebel.

How will this all play out?
That’s the fun part. Nobody -- managers included -- really knows.

It will be dependent upon when Roberts sees as the right time to go to Urías. It might also be dependent upon whether the pitcher’s spot comes up in the top of the second inning (when the Dodgers would undoubtedly pinch-hit for Knebel).

But the likeliest scenario sees Knebel pitching one inning, then handing the ball to Urías. Maybe Knebel starts the second inning if his performance dictates it, and if a right-handed hitter is due up. The Dodgers would presumably try to avoid bringing Urías into the game mid-inning, so he’s likely to start either the second or third frame.

From there, the Dodgers' pitching strategy might be relatively ordinary: Urías as long as he’s effective, then turn it over to a righty-heavy back end.

“Ultimately, we trust both players can handle this,” Roberts said of Knebel and Urías. “We feel, in one game, with the familiarity of both clubs, this gives us the best chance to win tonight.”

The fate of the Dodgers’ season might hinge on whether he’s right.