LOS ANGELES -- Leave it to the contrarian Dodgers to set up their starting rotation for the National League Division Series with an eye on the bullpen.
While everyone else is fixated on who the Dodgers will start in Game 1, management has put off announcing that decision until an opponent is determined. It just doesn’t seem like it will be Clayton Kershaw.
The most likely takeaway from Kershaw’s Sunday relief appearance -- on two days' rest after his previous start -- is that Kershaw will be in the bullpen on two days' rest if a Game 5 is played. For that to happen, he’d be starting Game 3. He could start Game 2 and either start or relieve in Game 5, but that would mean Ryu or Buehler would be starting Game 3 on the road. More on that later.
As for postseason relief, Kershaw is proven. He saved the Game 5 clincher of the 2016 NLDS in Washington, came on too late to rescue the Dodgers from their Game 7 loss in the 2017 World Series despite pitching four scoreless innings, and pitched a perfect ninth inning in last year’s Game 7 pennant-clincher in Milwaukee.
Ryu has not shown a willingness to pitch in relief, as Kenta Maeda has, while Buehler’s September 2017 bullpen experiment went sideways fast. The Dodgers tried it only one more time last June when Buehler returned from injury, and he gave up five runs in one inning.
So, playing out this scenario, Ryu or Buehler would start Games 1 and 5 and the other would get Game 2. Who slots in where is what apparently has decision makers in a quandary, at least until it’s determined in Tuesday’s Wild Card Game whether the Dodgers’ opponent is Washington or Milwaukee.
Starting Kershaw in Game 3 would allow Ryu and Buehler to start only at Dodger Stadium, where Ryu was 10-1 with a 1.93 ERA and Buehler was 6-1 with a 2.86 ERA. One of them would start Game 5. Kershaw was 10-2 with a 2.89 ERA at home and 6-3 with a 3.21 ERA on the road.
Game 4 on the road will be a bullpen game, apparently with Rich Hill starting, or at least pitching the bulk of the innings if his right knee holds up.
Against all competition, Ryu was more consistent this year (winning the ERA title), while Buehler has been more dominant (team-high 215 strikeouts).
In April, Ryu allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings during his only start this year at Milwaukee. He started twice against Washington, allowing only one run in 14 2/3 innings, pitching equally effectively in Washington and Los Angeles.
Buehler didn’t pitch against Milwaukee this year, and in his two starts against the Nationals he allowed four earned runs in 12 1/3 innings. All four came in a 9-2 loss in Washington. Kershaw started once against each club, allowing two runs in six innings both times, with both starts on the road.
The Dodgers prefer to give Ryu and Buehler more than the traditional four days off between starts, but Ryu would be pitching on normal rest if he starts Game 1, while Buehler would be getting an extra day.
Maybe the pitchers’ postseason experience could shed some light on management’s thinking. Buehler has made four postseason starts with a 3.80 ERA and 0.845 WHIP. His first start was in Atlanta last year, and he had a five-run meltdown in the second inning. He had a rough start at home against the Brewers in the NLCS; pitched well in the Game 7 clincher, though he didn’t get out of the fifth inning; then dominated the Red Sox at home for seven innings of a no-decision in the 18-inning Game 3 that ended with a Max Muncy walk-off home run.
Ryu is more seasoned, but not by much, going 2-2 with a 4.11 ERA and 1.229 WHIP in seven starts. Throw out his pre-surgery appearances in 2013-14, and his results are confined to last year. He blanked the Braves over seven innings at home in Game 1 of the NLDS, but he was a mess through the next two rounds, failing to finish five innings in any of his three starts, all on the road.