Bullpen's back end clocks in early after rookie's short start

Dodgers' high-leverage arms cover 7 1/3 innings in NLDS Game 2

October 11th, 2023

LOS ANGELES -- Another early deficit, another short night for the starting pitcher and a far cry from how the Dodgers envisioned the beginning of their postseason run.

After Clayton Kershaw managed only one out against the D-backs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, made it through just 1 2/3 innings of a 4-2 defeat in Game 2 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers trail the best-of-five series, 2-0.

“I didn’t really feel over-amped,” said Miller, who struggled with his command in his playoff debut. “Physically, it was the best I ever felt. Just got a little too jumpy when I’m feeling that good and let it eat a little too much instead of slowing things down.”

The rookie threw just 28 of his 52 pitches for strikes, and he found himself in trouble early. A leadoff walk, bunt single and base hit loaded the bases for Arizona before the first out was recorded.

Miller retired his next two batters on a flyout to deep right-center and a groundout to short, each of which brought in a run. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. then punctuated Arizona’s three-run rally with an RBI single. By the time Alek Thomas struck out to end the frame, Miller’s pitch count was up to 32.

Miller allowed two more baserunners in the top of the second. Though he was able to get two outs, he still did not appear sharp. With two hitters due up who had made hard contact in their first at-bats, manager Dave Roberts once more decided to turn to his bullpen much sooner than anticipated. 

“I just felt that, at that point in time, we couldn’t afford to go down 4-0,” Roberts said. “I wanted to give our team a chance to extend the game and felt that we could prevent runs for the duration of the game.”

The Dodgers are the third team to have multiple starters fail to complete two innings in a single Division Series, joining the 1999 and 2021 Red Sox.

With a three-run deficit, Roberts chose to deploy his high-leverage arms. The final 7 1/3 innings were covered by , , Joe Kelly and . Each pitcher provided at least four outs. The sole run against the bullpen came on a Gurriel homer off Brasier with two outs in the sixth.

Graterol, who has pitched almost exclusively in the late innings this year, instead entered in the second and helped get things under control by retiring the first six batters he faced. When he was lifted after issuing a four-pitch walk to No. 9 hitter Geraldo Perdomo with two outs in the fourth, the home crowd gave him a standing ovation.

“We’re in the postseason now. I’m always ready,” Graterol told MLB.com’s Juan Toribio in Spanish. “Right when the game starts, I’m already ready to get into the game and be in there. When anything happens, I’m ready to go.”

Of course, the pitching picture only matters so much when the offense has scored a combined four runs in two games. But early exits from Kershaw and Miller haven’t helped matters. And should L.A. manage to come back in the series and advance, there may be concerns about bullpen overuse, especially for a club that ranked fourth in the NL in the regular season for relief innings pitched (644 2/3).

For now, though, all that matters for the Dodgers is finding a way to take three straight, starting with two at Chase Field. With the option to piggyback Lance Lynn with Ryan Pepiot in a win-or-go-home Game 3, the Dodgers’ hope is they won’t need much beyond those two arms. But Tuesday’s off-day also sets them up well to have all hands on deck, should they be needed.

“The bullpen was fantastic,” Roberts said. “Those guys gave us a chance to stay in the ballgame and to win the baseball game. I can’t say enough about what they did. I think they’re in a good spot. … They’ll all be available for Game 3.”