'Not afraid of the moment,' LA 'pen locks down G1 win

October 12th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers don't have many, if any, weaknesses. On paper, they boast the most talented roster in the Majors. On the field, they proved they were just that, becoming the fifth team in AL/NL history to win at least 111 games in the regular season. 

The Dodgers have just about everything you need to win a World Series this season. They have plenty of star power, a lineup that has a former NL MVP batting ninth, and a pair of aces in the starting rotation. If there was one area that could be considered vulnerable heading into the postseason, it was the bullpen.

But it was that same bullpen that proved to be a strength, tossing four scoreless innings to lead the Dodgers to a 5-3 win over the Padres Tuesday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium.

In the history of best-of-five postseason series, Game 1 winners have gone on to win the series 102 of 144 times (71%). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams winning Game 1 at their home ballparks have advanced 34 of 47 times (72%).

“I think we’ve all bought into this concept that when the phone rings, you go get those outs,” said Dodgers reliever Evan Phillips. “[The staff] does a good job of getting us prepared for each situation that we’re called upon. You saw it drawn up like that tonight, and I think you’ll continue to see it go that way.”

That concept intensified once the Dodgers removed Craig Kimbrel from the closer role in mid-September. Once they made that decision, the Dodgers insisted that moving forward without a closer was best for the team.

The approach would allow them to use any of their weapons at any moment in the game, as opposed to committing to Kimbrel or another pitcher for one specific inning. They believe this is the best bullpen they’ve had in recent years.

“A lot of good players that are just not afraid of the moment. I trust them all,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts of his bullpen. “Yeah, it’s not kind of the standard or, whatever, conventional, but I feel confident in whoever we’re going to run out there in the ninth inning.”

At least for one game in the postseason, the Dodgers’ bullpen emphatically backed up those claims.

After the Dodgers jumped out to a five-run lead behind Trea Turner’s solo homer in the first and a pair of Will Smith doubles, it was up to the pitching staff to hold off the Padres’ offense. For four innings, Julio Urías did just that. However, in the fifth, the Mexican left-hander ran into trouble, allowing three runs.

Roberts said he could’ve elected to go with Urías in the sixth, but he wanted to turn things over to his bullpen. With the Dodgers protecting a two-run lead in the sixth and the top of the Padres’ order due up, Roberts turned to Phillips, who has been their best reliever this season.

Phillips struggled with his command early, walking Juan Soto to start the inning. Manny Machado then reached on an infield single that barely stayed fair down the third-base line. Phillips responded by striking out Josh Bell in a crucial eight-pitch at-bat for the first out of the inning. The Dodgers then got the biggest play of the game as Gavin Lux and Turner combined to turn the biggest double play of the season, ending the threat.

“It’s a tough one,” Turner said. “It was a good play by [Lux] and we got the job done.”

Alex Vesia also got the job done for the Dodgers, recording five of the biggest outs of the game. He struck out three of the four batters he faced in the seventh. With Jurickson Profar and Soto due up in the eighth, Vesia went back out there, retiring both of them. It was just the fifth time this season Vesia recorded five outs in an outing.

“I felt like I was able to get ahead,” Vesia said. “I got ahead with the fastball and then put them away with either a slider, and I used my changeup once or twice tonight.”

Following Vesia, the Dodgers turned to Brusdar Graterol, who got Machado to fly out to left on the only pitch he threw. In the ninth, it was Chris Martin who came in to close it out and give the Dodgers the all-important Game 1 win.

“I would be lying if I said they didn’t,” Martin said, when asked if the later innings feel different. “Obviously, certain situations the crowd gets involved, especially in the playoffs [at Dodger Stadium]. But you just go out there and try to make pitches and slow the game down.”

This Dodgers bullpen might not be the flashiest part of the roster. Los Angeles acquired Vesia in an under-the-radar deal with the Marlins last February. They signed Yency Almonte as a non-roster invitee after he was let go by the Rockies.

Graterol was rejected by the Red Sox in the original Mookie Betts three-team trade because of the results of a physical. Phillips was designated for assignment by both the Orioles and Rays before finding a home in Los Angeles.

You can go on and on. And if the Dodgers want to win the World Series over the next month, they’ll need this bullpen to shine. They answered the call in Game 1.

“They’ve come together really as a good, solid group,” Roberts said. “Those guys pull for each other, and it’s as good a group in the ‘pen that I have seen that we’ve had.”