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Bullpen putting Dodgers in prime position

LA demonstrating possibility of October success without dazzling starting-pitching performance
MLB.com @castrovince

CHICAGO -- Two wins away from their first Fall Classic appearance since 1988, and the Dodgers have yet to see one of their starting pitchers -- the great Clayton Kershaw included -- go seven innings in a start. In fact, Kershaw's 6 1/3-inning appearance against the D-backs was the only one in which a Dodgers starter went more than five frames.

Yes, it's a small sample of only five games, but that's pretty much the point. The Dodgers have so far swept their way through October because they have a formula -- quick hooks and a bullish bullpen -- that is made for this month. It's a formula they hope continues to work for them when the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World resumes with Game 3 at Wrigley Field tonight.

CHICAGO -- Two wins away from their first Fall Classic appearance since 1988, and the Dodgers have yet to see one of their starting pitchers -- the great Clayton Kershaw included -- go seven innings in a start. In fact, Kershaw's 6 1/3-inning appearance against the D-backs was the only one in which a Dodgers starter went more than five frames.

Yes, it's a small sample of only five games, but that's pretty much the point. The Dodgers have so far swept their way through October because they have a formula -- quick hooks and a bullish bullpen -- that is made for this month. It's a formula they hope continues to work for them when the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World resumes with Game 3 at Wrigley Field tonight.

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"I've never had a bad feeling with our bullpen before," Kershaw told reporters, "but I think at the same time, we realize that it's one of our strengths of our team."

The Justin Verlander Game -- Game 2 of the ALCS, in which Verlander threw 124 pitches with an incredible 93 strikes and allowed just one run over nine innings against the Yankees -- was entertaining and epic and rightly celebrated by some, including MLB Network analyst and former big league pitcher Al Leiter, as proof that "starting pitching still matters."

But you're not "succumbing to SABR [the Society for American Baseball Research]" if you acknowledge, as Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts clearly has, the reality that October has evolved. The Dodgers are proof that you can navigate your way through this month without an outlier like the one Verlander delivered over the weekend.

In the first 45 games of this postseason, how many times did a starter go more than seven innings? That would be one -- Verlander.

How many times did a starter go just five innings or fewer? Twenty-eight -- or 62.2 percent of all the games played.

A team can't confidently bank on a "Verlander Game" being a part of its postseason picture. But what it can do is align itself so that the well-established third-time-through-the-order penalty doesn't become a burden and so that the late-game matchups generally tend to skew in its favor.

The Dodgers, who have gotten a five-and-fly from Kershaw and Rich Hill thus far in this NLCS, have done that, and their bullpen -- so far, anyway -- has delivered. It is the single biggest reason this club is perfectly positioned to win the World Series presented by YouTube TV.

Tweet from @Al_Leiter22: Last night Tanaka & Keuchel...today Verlander. Thank you!! Starting pitching still matters & are the difference makers. Dont succumb to SABR pic.twitter.com/8EJvJzWcJt

"They're picking us up every game," catcher Austin Barnes said.

Opposing hitters are 0-for-their-past-26 and 1-for-their-past-41 against the L.A. bullpen, dating back to Game 2 of the NL Division Series sweep of the D-backs. The heavy lifting in the 'pen this postseason has been done by closer Kenley Jansen and setup man Brandon Morrow, who are responsible for all five of the multi-inning relief appearances by a Dodgers pitcher.

We knew Jansen was one of the most feared closers in the game, but Morrow's full-season sturdiness in the setup role after years of health woes as a starter has been the kind of revelation that can change a club's fortunes. He has a 0.32 WHIP in 6 1/3 innings this October (appearing in every game), and he needed just 18 pitches to retire all six Cubs he faced in Game 2. (No wonder Cubs skipper Joe Maddon called Morrow the Dodgers' "secret weapon.")

Video: NLCS Gm3: Roberts discusses Morrow and Jansen

Beyond Morrow, the Dodgers have unearthed totally unexpected relief reliability from temporarily converted starter Kenta Maeda, whose average four-seam velocity has gone from 92.3 to 95.0 mph with the move to the 'pen. He's faced nine batters, retired them all and struck out four.

"The confidence that we have in Kenta," said Roberts, "that's validated some things and kind of heightened his confidence."

Video: NLCS Gm1: Five Dodgers throw four scoreless from 'pen

The in-season acquisitions of the Tonys -- lefties Tony Cingrani (who has yet to allow a baserunner this postseason) and Tony Watson -- have also given Roberts greater matchup possibilities in the late innings and deepened the 'pen.

With all of these options at his disposal, Roberts has not yet had to get overly creative with his bullpen use, hasn't had to thrust Kershaw into relief duty, hasn't had to ask any of these guys to take on some extremely outlandish workload. The Dodgers, who had the best relief ERA in the NL this year, are only partially through the process of trying to end their 29-year championship drought, but the 'pen -- especially when juxtaposed against a Cubs unit that's allowed 19 runs on 21 hits with 19 walks in 24 1/3 October innings -- has inspired belief that this club can close it out.

That doesn't mean starting pitching doesn't matter. And it doesn't mean that the Dodgers wouldn't welcome a stellar start from Kershaw or Game 3 starter Yu Darvish or anybody else. But the proliferation of off-days and the reliability of this relief corps have given L.A. a formula far more routinely repeatable than Verlander's pristine performance for the Astros.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Kenley Jansen, Brandon Morrow