Dave Roberts didn’t leave him in too long or yank him too soon. This time, Roberts managed Clayton Kershaw just right.
The manager took the ball from Kershaw in the sixth inning of Game 5 on Sunday night and gave a two-run lead to rookie Dustin May, who protected it for five outs. The baton went to another rookie, Victor González, for two outs and Blake Treinen for the final three in a 4-2 win over the Rays that gave the Dodgers a 3-2 lead in the World Series.
Roberts, the designated target of blame for past postseason pitching moves gone awry, pushed every right button and stuck to the script one night after a ninth-inning nightmare.
Kershaw had to battle, lacking the crispness of his Game 1 win. But he faced 21 batters as planned, retiring the last seven, ending with the first two batters in the sixth inning – the dangerous pair of Randy Arozarena and Brandon Lowe -- on two pitches. And with nobody on base, out came Roberts with a hook, having told Kershaw between innings he had two more batters.
“Yeah, that was the plan,” Kershaw said. “We talked about it before the inning and even though it was just two pitches, which made it seem super fast, and two outs and nobody on, we stuck with the plan. So, credit to Doc for that one, and D. May came in and threw the ball awesome and Victor the same way and Blake, too. Unbelievable job by those guys tonight, which is huge.”
And pretty nice job by Kershaw this postseason. Haunted more by October failures than lauded for success, he’s 2-0 with a 2.31 ERA in this World Series and 4-1 with a 2.93 this postseason. Before this year, he was 9-11 in the postseason with a 4.43 ERA.
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“We’re just very lucky to have him and I couldn’t be happier that the postseason he’s had mirrors who he is as a pitcher,” said Roberts. “He deserves it.”
Before Kershaw left the mound, third baseman Justin Turner lobbied the manager to keep Kershaw in. But a plan is a plan. Fight the narrative all they want, the Dodgers had a script and stuck with it.
“I just felt, we felt, that he was at the end and he just had enough to get two hitters,” said Roberts. “To go to Dustin for Manuel Margot, we talked about it and he held up his part of the deal and got two hitters and we didn’t say how many pitches. We said two hitters. That was what we agreed upon.
“He just grinded. He willed himself to that point. And I will say that wasn’t his best stuff, but he found a way to get outs and I give him all the credit.”
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Rather than let Kershaw face Margot a third time -- he had a bunt single and walk to that point -- they brought in May to fire his triple-digit, disappearing sinker, expecting the 23-year-old to be much improved from his wildness of earlier postseason appearances. He was, striking out Margot and retiring four of the five batters he faced, two on strikeouts, one with a 101.5 mph sinker, the fastest pitch of his career, according to Statcast. Roberts gave the rookie a heads-up before the game that he was going to play a big role, with Tony Gonsolin held back to start Game 6 on Tuesday.
González inherited a runner from May with one out in the eighth inning and walked the first batter he faced, but escaped by getting flyouts from the same pair of Arozarena and Lowe.
“I just felt if Dustin could give us two innings, whatever it is, would be enough,” said Roberts. “Dustin was throwing the baseball well and the top of that order, you get [Ji-Man] Choi coming. For them to pick on Victor or make a three-player move to get a matchup was worth it. I like Victor spinning the baseball against Arozarena. I just liked the matchup and Victor performed.”
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With the rookies May and González rewarding Roberts’ trust in a crucial Game 5, they should be on call to follow Gonsolin in Game 6. Maybe that’s why Roberts said he was not tempted to move up Walker Buehler, who is lined up for a Game 7, to start Game 6 instead.
Treinen, pitching for the third consecutive game and charged with two runs in Game 4, made it interesting by allowing a leadoff single in the ninth to Margot, but struck out two of the last three batters for the save. And the page was turned on Game 4’s ninth inning, without Kenley Jansen even warming up.
With the microscope bearing down on the Dodgers’ closer situation, Roberts was vague about that last selection process.
“They’re both great choices,” he said. “With Margot, I liked Blake right there and he gave up a grounder. We’ve leaned on Kenley. [He] hasn’t done three in a row in quite some time but we’ve done three in a row with Blake [as recently as the National League Championship Series]. I just liked it right there. Kenley is high leverage. They’re both unbelievable guys in high leverage.”
Pressed further on Jansen’s status, Roberts reiterated the club’s gradual shift away from assigning specific innings to specific relievers, preferring to match up as each game unfolds.
“I just see a lot of our guys, Kenley and Blake in particular, high leverage,” he said. “Whatever that means, I think conventionally it’s closing, but we’re just peeling back a layer on that. Kenley went two in a row, Blake went two in a row. I just know we’ve done Blake three in a row more times than not. To feel he can bounce back that third day is an easier bet for me. Kenley I thought threw the ball well last night, just unlucky. So, come Game 6, Kenley will be ready to pitch high leverage.”
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.