LOS ANGELES -- “We’re home free,” Walker Buehler thought to himself as he walked off the mound Wednesday. There were two Nationals runners on base in the seventh inning, but there were also two outs and the Dodgers had a two-run lead. And trotting in from the bullpen was three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, with a well-rested relief corps behind him.
What happened next -- who pitched and who didn’t, why Dodgers manager Dave Roberts made the choices he did -- will be parsed by armchair managers, and perhaps the actual manager himself, all winter.
But when the lights went out for the final time at Dodger Stadium in 2019, the bottom line was this: The Nationals, leaky bullpen and all, are moving on after a 7-3 win in 10 innings, after Kershaw and the rest of the Dodgers' bullpen couldn’t hold a late lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
“If the blame falls on me, I've got no problem with it,” Roberts said. “I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success and if it doesn't work out, there's always going to be second-guessing, and I got no problem wearing the brunt of that. That's OK.”
Game 5 offered plenty of points to second guess.
1) The Buehler to Kershaw handoff
Going into the night, the Dodgers’ blueprint for navigating Game 5 was to let Buehler go for as long as possible -- “I’m going to ride him tonight,” Roberts said three hours before the first pitch -- and have Kershaw ready to back him up out of the bullpen, as a way to help circumvent the recent volatility of L.A.’s relief corps.
Joe Kelly missed much of September with an undisclosed ailment and was unable to get an out in his only other NLDS appearance. Pedro Báez surrendered Ryan Zimmerman’s huge three-run homer in Game 4. Kenley Jansen had been so shaky during the regular season that he didn’t enter the postseason as the Dodgers’ clear-cut closer. Only Kenta Maeda and lefty specialist Adam Kolarek had been reliable.
So, Buehler made it as far as two outs in the seventh inning on a career-high 117 pitches. He hit batter Kurt Suzuki leading off the seventh inning, but got the next two outs. When Buehler walked Trea Turner to bring left-handed-hitting Adam Eaton to the plate representing the go-ahead run, Roberts ran out of the dugout to make the Dodgers’ first pitching change.
The plan, Roberts said, was to have Kershaw face three batters: Lefty Eaton to end the seventh inning, then right-handed-hitting Anthony Rendon and lefty Juan Soto to start the eighth. It was not unprecedented -- this marked Kershaw’s fourth relief appearance in a postseason elimination game -- but it was also not routine, evidenced by the fact Kershaw threw exclusively from the stretch.
Still, Kershaw executed the first part of the plan when he struck out Eaton and let out a roar on his way back to the dugout.
“I thought Walker had had enough. I thought he emptied the tank,” Roberts said. “So to get Clayton to get us out of that spot, I felt good about it. Clayton, it's not about analytics. It's about, he's one of the best pitchers in the game and for him to go out there and throw four pitches and to go back out there and get two hitters, I felt really good about that.”
2. Sticking with Kershaw to start the eighth
With Washington’s 3-4-5 hitters due, this half-inning had strong potential to decide the ballgame, one way or another.
Roberts had choices:
• Stick with the plan the Dodgers had devised when Kershaw came into the game, which had Kershaw facing the dangerous Rendon (9-for-31 against Kershaw lifetime, including their postseason matchups) and Soto, before making a change to a right-handed reliever for Howie Kendrick, Zimmerman and the rest of the bottom part of the order.
• Call upon a right-handed reliever -- Maeda, Kelly, Baez and Jansen were all available -- to face righty Rendon, then have Kolarek for Soto. Kolarek faced exactly one batter in each of the series’ first three games: Soto, Soto and Soto, retiring him all three times. If executed, that would have left four outs to go for the righty relievers who remained, probably Maeda.
• Start the eighth inning clean with Maeda, who has been one of the Dodgers’ most reliable relievers, and was warmed up and ready.
Roberts stuck with Kershaw, who yielded back-to-back home runs to open the inning that turned a 3-1 Dodgers lead into a 3-3 tie. They came on sliders and on successive pitches. Rendon’s was below the strike zone; Soto’s was a misfire in the zone. It was the second time Kershaw has allowed homers on back-to-back pitches in the postseason, something he has never done in the regular season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“It’s just a terrible feeling. I had one job to do, to get three outs,” Kershaw said. “I got one out and didn’t get the other two. They went over the fence and it cost us the game right there. So, It’s a terrible feeling. No excuses, just didn’t make pitches and guy hit it over the fence twice.”
Kershaw had enjoyed success in that role prior to Wednesday. In 5 2/3 innings as a reliever in the postseason dating back to 2016, he’d allowed no runs and just two hits, striking out seven and walking two.
“We kind of had that planned out for him to face those two batters. Unfortunately, it didn’t go right,” rookie catcher Will Smith said. “[The pitch to Rendon was] good location, it just didn’t have great action and Rendon put a good swing on it. He got Eaton out with some really good pitches, but then just two mistakes with sliders to Rendon and Soto.”
Said Roberts: “There's always going to be second-guessing when things don't work out, but I'll take my chances any day on Clayton.”
3. The Kershaw to Maeda handoff
Following the blasts, Roberts wasted little time getting the ball from Kershaw and handing it over to Maeda, who struck out Kendrick, Zimmerman and Yan Gomes on 14 pitches. It would have been ideal to have Maeda back out for the ninth inning, but the pitcher’s spot in the order came up in the bottom of the eighth and Roberts had no choice but to send one of the most potent postseason hitters of his generation -- David Freese -- to the plate to attempt to add to his October resume. Freese struck out. Maeda’s night was done.
The Dodgers’ other relievers would have to cover the rest of the game.
4. Kelly for two innings, and that intentional walk to Soto
Kelly was a question mark coming into the postseason because of an undisclosed ailment that limited him to six competitive pitches in the final two weeks of the regular season. In Game 3 of the NLDS in Washington, D.C., Kelly faced four hitters and retired none. But in Game 5 with the season in the balance, Roberts entrusted Kelly with two innings -- the ninth and, when the Dodgers couldn’t make anything of Enrique Hernández’s one-out single in the bottom of that inning, the 10th.
The ninth went beautifully for Kelly, who went 1-2-3 with a pair of strikeouts on 10 pitches. Notably, every single one of them was a breaking ball.
In the 10th, Kelly was a different pitcher. He walked Eaton to open the inning and surrendered a Rendon double. The Dodgers may have caught a break when the baseball lodged in the padding on the left-field wall, forcing Eaton to stop at third. That brought up Soto again, and with Kolarek still out there in the bullpen, Roberts opted instead for an intentional walk. Then, with Jansen ready -- he’d been ready since the start of the ninth, the veteran closer said -- Roberts stuck with Kelly to face Kendrick.
Kendrick hit an 0-1 fastball for a grand slam that decided the game.
“I didn’t have the command from inning one in inning two,” Kelly said. “It’s just one of those things where you try to run the ball in and get weak contact for a double play. It was one of those pitches that obviously got too much plate. He put a good swing on it and hit a homer.”
Roberts stood by his decision-making.
“I liked Joe right there in that spot, I really did,” Roberts said. “After 10 pitches there was no stress. The ball was coming out well. So for him to go out there and take down that inning and to have Kenley take down the other part of the order [should the game have continued], I felt really good about it.”
When Jansen was asked whether he was surprised he was not called upon sooner in Game 5, he took a long pause before saying, “You know, you can’t look back and go ‘what if?’ One thing I know is we gave everything we had all year. We battled.”
There will be plenty of time for second-guessing.
“It’s going to be real tough,” Kelly said. “This is not anything that we were prepared for. We fell short of the ultimate goal. Obviously no one is happy with the result. We’re going home now. … We were all in it to win the World Series. There’s going to be a bad taste.”