ATLANTA -- One aggressive pitching decision led to another. And then another. And another. And suddenly, with their season on the line in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers could not turn to Max Scherzer. They could only ask a fatigued Walker Buehler to gut his way through another start on short rest.
Now, the Dodgers are headed home, left with an offseason to rue the decisions that led them here. Their 4-2 loss in Atlanta on Saturday night at Truist Park ended their season and sent the Braves to their first World Series in 22 years.
“It just didn’t work out,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “We were behind it and fighting an uphill battle this entire series. But I really believe, regardless, we got beat. The Braves played a heck of a series.”
Nine days ago, the Dodgers won a thrilling five-game NL Division Series against the Giants, using Scherzer for the final inning of the final game. Shortly thereafter, basking in the spoils of victory, Roberts acknowledged that there would be a cost.
He didn’t think it would be quite this steep. Scherzer threw only 79 pitches in his Game 2 start, then acknowledged he was dealing with a “dead arm” afterward. In the days after that start, the veteran right-hander played catch and noticed that his arm simply wasn’t bouncing back the way he’d envisioned. When Buehler was much sharper and crisper than Scherzer during their throwing sessions Friday, the team decided to flip the two in their rotation plans.
“I do take responsibility for not making this [start],” Scherzer said before the game. “I’ve been very good at being able to make the [starts] and knowing my body and knowing how to recover. Unfortunately, I overcooked my arm on this one, and I’m trying to replay every variable in my head right now to try and understand why I’m in this position.”
The biggest variable, of course, was the Dodgers’ decision to use Scherzer to finish the NLDS in San Francisco -- a decision Scherzer fully endorsed. There’s no guarantee that the Dodgers would’ve won Game 5 without Scherzer. But there were, at least, other options that night.
Julio Urías pitched four sharp innings and wasn’t afforded a fifth. Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen threw one frame apiece. Scherzer wasn’t a last resort. He was the centerpiece of the Dodgers’ plans that night.
Perhaps the NLCS unfolds differently if a fresh and rested Scherzer is tabbed for Game 1. Instead, the Dodgers were forced to deploy a bullpen day, and lost. Then, they dropped Scherzer’s “dead-arm” start in Game 2.
“In retrospect, if you could guarantee that we could win Game 5 with someone else, I would have used someone else different,” Roberts said.
The team’s decision to push Scherzer wasn’t the only aggressive gamble Roberts took. After Scherzer’s early exit in Game 2, the Dodgers still held a two-run lead in the eighth. They needed three outs and called for Urías -- who had also pitched Game 5 of the NLDS and was scheduled to start Game 4 against Atlanta.
That plan backfired on multiple fronts. Urías surrendered the lead in the eighth, allowing hits to three of the first four batters he faced. The Braves walked it off an inning later to take a 2-0 series lead.
The Dodgers hadn’t merely lost two games in Atlanta. They’d gambled with pitching capital from later in the series in an effort to win those games. The prospect of reeling off four wins in five games is daunting enough. But the Dodgers needed to do so with two of their most important arms already heavily taxed.
Still, they insisted their Urías gamble would turn out differently than the gamble with Scherzer. Urías had thrown fewer pitches in the postseason, and he had pitched plenty in relief in the past.
Then that cost came due again in Game 4. Urías, who won 20 games and posted a 2.96 ERA during the regular season, was hit hard to the tune of five runs across five innings. He wasn’t himself, and the Dodgers fell behind, three games to one.
After a Game 5 victory, the series suddenly rested on Buehler, pitching on short rest in Game 6 for the second time already this postseason. He allowed four runs across four innings, including the decisive three-run homer to Eddie Rosario. Afterward, he was asked whether another short-rest start had taken its toll.
“No,” Buehler said flatly. “I made a couple bad pitches in a couple bad spots where you can’t make bad pitches. Honestly, I think that’s the easy out, and I really, truthfully don’t think that had anything to do with it.”
It’s impossible to gauge the truth in Buehler’s statement. But it was also, potentially, avoidable.
“Could I foresee where we're at right now?” Roberts said of his deteriorating pitching situation before Game 6. “No. But we have to make the decision that gets us to this point. Every hurdle, every marker that we get to, we have to make a decision. There's no knowing, on the other side, of how it's going to play out.”