LOS ANGELES -- Being forced to employ a bullpen game with your season on the line is a position no team ever wants to be in. But it worked out pretty well for the Dodgers on Thursday night.
Trailing three games to one in the National League Championship Series, seven L.A. pitchers combined for a gem in Game 5, outpitching Braves ace Max Fried in an 11-2 win at Dodger Stadium to stave off elimination and force a Game 6 on Saturday at Atlanta.
“Honestly, I’m really proud of how we competed,” said right-hander Blake Treinen. “Our guys have given everything they’ve got -- their hearts, their sweat, everything they’ve got. … It doesn’t matter how we get punched in the face, we just continue to go out and compete and get outs. I think we’re just ready for whatever moment comes next.”
The night got off to an inauspicious start, with opener Joe Kelly surrendering a two-run home run to Freddie Freeman in the first inning before exiting mid-at-bat against Adam Duvall with a right biceps strain, having recorded only two outs. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the injury is expected to end the right-hander’s season.
From there, though, everything went just about perfectly for the Dodgers’ bullpen. Evan Phillips, whose clutch relief performance in Game 3 was huge in setting up L.A.’s comeback win, took over for Kelly and needed just one pitch to finish off the strikeout of Duvall. Phillips remained in to pitch the second inning and struck out two as part of a 1-2-3 frame. The Dodgers took the lead in the bottom half of the inning and never looked back.
It has been, in his own words, a “pretty crazy year” for Phillips, who spent time in the Orioles and Rays organizations and was claimed off waivers by the Dodgers on Aug. 17. He appeared in just seven regular-season games for L.A. and was left off the roster for the NL Division Series but was added ahead of the NLCS. Roberts envisioned Phillips as part of the game plan on Thursday, albeit not quite as early as he came in.
“There's just something about his calm, and you can just tell he's intelligent, he's tough, and he's got good stuff,” said Roberts. “So to call on him in that spot, I wasn't worried. It's just not how we expected to play out, but in baseball, you've got to be able to read and react, and Evan stepped up and made us all look good.”
Graterol, who posted a 4.59 ERA this year and spent a lot of time in the Minors, has been tremendous for the Dodgers this postseason. In seven appearances, he has allowed just one earned run in 7 1/3 innings, with five strikeouts and no walks.
“Brusdar is throwing as hard as I’ve ever seen,” said Phillips. “It might look effortless to you guys -- it does look pretty smooth -- but it’s not. But he is a strong dude, so it’s no surprise that it comes out like that.”
Graterol gave way to Treinen, who also delivered two scoreless innings. Treinen threw a total of 27 pitches, but with an off-day between Game 5 and Game 6, he should be ready to go on Saturday in Atlanta. Corey Knebel, who has pitched as both an opener and in a traditional relief role this postseason, gave up a leadoff single in the eighth, then buckled down and struck out the next three batters.
Kenley Jansen was already warming up in the bottom of the eighth inning before the Dodgers scored four runs and put the game out of reach. Despite the nine-run lead, he still came in for the ninth. A closer pitching in a situation like that is unusual, but short of giving Knebel another inning, Jansen was really the Dodgers’ only option. Roberts noted that he intended to go to Justin Bruihl, who threw five pitches in his appearance the night before, but that the left-hander had “some soreness in the arm” and “couldn't get loose.”
“For [Jansen] to be a teammate and take down that ninth was huge and just puts us in a good spot for Game 6,” said Roberts.
Though the Dodgers still trail the Braves in the NLCS, it’s not hard to see why they like their chances as the series returns to Atlanta. After all, they’ve got Max Scherzer set to start Game 6, and Walker Buehler lined up for a potential Game 7. Both struggled in their last outings, but they’re still two of the game’s best pitchers with track records that inspire confidence. And on Saturday, Scherzer will have a dominant, well-rested bullpen available behind him.
“That group led by [bullpen coach] Josh Bard is as tight of a bullpen group as I've seen,” said Roberts. “There's a real culture; [they] care for each other, pick each other up.”