Dave Roberts Pushes All the Right Buttons as Dodgers Take Game 5 and Series LeadJon Tayleron October 26, 2020 at 4:22 am

The pivotal and most crucial decision of Game 5 of the World Series was attended by a wave of boos, even as Dave Roberts got it right.

Amid the carnage and chaos at the end of Game 4 a scant 20 hours prior was the realization that the fulcrum of the series was now the left arm of Clayton Kershaw. That he would be the man on the mound was already known, as he’d been announced as the scheduled starter for Game 5 well before then, but the circumstances surrounding his turn swung as sharply as Game 4 itself. In the moments before Brett Phillips overturned the world, Kershaw was going to take the mound as the man to end Los Angeles’ three-decade run without a title. In the moments after, he became the man who would have to overcome his checkered postseason past to break the deadlock and put the Dodgers on the doorstep of a championship. If he couldn’t, Los Angeles would be facing the end of the road in Game 6.

It’s both unfair and tiresome that the playoffs always seem to swing around Kershaw, but he warps the series around him, a gravity well that sucks up matter and turns it into white-hot takes. There’s also the fact that the Clayton Kershaw Postseason Narrative™ has, for the most part, accurately reflected his October body of work, full of struggles and heartbreaking losses. The irony of these playoffs is that, one weak NLCS start aside, Kershaw has looked more like his regular-season self. Coming into Game 5, his 2020 postseason body of work consisted of eight runs allowed in 25 innings — a 2.88 ERA — and 31 strikeouts, and he was superb in Game 1, holding the Rays to one run in six innings. This is the Kershaw we all know and love.

But the reality of October Kershaw is that, good or not in the beginning, he rarely goes deep into games and, in fact, shouldn’t. With a fastball that struggles to get past 92 mph and a balky back, he’s a poor choice to face a lineup a third time. And yet in years previous, figuring out just when the needle on Kershaw’s gas tank has hit empty has been one of Roberts’ biggest struggles. The veteran lefty has often not pitched well, but his manager has frequently exacerbated the issue by leaving him out long past his expiration date. Compounding the problem is a Los Angeles bullpen that’s consistently inconsistent, usually taking leads that Kershaw gives them and making them disappear. That relief corps has remained a shaky bet this month, putting Roberts in a tough position: What should he do when his ace starts to flag?

It seemed like he’d have to answer that question early in Game 5, with Kershaw not nearly as sharp as he was in the series opener. Rays hitters swung and missed at just two of his 35 fastballs, which averaged a hair over 91 mph. His slider turned up seven whiffs but also nine foul balls and four put into play. Two runs scored in the third. In the fourth, two walks and a throwing error by Austin Barnes on a steal attempt put runners on the corners with none out, though Kershaw wriggled out of the jam by getting a pop-up, a strikeout, and a caught stealing at home by Manuel Margot. The fifth was an easy 1-2-3 frame with two strikeouts, and Los Angeles led 4–2, but at 83 pitches and with the meat of Tampa Bay’s order due up, the sixth loomed as a crisis point.

In the fevered minds of Dodgers fans, that inning probably played out in advance as a haunted house, each batter more terrifying than the last, each at-bat labored and exhausting. It didn’t help that the first man up was Randy Arozarena, the world-destroying force who’d knocked an RBI single off Kershaw in the third. Instead, Kershaw got through both Arozarena and Brandon Lowe on a pitch apiece (though Arozarena’s out was a 105-mph groundout smashed right at Justin Turner at third).

And then out came Roberts, attended by boos, for a mound conference that turned into a pitching change, even as Turner was caught on camera telling all assembled that Kershaw could get this out. Roberts, though, was sticking to a preconceived plan, as the FOX booth explained: Kershaw would face 21 batters, no more and no less, and then give way to Dustin May. That blueprint is both oddly specific and inflexible, and it relied heavily on May — who has been an opener and a bulk guy, a high-leverage reliever and everything in between this postseason — doing what he hasn’t done all month, which is pitch well. But that was the plan, and Roberts stuck to it. Out came Kershaw to a standing ovation, while Roberts walked back to the dugout to a chorus of boos.

Was it the right call? Again, the trick with Kershaw is to figure out when he’s losing it, and understanding that there’s no reason to push him. And though those first two outs came easily (or at least quickly), why keep spinning the chamber of the revolver and pulling the trigger? The counterpoint is that, as Game 4 showed, Roberts has few if any relievers he can trust, and May, despite his ludicrous stuff, had spent the playoffs struggling to throw strikes and getting worked like a speed bag when he did. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and damned if you try to find a middle ground.

Here’s the funny thing, though: The plan worked. Roberts’ belief in May paid off, as the gangly righty whipped 101-mph fastballs by Margot to end the sixth, then set down the Rays in order in the seventh. Things got tricky again in the eighth, as May put the leadoff batter on, got the first out, then gave way to rookie lefty Victor González. That initially looked like a blunder by Roberts: González, slated to face pinch-hitter and fellow lefty Ji-Man Choi, instead had to contend with pinch-pinch-hitter and righty Mike Brosseau, who drew a walk to put two on for Arozarena. But a perfectly placed slider on the outside corner got a soft fly out from the Rays’ postseason MVP, and González finished the frame with a pop out to center by Lowe.

The end didn’t come easy either. Wary of using Kenley Jansen after his Game 4 collapse, Roberts turned to Blake Treinen, appearing in his third straight game, to close it out with a two-run lead. Margot’s leadoff single threatened to make things interesting, but Treinen quickly recovered, getting the next three Rays in order to give the Dodgers the 3–2 series lead, and the win to Kershaw.

No manager bats 1.000, as it were, and Roberts has made plenty of decisions this series and in the playoffs that have backfired or looked bad from the start. Yet it’s worth noting that, aside from Blake Snell’s excellent Game 2 start and the back half of Game 4 culminating in the Yakety Sax routine that was the final play, the Dodgers have been firmly in control of this Fall Classic. On Sunday night, it all came together as he planned, as all of his moves worked. The result is the Dodgers taking the field on Tuesday with 27 outs separating them from that long-awaited World Series win.
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *