Dodgers Top Padres in Bullpen Battle To Take NLDS Game 1on October 7, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Dodgers Top Padres in Bullpen Battle To Take NLDS Game 1

The San Diego Padres knew this was the outcome they risked. Just two pitches into the second inning of his start in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, right-handed pitcher Mike Clevinger made a somber exit from the game, wincing at a pain in his elbow. He would later say it felt like bones were hitting the back of his elbow. The Padres knew this might happen, because it was almost exactly what did the last time Clevinger started a game, back on September 23. It was the reason his attempt to clear himself for the team’s Wild Card series last week failed. This was the risk the team took, however, because it was still the Padres’ best chance at avoiding precisely what happened anyway — a revolving door of relievers being asked to keep the team afloat for a fourth time in as many playoff games.

It wasn’t the Padres’ bullpen that stole the show on Tuesday, however, but that of the Dodgers, who picked up another short start by Walker Buehler by silencing San Diego’s deep lineup en route to a 5-1 victory to open the best-of-five series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The second game of the series will take place Wednesday at 9:08 p.m.

Buehler went four innings for the Dodgers while allowing just one run on two hits, but walked four and threw 95 pitches. Behind him, Dustin May, Victor Gonzalez, Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen combined for five innings of one-hit shutout baseball, striking out six and walking none.

For five innings, the Padres’ bullpen had walked a high-wire act without falling: eight walks, a hit by pitch, and an error in the field behind them, yet somehow just one run allowed. Those numbers suggest shoddy command, to be sure, but they also show the lengths to which the ‘pen was willing to go to avoid giving into the Dodgers’ powerful lineup. Of the 116 pitches thrown by Padres arms over those innings, just 58 were strikes. That led to a mind-numbing 11 hitters reaching three-ball counts; it also led to the Dodgers not recording a hit.

In the sixth inning, the dam finally broke. With the game tied at one apiece, Padres right-hander Garrett Richards walked Chris Taylor with one out before surrendering the first hit of the game — a Mookie Betts double to right-center. Left-hander Matt Strahm was then brought into face Corey Seager, who scored Taylor on a fly ball to give Los Angeles its first lead of the game.

Strahm spent the rest of his time on the bump attempting to persuade the middle of the Dodgers’ order to make a third out, but one argument after another was tossed aside. Justin Turner shot a single through the right side of the infield to score Betts from second, and a double by Max Muncy established another situation with runners at second and third. After falling behind Will Smith 2-0, San Diego elected to give him an intentional pass to set up another lefty-on-lefty matchup for Strahm with Cody Bellinger coming to the plate.

Strahm was successful in getting a ground ball out of Bellinger, but unfortunately, it was hit back through the middle of the diamond, scoring another run. Only a nifty diving stop by second baseman Jake Cronenworth saved a second run from scoring on Bellinger’s knock, but his effort was nullified a few moments later when a wild pitch allowed runners at each station to advance. By the time right-hander Craig Stammen finally closed the book on the inning, Los Angeles had batted around and scored four times to take a 5-1 lead.

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That breakthrough helped ease the tension for a bullpen that wasn’t asked to tow quite the load San Diego’s was, but was certainly handed a challenge of its own. It’s difficult to say how deep the Dodgers expected the young right-hander to work on Tuesday — he hadn’t had a start last five innings since September 2, and was taken out after just four innings and 73 pitches in his Wild Card series start against Milwaukee last week. But if Los Angeles had intended for him to work longer in this game, command problems early on made that impossible.

After working around a one-out single by Fernando Tatis Jr. in the first inning, Buehler walked three batters in the second, only to escape the jam by striking out the side. He issued his fourth walk of the game — tied for a career-high — with one out in the fourth inning, and two batters later, allowed the game’s first run on an RBI single by catcher Austin Nola. Padres hitters achieved a total of nine full counts against Buehler, a result of San Diego’s patience when it came to laying off his breaking stuff and the righty’s struggles with missing spots with his high-90s heat.

When Buehler’s fastball location was on-point, however, there was nothing the Padres could do to keep up. Of the 21 swings taken against his fastball, 11 missed.

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San Diego continued to struggle as the Dodgers unleashed a trio of sinker-ballers out of the bullpen. May completely overwhelmed hitters in his two innings of work, striking out three of the six hitters he faced while throwing just 27 pitches. Then Gonzalez flashed a perfect seventh before allowing a leadoff double to Trent Grisham in the eighth, after which Treinen slammed the door with a pair of strikeouts. Jansen faced just two hitters in the ninth, dispensing with them both to wrap up the Dodgers’ win.

Things were not as seamless for San Diego’s pen, which may have held out some hope even as Clevinger walked three in a scoreless first inning, but whose services were once again required earlier than hoped when the starter’s first fastball of the second inning registered several ticks below where he’d sat in the first. Pierce Johnson took over capably for four outs before San Diego turned the game over to left-hander Ryan Weathers, who became the third player this year to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Weathers, a 20-year-old who’d never pitched above A-ball, recorded four more outs without allowing a run.

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Tim Hill opened the fifth inning on the mound for San Diego and allowed a one-out walk to Turner, then turned the ball over to Richards with two outs. Richards then issued another walk before getting a routine grounder hit to Cronenworth, whose throw to first veered left of Hosmer’s glove, allowing the Dodgers to score their first run of the game on an error. The following inning, Los Angeles finally broke through with four hits — the only four it would get in the entire game — and stormed in front for good.

The Dodgers will turn to Clayton Kershaw for Game 2 on Wednesday, six days after the veteran decimated the Brewers to help his team clinch the Wild Card series. He threw eight shutout innings with just three hits allowed and a single walk next 13 strikeouts. His game score of 88 was his best ever in a playoff game, and his best in any game since May 23, 2016.

San Diego’s pitching situation is less certain. Clevinger reportedly won’t rule out a return later in this series, though at this point that doesn’t sound like a reasonable bet. If he is medically ruled out for the series (which would also disqualify him for action in the NLCS should San Diego advance), it would afford the Padres the opportunity to replace him on the roster with another pitcher, potentially even prospect Mackenzie Gore.

None of that, however, has much bearing on Wednesday’s game. As of this writing, the Padres still hadn’t named a Game 2 starter, though it is almost certain to be one of Chris Paddack or Zach Davies, as the team is in desperate need for someone to eat innings. The team has now used nine pitchers in three straight playoff games, after using eight in the first game of the Wild Card Series. Here’s the breakdown of pitch counts for all 15 pitchers on the roster through the first four games of the postseason:

If San Diego is going to win this series, it will take at least four games, making this amount of stress on this many of the team’s arms simply unsustainable. The Padres advancing was never particularly likely, even with a healthy roster — I mean, have you watched this Dodgers team? — but they played well enough during the season to believe they might be able to put some real pressure on their division rivals if a couple of things broke in the right direction. One game into this series, though, all San Diego can say is that things have broken.

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