The fallout of their 7-3 loss to the Washington Nationals in a 10-inning, winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series bordered on difficult to watch. Clayton Kershaw, the future Hall of Fame pitcher, blamed himself and said: "Everything people say is true right now about the postseason." Dave Roberts, the manager, defended his shoddy decision-making but said: "If the blame falls on me, I've got no problem with it."
As the Nationals reveled in Howie Kendrick's go-ahead grand slam and their first postseason series victory since the franchise moved to Washington from Montreal, the Dodgers were left to ruminate on what-ifs and live with second-guessing. Which, in many cases, was actually first-guessing, because Roberts' string-pulling, even in the moment, resembled a marionette flailing about at the hands of an amateur puppeteer. On a night of stunning turnabouts, Roberts -- typically a savvy strategist -- turning in this sort of performance was the shock of shocks.
Kershaw played to type. After inheriting a jam in the seventh inning and escaping with a strikeout of Adam Eaton, the left-hander emerged in the eighth to face Anthony Rendon, the Nationals' MVP candidate, with left-hander Juan Soto looming on deck. The Dodgers led 3-1. They were six outs from a fourth consecutive NL Championship Series appearance.
Armed with a fastball and slider that register similarly on the radar gun, no longer the Kershaw of three Cy Young Awards and seven consecutive top-5 finishes, he succeeded this season on guile. Rendon and Soto scoff at guile. Rendon jumped on a low 89 mph pitch and lofted it over the left-center-field fence. Soto attacked the next pitch, also 89 mph, fat and in the strike zone, and ambushed it 449 feet into the right-center-field bleachers.
Never in the regular season had Kershaw given up home runs on back-to-back pitches, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This was the second time he had done it in the postseason. Kershaw was yanked from the game and sat alone on the bench,confounded, befogged, stupefied -- saddened above all. The crowd of 54,159 at Dodger Stadium, so alive as the bottom of the hour hit, was stunned silent.
"I had one job to do: Just get three outs. I got one out," Kershaw said. "Didn't get the other two and they went over the fence and it cost us the game right there. It's a terrible feeling. No excuses. Just didn't make pitches, and a guy hit it over the fence, twice."
Kershaw was in the game because his name was Clayton Kershaw. Roberts appreciates who he is as a person and what he has been as a pitcher. In this situation, though -- six outs separating the Dodgers from Game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals, a bullpen full of superior matchups at his behest -- urgency needed to trump loyalty and trust and history. If the back of his jersey did not read KERSHAW, Roberts would have had an awfully difficult time making the case to use him.
The path to a victory had plenty of other routes. Roberts could have summoned Kenta Maeda, his high-leverage bullpen stopper, to navigate the heart of the Nationals' order. He could have called upon Pedro Baez, against whom right-handers hit .172 this season, to face Rendon, then mobilize left-hander Adam Kolarek, whose lone job all series was specifically to get Soto out. In a do-or-die game, if you don't do, you die.
Here was Roberts' explanation: "I felt good about Clayton right there. Eaton, and when you got Rendon and Soto, so I felt that I liked Clayton. He threw, I don't know what it was, a couple pitches, and we had Clayton ready for whatever today. So for Maeda to go through Soto, Kenta in this role, we really liked him against the right-hander. And the success that Clayton's had against Soto with the two-run lead, I'll take Clayton any day in that situation. I just think it's one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto."
This is a lot to digest. Much of it doesn't make sense. Kershaw's home run rate spiked to a career worst this year. Rendon, both this year and historically, hits left-handed pitchers better than right-handers. The idea of liking Kershaw against Soto with a two-run lead is fine. The Dodgers did not have a two-run lead by the time Soto batted. They had a one-run lead -- and a left-hander in Kolarek who had struck out Soto twice in the series and induced a ground ball in their other matchup.
The bungling did not end there. After Maeda replaced Kershaw and cruised through the eighth, Roberts brought in Joe Kelly, who worked a quick and easy ninth inning. Then he returned for the 10th. As recently as last week, Kelly was dealing with an unidentified injury. He had not pitched more than one inning since Aug. 24.
Closer Kenley Jansen was available. So was Baez. And Kolarek. And Dustin May. They were available when Kelly walked Eaton to lead off the inning. They were available when Rendon yanked a double to put runners on second and third. They were available when Roberts intentionally walked Soto to load the bases. They were available, and still Roberts hung with Kelly against Kendrick.
Here was Roberts' explanation: "Kelly goes in there, throws 10 pitches, and he's throwing the baseball really well. He's arguably our most rested reliever, and the way he was throwing the baseball, so I felt it was pretty easy. Don't have a lot of guys as far as behind Kenley. I liked Joe right there in that spot, I really did. After 10 pitches there was no stress. Ball 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, I felt really good about it. And as far as that second and third, nobody out, you're in a tie ballgame, yeah, you could go to Kolarek, infield is going to be in, hope for a punch, but I just felt that Joe had a good chance to put Howie on the ground and potentially then get Kenley on Zimmerman. And so my thought was to try to get a ground ball right there. So now you're looking at potential effectiveness. And so I don't think anybody could have been more effective than Joe in that ninth inning. And so it was 10 pitches, the velocity, the command, the curveball. And so to go out there and send him out there again, I felt really good about it."
OK. Kelly was rested because in his last outing he walked three, gave up a hit and two runs and didn't record an out. Coming off that, Roberts was asking him to do something he hadn't done in more than six weeks. Even if Kelly's ground ball tendencies -- and they're exceedingly strong -- match up well with Kendrick's predilection to hit the ball on the ground, sticking with him after a walk and a double, with Jansen ready to go, shows a fidelity to the numbers that does not match the moment.
Sometimes a bad result can be stomached if the process was sound. The process here was not sound, and when Kendrick hammered a ball over the center-field fence at 9:23 p.m., the deed was done. Then Roberts didn't even go to Jansen with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate, as he suggested he would have done, only calling upon his closer after Yan Gomes singled to right field.
It's impossible to say this entire debacle was preventable. Other pitchers might have blown the lead the same way Kershaw and Kelly did. But the Dodgers are where they are, with a roster built for now and the future, because of rigorous decision-making. The only rigor in Roberts' decisions was of the mortis variety, because it turned the Dodgers' season into a corpse.
What comes next is every bit as interesting as what befell the Dodgers on Wednesday. This is the sort of loss that could complicate Roberts' future with the Dodgers. He did sign a four-year contract extension in December, and in many ways -- from how the players feel about him to how well he represents the organization and brand -- he is an ideal manager for this team and market. No matter how well the Dodgers are set up going forward, though, the notion that a game of this magnitude can be mismanaged in such fashion invites scrutiny.
Further, team president Andrew Friedman, who built the 106-win team and turned the farm system into a player-development machine, has a contract that expires at the end of October. There has been mutual interest in him remaining with the Dodgers, and it is the likeliest outcome, but it's another box to check in an offseason rife with intrigue.
Do the Dodgers, for example, buck their trend of avoiding high-priced free agents and chase Rendon or Gerrit Cole? Can they use May and Tony Gonsolin, two high-ceiling rookies, to replace free agents Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill in the rotation? Even if Jansen doesn't opt out of his contract -- a possibility but by no means a certainty -- how do they improve their bullpen?
It was clear Roberts felt he didn't have the sorts of options other teams have, though neither did the Nationals, and Dave Martinez, their manager, made due. Coming into the series, Roberts was seen as the clearly superior tactician. It's not so much that he got out-managed as he backed himself into a corner with self-owns.
And so went the Dodgers' season, spiraling from glory to gutter in less than an hour. Some Dodgers players were on the verge of tears afterward, and understandably so. They thought this was the year. They believed this was the team that was going to snap the 31-year championship drought. They knew they were special. Instead, they get to wonder what could have been -- what should have been. They'll never know. That's the hardest part.
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