The Dodgers defeated the Nationals, 4-3, and they’re moving on to the National League Championship Series, where they’ll face the Cubs. The Dodgers are moving on in the baseball playoffs because they used their best baseball players to win a baseball game. If it sounds simple, well, it isn’t.
Maybe it should be.
In almost every sports context, the advice I’m about to give you makes sense: Use your best players if they’re available.
Try it out.
ANNOUNCER: Six seconds left. Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and hearts are racing. The Cavaliers have the ball, and they’re going to inbound, probably to ... wait, is that LeBron on the bench?
TYRONN LUE: Oh, man, he’s tired. Played yesterday, you know.
ANNOUNCER: Amazing! Even though there’s a chance that the Cavs can win, which would mean the Warriors would have blown a
Substitute any sport. Switch back to baseball and pretend that you have Mike Trout on your bench with two outs in the ninth. The bases are loaded. Do you use him? You do, especially if you don’t want to get fired. Use your best players. Use your best players. Use your best players. It’s the most obvious mantra in sports.
Use your best pitchers, regardless of the consequences.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down there, comrade. That’s the least obvious mantra in sports. This isn’t 1904, and these aren’t a bunch of malnourished, 5’4 waifs throwing an armadillo hide 70 mph in front of 300 people. These are modern pitchers. These are finely tuned sports cars. And if you start doing donuts with them, they could throw a rod.
Yet, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers started hearing the voices in their heads. Use your best players. Use your best players. Use your best players ...
It’s seductive. The risk is intangible. The reward is incredibly tangible. Use your best players and win. Use your best players and win.
POINT OF ORDER NO. 1
This game was designed in a laboratory to make Buck Showalter look bad.
You’ll remember six years ago, when the Orioles and Blue Jays were in a do-or-die game, and Showalter didn’t use one of his best players, Zach Britton (oh wait, that was 10 days ago). It seemed odd, to lose the season without using one of your best players. It still seems odd. But he was going by the book.
Then the Dodgers ate the book and used the droppings to scrawl their manifestos on the wall. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts brought his closer into the seventh inning. Can you believe such a thing?
It doesn’t sound weird if you’re still using that "use your best players" nugget from the intro. But trust me, this is very weird in baseball.
The Nationals had just hit a two-run homer. The pitcher on the mound was a 28-year-old journeyman rookie who suddenly learned how to baseball like something out of an ‘80s comedy, then forgot at the worst moment. They had a rally going. The top of the order was coming up. You could smell the disappointment on the other side.
So Roberts used one of his best players. That was when the rally was happening. That was the fire that needed to be put out. Use your best players, he thought.
Kenley Jansen was worked harder than he’d been worked in years, maybe as hard as he’s ever been worked. Baseball-Reference doesn’t have the pitch counts of all his minor league starts, with gaps during his time in the California League, but as far as we can tell, his 51 pitches were a career high.
And then he was pulled for Clayton Kershaw, who got the save on exactly one day’s rest.
The Dodgers didn’t end their season with Ubaldo Jimenez on the mound. They ended it with Kershaw, the best orb-chucker in baseball, if not, I don’t know, baseball history. Hey, if the track and field records can keep getting more amazing, I don’t know why Kershaw can’t be the best pitcher who ever lived, here in 2016.
If the rules of engagement had shifted just a little bit with Britton’s non-appearance, here was a seismic fault opening up.
POINT OF ORDER NO. 2
It only works if you have the best of the best
You can’t do this with Sam Dyson and Cole Hamels. As talented as they are, and as much as they had to do with the Rangers making the postseason and having the season they did, in the middle of Dyson’s second inning, you would think, "Boy, this sure is a lot of Sam Dyson!"
When Hamels came in on one day’s rest to face an MVP candidate, you would have turned the TV off to hide in your hamper, even if you didn’t care who won. Too stressful. Too weird.
But Jansen might be the best closer in baseball. Top five, at least. And Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. If you don’t know that tomorrow exists, use them today?
POINT OF ORDER NO. 3
It almost didn’t work!
This seems like an important point. Jansen was gassed in the ninth inning. Spent. Completely empty. To use an abstract simile, he was pitching like a one-inning pitcher deep into his third inning of work. He walked two batters in a row in the ninth after punching out Trea Turner to begin the inning. When he was throwing ball after ball to Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, I was screaming "TAKE HIM OUT!" at my TV, even though I hate the Dodgers enough that I eternally wish for Tommy Lasorda to have a river of spiders crawl out of his glove compartment whenever he opens it.
It worked because it worked. It didn’t work because it had to work.
After Jansen walked the potential winning run of the NLDS, the starting pitcher came in on one day’s rest to face Daniel Murphy, MVP candidate. How did it go? Well, Kershaw was throwing 95, and he got Murphy to pop out. So pretty well.
Those are where the fastballs went. They were up.
Now, we can’t just treat those context-free locations as proof that Kershaw got away with something. For one thing, Murphy is left-handed, and left-handed batters slugged just .309 against Kershaw this year. So ...
Ugh, sorry. Left-handed batters had an on-base percentage of just .309 this year, so you can understand ...
Wait. This can’t be right. Says here that Kershaw held left-handed batters to a .309 OPS over 141 plate appearances. He didn’t just turn every left-handed batter into a pitcher. He turned them into a bad pitcher. Matt Garza or something. Jon Lester after a fifth of schnapps. So those fastballs up might have been hard to hit for a lefty, regardless of location.
They aren’t typical Kershaw pitches, though. And if Murphy sent one into the night, what would we have all said? You fool, Dave Roberts. Kershaw was tired. He left pitches up. It’s on you, not him. It’s on you.
As is, the Dodgers won, and they did it with Kenley Jansen pitching 2⅓ innings and Clayton Kershaw getting the last two outs. Because they were the Dodgers’ best players.
POINT OF ORDER NO. 4
What does this mean going forward?
Ha ha, no idea. I can picture Joe Maddon watching from home, in a silk kimono, rubbing his hands together, whispering "Gooood, gooood. Yessss, goooood" under his breath. Because while the Dodgers won the Division Series, they might still have to play 14 more baseball games before the season is over.
Who starts Game 1? Looks like Kenta Maeda. How about Game 2? Uh, maybe Rich H ... no, that’s off. Maybe Clayton K ... no, no, that doesn’t make sense either. Brandon McCarthy? Ross Stripling? Joe Blanton? Kenley Jansen?
And then there’s the matter of how this game affected Kershaw and Jansen going forward. Next year. The years after that. They were both overextended to win the first postseason series the Dodgers reached. Is that really when you empty the piggy bank of stamina, and could it hurt in future seasons?
Maybe? If one of them does get hurt in the future, though, you can’t say a damned thing. The Nationals were careful with Stephen Strasburg, feeding him liquid dinners and assigning spotters to put his groceries in his car. He didn’t appear in this very series because he was hurt.
Livan Hernandez pitched for five decades, even though his arm has been filled with ramen noodles and thumbtacks since his second season.
There aren’t answers, at least not the kind you can point to definitively. This kind of game might have long-term repercussions. But we’ll never know.
Over the next week, though? I’m thinking that’s going to be an issue. And the second-guessing will make Buck Showalter feel a little better, even if just for one game.
POINT OF ORDER NO. 5
The seventh inning literally took an hour. That wasn’t ideal. But that was one of the best baseball games any of us will ever watch. The Dodgers and Dave Roberts turned into a nerdy thought exercise and amazed the masses. What happens if you use your best baseball players in the baseball game, the professor asked his eager, attentive students? So, it happened. And it worked.
It didn’t have to. But it probably would have most of the time, give or take. That’s the point. The Dodgers used their best baseball players, and it worked. In the future, I’m thinking more teams will do the same.
They’ll need the very best players, though. No imitations. And there will be failures, because it doesn’t always have to work. In the 2016 NLDS, though, it worked just fine. What a game.