It has been a Division Series of attrition, one with pinch hitters and relievers galore trundling out of dugouts and bullpens in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. For the Dodgers and Nationals, this series has been full of trips to the mound and calls to the ‘pen, and as starters on each side have failed to go the distance—or even get halfway there—both Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker have found themselves grinding every last bit of use out of every player on the roster.
So it was in Game 3, where both teams saw their starters exit early and turned the NLDS into bullpens on parade, trying to cobble together innings with the likes of Sammy Solis and Josh Fields and Pedro Baez. On Monday, it was Baker and the Nationals who came out on top in the latest game of musical reliever chairs, getting 4 2/3 scoreless innings from the bullpen to help them take Game 3, 8–3, and a 2–1 series lead.
By this point, viewers and fans are probably more familiar with the relievers on either side than anyone else. Of the six starters who have taken the ball for the Dodgers and Nationals, only Max Scherzer has even reached the sixth inning, and the only Los Angeles starter who has completed five innings is Clayton Kershaw, in a ragged Game 1 performance. All told, Dodgers starters have combined for just 12 1/3 innings this series; Nationals starters have logged just 14 2/3.
Monday’s game was more of the same. It took Kenta Maeda a whopping 28 pitches to get through the first inning, as the Japanese righty struggled with his location and with a strike zone from home plate umpire Ron Kulpa that seemed to warp and shrink with every passing minute. Maeda got an early lead on a Corey Seager RBI double in the bottom of the first and bounced back with a quick second, but the third inning was what did him in. Behind a Trea Turner single, an RBI double from Jayson Werth, an RBI single from Bryce Harper and a two-run homer from Anthony Rendon, the Nationals threw four runs on the board to put an early end to Maeda’s day.
Through four innings, it seemed like Gio Gonzalez would be the latest southpaw to stymie an otherwise productive Dodgers offense, as he held Los Angeles to just one run and two hits. But with one on and one out in the fifth, Roberts called on backup catcher Carlos Ruiz to pinch-hit for Baez, and the longtime Phillies backstop rewarded him with a booming home run to left to cut the Nationals’ lead to one. Out came Gonzalez, the fourth straight starter to fail to reach the fifth for both teams.
From there, it was all bullpens, which seems to be what Baker and Roberts are most comfortable—and best—with. As he has all season and series, Roberts shuttled relievers into the game with abandon, using three in the sixth inning alone and seven overall, literally emptying his ‘pen. Baker wasn’t far behind, stitching together the final 14 outs with four different pitchers.
Baker’s crew was equal to the task he gave them: Solis, Oliver Perez, Shawn Kelley and Mark Melancon held the Dodgers to two hits and a walk in their final 17 trips to the plate. But while the Dodgers were able to keep the Nationals off the board for five innings, things fell apart in the ninth, with closer Kenley Jansen and long man Ross Stripling giving up four runs between them to put the game out of reach.
While both managers would likely prefer to get more length from their starters, it’s clear that Roberts and Baker are willing to squeeze inning after inning out of their bullpens. Roberts is an aggressive bullpen manager—he set a new MLB record with 606 pitching changes this season—who always seeks the platoon advantage. Baker, meanwhile, has quietly had one of his best series, expertly stitching together outs from an unheralded crew. Solis in particular has been a revelation, tossing four scoreless innings across the first three games. Boasting the two best bullpens by ERA this season, this is the kind of game that both managers were ready to play, and while it’s made for some long stretches of inaction—Monday’s contest took a staggering four hours and 12 minutes to play—it’s the strategy that both Baker and Roberts have embraced and succeeded with.
It helps the Nationals that the Dodgers’ offense has gone ice cold at the worst possible moment. Los Angeles has scraped together just five runs over its last 24 innings of play, and aside from Seager and Justin Turner, the big bats have come up empty. Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal, Josh Reddick and Joc Pederson have combined for eight hits in 43 at-bats—none for extra bases. That’s in stark contrast to the Washington core of Turner, Werth, Harper, Rendon and Daniel Murphy. Werth in particular has been a nightmare for the Dodgers: On Monday, he put together a three-hit game and drove in two, including a long homer to leftfield off Jansen in the ninth.
Facing elimination, Roberts will need to hope that his offense can find its stride. On the mound, he’ll likely have Kershaw, making just his third career start on three days’ rest. Baker will likely go with righthander Joe Ross. But expect to see a lot of both Baker and Roberts walking out onto the field on Tuesday, left or right arms extended, seeking the right combination of relievers either to take them to the NLCS or keep their season alive for one more game.