Down two games to one and facing elimination in their Division Series against the Nationals, the Dodgers had a difficult choice to make regarding their starting pitcher for Tuesday's Game 4 in Los Angeles—so difficult that the organization decided to sleep on it, so to speak. Not until five hours before game time did Los Angeles announce that ace Clayton Kershaw would take the ball on three days of rest.
Normally, this would be an easy decision, but Kershaw missed 2 1/2 months, from late June to early September, with a herniated disc in his back. While he had worked his way back into a groove over the course of his five regular-season starts in September and October—allowing six runs (four earned) in 28 innings and posting a 27/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio—he maxed out at 91 pitches in those games and labored through the last of them, his Oct. 1 turn against the Giants.
In NLDS Game 1 last Friday in Washington, the Nationals forced Kershaw to work even harder. Only in the first inning did he retire the Nats in order, and even then, he needed 17 pitches to strike out the side thanks to Bryce Harper's eight-pitch plate appearance. The Nationals loaded the bases in a 23-pitch second inning, and three hits and a walk produced two runs during a 26-pitch third inning. Kershaw needed 16 pitches to get through the fourth, when he gave up another run, and he left two runners on after an 18-pitch fifth inning. His 101 pitches were the most he had thrown since his June 26 outing against the Pirates, the last one before he went on the disabled list, and many of those 101 pitches were in high-stress situations.
Manager Dave Roberts's quandary was complicated even further by last Saturday's rainout, which meant that Game 2 starter Rich Hill would need to come back on three days' rest to start Game 5. Hill has never started on short rest and hasn't gone past 93 pitches since July 7, when he was still with the Athletics; blister problems limited him to six turns and an average of 85 pitches after being acquired by Los Angeles on Aug. 1. What's more, he scuffled through 82 pitches in Game 2 of the series as the Nationals got overly familiar with his curveball.
With a reluctance to bring Hill back on short rest, the Dodgers' decision boiled down to this: Bring back Kershaw on three days' rest and then use some combination of 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias, Hill and all other available hands in Washington for Game 5; or use Urias and the bullpen for Game 4 and hope that Kershaw would get a chance to pitch on normal rest in Game 5. Urias pitched to a 3.39 ERA and 3.17 FIP with 9.8 strikeouts per nine in 77 big league innings this year, and he has demonstrated poise beyond his years, but his 132 total innings are already 51 2/3 past last year's total, and he last pitched on Sept. 30, making sharpness a concern whether or not he's thrown into the fire in Game 4 or 5.
(For what it’s worth, Nationals manager Dusty Baker also didn’t name his Game 4 starter until Tuesday morning, but having already announced that ace Max Scherzer wouldn’t pitch until Game 5, the choice of a less-than-mint Joe Ross over rookie Reynaldo Lopez was a footnote by comparison.)
Neither of Roberts’s choices was optimal, but the good news for the Dodgers is that Kershaw's history on short rest is mostly positive; he's done it in Game 4 of the Division Series in each of the past three seasons. In the 2013 NLDS against the Braves, with the Dodgers up two games to one, he went six innings and allowed just three hits and two unearned runs, whiffing six over the course of 91 pitches; the Dodgers closed out the series in that one thanks to Juan Uribe's eight-inning homer off David Carpenter. In 2014, facing the Cardinals with L.A. down two games to one, Kershaw tossed six innings of one-hit shutout ball on 94 pitches but gave up two singles and an unlikely three-run homer by lefty Matt Adams to start the seventh; manager Don Mattingly didn't have a pitcher in his bullpen that he trusted more than his flagging ace, who unraveled over the course of his final eight pitches. Last year, against the Mets and again down two games to one, Kershaw threw seven innings of three-hit, one-run ball, using 94 pitches; the Dodgers won to send the series back to L.A., where they lost Game 5.
Kershaw’s total line in those three starts: 19 innings, 10 hits, six runs (four earned) and a 23/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio for a 1.89 ERA. In this day and age, you can't ask for much more than that given how deep he works into counts. This time around, the Dodgers have a better bullpen to back him up, albeit one that worked six innings on Monday in relief of Kenta Maeda, with Pedro Baez and Joe Blanton both going past 30 pitches and Kenley Jansen getting lit up for four ninth-inning runs to blow the game open before getting the hook after just 16 pitches.
As Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher famously said, “You don’t save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain.” The situations aren't quite parallel, but during the AL wild-card game, the Orioles lost because of Buck Showalter's reluctance to use lights-out closer Zach Britton in a tie game on the road, because the manager was waiting for a better, more textbook opportunity that might never come—and didn't. The Braves lost the aforementioned 2013 Division Series game in part because it was Carpenter and not star closer Craig Kimbrel facing Uribe; manager Fredi Gonzalez didn't want to go to his closer in the eighth because, well, you'll have to ask him.
The point—underscored in the positive direction by Kershaw's own history, and by other examples of aggressive staff management such as Terry Francona's bullpen use in this year's Division Series against the Red Sox—is that it's better to go with your best pitchers, even under suboptimal conditions, because at least you took your best shot. That's what the Dodgers are doing. If they win, they can worry about patching together nine innings opposite Scherzer. If they lose, at least they won't have to wonder what might have been had they given the planet's best pitcher one final chance.