Rookie Walker Buehler helped pitch the Dodgers to a sixth straight NL West title, riding homers from Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy to a 5-2 win over the Rockies in Monday's tiebreaker.
Game 163, Round 2 didn’t have quite the excitement of the day’s earlier edition, when the Milwaukee Brewers edged past the Chicago Cubs. The Los Angeles Dodgers kept the Colorado Rockies scoreless until the ninth inning, cruising to victory off a sharp performance by starting pitcher Walker Buehler. The Dodgers will go on to face the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, while the Rockies have the Cubs in Tuesday’s wild-card game. (In the other division series, the wild-card winner will face the Brewers.) Here are three thoughts off the Dodgers’ 5-2 win:
1. The Little Things
It’s trite to emphasize the importance of the little things, but more importantly, it’s accurate. This was on full display in the bottom of the fourth inning. You could say that the key “little thing” there was the fastball left right over the middle of the plate for a two-run dinger by Cody Bellinger, which broke the game open. But there was another little thing, an earlier and smaller one, that also deserves attention. The Dodgers’ first batter of the inning was Max Muncy, who struck out … and still reached first on a passed ball, the result of a cross-up between German Márquez and backstop Tony Wolters. It was a minor flash of confusion, a few seconds of sloppiness, but it was critical. After a clarifying mound visit, Márquez struck out Manny Machado on a 99-mph fastball that produced such a violent swing that the shortstop dropped his bat; then, he struck out Yasmani Grandal on a swooping curveball that dropped the catcher to one knee. But the passed ball meant that, even after three strikeouts, there was still a runner on first. Bellinger made Colorado regret that.
It was a little thing that ended up big, and, perhaps even more crucially, it was the sort of little thing that Colorado knew wouldn’t happen for Los Angeles. Grandal is arguably the best defensive backstop in the game, the top starting catcher as measured by framing runs and fielding runs at Baseball Prospectus. The Rockies didn’t have any room for error here, and they paid dearly for exceeding that margin.
2. Buehler … Buehler …
Márquez’s performance was sexier than Buehler’s, with nine strikeouts in less than five innings of work. The K count doesn’t fully do it justice, either; Márquez wasn’t just sitting batters down, but making them look terribly silly in the process. He seemed, in flashes, downright untouchable. But “in flashes” is the key phrase there, and there were several costly mistakes in the spaces in between those bursts. Meanwhile, Buehler didn’t necessarily have the same electricity—but he was consistent, and he was precise, and he was ultimately far more effective.
Buehler walked three and struck out three in 6.2 IP, but more importantly, he generated almost nothing but soft contact. With a total of eight groundouts, he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Buehler’s always had a tendency to keep the ball on the ground, as one of just eight starting pitchers in the National League with a groundball rate at or above 50%. That was the case today, and it paid off. The Rockies simply couldn’t get anything going off of him.
3. The Rockies’ bullpen is better than it once was, but it’s still a problem area
Neither team went for any sort of unconventional bullpen use here; that’s more likely to surface in the do-or-die of the wild-card game. The Rockies, pretty obviously, opted to save their best relief options for Tuesday’s game. (See: D.J. Johnson and Harrison Musgrave, both rookies, were warming in the fifth inning, which is how you know that they were ready to move along.) But Colorado’s relief strategy today serves as a reminder of just how shallow that ‘pen is. The Rockies’ bullpen improved significantly over the course of the season; after a shockingly bad start, it took a big leap forward with the deadline acquisition of Seung Hwan Oh. Their first-half ERA of 5.20 was the highest in the National League, with baseball’s fifth-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio. Their situation has looked far better in the second half, with a 3.78 ERA (tenth), 3.59 FIP (fifth) and 3.07 K/BB (fifth). There’s still some reason for concern here, though—namely, a lack of depth. Beyond Oh, Adam Ottavino and the surprising Scott Oberg, there isn’t a whole lot here to count on. Today? It ultimately didn’t matter. But it will going forward, and Johnson and Musgrave warming up when the team was down just four runs in the fifth inning illustrated that perfectly.