Dave Roberts Knows He Must Win. Is This Year Finally the Year?

The Dodgers manager has learned a lot in navigating five postseason trips and three Fall Classic appearances. He still needs to pass the final level.
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, especially on nights when Clayton Kershaw is pitching, is a parlor game not for the thin-skinned. You roll the dice, you move your pieces, and you understand the game comes with only one rule: You must win. There is no second place.

Dave Roberts has been trying to crack this game for five years. This is all you need to know about its difficulty: he became the first manager to be booed this year, and it happened in a 4-2 Los Angeles win over Tampa Bay Sunday in World Series Game 5 in which every move he made worked well.

Before the game, Roberts showed his hand to me: Kershaw for 20 to 22 batters, followed by Dustin May. Victor Gonzalez and Blake Treinin, he said, would be behind May. He wasn’t sure who would close–the game dictates it, he said–but he preferred that his nominal closer, Kenley Jansen, get the night off after pitching the two previous days.

Darned if the whole shebang didn’t go down the way he planned. The key was getting Kershaw out in a timely manner, even if the Dodger-leaning crowd at Globe Life Field booed Roberts for doing so.

“I wouldn’t say it was difficult,” Roberts said about pulling Kershaw after he faced 21 batters. “I understand that fans and players can get very emotional. I’m emotional. But I still have to have clarity in making decisions. My job is to help the Dodgers win the World Series.”

Dave Roberts

Too many times over too many years, Roberts and his predecessors pitched Kershaw on short rest, used him out of the bullpen and let him linger in games too long if only because of his pedigree. The Dodgers stopped playing that losing hand this year.

Lifted while cruising with two outs in the sixth, Kershaw never showed mileage wear on his treads this postseason. In five postseason starts this year he is 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA and a phenomenal strikeout to walk rate of 7.4:1 (37 strikeouts, five walks). His average start? Twenty-two point eight batters faced. He never threw more than 93 pitches.

Roberts has managed 64 postseason games. In only six of them did his starter go three complete loops through the lineup (27 batters faced). The Dodgers were 2-4 in those games.

Kershaw pitched four of them.

“If you look at it, our starters face 21 to 24 hitters,” Roberts said. “That’s where you are at. Then you layer how they’re throwing the baseball.”

Of 104 postseason starts in baseball this year, Kershaw is the only one to complete eight innings (vs. Milwaukee in the Wild Card Series). Only eight of 104 have completed seven innings. In more than half the starts (54) the starter doesn’t even last the minimum five innings to qualify for a win.

In Game 1, Kershaw’s stuff crackled with crispness, especially his slider. He threw 45% sliders, staying with it because the Rays could not hit it. In that start and in his previous one, NLCS Game 4, Kershaw had the two highest average spin rates on the slider in his career. With an 8-1 lead, it was an easy call for Roberts to pull him after six to preserve his strength.

In Game 5, he had to rely on his fastball more because neither his slider nor curveball were sharp.

Roberts approached Kershaw in the dugout after the fifth inning. The Dodgers led 4-2, in part because Kershaw’s best pitch of the night was a 67-mph floater.

Trailing 3-2, Tampa Bay had runners at first and third, two outs and left-handed Kevin Kiermaier at the plate. Manuel Margot, the runner on third, staring at Kershaw’s broad back, and knowing the slow manner in which Kershaw brings his hands up and down to the set position, decided he would try to steal home.

Nobody has pulled off a straight steal of home in the World Series since Jackie Robinson did it in 1955. Give Margot credit. He made a bold choice on his own. It was not a poor choice. The 7-8-9 hitters in the Rays lineup are hitting .164 in the World Series.

Kershaw has been pitching for 13 years. Only twice in all those years did somebody try to steal home. The last time was back in 2015, when Carlos Gomez of Houston tried it. In every case, including this one, Kershaw threw out the runner, albeit he did it this time with a 67 mph throw.

The key was Kershaw’s equanimity. Think about it. This kind of mad dash happens behind your back once every five or six years, and you’re supposed to stay cool? The play is designed, in part, to influence a balk or a bad throw. Kershaw did neither. When first baseman Max Muncy pulled the fire alarm, yelling “step off!”, Kershaw calmly stepped behind the rubber and threw to Barnes, who tagged Margot just before the runner got to the plate.

The Rays never got another runner to third. After the fifth, a clean inning for Kershaw, Roberts approached his left-hander.

“Two more batters,” he told Kershaw.

Famously stubborn, Kershaw didn’t fight it this time.

“I think he felt good about it,” Roberts said.

With another run courtesy of a Max Muncy home run, Kershaw went back out for the sixth with those very clear orders. He took care of the two hitters with one pitch each.

Roberts popped out of the dugout. The infielders met him on the mound with Kershaw. Third baseman Justin Turner pleaded for Roberts to leave him in.

“My mind was made up,” Roberts said. “My feeling was he was at the end. He had enough to get two hitters. We talked about it. He held up his end of the bargain.

“He worked hard to that point. It wasn’t his best stuff.”

As Roberts followed Kershaw off the mound and back to the dugout, the crowd booed Roberts for the exact maneuver people had clamored for in the cases when letting Kershaw stay blew up on the Dodgers.

Dave Roberts

This parlor game is not fair. In Game 4, for instance, Roberts had wear the blame for Julio Urías and Pedro Báez giving up home runs on poor pitch selections. Urías and catcher Will Smith made the unforced error of calling for a first-pitch fastball to the fastball-munching Randy Arozarena. The rookie belted it for a home run. Baez gave up a home run to Brandon Lowe when he shook off a changeup call from Smith to throw a fastball. Lowe had exhibited no clue against changeups.

There is also the issue of front office influence. The Dodgers’ analytics department has a heavy thumb on the scale when it comes to running games. In real time Roberts must make his own decisions, but they are influenced even subconsciously by the pregame input from the front office. Cross your boss and you’d better be right. It’s safer to follow their work.

With their urging or at least support, Roberts made the curious call of rushing May into the game behind Kershaw. May had allowed runs in three straight outings, and appeared excitable doing so.

“When he gets amped up, he rushes,” Roberts said before the game. “He gets out of his delivery. He overcooks the curveball and casts the arm on the cutter. I had a good conversation with him the other day. I just have a good feeling of where he is at. I think he’s beyond the anxiousness he had on the bigger stage before.

“I think he will stay in his delivery. He’ll get that extension on his sinker and not cut it off. I believe his stuff is going to play. I really do.”

Roberts was right. May gave him five outs. Gonzalez, another rookie picked up two outs. Treinen closed it for his first postseason save. This World Series saw its first old-school managers’ postseason game (as much as it can be with DHs)–a tight, pitching-dominated game–and Roberts won the night.

Now he has reached the hardest and last level: the endgame. The Dodgers have been the best team all season. The disparity in talent level in the lineups in this World Series is enormous. Roberts has a team that is supposed to win. It has two chances to close it out, first with Tony Gonsolin starting Game 6 Tuesday, and if needed Walker Buehler in Game 7 Wednesday.

Roberts’ assignment: Don’t mess it up. Don’t get too cute. He has proven throughout this postseason to have a firm but not disruptive hand on running a game. He has called for a squeeze play, encouraged aggressiveness on the bases, called for the right pinch hitters, navigated the late innings, given Jansen’s uneasiness, without a defined closer, and found the right balance with how to use Kershaw.

“I think I’ve built up enough trust equity,” he said, “to have a good conversation with him about what’s best for the Dodgers.”

One more win and Roberts brings Los Angeles the World Series title that his six predecessors could not. One more win and he will have conquered the labyrinth that is managing the Dodgers.