Dodgers managed to walk their way into trouble
The Dodgers didn’t want to pitch to Jason Heyward? The player with the third lowest OPS in the majors in the regular season? The player who did not receive a single intentional walk — not one! — in 592 plate appearances?
The problem for me starts right there, but I’m not going to be too hard on Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Know why? Because if Joe Blanton had thrown Miguel Montero a better 0-2 slider with two outs and the bases loaded, we would not be having this conversation.
No, we would be talking about something else, dissecting other moves, chattering about this or that rather than the dramatic, eighth-inning grand slam by Montero that lifted the Cubs to an 8-4 victory Saturday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
In fact, we might be second-guessing Cubs manager Joe Maddon for lifting left-hander Jon Lester after six innings and 77 pitches, or again employing a foiled strategy by asking closer Aroldis Chapman for a six-out save.
Alas, it was Roberts’ turn to draw scrutiny on this night, two days after he received widespread praise for his deft managing of Game 5 of the Division Series.
That’s the beauty of baseball, the beauty of this postseason in particular. But let’s get back to the eighth, back to Roberts’ questionable logic in ordering intentional walks to both Heyward and pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan yet pitching to the red-hot Javier Baez.
Roberts, with the score tied 3-3, believed the Dodgers’ best chance was to work their way to the ninth spot in the Cubs’ order and force them to hit for Chapman – “I felt that if we did that,” Roberts would say later, “then the game was ours.”
Part of Roberts’ rationale was that the left-handed Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles, two of the Dodgers’ first three hitters the next inning, would have stood a better chance against Chapman’s replacement, righty Hector Rondon, than the 100-mph lefty.
Fair enough. But in the end, loading the bases was pushing the envelope too far.
Blanton, the Dodgers’ second-best reliever after Kenley Jansen, began the eighth by allowing a double to Ben Zobrist. He then retired Addison Russell on a groundout — no, Maddon didn’t bunt with Russell, who is 1-for-19 in the postseason. Heyward, who had hit a triple off Kenta Maeda in his first at-bat, was next.
True, the left-handed Heyward against the right-handed Blanton was not ideal from the Dodgers’ perspective, but Heyward’s OPS against righties this season was only .647.
Why not be thankful for the soft spot in the lineup, attack Heyward with a base open and tip your cap if he beats you? In the likely event you retire him, you could then walk Baez with two outs — or not — and deal with either him or Coghlan.
Roberts took a different view, saying, “obviously in that situation you’ve got to walk Heyward with the open base.” And with that, the targeting of Chapman’s spot in the order began to take shape.
After Blanton retired Baez on a fly to right, Roberts was one out away from keeping the score tied, and one batter away from getting Chapman out of the game.
By walking Coghlan, he intended to accomplish both.
Two outs, bases loaded, wasn’t a spot for Jansen, not two nights after the closer threw a career-high 51 pitches in Game 5 of the Division Series. Nor was it a spot for rookie left-hander Grant Dayton, who would have entered with no margin for error and ended up facing Willson Contreras, the pinch-hitting hero of the Cubs’ Division Series clincher.
No, Blanton vs. Montero should have been fine — “I would do the same thing over again,” Roberts said. “Ten times out of 10 I would take Joe Blanton against Montero.” Except Blanton, too, had no margin for error. He threw a poor slider on 0-1 that Montero swung through, then came back with virtually the same pitch.
“He threw a good slider into my barrel — I mean, it was a good slider for me,” Montero told me during our post-game interview on FS1.
So much for 10 times out of 10, but Roberts spoke with admirable conviction about his decision-making afterward. Again, if not for Blanton’s poorly executed pitch, we would be having a different conversation.
Such is life in the postseason. Roberts said that he would not second-guess himself, explaining, “The process for me, I felt really good about it.” But Maddon, before and after the game, referenced something he learned about managing from the late Gene Mauch.
“Play the game three times — before, during and after,” Maddon said. “Gene told me that many, many years ago.
“I will tomorrow with my cup of coffee large, a large Americano. I’ll sit there and go over this whole thing again and rehash it. But you have to play it before. And then, of course during the game, anything, anything goes. Your plans could get blown up.”
Of course, even if Roberts replays Game 1 in his own mind — a good bet, no matter what he says — he cannot dwell on it for too long. Another series of major decisions awaits him in Game 2, including the perennial October doozy: How long do you stick with Clayton Kershaw?
October. Ain’t it grand?