By Jon Weisman
No longer is there any doubt about who is the Dodgers’ primary eighth-inning reliever in the bullpen.
Game 4 of the National League Division Series showed that it is definitively Chris Hatcher.
As Clayton Kershaw began the seventh inning Tuesday, having already thrown 86 pitches with a history of seeming to tire on three days’ rest, the Dodgers had two relievers warming up: Hatcher and lefty Luis Avilan. Kershaw, as we know, gave up a spider bite of a single to Yoenis Cespedes, but recovered to finish off the next three batters and his work for the night.
Had Travis d’Arnaud reached base in the seventh inning after Cespedes to put the tying runs on with nobody out against Kershaw, Mattingly indicated he would have gone with Avilan against Lucas Duda.
“If (Kershaw) just seems at that point to have run out of gas, at that point I’m probably going Avilan, because I’m going to try to keep their lefties on the bench,” Mattingly said. “They’ve got (Michael) Conforto, (Kelly) Johnson sitting there. I’d rather face their righties. So I would try to keep their lefties on the bench at least to David Wright, and then it would be back to Hatch.
“So that was (for) the seventh. Once you got to the eighth, that changed.”
When the eighth inning began, Hatcher was on the mound, with closer Kenley Jansen ultimately starting to throw in the bullpen, but Avilan was sitting down — even as Mattingly could foresee two Conforto and Johnson leading off the inning. The third and fifth hitters due up in the eighth, Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy, also swing from the left side.
Hatcher retired Conforto and Johnson, then walked Granderson on five pitches. With David Wright coming on as the tying run, Jansen got the signal to enter.
Circumstances can always dictate a change of plans, but as far as Mattingly is concerned, when the Dodgers are down to the final two innings, they are down to Hatcher and Jansen.
“Luis is up in the seventh, and once we get through that inning, we feel like that’s Hatch’s inning,” Mattingly said. “His numbers against lefties have been really good. So he’s gotten to the point where if we’re coming into that inning, it’s pretty much his inning. In that situation (Tuesday) we knew it was partially his inning, and from there we were going to go directly to Kenley. So at that point … we weren’t worried about trying to match up lefty-righty.”
Hatcher earned this spot after a difficult first four months that left him with a 6.38 ERA through mid-June, followed by nearly nine weeks on the disabled list with a left oblique strain. But after being re-activated on August, Hatcher allowed only three runs on 20 baserunners in 20 2/3 innings, while striking out 31. Though he was showing signs of progress through the final two weeks of August, his first big moment of redemption came in the three shutout innings he threw the Dodgers’ 14-inning victory August 31 over the Giants.
Moreover, his numbers against left-handed hitters have been strong all year long, and getting stronger. In the 2015 regular season, lefties went 9 for 50 (.180) against Hatcher. He walked 10, but until Granderson earned his free pass Tuesday, none since Erick Aybar on September 7. He hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit to a left-handed batter since San Diego’s Brett Wallace homered on September 4.
“Last year, we had a (few) more issues in the eighth inning,” Zack Greinke said Wednesday. “This year, I feel like Hatcher’s been pitching pretty amazing as of late. So I feel pretty confident with those last two innings with those guys.”