By Jon Weisman
What’s the ideal scenario for the Dodgers at Washington tonight in the deciding game of the National League Division Series?
Pretty simply: An early lead, six or seven combined innings from Rich Hill (officially announced as today’s starting pitcher) and Julio Urías, and matchups from the set-up men before Kenley Jansen sends Los Angeles to Wrigley Field.
It’s hardly implausible, given that the Dodgers scored four runs in the first three innings against Nationals starter Max Scherzer in Game 1. Then there’s the potential of Hill and Urías.
Counting the playoffs, Hill has pitched in seven games for the Dodgers. In the first three innings of those games, Hill has allowed a total of four runs. Opponents are 16 for 73 (.219) with three walks and 27 strikeouts.
Because Hill is pitching on three days’ rest, the Dodgers would likely turn early to Urías, especially with a lead. The 20-year-old has been on an upward trend ever since his May big-league debut, but he really threw his engine into another gear in the final seven weeks of the season, particularly when he had extra rest. Since August 13, Urías has a 1.26 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings, despite an unlucky batting average on balls in play against him of .361.
Though he did allow 41 baserunners in that time for a .347 on-base percentage, not one of the last 120 batters Urías faced hit a home run. Collectively, they slugged .282.
No pitcher younger than Urías has appeared in relief in a playoff game since 19-year-old Don Gullett in the 1970 World Series.
As Dave Cameron of Fangraphs pointed out in his look at the Dodgers’ pitching situation, though, it might not make sense for the Dodgers to go straight from Hill to Urías, left-hander to left-hander. Though it would be unorthodox, this is a day for the unconventional.
No, Kenley Jansen in the middle innings isn’t going to happen, thrilling as that would be, but fellow right-handers Pedro Báez, Joe Blanton, Josh Fields and Ross Stripling are all candidates. Stripling and Fields would be more likely with a lead, Báez to start an inning in a tighter game and Blanton at a moment of true crisis (if you don’t consider every moment of this game a true crisis).
Whatever happens, Grant Dayton would likely be the primary lefty out of the bullpen in the late innings, with Luis Avilán the other southpaw option.
That’s nine pitchers, leaving only Game 3 and 4 starters Kenta Maeda and Clayton Kershaw out of the equation. And frankly, there are things that would shock me more than seeing either of them if this contest reaches extra innings.
What to make of all this? There’s probably no single arm taking the mound today who is better than Scherzer, who will be throwing on five days’ rest. But inning by inning, with every Dodger pitcher able to go all out and not worry about conserving energy, the pitching matchups might be more of a dead heat than it appears on paper.
As much as there has been a focus on pitching for today, Game 5 might come down to the offenses — and in particular, the Dodgers’ ability to handle Daniel Murphy, who lacks an extra-base hit but has a .529 on-base percentage and only one strikeout in 17 plate appearances.
Trea Turner (.368 OBP), Jayson Werth (.556) and Bryce Harper (.421) have also given the Dodgers fits, though with 21 strikeouts among them, it’s been feast or famine. But the Dodgers just seem unable to make Murphy miss more than a pitch or two at a time. Even in an 0-2 count, he remains a threat.
It is going to be an edge-of-your-sanity day, with no lead safe, no deficit insurmountable and no breath unheld.