If not for the double plays that his team grounded into during the seventh, eighth and ninth innings Saturday, Dodger pitcher Kenta Maeda would have been batting in the ninth inning of an absolute nailbiter in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
If not for the 4-3 lead the Dodgers had taken despite those double plays, Maeda — or a pinch-hitting Clayton Kershaw — might have been batting to keep the Dodgers alive.
If not for the Dodger bullpen’s work in holding that 4-3 lead, scheduled Game 4 starter Rich Hill would have taken the mound for Los Angeles to start the bottom of the 10th inning.
If not for Austin Barnes avoiding any injury that could have come in the final hour of the game, Max Muncy, who has never played catcher professionally, would have had to go behind the plate.
Any of these scenarios would have exposed Dodger manager Dave Roberts to toxic criticism. Instead, Roberts sashayed home to Los Angeles with a well-earned split of the first two NLCS games.
I’m here to tell you that even if the Dodgers had lost the game, Roberts made the right moves.
Roberts managed within an inch of his roster’s life, using his last position player, pinch-hitter Yasmani Grandal, by the top of the seventh and his last available reliever when Kenley Jansen took the mound in the bottom of the ninth.
You can easily see the flames flickering around Roberts for failing to plan for any late complications. What if someone else got hurt? What if the game went 15 innings?
But until Justin Turner’s two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning, Roberts and his Dodgers were trailing. In a playoff pressure-cooker, Roberts didn’t have the luxury of worrying about emergencies that might have a remote chance of flaring. He had to worry about the emergency right in front of him.
And so he made his moves, beginning on the mound by pulling Hyun-Jin Ryu in the fifth inning even after Ryu had pitched shutout ball for his first 11 innings of the postseason.
Then Roberts got really aggressive with his roster.
This, as many have pointed out, is not the era of Manny Mota and Vic Davalillo. Roberts begins each NLCS game with five position players on his bench. Using three of them replace other position players before an out had been recorded in the seventh inning is how the Dodgers ultimately ended up with Maeda in the on-deck circle in the ninth.
But of the three moves, the only one that raised one of my eyebrows was Joc Pederson batting for Kiké Hernández with two on and one out in the seventh, and the Dodgers trailing, 3-1. The situation was critical, but Hernández has held his own against right-handed pitchers, and while you don’t want to be tentative out of fear of extra innings, it was easy enough to see that the Dodgers might run out of bats by the ninth.
At the same time, this looked like the Dodgers’ best shot to get back in the game, and Roberts couldn’t count on there being another. So he seized the moment and went for every edge he had. Pederson, as it happened, flared a single to load the bases, one of two hits he had off the bench. (Even though the Dodgers didn’t take the lead in the seventh, the extra pressure the inning created probably affected the ability of Brewers reliever Jeremy Jeffress to pitch to Turner in the eighth.)
Had Roberts obeyed the oft-voiced but honestly ridiculous “What if the game goes 10 innings or 12 innings or 15 innings?” fear, he would have missed his moment. Almost no games go 15 innings. Almost every game goes nine.
If you contend that Pederson should have been held back to hit in the spot that Grandal took, I won’t disagree with you. Either way, Roberts’ head was in the right place. He managed for a win in nine innings, and happily for the Dodgers and their fans, that’s what he got.