Let’s start by looking ahead at the Dodger pitching, before we look back.
I’m presuming the Dodgers will start Tony Gonsolin tonight, but should they go with Dustin May or Julio Urías, just make a mental note to switch them in the discussion. (Update: May is starting, so note away!)
Four relievers who haven’t pitched in October tonight are available: Pedro Báez, Dylan Floro, Adam Kolarek and Jake McGee. A fifth, Victor González, has only gone an inning, throwing 14 pitches two days ago.
So for Game 3, you have six pitchers who are entirely fresh.
Walker Buelher and Clayton Kershaw are obviously out. May and Urías almost certainly are, although the Dodgers could theoretically deploy one of them to help close out a sweep if they are willing to go with a full bullpen game in what would be a deciding Game 5 on Saturday.
After needing 19 pitches — none of them a fastball — to nail down his one and only out in Game 2, Joe Kelly isn’t likely to pitch except in an emergency.
And of course, following his nausea-inducing 30-pitch outing, don’t expect Kenley Jansen tonight under any circumstances.
I held back on Twitter because I felt it needed more context, but after Wednesday’s game ended, I was tempted to post the famous Walter Cronkite video about the hopelessness of the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War — considered a cultural tipping point for the nation’s faith in the effort. While I don’t want to make analogy between Vietnam and winning a World Series, I do think Jansen’s prodigous Game 2 struggles will be the Dodgers’ tipping point in his usage.
Where does that leave Jansen, when it’s not like you want an unsteady pitcher throwing at any time in the playoffs? There’s almost no such thing as a mop-up inning in October, not when no lead is safe and no deficit beyond making an effort to overcome. Besides, what you want in a mop-up pitcher is endurance — multiple innings. Alex Wood or Dennis Santana could be a mop-up pitcher. Kenley Jansen can’t.
What I believe — and this, I think, was the Dodgers’ greatest mistake Wednesday — is that you need to understand that you don’t want Jansen facing more than four batters in any outing going forward. You need to be ready with that quick hook. When Jansen struggles, the pitches multiply like rabbits, and it’s not as if he becomes more effective the more he throws in a game.
Jansen got his first batter out quickly, but an 11-pitch effort against Jake Cronenworth — ending, no less, with a liner that glanced off his glove and then his arm — put the tying run on deck. At that point, if Jansen allows another baserunner, you have to pull him. (It crossed my mind that after the ball struck him, the Dodgers’ had a valid reason to remove Jansen then and there, citing injury.)
Unfortunately, the Dodgers didn’t even begin warming up a reliever — who, almost inexplicably, was the erratic, suddenly fastball-challenged Kelly — until after Jansen was in this jam. So even after Mitch Moreland took Jansen to 20 pitches for the night and hit a ringing double to right center, it was another two batters and 10 pitches before Jansen exited the mound.
That’s the problem. Not that the Dodgers put Jansen in with a three-run lead in the ninth. The problem was that they were practically ready to sink or swim with him, knowing the problems he has had, seeing with their own eyes the difficulty he was having executing pitches.
Go back to the top of this post. At the start of the ninth inning, five men in the Dodger bullpen were 100 percent rested. How you don’t have one of them warming up as Jansen is entering the game is unfathomable, given his inconsistency. Even if your choice is Kelly, the worst-case scenario for warming him up is that he gets some easy exercise while Jansen is pitching a perfect ninth.
I have harped on this point from summer into fall: For all the hurdles that the pandemic and the expanded postseason format laid before the Dodgers, they have been gifted with a wonderful confluence of events. They have one of the deepest bullpens in major-league history, in a one-of-a-kind year when MLB is allowing them to keep more relievers on their roster than any other. They don’t need to worry about pitching a guy three days in a row. They don’t need to worry about a guy pitching beyond his effectiveness. They can march relievers through like Law & Order assistant district attorneys. There’s nothing stopping them.
It’s true that you have to account for the three-batter minimum for pitchers, but in a way that simplifies the strategy even more.
For the remainder of October, from the sixth inning on, when the Dodgers are leading by three runs or fewer (or tied, or trailing), there should never be a moment where a Dodger relief pitcher isn’t warming up.