A baseball team must secure at least 27 outs to win a game, and so Dodgers manager Dave Roberts fills the hours before each postseason contest contemplating a countdown.
He consults with the coaching staff and the analysts from the front office. He gauges the readiness of various relievers. The group assembles a plan, one they trust Roberts to implement. Each action functions toward the larger goal of assembling a plan to compile the required number of outs.
"There are things that I have in my mind that gives each player the best chance to have success," Roberts said. "To deviate from that, that goes away from my process. And I preach nothing but process."
Through the first two games of the National League Championship Series, as the Dodgers took a 2-0 lead against the Chicago Cubs and moved two victories away from their first World Series since 1988, the process has been nearly flawless. This is not hyperbole. Dodgers relievers retired 24 of the 25 Cubs they faced to handcuff a dangerous lineup.
As the series shifts to Chicago for Game 3 on Tuesday, the gap between the bullpens has been decisive. The Dodgers have trounced the Cubs relievers. The Cubs have yet to record a hit against the Dodgers bullpen. Roberts was willing to remove both Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill after only five innings in their starts because he trusted the relievers to hold firm.
Led by hulking closer Kenley Jansen, the relief corps has looked indomitable, benefiting from months of planning for this stage. The success of this bullpen is an organizational triumph, the result of keen scouting, open communication, the tactical prowess of Roberts and the execution of the players.
"There's so much confidence," catcher Austin Barnes said. "They're being put in really good situations, and they're making really good pitches."
The presence of Jansen, a two-time All-Star on an $80-million contract who may be baseball's best reliever, serves as a sizable building block in constructing a bullpen. The other contributors were assembled through canny trades (Tony Cingrani, Tony Watson), low-wattage signings (Brandon Morrow) and the reallocation of assets (Kenta Maeda). Together they form a bridge to Jansen that, unlike in 2016 against the Cubs, has not buckled.
Near the end of January, the Dodgers added Morrow, who had an enviable arsenal of pitches and a troubling history of injuries. His talent was immense — he was chosen two spots ahead of Kershaw in the 2006 draft. His health was spotty — he appeared in only 46 games from 2013 to 2016. Morrow agreed to a minor league contract, which included an option that allowed the Dodgers to stash him in triple-A Oklahoma City until late May.
The Dodgers eased Morrow into a place of prominence. He made 45 appearances, but only six on consecutive days. The team did not want to risk overexposure, and it wanted to see whether he could handle the strain of a full season. Morrow rewarded his employers with a 2.06 earned-run average as he handled right-handed and left-handed hitters.
Roberts leaned on Morrow during the first two games against Chicago. Morrow collected two outs in Game 1. A day later, he buzzed through six hitters in 18 pitches, finishing with a 99-mph fastball. Roberts described Morrow as "incredibly valuable," citing the pitcher's experience as both a starter and a closer.
"You take those components — as far as the head, the preparation, the feel and the pitch mix — that makes an elite, back-end guy," Roberts said.
At the All-Star break, the Dodgers bullpen led the NL with a collective 2.99 ERA. Yet, the organization was unsatisfied. They sought another left-handed arm for the group, and engaged in lengthy discussions with Baltimore about All-Star closer Zach Britton. Like the rest of the industry, the Dodgers found those talks stalled by the obstinance of Orioles owner Peter Angelos. The team opted to look elsewhere.
On July 31, as the hours ticked away toward the nonwaiver trade deadline, the Dodgers finalized deals to procure Texas ace Yu Darvish, plus a pair of left-handed relievers in Watson and Cingrani. The acquisition of Watson made sense, as he was a former All-Star with a track record of generating soft contact. Cingrani seemed less useful — he carried a 5.40 earned-run average with him from Cincinnati — but it was his addition that underscored the guile of the Dodgers' front office.
The organization viewed Cingrani as a reclamation project with a sizable upside. They felt he could be a mirror image of right-handed reliever Josh Fields, who arrived from Houston last summer with similarly unspectacular statistics. As they did with Fields, the Dodgers suggested Cingrani alter his pitch selection, implementing his slider more often and shifting the location of his fastball. Cingrani struck out 28 batters in 19 1/3 innings with a 2.79 ERA.
As October approached, the Dodgers simplified his role. The coaches told him to focus on the left-handed hitters of the coming opponents, players such as Arizona third baseman Jake Lamb, Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo. In Game 1, Cingrani replaced Kershaw in the sixth inning, pounded away at Rizzo with 97-mph fastballs, generated a groundout and handed the baseball to Roberts. His job was done.
"I came in and got my out," Cingrani said. "It's what I do now." He added, "I wouldn't want to do it in the regular season, but this is a different type of baseball. Everything is magnified, and it's all about winning."
To finalize the mix for October, the Dodgers turned to a player hidden in plain view. Maeda spent most of the season on the periphery of the starting rotation, with a 4.35 ERA in 25 starts. He has emerged as the breakout performer of this postseason, retiring all nine batters he has faced.
At times, Roberts acknowledges, he must check himself when watching Maeda mow down opposing hitters. The team views Maeda as a weapon against right-handed hitters. There is no reason to deviate from their process. The results are unquestionable.
"It's about discipline, and not trying to win favor from people," Roberts said. "It's to do the right thing for the Dodgers."