Dave Roberts could not have engineered a softer landing. In the seventh inning of the Dodgers' 6-2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday, Roberts sent Pedro Baez to protect a one-run lead against the No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9 hitters of a last-place team.
It was perhaps a test to see whether Baez belongs on the Dodgers postseason roster. The right-hander failed.
A leadoff triple. Baez hit a batter. He walked another. A walk with the bases loaded. His outing ended when young slugger Rhys Hoskins hit a three-run double.
Baez's September earned-run average ballooned to 22.50. Earlier in the season, he operated as Kenley Jansen's primary setup man. He has pitched himself out of that role and closer to oblivion. It is hard to imagine the Dodgers trusting Baez in high-leverage playoffs spots, the sort of situations in which he has struggled in years past.
"It hasn't been a good stretch," Baez said. "I'm grateful that they keep giving me the opportunity."
The four-run meltdown cost the Dodgers a lead fashioned by a solo homer from Yasmani Grandal and a run-scoring double from Curtis Granderson. Yu Darvish gave up only one run but could not complete the sixth inning. The Dodgers have lost three in a row.
Roberts declined to predict whether Baez (3-6) will be on the postseason roster. He does not want to show a lack of confidence in one of his players. But his concern shimmered between the lines of his remarks.
"Where Pedro was at a few weeks ago, versus now, he's in a different spot," Roberts said. "You've got to take your best 25, when you're talking about potentially getting a postseason roster together."
Baez is part of a group of right-handed relievers jockeying for position. The candidates include Josh Fields, Ross Stripling and rookie Walker Buehler. Kenta Maeda will also audition for a spot before the season ends. Baez has stumbled at an unfortunate time.
On Tuesday, he spoiled a game that the Dodgers were shuffling through on an increasingly dreary march to a division title. The offense came from two of the least-productive players in the lineup. Grandal has had his playing time slip away. Austin Barnes may become the starting catcher in the playoffs. Grandal entered Tuesday with a .161 batting average since Aug. 1.
"As we close out this season, for us to count on him being in the lineup, we've got to see at-bat quality," Roberts said before the game. "For me, this last few weeks, it hasn't been there."
Grandal delivered in the third inning. He pounced on a changeup from starter Aaron Nola (12-10) and deposited a ball into the left-field seats. Grandal became the sixth Dodger to hit 20 homers this season, joining Cody Bellinger (38), Yasiel Puig (26), Justin Turner (21), Corey Seager (20) and Chris Taylor (20).
Granderson added a run in the fourth. Darvish did not allow Philadelphia to score until the sixth inning, when a miscommunication with Bellinger led to an unearned run. Bellinger scooped a grounder hit by infielder Cesar Hernandez. Darvish ran to first base. Bellinger lobbed the ball over. Darvish was looking toward the base when it arrived. Bellinger was charged with a throwing error.
"It was my error," Darvish said.
Two batters later, outfielder Odubel Herrera stroked a single. Hoskins spoiled two two-strike fastballs. The count ran full. Hoskins hit another fastball into left field for a run-scoring single to put Philadelphia on the board and get Darvish out of the game.
Baez cost Darvish the victory. Roberts has extended opportunities to Baez as a reward for his first-half performance. Baez posted a 1.43 ERA before the All-Star break. Lurking beneath that figure, though, were troubling peripheral statistics: Baez had a 3.79 fielding-independent pitching ERA, which predicted regression in his performance.
The prediction has come true. Baez served up a walk-off homer Sept. 1. He gave up four runs to Arizona on Sept. 4. He walked two batters and gave up two runs a day later. He wore a loss Sept. 11 in San Francisco.
"I've never been through a stretch like this," Baez said.
Tuesday added to the misery. Infielder J.P. Crawford hit a 97-mph fastball into center field for a triple. Baez clipped catcher Jorge Alfaro with a 1-and-2 fastball. A walk by Hernandez loaded the bases.
Herrera came up with two outs and the bases loaded. He is a left-handed hitter. In the bullpen, left-handed reliever Tony Cingrani was ready. Roberts kept his arms crossed in the dugout. He afforded Baez the chance to put out the fire.
Baez was unwilling to deviate from his fastball. Herrera walked after four misguided fastballs. Hoskins saw 10 more before chasing Baez out of the game with a liner into the left-center field gap. Baez would pitch no longer.
"When you're a one-pitch pitcher, which right now he seems to be, and you can't locate it, that's not a good combo," Roberts said. "As a manager, you can run him out there and give him opportunities. But as a professional, this game is about production. I still want to believe in him."
Sitting at his desk, Roberts caught himself.
"I believe in him."