Most of the conversations about the Dodgers last winter centered on the moves they didn’t make.
In retrospect, they did something monumental. They did something that changed the franchise. They did something that will take them back to the National League Championship Series for the first time in three years.
They hired Dave Roberts to be their manager.
There were several memorable performances Thursday night in the Dodgers’ 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals in the final game of their NL division series.
Carlos Ruiz drove in the go-ahead run with a pinch-hit single in the seventh inning. Justin Turner added to the lead with a two-run triple. Kenley Jansen made a 51-pitch relief appearance. Clayton Kershaw closed the game.
Roberts was as valuable as any of them, if not more. On a night when starting pitcher Rich Hill failed to complete the third inning, the rookie manager found a way to win.
He used six pitchers. And as he did, he broke convention, calling on his most reliable setup man in the third inning, his closer in the seventh and his ace in the ninth.
This was a managerial master class, and this wasn’t a fluke.
The Dodgers’ continued TV blackout prevented most of L.A. from witnessing it, but Roberts did this all season. It’s why he’s the odds-on favorite to be named the NL manager of the year, when the award is announced in November.
“These are conversations that me, the front office, we have daily, about just kind of being forward-thinking, being open-minded to how you can use guys in certain roles,” Roberts said. “Today was a prime example.”
Except this wasn’t only about utilizing the pages and pages of information provided to him by Andrew Friedman and his small army of assistants. This was also about Roberts’ following an intuition built on decades of baseball experience, as he did when he was approached in the seventh by Kershaw, who offered to pitch in relief. Kershaw started only two days earlier.
If Kershaw played the role of Orel Hershiser on this night, Roberts was Tommy Lasorda.
Roberts was rewarded with his first postseason series win.
Roberts had to improvise not only in the ninth, but throughout the game. The same front office he credited for opening his mind handed him a roster with no starting pitching depth, as the strategy of building a rotation around historically fragile arms predict-ably backfired. The result was that Roberts had to start Kershaw on short rest in Game 4 and to start Hill on short rest in Game 5.
Hill was visibly fatigued Thursday. With the Dodgers down in the third inning, 1-0, swift Nationals center fielder Trea Turner reached third base with only one out. Roberts allowed Hill to pitch to Werth, whom he struck out. He then signaled for Hill to intentionally walk Murphy, at which point he called on setup man Joe Blanton to pitch to Anthony Rendon. Blanton, who typically enters games in the seventh or eighth, made Rendon line out to center field.
Roberts had to scramble again in the seventh , this time after left-hander Grant Dayton served up a two-run home run to Chris Heisey and then allowed a single to Clint Robinson. With what was a 4-1 lead now down to 4-3, Roberts turned to his closer, Jansen.
“It was an opportunity to get Kenley in there and just ride him as long as we could,” Roberts said.
Jansen recorded the next seven outs, including one in the ninth.
Now compare Roberts’ performance to what was happening with Nationals Manager Dusty Baker. The Nationals mentally froze on the basepaths. They had the Dodgers on the ropes and failed to drop them. And, in the decisive seventh inning, they used the wrong pitchers.
Baker returned starting pitch- er Max Scherzer to the mound, even though he was at 98 pitches and had been visibly laboring.
Scherzer served up a leadoff home run to Joc Pederson that tied the score, 1-1.
The Dodgers went ahead, 2-1, later in the inning on Ruiz’s single off left-hander Sammy Solis. Solis remained in the game to retire Corey Seager, only for Baker to make another costly blunder.
Baker summoned Shawn Kelly to pitch to Justin Turner. On the surface, the move made sense. Kelly is a right-hander. Turner bats from a right-handed stance.
The problem was that Turner has better numbers against right-handers than he does against left- handers. The third baseman batted .305 this year against right-handers, .209 against left-handers.