As Hyun-Jin Ryu retreated to the bench, the bullpen gate cracked open and Ryan Madson started his journey from right field to the mound.
There was still only one out in the fifth inning.
The evening was somehow salvaged, as Justin Turner’s two-run home run in the eighth inning completed a comeback against the Milwaukee Brewers and earned the Dodgers a 4-3 victory in front of a surprisingly dispassionate crowd at Miller Park.
Turner’s late-game heroics leveled the National League Championship Series at one game apiece, but failed to conceal a troubling development for the Dodgers.
The Dodgers have a problem and it’s where they least expected. The problem is their starting pitching.
In the second game of a series that was expected to be a showdown between the Dodgers starting pitchers and the Brewers relievers, Ryu lasted only 4 1/3 innings. The abbreviated start followed a three-inning appearance by Clayton Kershaw in Game 1.
“I wasn’t able to do my job as a starting pitcher,” Ryu said through a translator.
The Dodgers have their seemingly best pitcher on the mound for Game 3 in Walker Buehler, but the rookie right-hander remains something of a wild card. In his postseason debut last week in the NL Division Series against Atlanta, Buehler allowed five runs in the second inning of a 6-5 loss. He pitched five innings.
Game 4 starter Rich Hill pitched the deciding game of the NLDS and logged a modest 4 1/3 innings.
More will be required from the rotation for the Dodgers to reach the heights they aspire to this October. Lacking the dependable late-inning options they had the last couple of postseasons, the Dodgers anticipated being more dependent on their starters, with manager Dave Roberts acknowledging he was more open to pitching them deeper into games.
Only they haven’t performed well enough to remain on the field. The result is that the Dodgers were forced to play catch-up in the first two games of this NLCS. They scored four runs in the last two innings of Game 1 and still came up a run short. They easily could have boarded their chartered flight to Los Angeles on Saturday night trailing the series two games to none.
“I believe Buehler will do just fine in Game 3,” Ryu said.
If Buehler doesn’t, the situation will call for a change in thinking. The Dodgers bullpen has performed better than expected while taking on a greater workload. The relievers have pitched 9 2/3 innings in the NLCS and have allowed only two runs.
Roberts used five relievers in Game 1. He called on seven in Game 2.
“It’s exhausting, for sure,” said Austin Barnes, the starting catcher in Game 2. “You have to have a plan for every guy, take into consideration what our pitchers have and match it up with that. That’s postseason baseball, though, a lot of mixing and matching.”
Ryu held the Brewers scoreless over the first four innings, limiting them to three hits.
“Leading up to the fifth inning,” Ryu said, “my command was good.”
And then it wasn’t.
With one out in the fifth, Ryu served up a first-pitch home run to Orlando Arcia that cleared the center-field wall. Pitcher Wade Miley followed with a single to center and reached third on a double by Lorenzo Cain.
“It kind of snowballed,” Barnes said.
With runners on second and third, Roberts wasted no time in telling Ryu his start was over.
Madson intentionally walked Christian Yelich, then forced Ryan Braun to bounce into a run-scoring groundout. Madson ended the inning by striking out Jesus Aguilar. The Dodgers were down, but by a manageable 2-0 margin.
“That particular moment was definitely the biggest moment of today’s game,” Ryu said. “It was very understandable to make that change and the results show.”
The benefits of the short starts by Ryu and Kershaw were that they showed the Dodgers of what they had in the bullpen. Madson has proven himself as an expert in minimizing damage. Once maligned by his team’s fans, Pedro Baez has established himself as a viable late-inning option. Baez struck out the side in a perfect inning in Game 1 and returned to pitch another 1 1/3 shutout innings in Game 2 to earn the victory, giving him 5 2/3 scoreless frames this month.
What the Dodgers can’t afford is to continue to use their entire bullpen. That would force them to use converted starters who might not be suited to relief. Julio Urias, who pitched in only three regular-season games after returning from a major shoulder operation, gave up what turned out to be a decisive home run in Game 1. Alex Wood served up a nearly critical home run in Game 2.