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Dodgers make Austin Barnes a Game 5 starter, and he starts it up nicely

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw on what it means to be up 3-2 in the NLCS.

Dave Roberts dispelled any uncertainty minutes before the Dodgers unveiled an atypical lineup for public consumption — and the accompanying intense scrutiny — on Wednesday morning. Austin Barnes was, indeed, his starting catcher for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, meaning the struggling Yasmani Grandal, the starting catcher to begin the postseason, was on the bench for the second straight game.

Barnes capitalized on the opportunity, driving in the Dodgers’ first run with a single to center field off Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Brandon Woodruff in the fifth inning to tie the score. He partnered with Clayton Kershaw as the ace left-hander limited the Brewers to one run over seven brilliant innings before the bullpen sealed a 5-2 victory and the Dodgers seized a three-games-to-two series lead.

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Barnes supplanted Grandal on the depth chart for the postseason a year ago, and it appears he may have done so again.

“The at-bat quality, this is what we’ve seen from him in years past,” Roberts said after the game on Wednesday. “And at times this year not so much as much as we would have liked or he would have liked.… He punched out three times today, but I thought his at-bats were quality. So he’s making our decision a lot tougher, which is a good thing.”

Barnes became the Dodgers’ everyday catcher last October after a breakout regular season in which he batted .289 with an .895 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But those numbers tumbled in 2018. He hit .205 with a .619 OPS during the regular season, losing playing time along the way. The switch-hitting Grandal, whose 24 home runs led all catchers during the regular season, was the Dodgers’ everyday catcher by the middle of September. He was wielding a hot bat. The hierarchy appeared established.

“Obviously,” Barnes said, “it was kind of a grind for me this year.”

Then the notoriously streaky Grandal plunged into a deep valley.

Behind the plate, Grandal has committed an error, been called for catcher’s interference and been charged with three passed balls in the NLCS alone. As a batter, the impending free agent is three for 23 with 11 strikeouts in eight playoff games, including six starts. The misery elicited boos from the home crowd this week and forced Roberts’s hand after the Dodgers’ Game 3 loss.

Barnes started seven games in September, and completed one of them. He didn’t appear in any of the Dodgers’ four games against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series. He waited until Game 2 of the NLCS to make his 2018 postseason debut. On Wednesday, his RBI single jump-started the Dodgers’ small-ball offense — and may have saved Kershaw from making an early exit.

When Barnes stepped to the plate in the fifth inning, Yasiel Puig emerged from the dugout to the on-deck circle. ready to pinch-hit for Kershaw, who had thus far thrown 75 pitches . Chris Taylor stood at third base after hitting an infield single, taking second on an error and stealing third. There was one out. If Barnes didn’t drive in Taylor, Roberts seemed prepared to have Puig give it a shot. Runs had been difficult for the Dodgers to manufacture. Roberts was considering pulling his starter and turning to his fatigued bullpen to maximize his team’s chances of scoring.

But Woodruff delivered a slider on the outside corner or the plate, Barnes smacked it into center field and Puig was called back to the dugout. Kershaw stayed in the game and pitched two more innings. He ended up retiring the last 13 batters he faced.

Barnes has reached base safely in each of his three games in this series and has hits on consecutive days for the first time since April 23-24. He was platooning with Grandal then, starting against left-handed starting pitchers coming off his best season as a major leaguer. Six months later, he’s again starring for the Dodgers when the games matter the most.

“In the postseason you just put our emphasis on winning,” Barnes said. “In whatever role you’re in, whether it’s playing or not, doing anything you can to help the team win, whether it’s talking to pitchers in between starts, catching ’pens or just having conversations, I think that’s the most important thing. The regular season is the regular season.”

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