The eighth inning became another postseason test case for the Dodgers on Saturday night. They were entangled in a scoreless tie with the New York Mets at Citi Field after Hyun-Jin Ryu and Jacob deGrom, two Cy Young contenders, delivered seven-inning gems.
The game was left up to the bullpens, and the Dodgers used the opportunity to unveil a possible October approach that ultimately failed in a 3-0 loss.
Adam Kolarek was summoned to relieve Ryu to start the eighth. Kolarek, acquired at the trade deadline to give the Dodgers a left-handed specialist, did his job by striking out left-handed-hitting Robinson Cano. Joe Kelly (5-4), the Dodgers’ best reliever since June, replaced Kolarek to face Todd Frazier, a right-handed batter. He hit Frazier with his first pitch but recovered to strike out Juan Lagares.
On most nights, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later explained, Kelly would have stayed to finish the inning. But he was pitching for the third time in four days, so Roberts surfaced to bring in left-hander Julio Urias to counter pinch-hitter Brandon Nimmo, who bats left-handed.
It was one of the few times Urias, who has been handled carefully, entered in the middle of an inning this season. The crowd, sensing an opportunity for the Mets (77-71) to steal a game from the National League’s best team in their pursuit of the second wild-card spot, buzzed. It resembled a playoff atmosphere. The Dodgers can only hope for better results when the games matter more.
Urias hit Nimmo and walked Amed Rosario to load the bases for Rajai Davis. Urias jumped ahead 1-and-2 when Davis fouled off a 97-mph fastball. He then tried to catch Davis off balance with a changeup, but the 82-mph pitch hung over the plate and Davis swatted it into the left-field corner. All three runners scored as Mets players spilled out of the dugout in celebration.
“If I’m going to be picky about it, I think that I probably, if I go back in time, call a slider down and in,” catcher Russell Martin said. “He hadn’t seen that pitch yet. The slider’s been better.
“But if he’s going to be as good as he possibly can be,” Martin said of Urias, “I think with the changeup, he needs to sell it like his fastball. If he does that, he’s going to be more than great for a long time.”
The hit cost the Dodgers (96-54) because they couldn’t solve deGrom. For the Dodgers to overcome the final obstacle and win the World Series next month, they must beat elite pitching. This weekend’s three-game series is offering a useful trial. The Mets are starting three hard-throwing right-handers, a species the Dodgers no doubt will often confront in the playoffs. DeGrom is the best of the trio.
On the opposite side, Ryu sought to recover from the worst stretch of his All-Star season. He was making his first start in 10 days after the Dodgers decided to skip his turn in the rotation, to avoid letting fatigue derail Ryu. He is imperative for the Dodgers’ championship aspirations.
The result was a classic pitchers duel, the kind increasingly uncommon in baseball; it was just the fifth game this season in which both starting pitchers logged at least seven innings without allowing a run.
DeGrom limited the Dodgers to three hits. The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner plunked a batter but didn’t walk one, struck out eight and induced 11 groundouts. The Dodgers stitched together their best threat in the seventh when Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock smacked consecutive two-out singles. But deGrom struck out Gavin Lux with his 101st pitch to conclude his sterling outing.
Ryu matched deGrom minutes later. He was more efficient than his counterpart, needing 90 pitches to record 21 outs. He retired the final 13 batters he faced. He struck out six without issuing a walk.
“Like I always like to say,” Ryu said through his interpreter, “it’s all about command.”
Ryu rebounded with a familiar face behind the plate. Roberts insisted Martin started at catcher because the backup needs to play somewhat regularly. Martin had started once in the previous five days. But Roberts knows numbers suggest that partnering Martin and Ryu has produced dominance this season, even though he maintained the All-Star pitcher “really calls his own game.”
Entering Saturday, Ryu had a 1.70 earned-run average in 18 games with Martin, a 14-year veteran, behind the plate. Meanwhile, Ryu has posted a 5.81 ERA in five starts with Will Smith. The rookie caught Ryu’s previous three starts. Ryu allowed 17 runs across 13-1/3 innings, his worst stretch this season by far.
The sample size is tiny, and statistics summarizing catcher-pitcher relationships can be misleading. Ryu simply could have been fatigued in the three duds. He has logged more innings this season than any since 2013. The possibility was strong enough for the Dodgers to skip him in the rotation. But Roberts acknowledged that the numbers offer a possible window into the partnership, and said the club still is evaluating Smith’s work with Ryu.
“They found a rhythm and a rapport,” Roberts said of Martin and Ryu. “So you can’t underappreciate the fact that Hyun-Jin has thrown well to him. But also I think that Will does a nice job of getting prepared and he’s still continuing to learn these guys.”
That ease could help Martin make the postseason roster over Austin Barnes, who started the season as the Dodgers’ top catcher. Barnes was sent to the minors in July and has appeared in one game since returning Sept. 6.
On Saturday, Martin helped Ryu through seven masterful innings. The Mets mustered just two baserunners on singles in the second and third frames. He finished with a flourish, striking out Pete Alonso, the major leagues’ home run leader, and Wilson Ramos.
“Amazing,” Martin said. “Just good old-fashioned Ryu.”
But the bullpen blinked first on a rare night when the offense was shut down, leaving the Dodgers with their first loss at Citi Field in more than three years and some intel for October.