Holy smokes, they’re bad.
The relievers were supposed to be a problem in this National League Division Series, but who knew they were this awful?
Not the Dodgers’ bullpen. The Nationals’.
The teams have comparable starting pitchers and comparable lineups. What they don’t have are comparable bullpens, which explains the 6-0 margin of victory for the Dodgers in their Game 1 triumph at Dodger Stadium.
Tanner Rainey, Fernando Rodney and Hunter Strickland of the Nationals redefined on Thursday night what “Game Over” means in these parts, their combined efforts transforming a two-run nail-biter into a laugher that spared Dodgers manager Dave Roberts from calling on his own combustible reliever, closer Kenley Jansen.
Considering the number of night terrors for which the Dodgers’ bullpen was responsible this season, what are the chances they now represent their team’s single-greatest advantage in this series?
The Nationals’ bullpen was historically terrible in the regular season, the group’s combined earned-run average of 5.66 the highest of any team to ever reach the postseason.
On the other hand, the Dodgers’ bullpen is considerably better than its reputation, the unit’s shortcomings exaggerated by Jansen’s failures and memories of an April in which Joe Kelly looked like one of the worst $25-million investments in baseball history.
The Dodgers radically transformed the composition of their bullpen over the last couple of months. The relievers Roberts had available were nothing like the group with which he started the season.
The evolution was on display Thursday, after starting pitchers Walker Buehler and Patrick Corbin departed from the game with the Dodgers ahead 2-0.
Adam Kolarek, the left-hander who started the seventh inning for the Dodgers by striking out 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto, was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays at the July 31 trade deadline. Kolarek posted a 0.77 ERA in 26 appearances after the trade.
“He got an out and that relaxed me a little,” Kenta Maeda said in Japanese.
Maeda entered the game immediately after Kolarek’s strikeout of Soto and went on to retire all five Nationals he faced.
Like Kolarek, Maeda was a recent addition to the bullpen, but for a different reason. Of the 37 regular-season games Maeda pitched, he started in 26 of them.
This marks the third consecutive postseason in which Maeda was moved into the bullpen for the playoffs.
“I was more or less able to predict when I would come into the game and I was able to prepare properly,” he said.
With the Dodgers extending their lead to 6-0, the honors of pitching the ninth inning went to Joe Kelly, who might as well be a midseason addition. He certainly doesn’t look like the pitcher who was booed off the field at Dodger Stadium in April.
Kelly gave up a leadoff double to Trea Turner but never allowed him to score. Adam Eaton grounded out. Anthony Rendon and Soto struck out.
A World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox last year, Kelly is only one of three pitchers to be part of the Dodgers bullpen for the entire season. The others: Jansen and Pedro Baez.
Dustin May is a rookie who was initially called up from the minor leagues as a starter. Julio Urias and Ross Stripling were also members of the rotation at some point. Urias’ role has changed in the last month. The promising left-hander stopped making multi-inning appearances, but started pitching in more games.
Compare that to Martinez’s options.
Rainey, who had an ERA of nearly four in the regular season, started the bottom of the seventh inning. He issued a one-out walk to Joc Pederson, which was followed by a Justin Turner single that advanced Pederson to third base.
In came 42-year-old Rodney, who blew open the game. Rodney struck out Cody Bellinger, but walked Chris Taylor to load the bases and served up a two-run single by Max Muncy that increased the Dodgers’ advantage to 4-0.
Strickland didn’t perform any better in the eighth inning, playing the part of a human launching pad that gave up home runs to Gavin Lux and Pederson.
In the wake of the dominant performance by the Dodgers’ bullpen, Maeda revealed he was nervous when entering the game, even under favorable conditions.
“If I could, I would like to win the World Series without pitching,” he said in jest. “I think everyone feels like that. Nothing would be easier than to have the starting pitcher throw a complete game every time.”
The Nationals probably have similar thoughts, only they aren’t joking.