Justin Turner turned his backward snapback cap around for the reporters addressing him. It was late Friday night, after the Dodgers’ Game 2 loss to the Washington Nationals, and the third baseman’s focus had already flipped forward to Sunday when the National League Division Series continues. Hyun-Jin Ryu will start for the Dodgers at Nationals Park. Turner chose his cap in solidarity.
“We like our chances with Ryu out there,” Turner said. “That’s why I brought my Korean L.A. hat. He’s been great for us all year.”
The stakes from the previous six months, however, pale in comparison to the situation Ryu and the Dodgers will encounter. The regular season was a breeze. The National League West was effectively sealed before the All-Star break. Must-win games were nonexistent en route to 106 victories.
While most of the roster has experienced high-pressure conditions in recent years, Sunday presents the Dodgers’ first crucial game of 2019 opposite a club that rode urgency to vault from the third-worst record in the National League in late May to a wild-card berth. It will be on Ryu, the third of the Dodgers’ trio of marquee starters, to guide the club from the brink of elimination.
One of the few questions over the final month of the Dodgers’ regular season was how they would line up their starting pitchers for the NLDS. Just about any order of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, and Ryu could have been justified. The three were largely interchangeable.
The decision was relayed to the players at the beginning the week. Buehler was given Game 1. Kershaw pitched Game 2, leaving an atypical assignment for Ryu, an All-Star game starter and Cy Young Award candidate.
“They told me how we have four guys who could literally be a first guy up, and we have very competent and capable guys on this roster,” Ryu said through an interpreter Friday. “So I had no problem having other guys start before or after me.”
Ryu’s splits between home and road were nearly a run apart, but his 2.72 away ERA in 15 starts was still the lowest among Dodgers starters this season. Ryu would have pitched Game 1 on regular rest and usually benefits from extra days between starts. Another ingredient in the rotation formula: Ryu would not have been an option to pitch out of the bullpen in Game 5 even if he started one of the first two games. Buehler and Kershaw both will be available in Game 5 — if the series extends that long.
“That was a part of it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You really could go either way and that variable has to be factored in and it was.”
Ryu’s counterpart is not decided. Max Scherzer was slated to start for the Nationals, but that was before he threw 14 high-octane pitches to strike out the side out of the bullpen in the eighth inning in the Nationals’ Game 2 win Friday. Nationals manager Dave Martinez said the choice will depend on how the three-time Cy Young winner rebounded Saturday.
If Scherzer doesn’t start, the Nationals will turn to Anibal Sanchez. The 36-year-old right-hander went 11-8 with a 3.85 ERA in 30 starts this season. He held the Dodgers to one run and three hits across seven innings at Nationals Park on July 26. Last year, as a member of the Atlanta Braves, he gave up three runs over 4 2/3 innings in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Dodgers.
While Sanchez is the Nationals’ clear-cut No. 4 starter, Ryu spent most of the season as the Dodgers’ ace. That status was muddied in August when he compiled 7.48 ERA in four starts. Batters hit .326 and posted .954 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against him. He rebounded in September, accumulating a 2.13 ERA in four starts. He tossed seven scoreless innings against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 28, completing his season with a 14-5 record and NL-best 2.32 ERA.
“Whenever I have an off game, it’s usually the balance when I make the delivery,” Ryu said. “That led to mistake pitches, and my command was kind of off, and they were able to put good swings on a lot of the pitches that were middle-middle. I was able to recover from that, and the month of September was much nicer.”
To counter his seven-day layoff, Ryu, usually averse to bullpen sessions between starts, threw one Thursday before Game 1. On Sunday, he will seek to replicate his success against the Nationals in two starts during the regular season. On Mother’s Day, carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Dodger Stadium. He settled for eight scoreless innings with nine strikeouts to one walk. Six weeks later, he limited Washington to one run and eight hits over 6 2/3 innings at Nationals Park.
Russell Martin was behind the plate for both performances. Roberts said Martin will crouch there again as Ryu’s batterymate Sunday, starting over rookie Will Smith. The numbers indicated Ryu was better partnering with Martin this season and the Dodgers aren’t taking any chances. They can’t afford to. For the first time this season, they will be tested with danger looming.