Brusdar Graterol and Victor González shine in relief for Dodgers during loss
Brusdar Graterol made the sign of the cross and thrust his right fist toward the sky as he headed to the Dodgers dugout after escaping a two-on, no-outs jam in the sixth inning of Monday night’s National League Championship Series opener against the Atlanta Braves.
Two innings later, Victor Gonzalez looked like he might pop the buttons right off his jersey, so excited was the Dodgers left-hander about striking out pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson with the bases loaded to preserve a tie score in the eighth, an inning-ending whiff he punctuated with a pump-you-up pose and primal scream.
The good times ended abruptly amid a flurry of ninth-inning hits and homers off relievers Blake Treinen and Jake McGee, a four-run meltdown that led to a 5-1 Game 1 loss to the Braves and obscured the continued emergence of one breakout bullpen star and the possible discovery of another.
Graterol, the 22-year-old right-hander from Venezuela with the 100-mph fastball and wicked slider, replaced starter Walker Buehler with two on and no outs in the sixth inning of a 1-1 game and needed all of six pitches to clean up the mess.
The Dodgers’ bullpen implodes in the ninth inning in a 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
Dansby Swanson swung at a first-pitch slider and popped out to second base. Cristian Pache struck out on three pitches, the last one a slider, and Nick Markakis tapped a 99-mph fastball on a 1-and-0 count back to the mound, where Graterol made a bare-hand stop and an underhand toss to first base for the out.
“That’s a huge situation, he’s a young guy, he comes in and makes it look super easy,” Buehler said of Graterol, the rookie who was acquired from Minnesota last winter. “Obviously, he’s pretty talented. He’s a big part of our clubhouse. That’s not normal for guy with his age and experience, but we all love the guy.”
In three playoff appearances, Graterol has retired 10 of the 11 batters he has faced, with one strikeout, and thrown only 30 pitches, 22 for strikes. He has been so efficient and dominant that manager Dave Roberts may have little choice but to stretch him out or move him to a closing role.
Monday night was not the time to try to coax another inning from Graterol, though.
“Brusdar took that last ball off the palm of his hand, and I just felt that was it right there,” Roberts said. “I expect him to be ready to go [in Game 2 Tuesday].”
González, the 24-year-old sinker-slider specialist from Mexico, should also be available in Game 2 after throwing just four pitches Monday night. He replaced Dustin May with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth and struck out Culberson with a down-and-away 0-2 slider.
“It was great to see him come in in a huge spot … and keep us in a position to win a baseball game,” Roberts said. “His confidence in himself to make pitches is really high. And when you take talent and confidence, that’s a good thing. He’s come pretty far, pretty fast. He’s going to continue to get some big outs for us.”
Two summers ago, González, frustrated by injuries, a velocity drop as he attempted to return from Tommy John surgery and a bloated 8.29 minor-league ERA, nearly quit baseball. He refused a demotion to a rookie league affiliate and went home to Mexico.
González, pushed by family members and friends in his hometown of Tuxpan, eventually returned, finishing out the 2018 season at rookie league Ogden, Utah.
He rose from Class A to double-A to triple-A in 2019 and made 15 appearances for the Dodgers this season, going 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA, striking out 23 and walking two in 20 1/3 innings.
Just as González’s confidence has grown, so has Roberts’ confidence and trust in the reliever to handle more high-leverage situations.
The Dodgers’ lack of offense in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves is a worrying yet all too familiar development for the team.
González retired the side in order in the seventh inning before giving up a leadoff double in the eighth in a 5-1 win over the San Diego Padres in the NL Division Series opener. The stakes and pressure were even higher Monday night, but Gonzalez did not disappoint.
“In that moment, it was huge,” Dodgers second baseman Kiké Hernández said in Spanish. “The game was tied still. He entered with the bases loaded. It isn’t easy, especially in the postseason. It was the first time that he pitched in the major leagues in front of fans, so it felt more like a real playoff game.
“With Victor, it’s nothing. Like we say in Puerto Rico, nothing kills Victor. He always moves forward. He’s not scared of anything, and he has three good pitches he can use to get any batter out. He located his pitches and did his job, and that’s not the last we’ll see of Victor. I know he’ll continue throwing very important innings in the postseason.”
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