Column: Dodgers’ pitching, once a strength, suddenly a problem as season hangs in balance

Dodgers starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin throws in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves.
Dodgers starting pitcher Tony Gonsolin throws in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLCS at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers didn’t start hitting until the game already was lost, but ignore that for a moment.

Another problem came into sharp focus before, during and after their 8-7 defeat to the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday.

Their pitching is unraveling.


This was expected to be their greatest advantage over the Braves, the reason they believed they would win this National League Championship Series regardless of how it started.

With Walker Buehler already dealing with multiple blisters on his pitching hand, Clayton Kershaw had to be scratched from his Game 2 start because of back spasms, increasing the responsibilities of a shaky bullpen that wasn’t reinforced at the trade deadline.

The Dodgers now find themselves in a position similar to that of the Braves, wondering whether they have a sufficient number of quality arms to reach the World Series.

The difference: The Braves have won two games in this NLCS while the Dodgers haven’t won any.

Photos from Game 2 of the National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.

Oct. 13, 2020

Julio Urías, who has pitched twice this postseason in relief, will start the must-win third game Wednesday.

Navigating a seven-game series without any days off would be difficult for a manager with a well-stocked bullpen. With a bullpen like the Dodgers’, the assignment borders on impossible. Kenley Jansen’s demotion has left the team without even a closer.


“You just can’t play every game, regardless of the score, like it’s life or death in a seven-game series,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Which is why Pedro Báez was called to replace starter Tony Gonsolin with the one out in the fifth inning.

If the Dodgers were behind by only two runs, Roberts would have asked Blake Treinen to pitch to Ronald Acuña Jr. But when Cristian Pache doubled off Gonsolin to increase the Braves’ lead to 3-0, Roberts pivoted to Báez. Roberts didn’t want to waste Treinen in a three-run game.

By the end of the inning, the Dodgers were behind 6-0.

And it’s not as if Treinen is a shut-down reliever. He was the pitcher who served up the go-ahead home run to Austin Riley in the ninth inning of Game 1.

The Dodgers’ rally in the ninth came up short in the 8-7 loss against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday as they fall into a 2-0 deficit in the NLCS.

Oct. 13, 2020

The necessity of making a call to the bullpen in the fifth inning was symptomatic of a larger issue.

In Gonsolin, Urías and Dustin May, the Dodgers have three of the most promising young starters in baseball. None of them can be counted on to pitch into the later innings, however.


In the regular season, Gonsolin made one start in which he threw 90 or more pitches. Urías made two. May didn’t make any.

Start one of them and Roberts is almost certain to have to make a number of pitching changes. While the Dodgers had the lowest bullpen earned-run average of any NL team, this is something Roberts would rather avoid, evidenced by how he used May as a reliever for 12/3 innings in Game 1.

Gonsolin’s start figured to be on the shorter side, as the right-hander hadn’t pitched in game since Sept. 26. He ended up pitching 41/3 innings.

Urías also will be making his start under unusual circumstances.

The Dodgers have been sending Urías and May back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen.

Urías has pitched twice this postseason, both times as a reliever. The left-hander limited the San Diego Padres to an unearned run over five innings in the third and final game of their NL Division Series.

Roberts said he was optimistic Urías could pitch five or six innings against the Braves.

The Dodgers desperately need him to.

Roberts said the “likelihood is very good” that Kershaw will pitch in this series, but the reality is that his status remains uncertain.


Kershaw’s back problems surfaced after a bullpen session Saturday. While he was able to resume throwing Tuesday, Roberts wouldn’t name him the Game 4 starter.

Dodger Stadium hosted a watch party for fans to watch the NLCS in the parking lot from their cars, and though only 300 tickets were sold, it was enjoyable.

Oct. 13, 2020

That raises the possibility of Roberts resorting to a so-called bullpen game in Game 4 in which he will try to use an assembly line of relievers to collect 27 outs.

As it is, the Dodgers already used five relievers in Game 1 and six in Game 2. May figures to be unavailable for Game 4, as the Dodgers probably will require him to the pitch the bulk of the innings in a theoretical Game 5, either as a starter or reliever.

If there is a Game 6, Buehler once again could be limited by his blisters. He lasted only five innings in Game 1.

A six-inning start by Urías on Wednesday would do wonders for L.A., but how realistic is that?

About the only consolation is that the Braves could be in even worse shape. Their Game 3 starter, right-hander Kyle Wright, blanked Miami over six innings in the divisional round but was 2-4 with a 5.21 ERA this season.


As for their relievers, they nearly blew a seven-run lead Tuesday night.

Relying on the opposition’s incompetence isn’t what champions are usually made of, but that’s what the Dodgers have to do.