Corey Knebel emerging at right time: Dodgers vs. Giants NLDS takeaways

Dodgers relief pitcher Corey Knebel delivers during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Cody Bellinger, whose clutch two-run double keyed a four-run sixth inning in the Dodgers’ 9-2 win over the San Francisco Giants on Saturday night, will start Game 3 of the National League Division Series on the bench Monday night.

Albert Pujols will play first base, making him the oldest player — at 41 years and 268 days — to start a game in Dodgers playoff history, and right-handed hitting Chris Taylor (center) and AJ Pollock (left) will start in the outfield against Giants left-hander Alex Wood, manager Dave Roberts said.

As the best-of-five series shifts to Los Angeles with the Dodgers and Giants tied one game apiece, here are five takeaways from Games 1 and 2:



Match Game

Fans watch Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer warm up in the bullpen.
Fans watch Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer warm up in the bullpen before Wednesday’s wild-card win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Not only has the momentum in the series swung toward the Dodgers, so have the pitching matchups, which is surprising considering the NL West-champion Giants had a week to reset their rotation and the Dodgers, who lost Clayton Kershaw to a forearm injury on Oct. 1, could start Max Scherzer only once.

Scherzer, who struggled with his command during a 4 1/3-inning, 94-pitch start in Wednesday’s wild-card win over St. Louis, will pitch Game 3 on regular rest.

The Giants will counter with Wood, who went 0-2 with a 4.76 ERA in three starts against the Dodgers this season, giving up 20 hits, including five homers, in 17 innings and yielding a .290 average and .964 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

Julio Urías stymied the Giants in a 9-2 win in Game 2 of the NLDS. Giants manager Gabe Kapler foresaw big things for Urías when he worked for the Dodgers.


If Scherzer can regain the feel of his slider and locate his fastball, changeup, curve and cutter, the Dodgers would have the advantage in Game 3.

Roberts could then use left-hander Julio Urias, who threw 72 pitches in his five-inning, one-run, three-hit win in Game 2, for two or three innings of a modified bullpen game in Game 4, and Walker Buehler could start Game 5 with extra rest.

Asked Sunday about his pitching plans for Game 4, Roberts said, “We don’t know. I think right now, where our head is at is to deploy anyone and everyone.”

San Francisco could start Anthony DeSclafani in Game 4. The right-hander went 0-3 with a 7.33 ERA in six starts against the Dodgers this season, giving up 33 hits, six of them homers, in 27 innings and yielding a .300 average and .875 OPS.


Patience is a virtue

Dodgers leadoff batter Mookie Betts follows through on a run-scoring single.
Dodgers leadoff batter Mookie Betts follows through on a run-scoring single in the second inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants on Saturday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)


Roberts was at a loss to explain how his hitters could look so lost in Game 1, when they chased far too many Logan Webb changeups and sliders outside the zone in a 4-0 loss, and so locked in during Game 2, when they showed better plate discipline against Kevin Gausman, racking up 11 hits in the win.

“I don’t know the answer,” Roberts said after Game 2. “I wish I knew it in about the third inning [in Game 1]. Logan threw the ball well and we didn’t make any adjustments. It was good to get Gausman up and on the plate, to use the whole field. That mindset paid dividends.”

Mookie Betts set the tone in Game 2, laying off three Gausman split-fingered fastballs near his ankles in his game-opening walk.

The Dodgers didn’t pummel Gausman, who retired 10 straight batters from the second through fifth innings, but they had more competitive at-bats, laying off enough low splitters to force him to come up in the zone.

Mookie Betts’ thunderbolt from right field elicited memories of the game-altering defensive plays he made for the Dodgers last year against Atlanta.


“You’ve just got to see [the splitter] up,” Roberts said before the game. “And if you’re swinging at the knees, you’re in trouble.”

Urias and Betts both hit elevated splitters for RBI singles in the second, and Trea Turner led off the sixth with a double on a splitter. Will Smith laid off two splitters in the dirt and a slider for a walk. Taylor walked to load the bases, and Bellinger and Pollock smacked two-run doubles.

“I thought we gave ourselves a chance,” Roberts said. “We weren’t afraid to get into counts, to grind Gausman, to use the whole field.”


Evil Knebel

Dodgers pitcher Corey Knebel reacts during the seventh inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants.
(John Hefti / Associated Press)

The Dodgers acquired Corey Knebel last October believing the right-hander could regain his 2017 All-Star form after missing the entire 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery and struggling through an injury marred 2020, when he compiled a 6:08 ERA in 15 relief appearances.


That didn’t happen during a regular season in which Knebel missed almost four months because of a right-lat strain, but it could be happening at just the right time for the Dodgers.

Knebel struck out 11 in 7 1/3 scoreless innings of his last seven regular-season games, most in low-leverage situations, but Roberts has leaned on the fastball-curveball specialist in leverage in the playoffs, and Knebel has responded.

Dave Roberts’ bold decisions with the Dodgers’ starting lineup for Game 2 proved critical in helping the team secure a series-tying win over the Giants.

Knebel struck out Harrison Bader with a sharp 81-mph curve to end the eighth inning in the wild-card win, and he threw a one-two-three seventh on Saturday, striking out Tommy La Stella with an elevated 97-mph fastball and freezing Alex Dickerson with a 79-mph curve for strike three.

Knebel’s emergence gives Roberts another middle-relief option to go with Brusdar Graterol, Joe Kelly, Phil Bickford and Alex Vesia.


“I’ve always had that trust in him but haven’t had the chance to really deploy him,” Roberts said of Knebel. “The most important thing is he’s throwing the baseball well, he’s healthy, and the confidence I see when I give him the baseball makes me feel even better.”


Tommy La Stellar

San Francisco's Tommy La Stella hits a single against the Dodgers in the third inning of Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday.
(John Hefti / Associated Press)

Many scoffed when the Giants signed La Stella to a three-year, $18.75-million deal in February. Why would a team coming off four straight losing seasons spend a decent chunk of change on an injury prone 32-year-old second baseman with little power?

That skepticism was validated when La Stella hit .250 with a .713 OPS, seven homers and 27 RBIs in 76 games and missed three months because of a left-hamstring strain and right-thumb fracture.

But that contract didn’t look so bad in Game 1 when La Stella walked and scored in the first inning, singled in his next two at-bats and started a dazzling double play to end the top of the fourth.


San Francisco, CA - October 08: Los Angeles Dodgers' Will Smith looks up after hitting a single during the fifth inning.


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La Stella, an All-Star with the Angels in 2019, back-handed Justin Turner’s grounder behind the bag and made a glove-flip to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who tapped second and threw to first. La Stella is expected to be back in the leadoff spot against Scherzer in Game 3.


Extended play

Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen gestures after a win over the San Diego Padres on Sept. 29.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The Giants had the deeper and more versatile bullpen entering the series but had no relief advantage in Game 2, when Dominic Leone and Zack Littell were roughed up for five runs and six hits.

Roberts also didn’t use setup man Blake Treinen or closer Kenley Jansen in the first two games, so both could assume expanded roles in Game 3.


“Feeling you can go one-plus [innings] in any situation,” Roberts said, “builds more flexibility into [Monday] night’s game plan.”