Julio Urías, Clayton Kershaw ... then who? Dodgers have time to figure it out
There’s no one way to win in the playoffs. But there is a template that is usually idealized over all others.
Have a settled rotation topped with a couple bona fide aces. Have a few dominant arms to ride at the back end of the bullpen. And have an opportunistic lineup with enough star power to withstand the grind of the postseason.
This year’s Dodgers team has the latter squared away.
But when it comes to their pitching staff — rotation and bullpen, alike — they’re shaping up to have a far different October blueprint.
Manager Dave Roberts knows this.
He acknowledged that after Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw, the rest of their playoff rotation is yet to be determined, with Tony Gonsolin’s lingering forearm soreness creating the latest uncertainty for a group that already lost its opening day starter.
Julio Urías’ family gathers around a TV in Culiacán every time he pitches. They pray for the Dodgers ace who overcame eye surgeries to become a star.
Roberts has been non-committal about who will be closing games, still hoping for a few more strokes of injury luck from a relief corps that has battled its own share of injuries.
“I’m more encouraged with where it’s gonna be in a couple weeks,” Roberts said when asked about the state of his team’s pitching staff. “I do think that there’s a chance for us to be better in a couple weeks than we are now.”
And yet, he is not concerned, either.
On Wednesday afternoon, with the glow of the previous night’s division-clinching win still lighting up his smiling face, Roberts put an optimistic spin on his team’s playoff pitching plans.
“Kind of the theme of our pitching staff, as we look out, is having the sum be better than the individual parts,” Roberts said.
When asked if it matters — or if he’s concerned — that it might not be viewed as the most prototypical path to take into the playoffs, Roberts shook his head.
The Dodgers have captured the NL West title for the ninth time in 10 seasons, a feat that seems easy when it’s anything but.
“Not at all,” he said. “It’s about winning a baseball game, winning a series, preventing runs, scoring runs. So however we can do that — whether it’s a little bit more creative or not normal, I don’t think we’re concerned about it. Nor are our players.”
Time will tell if Roberts, and his bosses in the front office, are proven right.
To this point, the roster they’ve constructed has mowed through the regular season like a fine-tuned machine, their MLB-leading lineup having thus far been perfectly complemented by an ultra-deep pitching staff that leads the majors in team ERA at 2.84.
“We put another layer of emphasis on our depth,” general manager Brandon Gomes said Tuesday night of how the team approached its roster this season, standing beside Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations, in a champagne-soaked clubhouse. “Being able to lock down the division and set things up for the playoffs is going to be very helpful.”
But, with the first game of a potential division series still four weeks away, there are questions continuing to mount on the mound — uncertainties that are inevitable for even the best teams, but looming potential flaws that nonetheless threaten to derail the Dodgers’ pursuit of a second World Series title in three years.
Start with the rotation: Urías is a Cy Young Award candidate who has blossomed over the second half of the season, putting him on track to be the Dodgers’ October ace for the first time in his career. Kershaw has been electric when healthy, and is hopeful his aging back with hold up for another seven weeks.
After that, the picture is far less clear.
Dustin May has been inconsistent in his return from Tommy John surgery, yet possesses some of the most electric stuff on the staff.
They appear to be the likeliest candidates to fill out the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in the rotation. Yet, Roberts was hesitant Wednesday to cement them in such roles.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now they’re starting games for us. I don’t want to put a number on those guys.”
Gonsolin was supposed to factor into this discussion, after his own All-Star-caliber breakthrough this season.
But his recent forearm injury has yet to dissipate. Roberts said the right-hander had an “encourgaing” bullpen session Wednesday afternoon, but then also opened the possibility that Gonsolin could be used in the bullpen for the playoffs, if he can’t get healthy in time to rebuild rotation-level stamina.
“Everything is on the table — as it should be,” Roberts said. “But it’s all contingent on how he’s feeling.”
The state of the bullpen is no sure thing either.
While Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Caleb Ferguson and Chris Martin have emerged in recent weeks as the team’s core of leverage relievers, their situation at closer remains unsettled after Craig Kimbrel’s latest setback on Wednesday.
Arizona Diamondbacks’ Sergio Alcántara hit a three-run homer in the 10th off of reliever Craig Kimbrel in the Dodgers’ 5-3 loss on Wednesday in Phoenix.
Though they are also hopeful of getting more reinforcements down the stretch — Tommy Kahnle looked sharp in his return from the injured list Wednesday, while Yency Almonte, Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen and David Price are all also expected to be healthy before the end of the season — they remain more banged up on the back end than they had expected when they stayed relatively quiet at the trade deadline.
“Getting a few guys back,” Roberts said, “is certainly part of figuring out how the puzzle works.”
The Dodgers are still undoubtedly in an enviable position. Unlike last year, when Roberts acknowledged they ran out of gas, especially on the mound, in an NLCS loss to the Atlanta Braves, they will avoid the wild-card round this time. They will almost certainly have home-field advantage throughout October, too.
But they still don’t know how many innings they’ll get out of their starters, how many relievers will be at full strength, or who will be called upon to get the final three outs.
“All that stuff will be laid out and talked about,” Roberts said.
But only in October will they find out whether they have enough firepower on the mound.
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