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Column: Dave Roberts ruminates on life, the death of his father and mixing things up in the bullpen

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts yells out to his team in the dugout before a game against the Padres on April 6 at Dodger Stadium.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

As bleary-eyed players marched into Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting locker room Thursday morning, they were welcomed to work by a cheerful voice from inside the manager’s office.

The voice belonged to Dave Roberts, the highly energetic and highly caffeinated manager of the Dodgers.

Yasiel Puig stuck his head into Roberts’ office. Roberts told Puig about how MLB Network mentioned the outfielder’s foundation.

“I like it,” Roberts told him.

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Watching Roberts interact with his players this week, you never would have imagined he was in mourning. You never would have guessed he was less than month removed from the death of his father, Waymon.

“I think about him a lot,” Roberts said.

Two days earlier, the Dodgers didn’t have a game to play. The 44-year-old Roberts was alone in his luxury hotel room and started thinking about his father.

“I just wanted to hear his voice,” Roberts said. “I didn’t even know if my sister turned off his phone or not, but I just called his number.”

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When Roberts shared the story, a silence fell over the office. He placed the tip of his index finger on his lips and stared into the space in front of him.

He wasn’t down for long. He couldn’t be. The game was calling.

And the game requires the full commitment of a manager’s intellectual and emotional resources, as Roberts learned last year in his successful maiden season with the Dodgers.

As a player, he was conditioned to visualize positive outcomes. That was still his mentality at the start of last season. So, if he went into a particular game, he counted on the starting pitcher lasting six innings. His task was to figure out who would serve as the seventh- and eighth-inning links to closer Kenley Jansen.

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The state of the Dodgers rotation forced him to rewire his brain. Injuries and substandard performances meant Roberts couldn’t take anything for granted. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be making his first change in the fourth or fifth inning.

“I think I’ve learned quickly as a manager that you can’t just expect good things to happen,” he said. “You always have to caution for the worst case. I’m very cognizant of various exit strategies.”

And this was how he learned to use his bullpen. No relievers had designated roles outside of Jansen. Anyone in the bullpen could come in at any time.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is the lone reliever with an official role.
(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
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The idea wasn’t new in baseball. How successfully the idea was implemented was.

Players have routines. Disrupt their routines and you threaten their performances.

“I think it’s the consistency of conversations with me and our players, about eliminating noise, being accountable and not making excuses because that’s an excuse,” Roberts said. “It’s challenging guys to back up what they say. If they’re here for the team and to be unselfish, then the out in the fifth inning is just as big as the out in the ninth inning.”

The Dodgers bullpen topped the major leagues last season in innings pitched and earned-run average. The pitchers in the group have changed this season, but the results haven’t. Through 10 games, Dodgers relievers have posted a combined 1.34 ERA.

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The team dropped its series finale against the Chicago Cubs, 4-0, but the bullpen contributed another 3 1/3 scoreless innings.

Roberts said this is in part because he has learned to better utilize the data provided to him by the front office, which he studies before every game.

Was Roberts a good student?

“When I wanted to be,” he said.

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Roberts has a degree from UCLA, but it’s in history. The school will give one of those to pretty much anyone. I know. My degree from UCLA is also in history.

Roberts laughed.

“You’re right,” he said. “I wasn’t econ at UCLA.”

As important as his aptitude is the confidence he gained last year in the playoffs, particularly in what was his managerial magnum opus in Game 5 of a National League division series against the Washington Nationals.

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Roberts’ starting pitcher in that game, Rich Hill, failed to complete the third inning.

Joe Blanton recorded the final out of the third inning and pitched the fourth. Julio Urias pitched the fifth and the sixth. Jansen entered the game in the seventh inning and pitched 2 1/3 innings. Clayton Kershaw, who started the previous day, registered the last two outs.

The Dodgers won, 4-3, and advanced to the NL Championship Series, where they fell to the Cubs.

When the season ended, Roberts was named the league’s manager of the year.

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He shared those triumphs with his father, a former Marine and disciplinarian. He won’t have his father alongside him for his future victories.

Roberts reflected on how their relationship evolved over the years.

“He was completely different than when he raised me,” Roberts said. “He softened. He just became a fan.”

Roberts nodded and forced a smile.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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