If Walker Buehler was available to start Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, selecting him for the starting assignment Thursday instead of Clayton Kershaw would have marked a symbolic passing of the torch. The decision to start Hyun-Jin Ryu sent an entirely different message, a statement that was less about the pitcher who was chosen and more about the one who wasn’t.
A year ago, Yasmani Grandal was a spectator on most nights. He had started a career-high 113 games behind the plate during the 2017 regular season, starting primarily against right-handed pitchers. Austin Barnes was behind the plate against left-handed starters. But by the time the playoffs rolled around, after Grandal’s abysmal second half and Barnes’ breakthrough campaign, the Dodgers made a decision: Barnes would be their primary catcher, no matter the pitcher’s handedness.
Grandal started the first game of the National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He didn’t play again until he started Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs. Those were his only two starts. He appeared in two games off the bench in the World Series and finished the postseason 0 for 8 with three walks. He became an afterthought as his team went to Game 7 of the World Series.
There was joy in the air at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers were about to open their final home series of the regular season, with a National League West lead that would turn out to be their largest of the year. Billie Jean King had just been welcomed as a new owner of the team.
Jaime Jarrin was three hours from his induction into the Dodgers’ ring of honor. Jarrin is 82, and the Dodgers had just announced a new contract for their Hall of Fame broadcaster. He would be back next year, and the year after that.
The Dodgers had said nothing about a new contract for their manager, Dave Roberts, 46, or their iconic pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, 30. Whether either man would be back next year was uncertain. Mark Walter, the Dodgers’ chairman, had said months ago that he would like to sign Kershaw for life.
The thought flickered through Dave Roberts’ mind when his vision was still clear and his hearing still sharp, before the smoke from in-stadium pyrotechnics clouded the diamond and the blare of the train whistle at Minute Maid Park embedded in his memory.
He stared from the dugout at his fading ace on the mound in the fifth inning of Game 5 of the 2017 World Series. With a three-run lead, two outs and Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman at the plate, Roberts pondered his most audacious act as manager of the Dodgers, executed on the sport’s grandest stage: He would take the baseball away from Clayton Kershaw in the middle of an at-bat.
“I’m going to take him out, right now,” Roberts thought as Kershaw snuck a curveball over the plate for a second strike against Bregman. One strike separated the Dodgers from escaping the inning and stepping closer toward the championship that had eluded them since 1988. Roberts believed the best option to collect the strike was warming up in the bullpen, in the person of Kenta Maeda.