This postseason has been thick with tension and drama, with games won, lost, and totally changed in the last few innings. When the Cubs beat the Giants with an improbable four runs in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS, Cubs president Theo Epstein quipped, “Hitting before the ninth inning is clearly overrated.”
There are few roles in the postseason that have been as heavily scrutinized as that of the closer, or the late-inning relievers. In such do-or-die situations, the pressure falls on these men to keep the score where it is, while the battalion of the other team swings away, trying to flatten them.
When starting pitchers falter early, as we saw in both the first two Jays-Rangers games, and the Nationals-Dodgers opener, the bullpen gets dipped into early and often, with pitchers brought in to face one opponent before being dumped, and closers being called on to complete two or more innings, doubling and tripling their normal pitch count.
Buck Showalter was roundly criticized in the Jays-Orioles wild card game for never bringing out his Cy Young candidate closer Zach Britton. Showalter defended his decision to save Britton for potential extra innings and stick with Ubaldo Jimenez, saying, “No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo.” Except, observers noted, Britton.
Time and time again in these high-stress games we’ve begun to see closers stretched out, starters used on short rest, and every standard rule of pitching tossed out the window. Do you use your best guy now, or save him in the hopes of using him tomorrow? For Showalter and the O’s, there was no tomorrow, only a frustrated, unused Britton. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, that man was a motivated, insistent Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw had already started games 1 and 4 of the series, pitching the latter on short rest. It hadn’t even been a full 48 hours since his last start when Dave Roberts sent him to the pen in Washington to start warming up. Kenley Jansen was on the mound, having done his part in a plan Roberts set into motion before the game even started. Jansen was always meant to pitch in the seventh, and if he could, perform a miracle.
First baseman Adrian Gonzalez said, “He told Dave before the game he was ready for a three-inning save today. He gave us everything he wanted to give us.” Jansen threw 51 pitches, sailing past his season high and career records. But by the ninth his command was faltering and he’d issued back-to-back walks to Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth. It was Kershaw who told Roberts — who had previously said he would “absolutely not” pitch — that he wanted in for the series finale.
And in the kind of magic only baseball could provide, the last time Kershaw pitched in relief was Aug. 19, 2006, in the Gulf Coast League. The game was against the Nationals, and his catcher was none other than Kenley Jansen.
No one can dispute Kershaw’s victory was one highlight reel perfection, but was it the right move? Should managers use whoever is available no matter what the cost if the season is on the line?
When Nationals manager Dusty Baker was asked if Dave Roberts’ use of Jansen would set a new standard, he said, "It’s not a trend that I’d like to be a part of anytime." So don’t expect the old guard of management to change their ways any time soon. But sometimes the postseason calls for the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that would seem like lunacy during a normal game.
Tigers fans are no strangers to seeing a starter used in late innings during critical postseason games. In the 2013 ALDS the Oakland A’s were one game away from ending the Tigers’ season. Doug Fister had lasted 6 innings, and the game was tied 3-3. In the seventh, Max Scherzer came into replace Fister, and the move initially seemed like a failure when he gave up one run to give the A’s the lead. In the eighth, Tigers fans witnessed the unbelievable. The Tigers had regained the lead, but Scherzer loaded the bases with no one out. Scherzer pitched out of his own bases-loaded jam, and the Tigers went on to win the game and the series.
At the end of the day, when you know that season survival depends on what happens from one inning to the next, you want your best guy on the mound. For the Dodgers on Thursday, that man was Clayton Kershaw.
Perhaps Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said it best when he concluded, “That’s the guy you want to win or lose the game for you. And he won it.”