LOS ANGELES — We have said it frequently in this space: Every fan base in baseball hates its bullpen at one time or another. Especially in October, when things can go south at the worst possible time.
Conversely, once the Dodgers decided to ditch the closer’s role and give themselves some ninth-inning flexibility, have they maybe stumbled on a bullpen formula that greater L.A. could learn to love?
There is no individual who will be the lightning rod, and maybe that’s one of the greatest advantages of a closer-less bullpen. Unless you are the manager – but, as we’ve learned, Dave Roberts received an inordinate share of the blame anyway when he did have someone in the closer’s role, so there’s little change in that regard.
The new format got its first postseason test on Tuesday night in the opener of their National League Division Series and it worked perfectly. Julio Urías pitched four near-flawless innings and then faltered in the fifth, as the San Diego Padres started hitting the ball hard and trimmed a 5-0 deficit to 5-3.
So, starting with the sixth, the chain went from Evan Phillips to Alex Vesia to Brusdar Graterol (for one hitter, Manny Machado to close out the eighth) and finally to Chris Martin, who locked down his first postseason save as a Dodger and got the ball afterward, encased in plastic.
“I didn’t (ask),” he said. “It just showed up. Magically appeared.”
It’s not a new concept, necessarily, but it’s fairly new to the Dodgers, the idea that there’s no one guy whose domain is the ninth inning. There have been years when others have closed games – for example, Urías in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series – but even then Kenley Jansen was still considered the ninth-inning guy even if Roberts was starting to go elsewhere for closure.
Now, it’s wide open and the ninth-inning guy, or the eighth- or seventh- or even sixth-inning guys, will vary from night to night and will often be determined by who’s coming up in a particular inning.
“We’ve all bought into this concept of, when your name is called and the phone rings, you go get those outs,” Phillips said after his sixth inning Tuesday night, when he got into trouble by giving up a walk to Juan Soto and a dribbler up the third base line by Machado, but struck out pinch-hitter Josh Bell and got Wil Myers on a sharp grounder that Gavin Lux turned into a double play.
“They do a good job of getting us prepared for each situation that we’re called for. And I think you saw that drawn up that way (Tuesday night), and I think you’ll continue to see it go that way.”
Yes, every situation or contingency has a corresponding plan.
“Generally we get an idea of when we’re going to pitch early in the game, or sometimes right before the game,” Phillips said. “Sometimes it’s early in the day. It’s just a matter of what team we’re facing, and a lot of it has to do with game flow and how the game is moving. So getting a lead, I had a decent idea that I’d face that part of the order (Soto, Machado and, as it turned out, pinch-hitter Bell), if say Julio got in trouble. Or if later in the game when those guys come up again, I had a good idea that that would be my line. And they do (a) great job of translating that or communicating that message individually to each pitcher.
“Sometimes we have to be prepared for multiple situations. So I think what we have to do physically to prepare ourselves down there maybe varies on a day-to-day basis. But that’s on our end to make sure we’re ready for whenever our name is called.”
To pull this off requires a bullpen full of guys with good arms, good temperaments and a willingness to share. This is not for the guy whose self-worth (or arbitration figure) depends on his save total.
“I really don’t think we’ve put much into the big names or who’s getting those outs,” Phillips said. “I think we all just value each other as teammates and we value each other as a bullpen unit.”
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“We’re fired up, excited,” Martin said. “Obviously, everybody went out there and did a great job tonight. Vesia (who struck out the side in the seventh) – unbelievable. Phillips – huge. I mean, Graterol went and got a really good hitter out there, and we just moved down the line and just tried to keep the game where it is.”
The bottom line, of course, is that October is dramatically different, and pursuing outs with the game and the season and the ultimate goal on the line gets exponentially harder the closer you get to the finish line.
“Everything just means a little bit more,” Phillips said. “So the value of these outs is incredibly high. And I think you’ll see it with each bullpen guy that comes in. We’re all eager to get whatever stretch of outs we’re called upon for.
“Our goal the whole season has been to get the last out of the World Series. This is a great way to get that ball rolling. And it’s win (number) one. We want 10 more.”
In the meantime, a fan base that had grown accustomed to fearing the worst from its bullpen might even be able to relax a little bit … assuming the manager makes the right calls every night.