LOS ANGELES ― Even before Manager Dave Roberts demoted his veteran closer, Craig Kimbrel, in favor of a ninth-inning committee in August, the question of how best to deploy the Dodgers’ collection of relief pitchers has been a source of intrigue.
Injuries to veterans Daniel Hudson and Blake Treinen left the Dodgers’ bullpen with few veteran set-up men. While they led all National League bullpens in ERA (2.87), fielding independent pitching (3.24) and stranding baserunners (76.7 percent) during the regular season, the Dodgers lacked household names with established roles.
Treinen made it back from his latest shoulder-related setback in time for the NL Division Series, but Kimbrel was left off the roster entirely. What remained was a group of quality pitchers who seemingly could appear in the game at any time after the starter threw his final pitch.
Game 1 of their NLDS against the Padres offered at least one clue about what to expect going forward.
Evan Phillips took over for Julio Urías to begin the sixth inning. The heart of the Padres’ lineup – Juan Soto, Manny Machado and Josh Bell – was due up. He, Alex Vesia, Brudsar Graterol and Chris Martin finished the game without allowing a run to preserve a 5-3 advantage.
Martin, who had nine career saves – none in his 14 previous postseason appearances – retired Bell, Wil Myers and Ha-Seong Kim around a Jake Cronenworth single to end the game.
“I have total confidence in my teammates in the bullpen,” said Urías, who allowed three runs in five innings. “Not just me but everybody in the starting rotation.”
Of the four, Phillips offered the only white-knuckle moment.
Soto drew a walk to lead off the sixth inning and went to second on a swinging-bunt single by Machado. Phillips came back to strike out Bell on a 94 mph cutter, the eighth pitch of the at-bat.
The next batter, Myers, smoked Phillips’ two-strike pitch on the ground – 100 mph off the bat, straight to second baseman Gavin Lux. Lux whipped an off-balance throw to shortstop Trea Turner covering second base, who threw to first just in time to double up Myers. The play saved a run, and possibly more.
“He’s got to make a good throw to me,” Turner said of Lux. “A lot has to go right to make that play. (Lux) is athletic enough to make those plays, too. We got the job done.”
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“For me, that was the play of the game,” said Roberts, who had Vesia ready to relieve Phillips after the at-bat regardless of the outcome. “I thought (the ground ball) was almost past Gavin.”
Phillips’ 1.14 ERA during the regular season was the lowest ever by a Dodger reliever who threw at least 40 innings. Padres manager Bob Melvin suggested he was not surprised to see the right-hander facing the heart of his batting order in the sixth inning.
Vesia recorded five outs. Graterol recorded one, getting Machado to fly out on his only pitch of the eighth inning. Martin got the game ball in recognition of his first postseason save.
Each of their entrances came as somewhat of a surprise. And that’s exactly how Roberts would like to keep it.
“We could see something completely different (in Game 2),” he said.