Dave Roberts Pushes All the Right Buttons as Dodgers Take Game 5 and Series Lead

The pivotal and most crucial decision of Game 5 of the World Series was attended by a wave of boos, even as Dave Roberts got it right.

Amid the carnage and chaos at the end of Game 4 a scant 20 hours prior was the realization that the fulcrum of the series was now the left arm of Clayton Kershaw. That he would be the man on the mound was already known, as he’d been announced as the scheduled starter for Game 5 well before then, but the circumstances surrounding his turn swung as sharply as Game 4 itself. In the moments before Brett Phillips overturned the world, Kershaw was going to take the mound as the man to end Los Angeles’ three-decade run without a title. In the moments after, he became the man who would have to overcome his checkered postseason past to break the deadlock and put the Dodgers on the doorstep of a championship. If he couldn’t, Los Angeles would be facing the end of the road in Game 6.

It’s both unfair and tiresome that the playoffs always seem to swing around Kershaw, but he warps the series around him, a gravity well that sucks up matter and turns it into white-hot takes. There’s also the fact that the Clayton Kershaw Postseason Narrative™ has, for the most part, accurately reflected his October body of work, full of struggles and heartbreaking losses. The irony of these playoffs is that, one weak NLCS start aside, Kershaw has looked more like his regular-season self. Coming into Game 5, his 2020 postseason body of work consisted of eight runs allowed in 25 innings — a 2.88 ERA — and 31 strikeouts, and he was superb in Game 1, holding the Rays to one run in six innings. This is the Kershaw we all know and love.

But the reality of October Kershaw is that, good or not in the beginning, he rarely goes deep into games and, in fact, shouldn’t. With a fastball that struggles to get past 92 mph and a balky back, he’s a poor choice to face a lineup a third time. And yet in years previous, figuring out just when the needle on Kershaw’s gas tank has hit empty has been one of Roberts’ biggest struggles. The veteran lefty has often not pitched well, but his manager has frequently exacerbated the issue by leaving him out long past his expiration date. Compounding the problem is a Los Angeles bullpen that’s consistently inconsistent, usually taking leads that Kershaw gives them and making them disappear. That relief corps has remained a shaky bet this month, putting Roberts in a tough position: What should he do when his ace starts to flag?

It seemed like he’d have to answer that question early in Game 5, with Kershaw not nearly as sharp as he was in the series opener. Rays hitters swung and missed at just two of his 35 fastballs, which averaged a hair over 91 mph. His slider turned up seven whiffs but also nine foul balls and four put into play. Two runs scored in the third. In the fourth, two walks and a throwing error by Austin Barnes on a steal attempt put runners on the corners with none out, though Kershaw wriggled out of the jam by getting a pop-up, a strikeout, and a caught stealing at home by Manuel Margot. The fifth was an easy 1-2-3 frame with two strikeouts, and Los Angeles led 4–2, but at 83 pitches and with the meat of Tampa Bay’s order due up, the sixth loomed as a crisis point.

In the fevered minds of Dodgers fans, that inning probably played out in advance as a haunted house, each batter more terrifying than the last, each at-bat labored and exhausting. It didn’t help that the first man up was Randy Arozarena, the world-destroying force who’d knocked an RBI single off Kershaw in the third. Instead, Kershaw got through both Arozarena and Brandon Lowe on a pitch apiece (though Arozarena’s out was a 105-mph groundout smashed right at Justin Turner at third).

And then out came Roberts, attended by boos, for a mound conference that turned into a pitching change, even as Turner was caught on camera telling all assembled that Kershaw could get this out. Roberts, though, was sticking to a preconceived plan, as the FOX booth explained: Kershaw would face 21 batters, no more and no less, and then give way to Dustin May. That blueprint is both oddly specific and inflexible, and it relied heavily on May — who has been an opener and a bulk guy, a high-leverage reliever and everything in between this postseason — doing what he hasn’t done all month, which is pitch well. But that was the plan, and Roberts stuck to it. Out came Kershaw to a standing ovation, while Roberts walked back to the dugout to a chorus of boos.

Was it the right call? Again, the trick with Kershaw is to figure out when he’s losing it, and understanding that there’s no reason to push him. And though those first two outs came easily (or at least quickly), why keep spinning the chamber of the revolver and pulling the trigger? The counterpoint is that, as Game 4 showed, Roberts has few if any relievers he can trust, and May, despite his ludicrous stuff, had spent the playoffs struggling to throw strikes and getting worked like a speed bag when he did. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and damned if you try to find a middle ground.

Here’s the funny thing, though: The plan worked. Roberts’ belief in May paid off, as the gangly righty whipped 101-mph fastballs by Margot to end the sixth, then set down the Rays in order in the seventh. Things got tricky again in the eighth, as May put the leadoff batter on, got the first out, then gave way to rookie lefty Victor González. That initially looked like a blunder by Roberts: González, slated to face pinch-hitter and fellow lefty Ji-Man Choi, instead had to contend with pinch-pinch-hitter and righty Mike Brosseau, who drew a walk to put two on for Arozarena. But a perfectly placed slider on the outside corner got a soft fly out from the Rays’ postseason MVP, and González finished the frame with a pop out to center by Lowe.

The end didn’t come easy either. Wary of using Kenley Jansen after his Game 4 collapse, Roberts turned to Blake Treinen, appearing in his third straight game, to close it out with a two-run lead. Margot’s leadoff single threatened to make things interesting, but Treinen quickly recovered, getting the next three Rays in order to give the Dodgers the 3–2 series lead, and the win to Kershaw.

No manager bats 1.000, as it were, and Roberts has made plenty of decisions this series and in the playoffs that have backfired or looked bad from the start. Yet it’s worth noting that, aside from Blake Snell’s excellent Game 2 start and the back half of Game 4 culminating in the Yakety Sax routine that was the final play, the Dodgers have been firmly in control of this Fall Classic. On Sunday night, it all came together as he planned, as all of his moves worked. The result is the Dodgers taking the field on Tuesday with 27 outs separating them from that long-awaited World Series win.





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Neutralluke
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Neutralluke

I actually think giving May that opportunity to get out of an inning without having to make 3 outs was a great play by Roberts. May’s been shaky but he definitely seemed to turn a corner after getting that strikeout of Margot and, given the Rays hitters’ difficulty with fastballs, May should be an excellent matchup for most of their lineup. We’ll see if Gonsolin can make the same kind of improvements that May did today.

sweepcut
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sweepcut

It’s also worth noting that Roberts was advised of some mechanical tweaks that May made prior to the game, which were evident in how much better he was commanding his fastball. I was a little perplexed that Gonzalez was allowed to face Arozarena, but thankfully it worked out! Hopefully Gonsolin shows improved command of his splitter in Game 6

Sammy Sooser
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Sammy Sooser

Gonzalez is solid vs lefties and righties. Obviously Arozarena has been dialed in, but it was still solid from a matchup perspective.

Sammy Sooser
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Sammy Sooser

The one move that puzzled me was not bringing in Gonzalez after Tsutsugo was announced.

FrodoBeck
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FrodoBeck

Yeah at this point basically no pitcher is a ‘good’ matchup against Arozarena.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

You folks are obsessing over absurd samples. This isn’t rocket science in reality. It is rocket science on Twitter I guess where random people’s reactions are what matter.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

Gonzalez vs Arozarena makes a bit more sense if you followed the team closely. Gonzalez was by a wide margin the Dodgers’ most effective relief pitcher this season, and he had no significant platoon split and a 70% ground ball rate. As a former starter and with that highly effective slider, he’s always been the best bet of the Dodger lefty relievers to impact this series because he can be trusted to handle a right-handed bat or two in the course of getting some good matchups (like a LRL type scenario). I wouldn’t have picked him for Arozarena, but Arozarena has hit both sides well and sliders – Victor’s best pitch – have been the most effective pitch against him.

Overall the Dodgers had no clearly obvious decisions and had to make a bunch of choices that each had some flaws and I think they overall did a good job. The Kershaw choice was a great compromise between taking him out when he still had something to give when the ‘pen was tired and asking too much: it required a bet on Arozarena specifically (and again the slider question, Kershaw had mostly handled him OK over 2 games) in order to get the Lowe v Kershaw matchup. It went the best it possibly could, but overall it made sense as a calculated risk.

The Dodgers probably won’t win this series if Gonsolin and May cannot contribute anything, so finding an opportunity to use May that was meaningful but controllable also made sense, to make sure that the mechanical fixes were right, and his use was minimzied so he can likely help in G6 and the fact that he was still not entirely sharp (the 2 seamer was good, the slurve type thing was not, and you could see the Rays stop whiffing as they started hunting the fastball and fouling lots of them off) meant using him for a fairly short outing was good. Gonzalez is a good fit for the situation he was asked to face even though he didn’t resolve it the way you were thinking going in, and Treinen has pitched well overall this year, well overall in the postseason and had previously proven he could maintain his velocity and movement when pitching a 3rd day in a row, as he was used 3 straight in the Atlanta series.

All of those decisions had other options and involved calculated risks, but overall I think the plan made sense given the personnel and set the Dodgers up well for the future, as only Treinen would appear to have any kind of meaningful limitation for Game 6, meaning you can all-hands the game and still have the combination of Buehler, Treinen, and two starters (Urias, Kershaw) for game 7 on top of anyone who isn’t tapped too deeply in Game 6. Kershaw gave 60 pitches of 4 IP, 2H 0R 4K against the Astros in exactly this scenario in 2017 G7, on identical rest, and you expect Buehler to be good for some innings if it comes down to it.

At the end of the Atlanta series, Roberts made a series of good pitching choices that made his decisions early in the World Series all the more frustrating, because he had previously shown he could make the right ones (contrast how Baez was used in NLCS 6 vs WS 4, for example, Baez having a history of bad results w/ inherited runners and being an extreme FB pitcher who gives up HR as a sizable amount of his total hits allowed, prioritizing using him in clean innings is a very good strategy. They did this in the NLCS, and then did not in the WS – it’s that incongruity that is so frustrating. IMO, the Dodgers likely won the WS tonight if they had simply used Gonzalez in G4 where Baez was originally used (in the 6th with 2 on 1 out, in the GIDP scenario) and Baez for a clean 7th. Instead those guys all pitched in sub-optimal scenarios.

drew_willy
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drew_willy

Kolarek would’ve been the guy to go to for the 9th inning after allowing Gonzalez to face the first batter of the inning, I thought. The Rays were down to mostly lefties aside from Adames.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I dont think there’s any reason to not just use Gonzalez there as he’s better than Kolarek and has consistently had outings over 1 IP in the regular season; he’s a former starter, and pitched 20+ IP in 15 appearances in the regular season.

Kolarek’s useful vs the Rays lefties but Gonzalez is just better at basically everything.

Gonzalez for the 6th inning jam; Baez for a clean 7th; Kolarek where Gonzalez did pitch in the 8th. Then you are probably fine with Jansen in the 9th because it’s probably not a 1 run game anymore, if you prevented the Rays from scoring 3 in the 6th, but if it is you also still have Graterol available (and imo they should have skipped jansen in 4 to save for 5, given he’s showing substantial dropoffs in velocity in back to back days. They should have tried to use him in G3 and G5, and intentionally skipped G4).

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Trying to use guys is the root of all mis-management. The game increasingly revolves around it as opposed to the players playing baseball.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Put guys in for soft match-ups and then pretend that they are valuable? Does not compute. Improvements lol. Everyone should be lucky enough to face the bottom half of the order. You can’t get smashed every time. The fact is that the Dodgers have gotten close to nothing from May throughout the playoffs. Has it come to putting him in soft spots? It has. He should be their #3/4 starter and he is currently a mopup guy / opener at this point. Not to mention the lack of development that is taking place. Partial innings take more of a toll than the simple number of pitches. That move was moronic. Kershaw most likely could have cruised through 7 or more innings. Heck, Kersh could have maybe gotten through 8 and we wouldn’t be talking about decisions at all.

mikejunt
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mikejunt

I’m not sure what planet you’re on, but on this one the Dodgers can look at May’s pitch execution and learn whether or not he’s right. They had identified a specific problem (arm and lower half out of sync, possibly due to being too-amped up, and causing a lack of command), had worked with him to address it in bullpen sessions, and wanted to see it play out in a game situation. If May shouldn’t face the Rays best hitters but can dominate the bottom 2/3 of their lineup for 6 outs, that’s exceptionally valuable! Those were the exact parts of the lineup that scored 2 runs off Kershaw and threatened to score more in the 4th inning. Kershaw was far from sharp or dominant, and if he’d been left in for 7 and given up the lead you’d be in here dancing on the Dodgers for being dumb enough to let Kershaw history repeat itself even though it’s happened a dozen times before.

You act like the only acceptable way for the Dodgers to win the World Series is to force Kershaw to pitch 7-8 innings and for him to dominate them, and if he fails to do that they should not win. That’s not reality.

CJ
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CJ

The last paragraph mikejunt wrote describes fairly well what Dodgers seemed to be doing all these years (and ask Kershaw to pitch in relief to boot), which has been driving me nuts certainly, and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I’m just pleasantly shocked, shocked Dodgers finally changed their approach. Even better that it worked.