It was almost the opposite of the Britton Principle. On Tuesday, the Dodgers nearly rode their ace right out of the post-season.
Never lose with your best pitcher up your sleeve.
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The Dodgers took this to heart on Tuesday as manager Dave Roberts chose to roll with not only the best pitcher on the staff but on the planet in a must-win game 4. It was a decision that has seen plenty of debate but “get yourself to game 5 and see what happens” is far from poor logic – optimal or not. Pitching on short rest, Clayton Kershaw got off to a slow start before settling in in the 3rd. The former MVP would go on to strike out a 11 in an admirable performance.
However, with Kershaw at 85 pitches, holding on to a 3 run lead after 6 innings and due to bat 2nd in the bottom of the inning, it seemed pretty clear to most onlookers that his night should be done. Apparently, for Roberts, it wasn’t. There were some defensible reasons behind this:
- Healthy Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball
- The Nationals would send the bottom of their order to the plate in the 7th (7,8,9)
- Kershaw required just 9 pitches to get through the 6th
- Andrew Toles who would lead off for the Dodgers grounded out bringing up the pitchers spot with none on and 1 out in a 5-2 game.
- The bullpen had been worked pretty hard throughout the series and probably needed some protection
There were also some really good reasons not to send Kershaw back out there:
- The current version of Clayton Kershaw isn’t entirely healthy
- Kershaw was pitching on short rest and was at 85 pitches and didn’t look his sharpest
- Kershaw had been hit hard in the previous inning with two of the outs coming via lineout
- None on,1 out still isn’t a bad spot to push for an insurance run with the top of the order to follow
- If Kershaw let someone on that would bring up the top of the Nats order for the 4th time and that rarely ends well.
So the answer to whether Kershaw should have started the 7th is a resounding maybe… but probably not. Whilst it’s perhaps not the best option it’s not entirely indefensible. However, when Danny Espinosa led off the 7th with a single it should have been apparent that Kershaw was done. Again, apparently it wasn’t.
Roberts’ decision was looking far more palatable after Kershaw retired both Pedro Severino and pinch-hitter Chris Heisey to get to two out and a runner on first. However, when Trea Turner reached on an infield single, Roberts had really managed himself into a hole – a Bryce Harper sized hole.
With Kershaw approaching 100 pitches but only right-hander Pedro Baez loose in the pen, Roberts had no choice but to let a fatigued Kershaw face the reigning MVP Harper. Roberts was inches away from escaping the inning when Kershaw just missed with a 1-2 fastball, however fatigue would rear its ugly head and Kershaw would wind up walking Harper to load the bases.
Again Roberts was in a jam. With Jayson Werth at the plate and with bases loaded and two out, Roberts had no choice but to go to the pen and by the pen I mean the sometimes electric but also frustrating and at times ineffective Pedro Baez. On Tuesday, in the highest leverage at bat of the game so far, Roberts got the extremely frustrating and ineffective version of Baez as he would hit Werth with his first pitch to make it a 5-3 game.
That would bring perennial Dodgers’ nightmare Daniel Murphy to the plate, again with the bases loaded making it an even higher leverage at bat. Roberts would respond by bringing in the Dodgers second best left-hander, Luis Avilan. Avilan promptly allowed Murphy a two-run single and the game was tied.
And that friends, is how you blow a 3 run lead for no reason. Joe Blanton – the guy who should probably have started the 7th – would eventually stop the bleeding but the damage had already been done.
Let it be noted that up until that point Roberts had managed an almost flawless series. However, allowing a fatigued Kershaw, Baez ,your third best right-hander, and Avilan, your second best left-hander tackle the middle of the Nats lineup in the highest leverage point of the series, was an almost fatal mistake. Roberts will undoubtedly expend plenty of energy reviewing that inning and I’m sure Andrew Friedman will have something to say about it at some point as well. If you’re going to follow the Britton Principle in starting Kershaw on short rest, then surely you have to follow it in the highest leverage situation of the game. The Dodgers play on Thursday in a winner takes all game 5 – making a similar mistake may just end the Dodgers season.