During their amazing run to two straight National League pennants, and a 2019 season in which they amassed 106 victories, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has been continually minimized as one who follows orders and not his instincts.
The Dodgers are an organization that revers metrics and the micro-managing of the game. They compile notebooks full of statistical analysis and word is they expect their manager to navigate through games by those books.
So when the Dodgers were defeated by the Astros and Red Sox in the last two World Series, most of the blame was placed on those who tied Roberts’ hands by forcing him to make pitching moves he might not have believed in.
But in the aftermath of their unexpected exit from the postseason on Wednesday, buried by the barrage of three home runs by the Washington Nationals that turned a 3-1 lead into a 7-3 loss, the goodwill for Roberts may finally have dissipated.
Cradling the 3-1 lead into the eighth inning, Roberts decided to allow ace starter Clayton Kershaw to come out of the bullpen to face the sinew of the Nationals lineup when his most trusted relievers, Kenley Jansen, Adam Kolarek and Kenta Maeda, were all available.
What happened? Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto blasted back-to-back homers off Kershaw to tie the game.
And then once the game was in the 10th inning, why did Roberts allow Joe Kelly to pitch a second inning when all of the above were still idling in the bullpen. Roberts even intentionally walked a hitter to load the bases so that Kelly could face the veteran Howie Kendrick.
What happened?: Kendrick delivered a grand slam to put the deciding game away.
If Dodgers fans had aligned themselves with Roberts in the past, it was clear the present would be much different. When he finally trudged to the mound to get Kelly he was greeted by a cascade of catcalls.
“If the blame falls on me, I’ve got no problem with it,” said Roberts after the game. “I feel that my job is to put guys in the best position to have success. And if it doesn’t work out, there’s always going to be second-guessing. I’ve got no problem wearing the brunt of that.”
Of course, the Dodgers might have never been in this position had their offense sustained its attack on Nats starter Stephen Strasburg. But just hours after the Cardinals buried the Braves with 10 runs in the first inning, Los Angeles could do no better than three (homers by Max Muncy and Kike Hernandez) before their bats fell silent beginning in the third inning.
As strange as this sounds, Roberts likely keyed his own demise by over-thinking the situation. You figure he knew Maeda and Kolarek could have handled Rendon and Soto better than Kershaw, the fish out of the water in that particular situation. But he stayed with the future Hall of Famer, even though everyone knows he hasn’t had a particularly great season and was not programmed for the job.
Initially, Kershaw appeared up to the task. He entered the game with a couple of guys on base in the top of the seventh and got the Dodgers out of trouble by striking out lefthanded hitter Adam Eaton.
At that point, you figured Roberts would have been satisfied with things and would use the eighth to righty-lefty his way through the inning, maybe by using Maeda to get Rendon, then Kolarek to face Soto.
“I wanted to keep Kenta away from Soto,” Roberts said.
So Roberts decided to stick with Kershaw and in the scrum of the postgame explained why after a pair of 89 mph fastballs left the yard.
“He’s probably the best pitcher of our generation,” said Roberts. “It just didn’t work out. So there’s always going to be second-guessing when things don’t work out, but I’ll take my chances any day on Clayton. I felt great about running Clayton back out there for two hitters.”
Maeda finally entered to get the Dodgers out of the eighth, which is what Kelly did in the ninth. But then in the 10th, with Jansen and Kolarek still fresh in the bullpen, Roberts stayed with Kelly and suffered the consequences.
“Everything people say is true, right now, about the postseason,” said Kershaw. “I understand that. Nothing I can do about it right now. It’s a terrible feeling. It really is.”
The Dodgers, acutely aware of Kershaw’s past brilliance, refused to blame him for what happened.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,” said Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill. “This means so much to everybody in this locker room,” Hill said. “I think that’s the tough part. People say it’s just a game. It’s a lot more than that.”
Sometimes things just happen. Some believe in predestination, preferring to believe the Dodgers and Nationals were fated to experience what happen. Those are the ones who chose to just shrug their shoulders.
“Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be,” said Muncy. “Baseball doesn’t want it to happen. It seemed like it wanted it to happen for the Nationals.”
But for those Dodgers fans pushed to the brink on Wednesday night, forced to watch a season of so much promise end prematurely with a sickening thud, it was more than that.
It was a betrayal. And that’s something Dave Roberts is going to have to deal with until the Dodgers win their first World Series since 1988.