About his team’s unorthodox pitching plans. About a lineup that had been hot and cold through the series’ first four games. About how the defending champions would handle a winner-take-all showdown against the one team that outpaced them in the regular season.
By the night’s end, Roberts was showered in beer and champagne, his team answering each uncertainty en route to a 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants that sends them to their fifth National League Championship Series in the last six years.
“I think what great ball clubs have the ability to do is understand the gravity of a moment — a series in this case — [and] give everything they have to that moment or series, which we did,” Roberts said postgame. “We poured everything we could into this series and it took everything we had to beat these guys. But we have a day to reset and now our focus turns to the Braves.”
Before the Dodgers open their best-of-seven set in Atlanta this weekend, here are four takeaways on their Game 5 triumph over the Giants.
Pitching plan comes together
Prior to first pitch, Roberts acknowledged that the Dodgers’ late Game 5 pitching changes — opting for an opener in Corey Knebel and moving originally scheduled starter Julio Urías into a bulk role out of the bullpen — opened the team up to criticism if it didn’t work out.
And in the early innings, it looked like the worst-case scenario might come true.
In the first, Knebel gave up a two-out double to Buster Posey before escaping unscathed. In the second, another reliever, Brusdar Graterol, had to strand two runners to keep the game scoreless.
After that, though, the Dodgers’ plan came together as they’d hoped.
They not only got four innings of one-run ball out of Urías, but they also watched the Giants burn two valuable left-handed hitters early in the game after Tommy La Stella and Mike Yastrzemski — who likely would have come off the bench had Urías started the game as normal — were replaced the second time through the order.
From there, the Dodgers’ right-handed leverage relievers cruised against a Giants lineup that couldn’t match up with as many left-hander pinch-hitters as usual. Blake Treinen pitched a clean seventh. Kenley Jansen breezed through the eighth. And in the ninth, Max Scherzer finished off the game.
Maybe it all wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Maybe, if they’d been left in their normal roles, Urías and the relievers would have been just as effective. Maybe the Dodgers didn’t need to tinker with their pitching to advance to the NLCS.
But in a hallway outside the visiting clubhouse postgame, president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman insisted that what the Dodgers did Thursday gave them an important edge — one that was worth all the questions it invited before the game, one that he believed helped them outlast the Giants in Game 5.
“The Giants are a great team and they won 109 games, and a big part of that was their ability to dictate matchups as they went,” Friedman said, noting the plan also had the buy-in of his pitchers. “As we talked through it, we felt like it was our best chance to hold them at bay. We knew we were going to have a hard time with Logan [Webb, the Giants’ starter], so it was going to be a low-scoring environment. So, for us, if we can keep them down, it gave us a chance to win the game.”
Scherzer saves the day
After jogging down to the bullpen in the fourth inning, Scherzer was seen pacing back and forth as the game went on.
He wasn’t nervous, he said. He was just trying to prepare for a role he’d seldom had in his career.
“I was just trying to keep my legs loose,” Scherzer said. “That was going to be my biggest challenge tonight to come in the game [out of the bullpen]. I knew I could get my upper body loose, but I didn’t know if I could get my legs fully loose. I got them loose before I went down there and then I just paced around.”
As the tied game progressed through the later innings, Scherzer wasn’t exactly sure when — or if — he’d be called in.
Treinen threw only 12 pitches in the seventh, but after entering without a double-switch, was pinch-hit for when his spot came up the next inning with two runners on base. Jansen needed only 15 pitches in the eighth, but also was pinch-hit for when the pitcher’s spot came up again in the top of the ninth.
After the Dodgers took a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth, Scherzer and Joe Kelly were left as their two best remaining options for the save.
Scherzer was the choice — Friedman said that, while using Scherzer wasn’t the team’s “Plan A,” he and Jansen were the best options to close — and proceeded to pick up his first career save in the regular season or playoffs.
“I really wanted Kenley to have that ninth inning,” Scherzer said. “But the way the game unfolded, my number got called.”
Scherzer’s body might not have been used to making relief appearances, but his stuff hardly suffered. He struck out two batters. He worked around an error by Justin Turner. And when Wilmer Flores was controversially ruled to have swung for the final out, Scherzer led a crazed celebration in the middle of the field.
“You’ve got to want to be in that situation,” Scherzer said, adding: “You have to believe in yourself, that you have what it takes to execute pitches in those situations and not be overcooked.”
Bellinger beats the slider
When he won the NL most valuable player award in 2019, Cody Bellinger was one of the best fastball hitters in the majors. During his struggles this season, he was among the worst — particularly against high velocity, batting just .143 on heaters 95 mph or faster.
It seemed like a weakness for flamethrowing Giants closer Camilo Doval to exploit when Bellinger came to the plate with two runners aboard in the ninth. The Giants, however, opted for a different strategy, attempting to put Bellinger away with a stream of sliders low in the zone.
Though Bellinger laid off the first slider, swung through the next, then fouled off a third, his mechanics — an area of recent emphasis for the left-handed slugger, who has tried shortening his swing and, as he did in the ninth-inning at-bat, occasionally choking up on the bat — didn’t change. His approach remained sound.
When Doval left a fourth slider in the zone, Bellinger connected, lining the go-ahead RBI single into right field and pointing to the Dodgers dugout as he ran up the line.
“I saw the first few pitches well, missed my pitches, and at that moment with [Turner] on second, just tried to keep the momentum going and literally just tried to stay simple and stay within myself,” Bellinger said. “I saw that ball pretty well and just tried to stay simple with it.”
After the game, Giants manager Gabe Kapler was asked about the slider-heavy pitch selection, or whether Doval had lost the feel for his upper-90s fastball at the game’s most critical juncture.
“No, I actually did think he had a fastball and I thought the slider was — Bellinger wasn’t able to get up underneath it until that one swing,” Kapler said. “So I thought it was a fine pitch call. The slider’s been an effective pitch for him for quite some time. Fastball’s been an effective pitch as well. So not going to second-guess the pitch call there.”
NLCS rotation options
The biggest question for the Dodgers coming out of Thursday: Will their pitching plans for the start of the NLCS become complicated?
Before Thursday, the team had been planning to start Scherzer in Game 1 against the Braves on Saturday.
While Roberts was still hopeful their ace could start the NLCS opener following his 13-pitch save against the Giants, he added that they’d reevaluate how Scherzer feels Friday before making a decision.
“We knew going into this if we used him tonight there might be a cost,” Roberts said. “Obviously we’ll talk to Max [on Friday] and just kind of see where he’s at. But as of now that’s kind of where we’re at.”
If Scherzer does pitch Saturday, Walker Buehler could be lined up to start Game 2 on normal four days’ rest.
If the Dodgers have to adjust their rotation for this weekend, Tony Gonsolin, who didn’t pitch at all in the NLDS, seems like the most likely backup plan.
“The Braves are a really good team, a really deep lineup,” Friedman said. “Can’t wait to focus on them tomorrow. The mindset going into today was let’s do everything we can to be able to focus on them tomorrow. So, now we’re at that point and we’ll pick up the pieces tomorrow and figure out where we’re at.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.