ATLANTA — Max Scherzer isn’t usually agreeable to being removed in the middle of a baseball game. It’s the type of situation that visibly enrages him and often sends his manager back into the dugout. But when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts emerged onto the field at Truist Park in Sunday’s fifth inning, with one on and one out and the Atlanta Braves‘ lineup due to bat a third time, Scherzer nodded in agreement. He told Roberts that he “gave it all I had” and dutifully handed over the baseball.
“My arm was dead,” Scherzer said after watching his Dodgers suffer a second consecutive walk-off loss and fall to the Braves 5-4 in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. “I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired.”
Three days earlier, Scherzer pitched the final inning out of the bullpen to close out the San Francisco Giants in the deciding game of the prior round. He was initially scheduled to start Saturday’s Game 1, but he and the Dodgers agreed on an extra day. And when that day came, Scherzer still didn’t feel right.
Julio Urias will now confront a similar situation.
Urias, lined up to start Game 4, was surprisingly used to pitch the eighth inning of Game 2, with the Dodgers clinging to a two-run lead. Blake Treinen, the Dodgers’ most reliable reliever, needed only nine pitches to navigate the seventh. And Brusdar Graterol and Kenley Jansen were still available. But Roberts said using Urias “was the best option at that point in time.”
The top of the Braves’ lineup was due up once again, starting with the left-handed-hitting Eddie Rosario and Freddie Freeman, giving a left-hander like Urias the platoon advantage. Roberts, the Dodgers’ pitching coaches and key members of the front office had talked about deploying Urias in a scenario like this during one of the first two games. They kept him from throwing his typical between-starts bullpen session because of it.
“He was prepared for it,” Roberts said of Urias. “It was a perfect spot for him.”
But the Braves tied the game off Urias in the bottom of the eighth, getting three hits from the first four members of their lineup. And they won it off Graterol and Jansen in the ninth, with Rosario hitting the line drive that ricocheted off Corey Seager‘s glove and scored Dansby Swanson. Now the Dodgers face a troubling situation — down 0-2 in this series, with questions surrounding how an unconventional relief appearance might affect Urias in a crucial Game 4 start.
Roberts downplayed that.
“Not at all,” he said when asked whether the relief appearance would impact Urias’ effectiveness the next time he pitches. “That’s why he was ready, available [in Saturday’s Game 1], didn’t throw a side — to prepare for one of these two games.”
The Dodgers used Urias in something of a hybrid role over the previous two years, then made him a traditional starting pitcher in 2021 and watched him go 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA over the course of 32 starts in his age-24 season. But their unconventional postseason methods confronted Urias once again leading up to Game 5 of the NLDS, when they informed him of a plan to open with two relievers — Corey Knebel and Graterol — before sending him out for his scheduled start. Three days later, they used him out of the bullpen.
Scherzer believes Urias’ arm will hold up well, largely because he threw only 59 pitches in the start before his relief appearance — 51 fewer than the amount Scherzer did before his.
“You gotta look at the pitch counts over the past couple starts to really evaluate how you recover,” Scherzer said. “And so for Julio — he’s coming from a different spot, a lower pitch count, so you can bet that he’s going to have a fresher arm and that he should be full-go when he gets the start.”
Scherzer, 37, did something similar when he faced the Dodgers in the 2019 NLDS with the Washington Nationals but was able to get up to 109 pitches in the start that followed his relief appearance. Scherzer’s arm also felt tired as he warmed up in the bullpen heading into that game, but he said it loosened up after he got to around 45 pitches.
On this night, that never occurred.
Scherzer could only feel his arm tighten further after the third inning. Upon finishing the fourth, he told Roberts that if the following inning was too taxing, he needed to be pulled. He noticed that the bottom two spots of the lineup were due up before Rosario and Freeman came to bat again and figured Alex Vesia, a young left-handed reliever, would become a better option by that point.
Vesia kept the Braves scoreless, working around a leadoff single with back-to-back strikeouts. Joe Kelly followed with a scoreless sixth inning. Then Roberts went with Treinen, his usual setup man, in the seventh, a clear indication that Urias would handle the eighth. It had all lined up the way the Dodgers scripted, then it all unraveled. And now one must wonder about the cost of it all.
The Dodgers lost both games in Atlanta because they went a combined 2-for-18 with nine strikeouts when hitting with runners in scoring position, not because of the pitching decisions. But home teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series have gone on to win said series 84% of the time, and all that matters for the Dodgers is how they overcome those odds for a second consecutive year against these Braves.
In Game 3 they’ll have Walker Buehler to face Charlie Morton, one of the most decorated postseason pitchers in recent memory. In Game 4, Urias — who blew past his previous career high in innings during his first start of August — will take the ball under less than ideal circumstances. In Game 5, the Dodgers will probably have to stage another bullpen game.
The Dodgers were heavy favorites heading into this series, and all of a sudden they’re reeling.
“If you look at both clubs, as far as usage and leverage uses, they’re in the same position we are,” Roberts said. “But the thing is that they’ve got a two-game lead in the series.”