ATLANTA — The first two games of the National League Championship Series have been riveting. They’ve been tight and tense. They’ve been dramatic. And, yes, they’ve been a little weird.
The strangeness begins with the most important fact from the weekend: The 88-win Atlanta Braves lead the 106-win, defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers 2-0. However we got there, that’s most important. Just like they did last year, the freewheeling Braves have put the corporate Dodgers in a hole.
Will it end the same way, with the Dodgers coming back to break the hearts of the Braves? Maybe unwinding some of the weirdness will help get a sense of what is to come.
The Dodgers’ scripted bullpen
To a certain extent, pretty much all postseason games are bullpen games at this point in the strategy wars. The Dodgers announced they would unleash their bullpen for Saturday’s Game 1, and they did, with eight relievers tromping to the mound, none getting more than five outs.
The Dodgers lost Game 1, but the scheme worked. The Braves scored just three runs, struck out 14 times, managed six hits and didn’t draw a walk. But the three runs were enough for a dramatic 3-2 Braves win on Austin Riley‘s ninth-inning hit off Blake Treinen.
It was worth a shot, right?
The Dodgers still had to feel good about their chances for a split with future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer set to go in Game 2. Surely, he would give the L.A. bullpen at least a little respite from the turnstile that their bullpen gate looked like on Saturday.
But there was a problem: Scherzer, pitching on two days of rest after closing out the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, was not Scherzer.
“I would just say my arm was dead,” Scherzer said. “I could tell when I was warming up that it was still tired.”
Scherzer gutted through 4⅓ innings, giving up only Joc Pederson‘s massive two-run homer in the fourth, but that left a whole lot of outs to get in a tie game. So, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts deployed six more relievers to get through Game 2. And one of those was 20-game winner Julio Urias, who threw the top of the eighth and gave up the tying runs.
Two days. Thirteen pitching changes. An 0-2 hole in the series. Using your Game 4 starter for a full inning when, at that point, there were other options in the bullpen.
Panic time in Tinseltown?
First, Roberts emphasized that Urias’ appearance shouldn’t impact his ability to make his previously announced start in Game 4, largely because Urias doesn’t generally get to a high pitch count anyway. And the Braves’ pitching plan for that game is totally up in the air, but it will probably have to be either a bullpen game or an opener.
“Walker’s ready to go,” Roberts said. “He’s got an extra couple days. So, certainly for Game 3 we’re going to lean on him.”
As for Game 5, that could turn out to be another bullpen game for the Dodgers. But remember: Their gambit on Saturday actually worked. And then in Game 6, they can turn to a fully rested Scherzer. And Buehler would be lined up for a seventh…