USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Gardner breaks down how the Nationals were able to advance to the NLCS.
Every managerial decision in the postseason is placed under a microscope. Throw in the lens of analytics, and the second-guessing from the public becomes rampant, especially when those decisions prove unwise.
So had it not been for the Washington Nationals’ comeback that secured the franchise’s second NLCS berth following their thrilling Game 5 winner-take-all victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Dave Martinez would likely be feeling the heat. The Nats manager let Stephen Strasburg hit for himself down two with two men on and no one out in the fifth inning (he tried to sacrifice bunt but wound up striking out).
The script flipped in the eighth inning when Martinez’s counterpart, Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, sent Clayton Kershaw back out for the eighth inning.
Kershaw, arguably the most accomplished pitcher of his generation — minus a mediocre postseason legacy that took another hit Wednesday — fanned Adam Eaton on three pitches to end the seventh. He threw three pitches in the eighth, too. But Anthony Rendon roped the second one over the left-field wall, and 20-year-old Juan Soto hammered the third one 449 feet into the bleachers.
A two-run lead evaporated in a moment, and Roberts relieved Kershaw with Kenta Maeda. After the game, Roberts defended his decision.
“I felt good about Clayton right there,” Roberts said. “Eaton, and when you got Rendon and Soto, so I felt that I liked Clayton. He threw, I don’t know what it was, a couple pitches, and we had Clayton ready for whatever today.
“It’s not about analytics, it’s about — he’s one of the best pitchers in the game … I felt really good about that,” Roberts said. “It’s more of, I don’t think it’s an analytic question. It’s a guy I believe in and trust. It didn’t work out.”
Roberts said he wanted to avoid using Maeda against Soto, hence his uneasiness to have the right-hander start the inning.
“The success that Clayton’s had against Soto, with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”
But Soto did not come to bat with the Dodgers holding a two-run lead; Rendon cut the margin to 3-2. Left-handed specialist Adam Kolarek, who had retired Soto all three times he faced him in the series with two strikeouts, wasn’t even warming up.
Maeda then whiffed the three hitters he faced to get out of the eighth and Joe Kelly needed 10 pitches to navigate the ninth. When the game entered extra innings, Roberts stuck with Kelly, rendering closer Kenley Jansen useless in the bullpen until it was too late.
“My eyes tell me that he should go back out there because he’s throwing the ball really well,” Roberts explained.
Kelly loaded the bases and served up the back-breaking grand slam to Howie Kendrick. The fourth season of Roberts’ tenure ended in the same way as the previous three: a playoff disappointment.
“If the blame falls on me, I’ve got no problem with it,” Roberts said. “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.”
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