Before play on Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers are on the brink of a second World Series appearance in as many years because the team as a whole is picking each other up. When one aspect isn’t doing their job, others will pick up the slack.
Much of the attention right now is on Clayton Kershaw coming in clutch with a masterful Game 5 performance to put the Dodgers up 3-2, and the offense that finally woke up by stringing together hits to score, and not relying on the long ball.
But, lost in the shuffle has been the performance of the bullpen, which has been the unsung hero of the team. The unit was not as strong as they were last season; more of a “bend but don’t break” kind of group.
And because of it, people were skeptical of just how far the Dodgers can go in October, especially with their big man Kenley Jansen dealing with health issues that affected his performance down the stretch. But they have been anything put since the start of postseason play, and have really stepped up in the NLCS.
“If I had to pick one thing,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, “I think the bullpen has clearly been the key for us.
The Brewers bullpen got all the shine heading into the series because it was their strength, and has continued to get it during the series, even with some spotty performances. Outside of Josh Hader and Corey Knebel, the Dodgers have been able to get to Milwaukee’s other vital arms for the most part.
But again, the Dodgers’ relief unit has exceeded expectations and has surprisingly been better than Milwaukee’s, but it has not been pointed out enough among the national media. In 21.2 innings through five games, Kenley Jansen & Co. have allowed just three earned runs (1.25 ERA) while allowing the Brewers’ batters to hit just .192 against them. Included in this was the eight shutout innings during Game 4.
And in the playoffs as a whole, they have collectively allowed just four runs in 33.1 innings, but it’s not just one guy (Jansen) carrying the load and skewing the numbers. It has been a complete eight-man effort, with the workload spread out and everyone doing their job.
Ryan Madson was a midseason trade acquisition who many fans did not feel was the guy they needed to add to the bullpen. But the Dodgers realized his wealth of experience would come in handy, in addition to having a good season outside of two disastrous outings which skewed his regular season numbers.
Down the stretch, he morphed into the guy Roberts has turned to get Los Angeles out of jams, and it wasn’t any more evident than in Game 4 of the NLDS. The Dodgers were down 2-1 in the fifth against the Atlanta Braves, and Rich Hill was in a bases-loaded jam with just one out. Madson comes in and gets the team out unscathed.
And Tuesday night, he threw 1.1 scoreless innings in a tightly-contested and stressful game, including working around a leadoff single. In all, he has allowed just one run in 4.2 innings (came in a low-leverage situation) this postseason.
Dylan Floro was another midseason acquisition that turned heads for the wrong reason. But, ever since suiting up in blue, all he’s done is deal and become one of the best relievers in all of baseball, and that has continued into the playoffs. He has thrown four scoreless innings and is another high-leverage arm.
Kenta Maeda and Caleb Ferguson have been used more for matchups, so some of their appearances have been limited to just one out. But in totality, both have done what was asked of them by tossing 2.2 scoreless innings each.
Alex Wood has allowed two runs on two solo shots in 3.1 innings. Both of those came in tight games against a left-hander where he lasted just one out in each appearance. But, in his last two outings, he’s thrown two strong shutout innings and has looked comfortable doing so.
Julio Urias was a surprise addition to the NLCS roster and made his first appearance during Game 1 where he allowed a solo shot to Jesus Aguilar. But he bounced back in the Game 4 marathon and threw a strong scoreless inning during the top of the 13th and was credited with the win.
But, perhaps the best signs have come from Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen. Both were crucial pieces for different reasons. Baez has been a guy Dodger fans have loved to hate on and blame over the last four seasons, even if his overall career numbers are good. But he always seemed to be unreliable by giving up hits in the most significant moments.
It got so bad this season that the righty was demoted to triple-A this summer (albeit getting called up the next day because of an injury). But, he turned into a new person down the stretch and became a high-leverage weapon for the Dodgers. No one saw that coming.
In 6.1 innings this postseason, Baez has thrown 6.2 shutout innings, allowing just four baserunners, while striking out ten of the 24 batters he’s faced. Roberts has used him in crucial moments, which alone is a step forward for him. But the fact that he is producing is a huge step forward.
But the bullpen only goes as far as Kenley Jansen would take them, and at the end of the season, he was a tremendous question mark. The 31-year-old was not the shutdown guy the MLB grew accustomed to. However, he has been excellent since the playoffs started.
The righty has thrown 5.1 scoreless innings and has struck out seven of 20 batters faced. Jansen’s velocity is up back to 94-96 mph, is locating much better than he was in the regular season, and went two innings during Game 4 on Tuesday night.
It’s as if he just turned a page because of the importance of the games and is looking like his former self, which is arguably the most important things the Dodgers were looking for.
This dominance is reminiscent of last season, but this time, they should be fresh if the Dodgers were to make it to the Fall Classic. Last season they were worn out because the Dodgers overused them and the workload was placed heavily on guys like Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jasen. This year, it’s the opposite. All the pitchers are supporting each other which will only better prepare them.