Julio Urias is the key to a Dodgers upset on Thursday
The Dodgers will enter Game 5 of the NLDS as underdogs. There’s no question about that. As of 2:15 PM Eastern Time on Wednesday, roughly 27 hours before the first pitch, they have no idea who they’ll send to the mound against Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals’ fully rested ace. The favorite is Rich Hill, the reinvented 36-year-old who imploded in the 5th inning in Game 2 of the series and will be starting on three days rest after routinely being given extended days off between outings in the regular season.
Clayton Kershaw is already done for the series, something Nats manager Dusty Baker is relieved about even if Kershaw didn’t exactly destroy the “playoff choker” narrative. Still, the Dodgers are 2–0 in games Kershaw has pitched in, and 0–2 in games he hasn’t.
The good news for Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is that he has another talented lefty in his arsenal that he has yet to use this series. Julio Urias, whose combination of youth and skill — along with the Dodger pitching staff’s injury woes-forced the team to promote him at age 19, will be fully rested and available in game 5. Urias was expected to start game 4 until the Dodgers dropped two in a row on Sunday and Monday, so he hasn’t been used at all this series. He’s both started and come out of the bullpen this season, meaning he can be called upon to pitch for an extended stretch.
In fact, that’s exactly what the plan for Urias should be.
In order for his team to pull off the biggest upset of the 2016 playoffs, Roberts should look to the current holders of that title as an example. Terry Francona’s Cleveland Indians, despite missing two of their three best starting pitchers, swept a Boston Red Sox team that boasted one of the best offenses in major league history during the regular season. They did so because Francona sandwiched a dominant game two performance by Corey Kluber, his one healthy ace, with the brilliant deployment of Andrew Miller in games 1 and 3.
When the Indians traded for Miller in July, the widespread expectation was that he would unseat Cody Allen as the Indians’ new closer. Allen wasn’t a liability in the ninth inning by any stretch of the imagination; rather, Miller was (and still is) just that good. Rather than use Miller primarily at the end of games, however, Francona kept Allen in the closer’s role and used his best reliever as a swiss army knife to get his team out of high-leverage situations. Miller would enter in the sixth, seventh, or eighth when the opposing team would have runners on base or their most dangerous hitters at bat. He would routinely pitch longer than a normal reliever but remained his dominant self — all while recording the biggest outs of the game before handing off to Allen. It worked beautifully: Miller’s 2.28 Win Probability Added in the second half was second only to that of Cy Young candidate Zach Britton among relievers.
In the ALDS against his former team, Francona took this usage to a new level. In Game One, Miller entered with two outs in the fifth, nobody on, and the heart of Boston’s order due up. Rather than let starter Trevor Bauer face Brock Holt, Mookie Betts, and David Ortiz a third time that game, Francona went to Miller earlier than he had throughout the regular season. It seemed like the risky move would backfire at first, but after allowing a double to Holt and walking Betts, Miller struck out Ortiz to end the fifth. He then bulldozed Boston’s 5th through 9th hitters, finishing with two innings, four strikeouts, one hit and no runs allowed on 40 pitches. Game Three was almost an exact replica: two innings, three strikeouts, one hit, and no earned runs on 35 pitches. The Indians won both games and the series.
In both instances, Miller entered in what would normally be considered a pretty low-leverage situation. But with a narrow lead in October against arguably the best lineup in baseball, the playoff-seasoned Francona understood there was no such thing as a low-leverage situation in a game like this. In the same way, Roberts must treat each out on Thursday as a late-game, high-leverage situation and manage accordingly. The good news is that in Urias, Roberts has his Miller.
The Dodgers’ gameplan on Thursday could imitate the one Francona had in the ALDS. Hill starts, and is trusted to get through the Nationals order twice. Then Urias takes over for the third time through. Ideally, that would take them to the seventh inning, where Roberts could hand the ball to Joe Blanton and Kenley Jansen to record the final nine outs. But this is the 2016 Dodgers we’re talking about. It’s almost a certainty that nothing will go according to plan.
In fact, there’s already a problem with the one I just laid out. Hill was dominant against the left-handers in the top of Washington’s lineup on Sunday, but struggled against right-handers in the second and fourth innings. Because of the magnitude of this game and the fact that he’s pitching on short rest, he should and likely will be on a very short leash. On the flip side, since Urias was primarily a starter in the regular season, he’ll likely be able to pitch longer than Miller was. Think more in the range of 60–65 pitches rather than 35–40 pitches.
With that in mind, here’s scenario #2.
1st inning: Hill
2nd inning: Hill, with ROOGY backup if needed
3rd inning: Hill, with ROOGY backup/Urias if needed
5th-6th: Urias, with ROOGY/reliever backup if needed
7th-9th: Blanton/Jansen with LOOGY backup if needed.
The ideal situation would be for Hill to handle the bulk of the first three innings, Urias handle the bulk of the next three, and a combination of Blanton and Jansen handle the last three. They’ll probably need help, but that’s what this bullpen has prepared all year for.
A better way to think of it, however, is times through the order. The first nine batters should belong to Hill and treated like a normal (2016) Rich Hill start-that is, trusting him to get out of a minor jam if need be. The second time through, Hill should have a much shorter margin for error. For example: If Trea Turner and Bryce Harper get on, go to a ROOGY for Jayson Werth then hand the ball to Urias against Daniel Murphy. Urias, when he enters the game, will also have a short leash. Even if he cruises through his first time through the order, there should be relievers warming up when he starts facing batters a second time.
If Urias’s proposed role in Game Five seems like an insane amount of pressure for a rookie who’s never pitched in the postseason before and just turned 20 in August, that’s because it is. But Urias has gone above and beyond the call of duty every time the Dodgers have pressed him into action this year. The question now is whether he can do it one more time, when his team’s season depends on it.