What started out as a party turned into a thrill, an almost certain October blowout that morphed into a sudden postseason stress test instead.
The Dodgers knew they didn’t have a traditional pitching staff.
They didn’t care about their unsettled hierarchy in the ninth inning.
During a franchise-record 111-win season, it rarely mattered — not when veteran closer Craig Kimbrel battled vexing inconsistencies for most of the year, and not when she dumped him a month ago in favor of a closer-by committee from the roll distant approach.
All along, they insisted that this was the best playoff bullpen they had in years and that they had the depth and versatility required to pull off a long October run up the mound.
And on Tuesday, during their National League Division Series playoff opener against the San Diego Padres, they provided reassurance with a 5-3 Game 1 win.
After an early five-run lead shrank to two in the end, the Dodgers got four scoreless innings of relief from Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol and Chris Martin to go 1-0 in that best-of-five series in to take the lead.
Phillips pulled the heart out of the Padres order in the sixth inning. Vesia and Graterol teamed up in eighth place to do the same. Then, in the ninth, it was Martin who trotted to the mound with the once-unannounced trade-deadline acquisition that set Chavez Ravine on his feet with his first playoff save of his career.
Game 2 takes place on Wednesday evening at 5:37 p.m. And already the Dodgers’ firm belief in the bullpen was being cemented.
“It’s just the luxury, the leeway we have with our boys,” said manager Dave Roberts. “[They’re] ready to play any inning, any leverage.”
Early Tuesday night, it seemed unlikely aides would factor into the final decision.
The Dodgers scored twice in the first inning, on a home run by Trea Turner and a single by Max Muncy RBI. In the third, they added three more and got doubles from Turner, Will Smith and Gavin Lux.
Julio Urías, meanwhile, rolled in his first Game 1 start of his career, hitting six in his first four innings with just a baserunner.
And early in the fifth, a blue-towel-waving crowd of 52,407 expected the Dodgers to bury the Padres — whom they went 14-5 against this season — again.
From then on, however, the game changed direction.
Urías lost his groove and gave up three quick runs to end his night. The Dodgers lineup fell silent against a series of Padres reliefs and recorded 14 straight outs in the last five innings.
As a result, Roberts had no choice but to trust the bullpen — and look for the right “leads” to line up his most trusted helpers.
“They really came together as a really good, solid group,” Roberts said.
Phillips was first called up to take on the Padres’ top players Juan Soto and Manny Machado after emerging as the Dodgers’ top pick after a groundbreaking season.
The right-hander got into trouble. Soto drew a leadoff walk. Machado boarded when the tie met a dribbler who stayed fair on the third baseline.
But then Phillips recovered and fanned pinch-hitter Josh Bell with a cutter before grounding Wil Myers into second place, where Lux and Turner spun a difficult doubles play to bring a jolt into an increasingly anxious Stadium.
“It was the game of the game,” Roberts said. “It allowed us to line up the pitching [the rest of the way].”
Vesia, the team’s only high-leverage left-hander, hit five outs in the seventh and eighth innings and underscored his dominance over the left-handed portion of the Padres lineup with a fly-out from Soto, the superstar slugger that the Padres picked up a blockbuster -Trade Deadline Day Deal.
After Graterol finished the eighth — it took him just one pitch to pull Machado, the Padres’ most valuable player contender, out on a flyout — the Dodgers turned to save their own important, if far less celebrated, ninth-inning extension.
While Martin was part of the Atlanta Braves’ World Series team last year, he had never pitched a ninth inning in the postseason and had only nine saves of his career in the regular season.
When the Dodgers acquired him from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Zach McKinstry in July, the 36-year veteran didn’t have a very strong 2022 season either.
But after starting on the stretch when he posted a 1.46 earned run average in 26 games with the Dodgers, Martin handled the pressure of Tuesday’s late game with ease, giving Jake Cronenworth just a soft two-out Single off before sealing victory with a Ha-Seong Kim fly into the next place.
“I feel like roles are just a kind of thing, maybe – I don’t know – of the past,” Martin said afterwards.
Taking that current iteration of the Dodgers’ bullpen — which released the team’s second-best reliever ERA in the majors — Roberts seemed to agree, noting “certainly we could see something very different tomorrow” if the team again defends a late lead.
At the start of the season, the Dodgers never expected to rely so heavily on pitchers like Phillips (a waiver pickup last year) and Vesia (an unremarkable trade acquisition prior to last season) or Martin and Yency Almote (a minor-league New addition this spring that’s also a rear-end key gear).
Even Graterol endured inconsistencies that at times left its place on the list unclear.
But over the course of that year they have recouped the losses of Daniel Hudson and Blake Treinen (who made the NLDS list despite a shoulder problem but has limitations).
They outperformed veterans like Kimbrel and David Price, both dropped from the NLDS roster, in high-leverage situations.
And on a Dodgers team that had virtually no pitchings last postseason, in part due to its drawn-out journey as a wildcard team, they helped bolster a team the club believes is capable of to climb another World Series mountaintop.
For one night at least, as that climb began Tuesday, it was the bullpen that solidified the Dodgers’ vital first move.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-10-11/dodgers-padres-recap-game-1-nlds-bullpen Bullpen helps Dodgers survive in NLDS Game 1 win over Padres