The Dodgers are out of the playoffs much earlier than anticipated after dropping Game 5 of the NLDS to the Nationals on Wednesday night. After comfortably leading the Nationals 3-0 through five innings and 3-1 through seven, the Dodgers’ bullpen — specifically Clayton Kershaw and Joe Kelly — forked over the lead. The Nationals were off to the races, ultimately winning 7-3 in 10 innings.
Here’s what transpired:
Manager Dave Roberts brought Kershaw in for the final out of the seventh inning in relief of starter Walker Buehler, who exited with runners on first and second and two outs
Kelly entered the game in the ninth inning, working a 1-2-3 inning
Kelly remained in the game in the 10th inning, loading the bases with no outs on a walk, a ground-rule double, and an intentional walk before surrendering a go-ahead grand slam to Howie Kendrick
Dodgers fans and people who have watched the Dodgers in recent years saw that happening from a mile away. Consider Dodgers fan and Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief Craig Goldstein, who tweeted on Monday, “Already getting annoyed at how the Dodgers are going to use Kershaw in Game 5 […] when they don’t need to anyway because their bullpen is good enough to not have to turn to a starter when Buehler is throwing.”
Bullpen management is not Roberts’ strong suit, especially in the playoffs. Here’s an article Craig wrote last postseason about Roberts’ bullpen management. How about one from 2017? And here’s one from me in 2016, just for good measure.
Roberts compounded his error by gambling on Kelly after he pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the ninth. Kelly went multiple innings in eight of his 55 appearances during the regular season. He allowed nine runs in total across those 12 1/3 innings. Kelly was also coming off of a disastrous Game 3 appearance in which he loaded the bases on two walks and a single, uncorked a wild pitch, and walked another batter before leaving without recording an out. Kelly’s 10th inning in Game 5 went: walk, ground-rule double, intentional walk, grand slam. His 1-2-3 ninth inning was less predictable than that.
The Dodgers’ bullpen as a unit isn’t bad. Its aggregate 3.85 ERA ranked fifth in baseball. Its 4.06 FIP ranked sixth and 4.25 xFIP seventh. Closer Kenley Jansen appeared in the NLDS just once, with a six-run lead in the ninth inning of Game 3. Pedro Báez recorded two outs in the series, one apiece in Game 2 and 4. Adam Kolarek held Soto 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in three at-bats previously in the series. None of them were used in Game 5 in meaningful situations. The Dodgers paid dearly for Roberts’ lack of confidence in the rest of his bullpen.
Kershaw and Kelly are going to take some heat for their failures in Game 5. It’s not squarely on their shoulders. Roberts didn’t put them in a position to succeed. He mismanaged his bullpen again and now a team that won 106 games during the regular season will not advance into the NLCS. One wonders if this loss might be so bad that it costs Roberts his job in L.A.