Hernández: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is on the verge of silencing his critics

Dylan Hernández
·5 min read
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, right, greets Austin Barnes after Barnes homered in Game 3 of the World Series.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, right, greets Austin Barnes after Barnes homered in the sixth inning. Earlier, Roberts called for Barnes to execute a safety squeeze. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He’s taken more blame for the Dodgers’ recent failures than anyone else.

If any of the relievers imploded, it was because of Dave Roberts, not the front office that packed the bullpen with rejects and unproven youngsters. If the offense failed to score, that was also because of Roberts, not the chokers with the bats in their hands.

As the criticisms mounted, the view of Roberts changed to where large segments of this city didn’t believe the Dodgers would ever win a World Series with him as their manager.

The story is about to change.

Welcome to Doctober.

With the Dodgers cruising to a 6-2 victory over the overmatched Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the World Series, Roberts is two wins from shaking the franchise’s 31-year curse.

The scapegoat is about to become a hero.

Roberts is on the verge of doing what everyone from Bill Russell to Don Mattingly couldn’t. He will join Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda as the only managers to lead the Dodgers to a championship.

And Roberts won’t be some bystander along for the ride. He’s made critical decisions that have placed his team in this position.

“The more you’re in something, the more you do something, you get experience and I’m always trying to get better and learn,” said Roberts, who has reached the playoffs in each of his five seasons as manager.

On Friday, with the Dodgers holding on to a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning, his experience told him to go old school.

With one out, runners on the corners, Rays starter Charlie Morton on the mound and Austin Barnes in the batter’s box, Roberts called for a safety squeeze — a play so rarely seen in analytically-influenced baseball that Mookie Betts didn’t know what it was called.

Barnes pushed a bunt toward first base and Cody Bellinger scored, providing the Dodgers with a valuable insurance run. Joc Pederson, who advanced to second on the play, later scored on a single by Betts to increase the margin to 5-0.

“You get a situational at-bat,” Roberts said. “Morton is really tough on right-hand hitters and you’ve got a plus runner at third base in Cody. I trust Austin handling the bat. Nothing against [the Rays’ Ji-Man] Choi at first base, I just don’t think fleet of foot, so I felt if we could get something down on the right side of the infield, we got a good chance of getting an insurance run.”

The trust in Barnes was based on his track record. Of the Dodgers’ three sacrifice bunts in the regular season, two were dropped by Barnes.

Roberts’ fingerprints are all over this series.

Roberts has magnified his team’s edge in starting pitching, first by not using Julio Urías as a reliever in Games 1 and 2.

The Dodgers will be rewarded for Roberts’ restraint on Saturday when Urías starts in Game 4. While Urías figures to pitch five or more innings — he’s pitched twice in two appearances this postseason, once as a reliever and the other time as a starter — the Rays will be resorting to a bullpen game.

Roberts’ foresight could also be a factor in the potential clincher in Game 5. With the Dodgers ahead by seven runs, he removed Clayton Kershaw after six innings even though he had thrown only 78 pitches. Kershaw should be fresher because of that.

The Dodgers very well might not be in the World Series if not for Roberts’ deft maneuvering of the bullpen, in the last couple of games of the National League Championship Series against Atlanta.

The NLCS finished with Urías pitching the final three innings in Game 7 to complete a comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit. Roberts wasn’t about to take a chance with any of the team’s less-than-dependable relievers.

There was also an emotional component to his leadership.

“Even [when] we were down 3-1 against Atlanta, he still believed, he was still the same guy,” Betts said. “He has no panic in him. You have to [be] grateful for that because your quote-unquote leader is not panicking. He believes in you, so that just proves you should believe in yourself.”

Roberts is aware how desperate Angelenos are for a World Series title, but he’s shouldered a similar burden before when he was a player on the Boston Red Sox, who hadn’t won a championship in 86 years. Roberts stole a base in the American League Championship Series that became one of the most iconic moments of Boston's title run.

“When you take on this job or you become a player of a particular organization that hasn’t won a championship for quite some time, that’s part of what you signed up for,” he said. “So, I just take it more as passion and care from the fans.”

Asked about the right moves he’s made this month, Roberts was quick to credit his players.

“I think the bottom line is that we have really good players,” he said. “I trust them and they’re executing, they’re competing, they’re playing every single pitch from the defensive side to the offensive side to on the bases. I talk a lot about not only having the best players, but the smartest players.”

They have a pretty sharp manager as well, one who is days from transforming not only his own reputation, but also that of a tortured franchise.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.