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In theory, the Dodgers played their most important regular-season game of the year Wednesday.
And they started a reliever.
The charitable interpretation of this decision is that the Dodgers simply embraced an opportunity to experiment.
The more disconcerting explanation of why Brusdar Graterol opened the series finale against the San Diego Padres is that they know they have to compensate for the lack of a championship rotation.
In which case, they could be on their way to crashing and burning in October.
The elements for another postseason meltdown are in place, from the number of all-or-nothing type hitters in their lineup to the continued decline of closer Kenley Jansen.
This season feels like the last … and the one before that … and the one before that … and, well, you get the idea.
With a 7-5 victory over the Padres at Petco Park, the Dodgers became the first team to secure a playoff berth. By taking two of three games from the second-place Padres this week, the Dodgers moved closer to their eighth consecutive National League West title.
Except none of this is new. This is what they are built to do, to score runs in bunches and dominate the regular season.
“It’s the first step,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The step after this one is the true objective — and the place they usually stumble.
That could be why the Dodgers didn’t have a locker room celebration of any kind.
Reaching the postseason was a given, as every team in the NL West outside of the Dodgers and Padres has a sub-.500 record.
The order in which the Dodgers and Padres finished was also of minimal importance, as Major League Baseball created a playoff format that was the baseball equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. In the first round, the Dodgers will host a mediocre opponent in a three-game series. As the top wild-card team, the Padres will too.
If both teams advance, there will be no home-field advantage, as they will face each other in a five-game Division Series in Arlington, Texas.
With the stakes relatively low Wednesday, the Dodgers and Padres opted for bullpen games.
The Dodgers’ originally scheduled starter, Dustin May, pitched in relief. The Padres’, Chris Paddack, had his turn in the rotation pushed back two days.
In the Dodgers’ view, this was about more than easing May back into action after his foot was struck by a comebacker in his last start. This was also a trial run of sorts for the postseason.
Of that characterization, Roberts said, “I think that’s fair.”
But why was that necessary?
So long as Walker Buehler can manage the blister on his pitching hand, the Dodgers have five serviceable starting pitchers. Depth will be especially critical in these playoffs, as the schedule doesn’t include any days off in any of the three rounds leading up to the World Series.
Regular-season depth shouldn’t be confused with postseason depth, however. Just because a team is comfortable sending a pitcher to the mound every five days in the regular season doesn’t mean they are comfortable starting him in the playoffs. That very well could be the case with May, Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias.
And while Clayton Kershaw is performing at an elite level again, Buehler is no guarantee, as the right-hander has pitched only 7 2/3 innings over the last 3 ½ weeks.
The pitching concerns extend to the bullpen. Considering how Jansen has looked in recent weeks, there have to be legitimate worries about whether he is capable of closing for them in October.
The potential problem was compounded Wednesday by news that left-hander Caleb Ferguson has a torn ulnar collateral ligament and could miss the remainder of the season.
Offensively, Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson are already in October form, which means they are slumping. Bellinger and Muncy drove in a run each Wednesday; Pederson was placed on the family medical emergency list.
Asked if the Dodgers could win a World Series without at least two of the three left-handed power hitters finding their strokes, Roberts was frank.
“No,” Roberts said, “I don’t.”
Now, it’s possible Kershaw finally has the October for which he has worked his entire career. And it’s also possible Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner sustain the Dodgers through the ups and downs of their less consistent performers.
But it’s equally conceivable, if not more, that the offense vanishes, the shortcomings of the rotation are exposed and the bullpen unravels spectacularly.
It’s happened before and it can happen again.
Hernandez reported from Los Angeles