Column: Max Scherzer closes out unusual game plan for Dodgers in an instant classic

Column Max Scherzer closes out unusual game plan for Dodgers

Who could have imagined any of this?

Who could have guessed it would be Cody Bellinger, downtrodden Cody Bellinger, who would drive in the go-ahead run in the Dodgers’ 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of their instant classic National League Division Series?

And who could have pictured it would be Max Scherzer on the mound recording the final outs at Oracle Park that advanced the Dodgers to take on the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series?

With three outs remaining in the game, Scherzer charged out of the Dodgers bullpen, the ace now the closer.

He was an unlikely candidate to pitch in relief on Thursday, and not just because he was scheduled to pitch in a hypothetical series opener against the Braves.

Scherzer’s history as a postseason reliever included a season-ending meltdown with the Washington Nationals in 2017. In Game 5 of a NL Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals were leading by a 4-3 margin when they called on Scherzer to pitch the fifth inning. He gave up four runs and the Nationals went on to lose 9-8.

The nightmare wasn’t relived, Scherzer pitching a scoreless ninth to preserve the one-run advantage the Dodgers gained on Bellinger’s single to right field in the top half of the inning.

Scherzer started the bottom of the ninth inning by forcing Brandon Crawford to fly out to left field.

He then induced a grounder by Kris Bryant, only for third baseman Justin Turner to make a fielding error.

But Scherzer wasn’t shaken.

He struck out LaMonte Wade Jr.

He got ahead of Wilmer Flores in the count, 0-2, and threw an 87-mph slider out of the strike zone. Flores checked his swing, but plate umpire Doug Eddings pointed to first base umpire Gabe Morales, who presented the Dodgers with a gift.

Strike three. Game over.

The unconventional game plan that winded its way to Scherzer started with a decision to use Corey Knebel as an opener and delay previously announced starter Julio Urías’ entry into the game.

Urías had spent the previous five years as the Dodgers brain trust’s experimental subject, placed on innings limits and, once, a midseason break, all as part of a failed effort to protect his precocious left arm. (Urías underwent major shoulder operation in 2017.)

This season was Urías’ first as a full-time starter.

He made 32 starts. He went 20-3 to become baseball’s first 20-game winner in five years. He posted a 2.96 earned-run average.

Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías delivers a pitch during the third inning in Game 5 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants on Thursday in San Francisco.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In modern baseball, roles are more fluid, the distinction between a starter and reliever diminishing every season. Wins for pitchers have been devalued.

Those views aren’t shared by the players, however. They care about whether they start. They cherish wins.

Knowing that, hadn’t Urías earned the right to start Game 5?

“Absolutely,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Without a doubt. I think if you’re looking at the player, the person, the probables, feather in his cap, all that kind of stuff, does he deserve it? Do I want that for him? Absolutely.”

But the primary decision makers in organizations aren’t former players such as Roberts. The group that discussed the matter, according to Roberts, included the “tippy top of the Dodgers organization.”

Under Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers generally prioritized quantity over quality in the free-agent market, almost as if they were determined to show others how smart they were. The irony, of course, was that the move that ultimately transformed them from perennial contender to World Series champion last year was a conventional one: They picked up Mookie Betts in a salary dump from the Boston Red Sox.

In Urías, the front office had an avenue to make its imprint itself on the game. The Dodgers wouldn’t have dared approach the likes of Scherzer or Walker Buehler about pitching behind an opener. Scherzer and Buehler would have told them to get lost. In Urías, they had a pitcher who was used to playing along with their unconventional ideas.

The fact similar requests wouldn’t be made of Scherzer and Buehler was something Roberts attempted to sell as a positive.

“I think that the first look is to say that it’s a slight on Julio,” Roberts said. “It’s actually a compliment to him being able to adjust and also allowing for other guys to have the best opportunity to take down outs.”

Urías was on board with the plan, Roberts said.

The problem with this faux-genius idea was that it didn’t really work. By starting the right-handed Knebel, the Dodgers pushed the Giants into starting the left-handed-hitting Tommy La Stella and Mike Yastrzemski, who were removed from the game when their turns to face the left-handed Urías came up; as a result, they were unavailable to pinch hit later in the game.

But after Knebel pitched the first inning and No. 2 opener Brusdar Graterol the second, Urías pitched only four innings. He was finished after only 59 pitches, the Dodgers already in their bullpen in the seventh inning. So much for shortening the game.

Blake Treinen pitched the seventh inning, with closer Kenley Jansen following in the eighth.

Scherzer pitched the ninth.

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