Thanks, Joe Blanton!
LOS ANGELES -- The Chicago Cubs are on the brink of a trip to the World Series, cutting a path into the Los Angeles Dodgers' central nervous system through the bullpen of all places.
The second-best bullpen ERA in baseball this season belonged to the Dodgers, yet the permanent high-wire act it has inherited in the National League Championship Series has proved too delicate of a balancing act. Joe Blanton's ineffective slider has been the biggest issue, getting hammered for Miguel Montero's grand slam in a Game 1 defeat and for Addison Russell's go-ahead home run in the sixth inning of Game 5 on Thursday. The Russell shot started an avalanche that ended in an 8-4 Cubs victory.
Relief has been anything but in the Dodgers' consecutive defeats at home, when the bullpen was teed up for six runs (five earned) in Game 4 and then seven runs (three earned) in Game 5. It left the Cubs with a 3-2 lead in a series that is headed back to Chicago for Game 6 on Saturday, and a Game 7 at Wrigley Field, if necessary.
"It has been a battle," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said about the bullpen's body of work this postseason, especially in the NLCS. "Those guys over there, they compete and don't give away many at-bats. They spoil pitches, they run counts. When you do make mistakes, these guys can slug. These are the guys we have, these are the guys that got us here. I'm not going to shy away from any of these guys."
The bullpen is the reason the Dodgers got this far, so Roberts will continue to trust the group. The Dodgers led baseball in relief innings with 590⅔ and appearances with 607, both numbers eclipsing previous franchise records.
Roberts was not going to alter the plan now. Thursday was the fifth time in 10 playoff games that a Dodgers starting pitcher has not recorded more than 12 outs. Kenta Maeda had his third such occurrence in three postseason starts, recording only 11 outs before Roberts went the bullpen route again. It has not been an effective strategy, as the Dodgers are 1-4 in those games, winning only the deciding Game 5 of the NL Division Series at Washington last week. The Dodgers have lost all three games Maeda has started.
"I think Kenta is fine physically," Roberts said. "For me, I felt that at 3⅔ [innings], he was around 75 pitches and I felt that he was starting to lose that fastball command. I thought the breaking ball wasn't as sharp."
Even though none of that could be argued, Roberts still went to his bullpen with Cubs pitcher Jon Lester coming to the plate. If his previous decisions to remove Maeda did not signal an apparent lack of trust in Maeda, this one seemed to suggest it.