Dodgers starting pitcher Rich Hill was cruising through five innings in last night’s second game of the NLCS. He was losing, 1-0, after surrendering a solo home run in the top of the fifth, but he was in command of his pitches, especially his devastating curve ball, and up until that one mistake which gave a one-run lead to the Chicago Cubs, he was in command of the game.
Then Dave Roberts let Hill know he wouldn’t be batting second in the Dodgers’ half of the inning. Hill’s night was over; he was being lifted for a pinch hitter. Broadcast images showed Hill angrily tossing a water cup against the dugout wall. It’s unknown if he was that visibly angry because he was being taken out of the game, or if the pinch hitter was useless Curtis Granderson.
At the time I was just as upset as Hill (and for both reasons). The teams were only separated by one run, the Dodgers’ offense had just knocked Jon Lester off the mound, and they were going to face the rickety Chicago bullpen. Hill was at 80 pitches, but his command was strong, and going to the Dodgers bullpen in the sixth seemed like a panic move that wasn’t needed.
As the game wore on, I came to realize Roberts was playing out a strategy for the long haul. He wasn’t looking to push Hill for one or two more innings. Why should he? Roberts has complete faith in his bullpen, and he had fresh arms waiting in that pen for their chance. Besides all of that, just as he lifted Clayton Kershaw in game one, he pulled Hill with the thought of keeping him fresh for the next start that he will be needed for – whether that’s in an extended NLCS, or for the World Series.
Just as we’ve seen with Arizona, and now with Chicago, the team with the freshest starting rotation and the strongest bullpen should outlast the opposition. So far, that’s been the pattern. Running through two starters in the wildcard game doomed the Diamondbacks, and a hard-fought NLDS has left Cubs pitchers spent. Dave Roberts is playing the long game with his pitching staff, and he’s looking to keep all of his pitchers as fresh as possible, should the Dodgers get into the Fall Classic.
Look for the same strategy to play out if Yu Darvish can keep the mojo going, and get through half the game with a lead. Roberts is showing excellent baseball strategy in this case, and his players are paying him back by rising to the occasion.
Now if only I could get him to drop that stupid idea of using Granderson, and to get Andre Ethier into the action.