Monday, October 19, 2020

Dave Roberts Made All The Right Moves Late In The 2020 NLCS

Dave Roberts.

In the 14 years since starting this blog, there has not been a Dodgers manager whom I've wanted to win more than Dave Roberts. He is calm, cool, collected; cerebral, measured, thoughtful; effusive and unselfish in praise to his team and front office, while willing to take the blame from his team all along.

Roberts has always struck me as someone who wants to play the game the right way, win or lose. And there's an admirable nobleness in that pursuit. I've had the pleasure of meeting Roberts once, in a brief conversation on the field before a game. And he was every bit of class and personable nature and authenticity that I expected him to be.

Over Roberts' five years as Dodgers manager, particularly the heartbreaking unjust robberies of the 2017 and 2018 World Series, the narrative has shifted from a manager coping with teams lacking all the right pieces, to a manager unable to make the right decisions in the clutch situations. No matter that Houston was banging trash cans and likely buzzing under-jersey signals; or key reliable components to the engine deciding to falter or have that one off-day in exactly the wrong moment, dooming the team's chances. The burden and responsibility fell squarely on Roberts. And he took it.

After the loss in NLCS Game 4, I had also abandoned hope. It was a very flimsy argument to posit that Dave Roberts erred by putting Clayton Kershaw out there in the sixth inning, after Kershaw pitched one-run ball through five frames. Sure, maybe Kershaw could have been on a shorter leash in the sixth--Kershaw's ERA is 4.31 in the postseason vs. a 2.31 in the regular season, and Kershaw's postseason ERA from the sixth inning onwards is 7.31, the worst of a minimum of 20 innings in that scenario, according to ESPN. Maybe five innings is all that we should have asked of Kershaw, and we should have collected our chips then and just moved on.

But even though Roberts yanked Kershaw rather quickly, three batters into that fateful sixth inning, in a game where the Dodgers would ultimately lose 10-2 (evidencing more about issues with the bullpen, and the Dodgers' inability to solve Bryce Wilson, rather than Kershaw's shortcoming)--the talk was about whether Roberts should have ever let Kerhsaw trot out for the sixth in the first place. And yes, maybe Roberts himself left a slight crack open to second-guessers and Monday morning quarterbacks:

"I'm not going to take Clayton out after a weak ground ball and another ground ball off the bat of Freeman," Roberts said, adding that Ozuna's batted ball "wasn't hit very hard," even though it traveled at 108 mph.

"I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time."

So there you have it: Doc allowed what he was seeing in the game to color his opinion of how long to leave Kershaw in maybe longer than he should have. Maybe, right there with that admission, the leash was a millimeter too long. Which played to the crystallizing narrative that Roberts sometimes lets his emotional loyalties obscure the analytic objectivity required to make the tough decisions (also see: Jansen, Kenley).

Down 3-1 in a best-of-seven, we looked like toast. Fangraphs gave the Braves an 82.8% chance to win the NLCS. And, discouragingly, I started coming to grips that if the results were to play out as statistics were leaning, that there would be no other objective choice than to move in another managerial direction this off-season.

And this realization actually pained me, like a punch to the gut. I'm talking physical pain in my stomach, seriously.

Sure, I want the Dodgers to win. But I want Dave Roberts to win as well. And Clayton Kershaw. And Justin Turner. And all those guys in the clubhouse, especially those who have battled through self-doubt and admitted cheating and major injuries and boo birds and doubters and haters and mean people.

I want Dave Roberts to win.

So bad.

And now, we are going to the 2020 World Series, and we have a shot at all of that.

So before we get ahead of ourselves, I also want to take time to offically explode the narrative that Roberts' eyes are clouded by loyalty and appreciation of legends in his midst. We need to take the breath and recap how we got from down 3-1 to a World Series ticket.

Roberts' management of NLCS Game 5 was impressive, running a bullpen game and letting Will Smith and Corey Seager tee off to achieve a 7-3 victory. Roberts also allowed Kenley Jansen to work a three-strikeout ninth inning, in a non-save situation, to secure the victory in an elimination game, and boost Jansen's confidence knowing that we'd need it.

In NLCS Game 6, Roberts again managed to mastery, allowing the Dodgers' early strikes on Max Fried to hold up through a gutty Walker Buehler performance, but also making the right bullpen decisions in Blake Treinen (one ER), Pedro Baez for the eighth, and then Jansen again for the save in a three-batter ninth.

And then, for a culminating Game 7, Dave Roberts played a hand free of any aces and face cards, and still proceeded to run the table. Roberts' momentous and correct decisions in this game were multifold. Yanking Dustin May after one nervous inning (one might criticize the team for only informing May of his starting role hours before game time, but that's another topic altogether). Pulling the plug on Plan B, Tony Gonsolin, after two equally nerve-racking frames. Trusting Blake Treinen and Brusdar Graterol for three no-hit innings. And the biggest pitching decision of all, allowing Julio Urias to pitch the last three innings of no-hit ball to ice the game, and the series, for the Dodgers.

Which is not to forget the biggest decision on the other side of the game: pinch hitting Kike Hernandez for Joc Pederson to lead off the bottom of the sixth inning. Hernandez' game-tying pinch-hit HR, an eight-pitch AB that bounced off the second deck, was a backbreaker.. (And later that evening, following Cody Bellinger's equally majestic go-ahead, game-winning HR to right, Hernandez was a shoulder-breaker, as well.)

And also, Roberts rightfully trusted crafty veterans like Justin Turner, whose 2020 postseason has paled in comparison with prior heroics, to make amazingly heady plays like the momentum-shifting fourth-inning double play. Or letting Mookie Betts--whose bat has also not yet risen to postseason stage expectations--shine like a supernova in right field with three straight nights of game-saving defensive web gems, ranging from shoestring catches turned double plays, to over-the-wall grabs to deny potential home runs.

Roberts is trusting Max Muncy, who even when not hitting to form, is grinding out key walks (Muncy had nine in the NLCS). And A.J. Pollock, whose 2019 postseason was disastrous but has come up big this year. And Corey Seager, 2020 NLCS MVP and postseason juggernaut, who is finally shining on the postseason stage after prior seasons of average performance. Even Bellinger, who has spent the entire 2020 season tinkering with his batting stance and approach (to mixed results), has been given patience in the six-hole--a strange spot for someone who won the MVP award last year--but obviously this trust paid off huge in Game 7, when Bellinger won the game for us with his solo shot.

The Dodgers win Game 7. We're going to the World Series, in improbable fashion. It's unbelievable.

Which brings us back to Dave Roberts. He made all the right decisions in Game 7. He did not allow allegiances to get in the way, forgoing a third-straight Jansen appearance in the ninth or a hail-mary feed to Kershaw in the late innings of a tense winner-take-all game. And we should take stock and acknowledge this, contradicting the narrative that has percolated of late.

This 2020 NCLS, Roberts rose to the moment. Sure, Roberts probably has more potent weapons on this year's team than in prior seasons. But it still takes a skilled operator to play to victory, not to mention victories in three straight elimination games.

And afterward, on stage, emotional and voice cracking, you could FEEL Roberts' understandable emotion about the game and series victory. (Go ahead and watch the video @ the top of the post. I'll wait.)

The very ingredient that many of us Dodger fans wished Roberts would exhibit less--emotion--was now on full display and it was wonderful to see. Roberts was able to channel it in Game 7 (if not Games 5 and 6, as well), not let emotion cloud his vision, and only let it out here at the end, on the post-game stage, accepting the Warren C. Giles National League Championship Trophy.

"This is OUR YEAR!", said Roberts. I sure as hell hope so.

But I'm so proud of Coach Roberts, and for everything he did for the team in this game, this series, this year--not to mention the four years before this. I really am grateful and thankful he's our manager.

Let's go win this one for Doc.


karen said...

Great report Sax. Doc is my favorite manager we have had as well. I have to say I cried when his voice was cracking as he accepted the trophy for winning the National League. This team, and yes our manager, have heart. A lot of heart. This may very well be our year and our front office, our manager, our team and yes, we fans deserve it. 4 wins Boys. We're almost there.

Orel said...

Everybody wants to win for Vin, Kershaw, JT. Fewer people are including Doc in this group. Thanks for such a passionate argument to include him

QuadSevens said...

Exactly! I noticed his voice cracking too in that postgame ceremony. He deserves to win a World Series as much as any player on the team this year with all the second guessing he has had to put up with.