Misteroberts’ neighbourhood

Too little, too late: Dave Roberts (masked) lifts Clayton Kershaw an inning late and what the Braves made ten dollars short.

The roll of managers who got their teams into hot water by doing what they shouldn’t have done, or failing to do what they should have done, is thick enough. Dave Roberts made it thicker after National League Championship Series Game Four Thursday night.

At the worst possible moment for his Los Angeles Dodgers, the day after the Atlanta Braves nuked them in Game Three, Roberts couldn’t bring himself to do what he had to do and get Clayton Kershaw the hell out of there. Fast. Before his lefthander left room for another Braves uprising.

It married Roberts to Charlie Dressen, John McNamara, Grady Little, Mike Matheny, and Buck Showalter on the roll of skippers who overthought, overmanaged, undermanaged, or brain-vapoured their way into big trouble if not big postseason infamy.

Kershaw’s postseason calamities are only too well known. They’re the only blemishes on a certain Hall of Fame career. It won’t make him a Cooperstown outlier—Bob Feller, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez don’t have sterling overall postseason resumes, either.

But Game Four is the one into which Kershaw’s manager walked him eyes wide shut and the Braves into the real beginning of a 10-2 triumph and one game from going to the World Series.

For five innings Kershaw stood his ground against Braves starter Bryse Wilson, who had only four more major league starts than Kershaw has Cy Young Awards. Wilson actually out-pitched Kershaw, but at the end of five the game was a one-all tie thanks to Alex Rios hitting one into the right field seats in the third and Marcell Ozuna hitting one into the left field seats in the fourth.

Roberts shouldn’t think about hitting the casinos any time soon. He knew Kershaw’s back might still have been a little balky after spasms forced Kershaw to be scratched from his scheduled Game Two start. He got five solid innings out of Kershaw on Thursday and should have been more than content with that.

But no. Roberts had to send Kershaw out for the sixth. “I just thought Kershaw was throwing the baseball really well,” the skipper told reporters after the game, “and there was no reason [to lift him]. I felt really good about it.”

How good did Roberts feel when Ronald Acuna, Jr. opened the Atlanta sixth with a hopper back to the mound but over Kershaw’s head that the evening’s Dodger second baseman, Kike Hernandez, coming from shortstop in the infield shift, threw past first baseman Max Muncy to allow Acuna to second?

How good did Roberts feel after Freddie Freeman promptly shot one right past first baseman Max Muncy into right for an RBI double?

How good did he feel after Ozuna shot one into the left center field gap for an immediate RBI double?

How good did he feel after relieving Kershaw with Brasor Graterol two hitters two late, seeing Travis d’Arnaud line out to right, but then watching Ozzie Albies single, Dansby Swanson shoot one down the left field line for a two-run double, and Austin Riley cue an RBI single up the middle?

How good did he feel after lifting Graterol for Victor Gonzalez and watching him walk Hector Camargo before Cristian Pache singled Riley home? Not to mention Ozuna leading off the seventh with another solo bomb, this one off Dylan Floro? Freeman and Ozuna whacking back-to-back RBI singles off Jake McGee in the eighth?

With nothing else out of the Dodgers offense but the bases loaded and one out in the seventh and only Rios’s sacrifice fly to show for it?

“I’m not going to take Clayton out after a weak ground ball and another ground ball off the bat of Freeman,” Roberts said. “I felt really good with Clayton at that point in time.”

Once upon a time an ancient Dodger manager named Charlie Dressen felt really good about spurning his curve ball specialist Carl Erskine in favour of fastballer Ralph Branca with Bobby Thomson—still less comfortable facing curve balls—coming to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of a third pennant playoff game.

Thomson and his New York Giants felt great about the Shot Heard ‘Round the World—until the final published evidence affirmed decades later what those Dodgers suspected down the stretch: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

John McNamara felt good about leaving his ankle-vaporised first base warrior Bill Buckner in the field for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, too. He wanted his shattered soldier out there when the Red Sox finally won the World Series again. How did that work out for him?

Grady Little felt good about taking Pedro Martinez’s heart at its word and ignoring his Hall of Famer’s fuel tank crying “empty!” The Yankees listened to the fuel tank and sent Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS to extra innings—and Aaron Boone’s eventual pennant-winning date with stout Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

Mike Matheny felt great refusing to close The Book in Game Five of the 2014 NLCS and bring his closer Trevor Rosenthal into the bottom of the ninth—because it wasn’t even a St. Louis Cardinals lead, never mind a save situation. Travis Ishikawa felt even better turning on rusty Michael Wacha’s weak fastball and sending it to the top of Levi’s Landing. (This time, the Giants didn’t steal the pennant! The Giants didn’t steal the pennant!)

Buck Showalter felt comfy refusing to reach for his closer Zack Britton—with Britton’s 0.54 ERA/1.94 fielding-independent pitching/0.84 walks/hits per inning pitched—because the bottom of the ninth in the 2016 American League wild card game wasn’t a “save situation,” either. It left Edwin Encarnacion comfy enough to hit the three-run homer that sent Rogers Centre batshit nuts and the Toronto Blue Jays to the division series.

Boone himself felt cozy enough not to put Jose Altuve aboard with a free pass—with two out, George Springer on first, a gassed Aroldis Chapman somehow ahead of Altuve 2-0, and a spaghetti bat named Jake Marisnick on deck.  Altuve felt even cozier, blasting a two-run homer with the pennant attached off the back wall of Minute Maid Park.

Casey Stengel failing to set his 1960 World Series rotation so his Hall of Famer Whitey Ford could pitch three and not just two games? Gene Mauch panicking the Phillies out of the 1964 pennant? Darrell Johnson lifting Jim Willoughby in the 1975 World Series? Don Zimmer doghousing Bill Lee down the 1978 stretch?

Roberts may be paying for all of their sins.

It didn’t begin with Thursday night, unfortunately. He brought badly spent Brandon Morrow into a 2017 World Series game and watched Morrow surrender four runs on six pitches. He brought a previously shellacked Ryan Madson into a third 2018 World Series turn with the Dodgers leading Game Four 4-0—and watched Mitch Moreland hit a three-run homer to start the Red Sox’s comeback win.

And, he forgot 2019’s Joe Kelly was too vulnerable when pitching past a single inning, left Kelly in for a second inning in Game Five of last year’s division series, and watched him  load the pads for Howie Kendrick to slice salami and cut the Dodgers’ season off at the blast.

There was no defense for Dressen’s Dodgers, Little’s Red Sox, Matheny’s Cardinals, or Boone’s Yankees against a pennant winner; or for Showalter’s Orioles against a wild card game winner. The Dodgers haven’t lost the pennant yet, but Misteroberts’ neighbourhood is a nebulous one over which to guide neighbourhood watch.

Maybe we wouldn’t talk this way if Roberts’ Dodgers and those other teams found ways to win despite the mental lapses. Maybe we’ll stop talking this way for awhile if his Dodgers iron up and manage to win this NLCS. Maybe.

Maybe if the Dodgers remember how to hit when it matters in Game Five, we’ll stop talking about Roberts as a compromised bridge commander and the Dodgers as something of a deception. They’re lucre rich, farm-system sound, and as front-office brainy as it gets, but their continuing postseason futilities despite owning the National League West for eight seasons straight makes them resemble paper tigers.

They’ll have to make things happen in Game Five. If these Braves let them, that is. These Braves may seem like nice fellows, but they’re not inclined to be that generous.

Slam, dunk, don’t stop the dance

2019-10-09 HowieKendrick

Howie Kendrick swinging for a lifetime’s worth of filet mignon on the Washington house.

Dave Roberts learned the hard way Wednesday night that it takes the same number of moves to get destroyed as it takes to start unfathomable destruction. One.

And a one-time Dodger and Angel alike named Howie Kendrick got reminded all over again just how quickly you can go from a prospective bust—including three fielding errors all division series long—to a game-busting hero with one swing that looked so effortless it looked concurrently as if you could have done under sedation.

Fifteen years ago, with his Red Sox three outs from being swept out of an American League Championship Series, Roberts stole second on Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera to start the unlikeliest comeback of maybe all time. The 2004 Red Sox didn’t lose another game on their way to breaking their actual or alleged curse.

But this is 2019. Roberts is now a reasonably respected major league manager with a fourth straight first place finish and fourth straight postseason trip on his resume. And the way this trip ended Wednesday night sends lesser men past the nearest tavern and right to the distillery to drown themselves in the vats.

And Kendrick, 0-for-4 as he checked in at the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the tenth, delivered one swing that’ll save him a small fortune in Beltway filet mignon dinners for the rest of his life.

It nailed the Dancing Nats’ trip to the National League Championship Series with a 7-3 division series Game Five triumph. Their motto now might be the name of a vintage song by rock legend Bryan Ferry: “Don’t Stop the Dance.” And they danced the 106 game-winning Dodgers home for maybe the most bitter winter of their existence since maybe their Brooklyn generations.

For the rest of his life Roberts is liable to face demands to know why he didn’t quit while he was ahead, 3-1 to be exact, accept Clayton Kershaw’s inning-and-threat-ending strikeout of Adam Eaton in the top of the seventh, pat Kershaw on his Hall of Fame-in-waiting fanny with a hearty “Thank you Kersh!” and go to his real bullpen post haste.

But Kershaw didn’t get his pat on the fanny. He got to open the eighth. He got battered back to back on back-to-back pitches by Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. The first flew just over the left field fence, the second flew into the first couple of rows of the right field bleachers. Vaporising young stud starter Walker Buehler’s magnificent evening’s work and bringing the Nats back from the living dead.

Then Roberts reached for Kenta Maeda. And Maeda promptly struck out the side. Forget the second guessing. This was time for the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth guesses.

Roberts got what he’d asked for out of Kershaw to end the seventh. Why on earth push his own and Kershaw’s luck, knowing only too well that Kershaw’s Hall of Fame resume already has the long-enough sidebar of postseason humiliation as an attachment?

Because, he acknowledged after the defeat, he liked Kershaw against Rendon and Soto just a little bit more.

“[T]he success that Clayton’s had against Soto with the two-run lead, I’ll take Clayton any day in that situation,” Roberts said after the game. “I just think it’s one of those where it was easy for me to get Clayton, with the low pitches to get Rendon and to go out there and get Soto. And to have Kenta behind him. That was my thought, and not have Kenta go through Soto.”

Ancient history teaches that a Cardinals manager named Johnny Keane refused to even think about hooking Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in a threatening World Series Game Seven because he had a commitment to Gibson’s heart. Roberts has the same commitment to Kershaw’s. Keane and Gibson got a World Series win. Roberts and Kershaw got humiliated.

The problem is that Kershaw, one of the nicest men and beloved teammates in the game, goes into a postseason with a hellhound on his trail. And he knows it, sadly enough. After reinventing himself this season as a pitcher who can and does survive on guile to go with the smarts he’s had since his peak seasons, Kershaw couldn’t outsmart Rendon and Soto when he needed to most of all. More acutely, Kershaw can no longer deny what people have said of his postseason work for too long.

“Everything people say is true right now about the postseason,” he said after Game Five, soberly but sadly. “I’ve had to do it so much. I don’t know. It might linger for a while. I might not get over it. I don’t know.”

Roberts went with Kershaw’s heart. He should have gone with his own head. He let sentiment and heart overrule baseball. Oh, he got Maeda not going through Soto all right. He just had to watch Soto drive a second stake into the Dodgers’ heart to get it. Then, he sent Joe Kelly out to work a spotless ninth but pushed his luck yet again.

With further viable bullpen options to spare, a luxury Nationals manager Dave Martinez didn’t have, Roberts sent Kelly almost inexplicably out to work the tenth. Where Kelly walked Eaton on six pitches, surrendered a double to Rendon that was ruled ground-rule when it stuck in the fence, and handed Soto the intentional walk.

And, after Kendrick fouled off a nasty enough breaking ball, where Kelly served him a fastball toward the low inside corner. Not low enough. Kendrick drove it right over the center field fence. You thought the Nats were baseball’s greatest dancers before? Kendrick sent them into dugout moves even Soul Train never busted.

It isn’t just Kershaw for whom Roberts has to answer. Where was Kenley Jansen? Where was young lefty Adam Kolarek? Dodger fans will ask those two questions for the rest of the century. When not asking why Roberts still trusted Kelly despite his shoulder issues and season’s disasters. “Trust Kelly more than your closer Kenley Jansen,” said manager turned MLB Network analyst Kevin Kennedy. “I don’t have an answer for that. Does  Dave?”

The answer may or may not determine Roberts’s future in Los Angeles.

But what a moment it must have been for Martinez, when Kendrick exploded and Nats center fielder Michael A. Taylor hustled in and took a dive to snag Justin Turner’s game and series ending sinking liner. Game Five was the Nats’ entire season in microcosm: early and often faltering; later and often flying. The guillotine built for Martinez in May has been put into storage.

The only bad news for the Nats on the night might have been Stephen Strasburg. He was left almost an afterthought after the Nats’ late game destruction. He merely shook off Max Muncy’s two-run homer in the first and Enrique Hernandez’s leadoff solo bomb in the second to keep the Nats in the game almost as deftly as Buehler seemed to own them.

He’s gone from the world’s most feted draft pick to a pitcher who’s fought injuries to become good, often excellent, and periodically great. He’s comfortable with himself. He’s unflappable to the point that some people mistake him for emotionless. And he knows what he’s doing on the mound even when he’s punctured early.

“The first couple innings, I didn’t hit my spot, and they made me pay for it,” said the 31-year-old righthander who still looks like he’s at freshman orientation despite the beard that’s all grown up from having been born a mere goatee. “As a starter, you just kind of learn how you’ve got to trust your stuff, trust that it’s going to come to you. And it did.”

Tanner Rainey dispatched the Dodgers in order in the seventh. And Patrick Corbin—who’d been so badly humiliated in Game Three—got his chance for redemption in the eighth. Other than plunking Turner Corbin got it, zipping through the inning, including back-to-back strikeouts on Cody Bellinger and pinch-hitter David Freese.

Then it was Daniel Hudson shaking off a one-out single in the ninth. Then it was Kendrick obliterating Kelly and the Dodgers in the tenth. Then it was Sean Doolittle, who had his moments of doubt and disaster on the season before finishing up at reasonable strength, getting three including Taylor’s game-ending swan dive.

There wasn’t a Hunter Strickland or Wander Suero to be found. For all anyone knows, they were under strict orders not to move even their pinkies in the bullpen—under penalty of death, if need be.

“Today’s the biggest game of the year,” Martinez likes to say, to his players and to anyone else who cares to listen, “and we want to go 1-0 today.” He got what he asked for and more. It got the Nats to the second National League Championship Series in franchise history. (Their first? In 1981—as the Montreal Expos.)

For a very long time the article of faith, though not always accurate, was “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” These Dancing Nats have a better than even shot at making it, “Washington—First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League.”

It’d beat the living hell out of everything else attached to Washington these and most days.