Wednesday, April 17

Bullpen helps Dodgers survive in NLDS Game 1 win over Padres


What started as a party turned into a nail-biter, an almost certain October blowout instead returning into a sudden postseason stress test.

The Dodgers knew they didn’t have a traditional pitching staff.

They didn’t care about their unsettled hierarchy in the ninth inning.

During a franchise-record 111-win season, it rarely mattered — not when veteran closer Craig Kimbrel battled maddening inconsistency for most of the year, and not when they removed him from the role a month ago in favor of a closer-by-committee approach.

All along, they insisted this was the best playoff bullpen they’ve had in years, that they possessed the requisite depth and versatility to navigate a long October run on the mound.

And on Tuesday, during their playoff opener in the National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres, they provided resounding affirmation in a 5-3 Game 1 win.

After the Dodgers’ early five-run lead dwindled to two, they got four scoreless innings of relief out of Evan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Brusdar Graterol and Chris Martin to take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series.

Phillips retired the heart of the Padres’ order in the sixth inning. Vesia and Graterol paired in the eighth to do the same. Then in the ninth, it was Martin who came trotting to the mound, with the once-unheralded trade-deadline acquisition bringing Chavez Ravine to his feet with his first career playoff save.

Game 2 will be Wednesday night at 5:37. And already, the Dodgers’ staunch belief in the bullpen has been further cemented.

Dodgers relief pitcher Evan Phillips celebrates after San Diego’s Wil Myers grounded into a double play during the sixth inning Tuesday.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Early on Tuesday night, it seemed unlikely the relievers would factor into the final decision.

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The Dodgers scored twice in the first inning, on a Trea Turner home run and Max Muncy RBI single. They added three more in the third, getting doubles from Turner, Will Smith and Gavin Lux.

Julio Urías, meanwhile, was rolling in his first career Game 1 start, striking out six with just one baserunner in his first four innings.

And by the start of the fifth inning, a blue-towel-waving crowd of 52,407 was expecting the Dodgers to bury the Padres — against whom they went 14-5 this season — once again.

The rest of the way, however, the game changed direction.

Trea Turner tosses his bat after hitting a solo home run for the Dodgers in the first inning Tuesday.

Trea Turner tosses his bat after hitting a solo home run for the Dodgers in the first inning Tuesday.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Urias lost his groove, giving up three quick runs to bring his night to an end. The Dodgers lineup fell silent against a string of Padres relievers, recording 14 straight outs over the final five innings.

As a result, following weeks of declarations about this being the Dodgers’ deepest bullpen of his seven-year tenure as manager, Dave Roberts had no choice but to put his trust in it.

“[Was] just trying to piece together lanes for our guys,” he said. “It’s as good a group in the ‘pen as I’ve seen, as we’ve had.”

Phillips was first up, facing the Padres’ best hitters, Juan Soto and Manny Machado, after a breakthrough season in which he emerged as the Dodgers’ best reliever.

The right-hander got into trouble. Soto drew a leadoff walk. Machado got aboard as the typing run on a dribbler that stayed fair up the third base line.

Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urías tosses the baseball after giving up a run to the San Diego Padres.

Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urías tosses the baseball after giving up a run to the San Diego Padres in the fifth inning Tuesday.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

But then Phillips rebounded, fanning pinch-hitter Josh Bell with a cutter before inducing Wil Myers’ ground ball to second, where Lux and shortstop Turner turned a difficult double play to put a jolt back into an increasingly anxious stadium.

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“That was the play of the game,” Roberts said. “It allowed us to line up the pitching [the rest of the way].”

Vesia, the team’s only high-leverage left-hander, got five outs across the seventh and eighth innings, punctuating his dominance over the left-handed portion of the Padres lineup with a flyout from Soto, the left-handed-hitting superstar slugger picked up by the Padres in a blockbuster trade-deadline acquisition.

After Graterol finished the eighth — he needed just one pitch to retire Machado, the Padres’ most-valuable-player candidate, on a flyout — the Dodgers turned to their own important, albeit far less-heralded, deadline addition for the ninth-inning save.

While Martin was part of the Atlanta Braves’ World Series team last year, he never had pitched a ninth inning in the postseason. And when the Dodgers traded for him in July, he wasn’t having a strong season.

But after taking off down the stretch, posting a 1.46 earned-run average in 26 games with the Dodgers, he handled Tuesday’s late-game pressure with ease, giving up only a soft, two-out single to Jake Cronenworth before ending the game with Ha-Seong Kim’s flyout on the very next pitch.

It’s not the quartet the Dodgers expected to rely on at the start of the season. Phillips was a waiver pickup last year. Vesia was acquired in another low-profile trade.

But over the course of the year, they made up for the losses of Daniel Hudson and Blake Treinen (who made the NLDS roster despite shoulder troubles but has limitations).

They surpassed veterans like Kimbrel and David Price, who were both left off the NLDS roster, for high-leverage situations.

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After the Dodgers ran out of pitching last postseason, following an elongated path as a wild-card team, the depth of this year’s staff helped bolster their belief they could summit a World Series mountaintop again.

And at the beginning of another October climb, it was the bullpen that solidified their first step.


www.latimes.com

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