LOS ANGELES – If I told you on opening day that the Los Angeles Dodgers would end the regular season with the lowest bullpen ERA in the National League, you’d figure that the spring training trade for eight-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel had worked out — if not spectacularly, then at least as well as planned when they acquired him to replace the outgoing closer Kenley Jansen.
"The expectation is that Craig is gonna come in and take the ninth," Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said at the time. Makes sense. In spite of a couple shaky seasons in 2019 and 2020, the guy had 372 saves and a sub-3.00 ERA for his career at that point.
Six months and 111 team wins later, the Dodgers embarked on their 10th straight postseason run without Kimbrel on the division series roster. He isn’t hurt. Rather, “it hasn't been a consistent year for him,” as manager Dave Roberts said before Game 1 against the San Diego Padres.
“It was a tough conversation,” Roberts said about the decision.
Kimbrel hadn’t been terrible, but with an ERA close to 4.00 at the time, they’d moved him out of the closer role a couple weeks ago, leaving the ninth inning to be covered by, well, whichever reliever matched up best against the opposing batters scheduled to hit. Going into October without a defined closer might look from afar like the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise unbeatable team, but remember that reliever ERA: a combined 2.87, and that includes Kimbrel’s disqualifying performance. When it comes to the ninth, or the eighth, or the seventh, the Dodgers have options and they’re not afraid to use them.
Through one of the 11 wins necessary to go from historic regular season to a championship, that plan has worked out spectacularly. Following Julio Urías, four relievers combined to cover four scoreless innings in the 5-3 victory over the Padres Tuesday night.
Granted, of the first 19 matchups between the division rivals this year, the Dodgers had won 14 and were coming off a restful bye that allowed them to pit their top starter against the Padres’ fourth in Mike Clevinger. While the Dodgers were waiting around Southern California and playing intrasquad games, the Padres ventured to New York to take down the Mets in a hostile three-game weekend wild-card series.
The Padres lineup proved formidable in that first round, teeing off against future Hall of Famers and even getting to Edwin Diaz, a closer who has become so iconic this year his commute to the mound was must-see TV. And yet, against reclamation projects like Evan Phillips — who was released from the Baltimore Orioles minor leagues last August but allowed just eight earned runs in 64 appearances with the Dodgers this season — they were held scoreless.
“We've all bought into this concept of when your name is called and the phone rings, you go get those outs,” Phillips said postgame. “They do a good job of getting us prepared for each situation that we're called upon for, and I think you saw it drawn up that way tonight. And I think you'll continue to see it go that way.”
Phillips’ inning — the sixth on this particular night, meaning he started his outing by facing Juan Soto and Manny Machado, who both reached base without a ball leaving the infield — was saved in part by slick fielding to turn two, which Roberts called “the play of the game.” Even great pitching is only as good as the defense that backs it up, and the Dodgers bullpen also had the lowest opposing BABIP in the NL.
Next to get the call from the pen was Alex Vesia, a 17th-round pick who said he pitches with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. In 2020, he botched five appearances with the Miami Marlins so badly that he ended up with an ERA over 18. Across two seasons in L.A., that number is 2.19. He struck out the side in the seventh and came back for two more outs in the eighth.
Brusdar Graterol finished the frame and then it was time to crown a closer — for one night, anyway. Chris Martin, a 36-year-old with nine career saves and none in the playoffs, got the call.
“We're relievers. We're used to the phone ringing a lot,” he said postgame, but admitted that certain innings just feel different.
“I would lie if I said they didn't,” he said. You know, like the ninth in a close playoff game in front of 52,407 fans.
Eleven pitches later, the game was over. And when Martin got back to his locker in the clubhouse, the ball from the final out was already waiting for him in a commemorative case. First postseason saves are worth remembering.
Roberts explained postgame that it’s taken time to create a culture of so much flexibility in the bullpen, one that’s built on “full disclosure, the transparent, honest conversation” about expectations. Guys might not know when they’ll pitch, but they know about the matchups they’re likely to encounter.
As for what that looked like in Game 1 against the Padres, “I loved it,” Roberts said. “But we certainly could see something completely different tomorrow.”