Dodgers on brink after another pitching plan goes awry

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers were asking the world of Julio Urias when he took the mound for the fourth time in 12 days.

Although Urias was the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, Los Angeles had used him in three roles in the past week alone. Urias and the Dodgers all claimed it was nothing he couldn’t handle, but the left-hander was out of rhythm and away from his normal between-starts preparation when he took on the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

“I felt good physically,” Urias said after LA’s 9-2 loss Wednesday night. “I just have to give them credit for what they did today.”

By the time Urias left the Dodger Stadium bump with a five-run deficit, it seemed clear Los Angeles is asking for too much – or isn’t getting enough – from the top pitchers in its tumultuous rotation.

The Dodgers’ front office is disregarding most traditional norms in an October attempt to get the most out of its pitching staff. But with his team on the brink of elimination, it’s clear those decisions haven’t worked out the way LA boss Andrew Friedman hoped.

Both Urias and Max Scherzer struggled in the NLCS when asked to start on just two days’ rest after pitching in relief. Walker Buehler also didn’t match his usual standard when pitching on extra rest.

And now the Dodgers are down to their last chance to get those decisions right against the Braves, who have a 3-1 series lead against LA for the second straight October and three opportunities to dethrone the defending World Series champs. After matching the best regular season record in franchise history, the Dodgers will be facing elimination for the fourth time already in these playoffs in Game 5.

Manager Dave Roberts, the public face of the group strategy decisions made by Friedman’s front office, insisted Urias’ heavy, unusual usage wasn’t the reason he struggled.

“There’s a potential cost” of using a starter in relief, Roberts admitted. “I don’t think anyone knows. … For me, it’s talking to the player, the pitching guys and seeing the stuff. I just don’t see the stuff tonight was compromised.”

Urias still gave up three solo homers in two early innings – all on four-seam fastballs in the low 90s – before getting tagged for another run in the fifth. With his fastball velocity down slightly from its usual spot, he yielded eight hits and struck out only three.

“Honestly, I don’t think he was necessarily tired,” Roberts said. “I think the stuff was good. I think they had a very good game plan for him. I think they took advantage of some mistakes and hit them out of the ballpark.”

Whether it’s due to the Dodgers’ unusual strategies, the pitchers’ bad performances or the Braves’ excellence, one thing is clear: The three remaining elite starters in LA’s once-deep rotation haven’t pitched to their normal standards.

Three days after he closed out the NL Division Series in San Francisco, Scherzer couldn’t get out of the fifth inning of Game 2 in Atlanta in his shortest playoff start since 2011. Two days later, Buehler lasted only 3 2/3 innings and left trailing in Los Angeles’ come-from-behind victory in Game 3.

By the time Game 3 was over, the Dodgers had made 28 pitching changes in their past four games. With a planned bullpen game looming for Game 5, Los Angeles desperately needed a big start on short rest from Urias in Game 4.

Instead, the Braves hit him hard and put the Dodgers against the ropes for the second straight season.

The Dodgers’ rotation has been a patchwork group all year, belying their 106-win success. Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Trevor Bauer were key components of the rotation early in the season, yet Los Angeles somehow still headed to the postseason with the most quality starts in the NL.

Urias hadn’t allowed three homers in a game since his second major league appearance in 2016, but Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Freddie Freeman all connected.

Urias’ success in postseason relief is already a part of Dodgers lore: He got the save in LA’s championship-clinching victory last season with 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief against Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the World Series.

But the Dodgers stretched Urias even further in his past three appearances: He was a four-inning bulk reliever in Game 5 of the NL Division Series because the Dodgers elected to put two openers in front of him, and then he came on in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS and gave up Atlanta’s tying two-run rally on a day when he would normally be doing his side work.

The Dodgers’ debatable pitching strategies wouldn’t carry nearly as much weight if their high-priced lineup had been able to hit the Braves’ relievers while Atlanta threw a bullpen game Wednesday. Instead, LA couldn’t get a hit until the fifth inning and finished with just four hits in Game 4.

And the Dodgers are still doubling down: Tony Gonsolin came on in the eighth inning of Game 4, limiting the normal starter’s availability Thursday night when Los Angeles will face elimination with a bullpen game – although that might be a good thing, considering Gonsolin gave up four runs in the ninth.

“Obviously they’re playing with a lot of confidence, but we have to come out tomorrow and play a game,” Urias said. “We have another game tomorrow. We have a great team here, and we have a great opportunity to do something special.”

Trevor Bauer pulls on No. 96 for Yokohama’s BayStars

Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

YOKOHAMA, Japan – Trevor Bauer apparently was shunned by every major league team, so he’s signed a one-year deal with the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

Before about 75 reporters in a Yokohama hotel, he slipped on the BayStars uniform – No. 96 – on Friday and said all the right things. Not a single Japanese reporter asked him about his suspension in the United States over domestic violence allegations or the reasons surrounding it.

The only question about it came from The Associated Press. Bauer disputed the fact the question suggested he was suspended from the major leagues.

“I don’t believe that’s accurate,” he said of the suspension. “But I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to pitch again. I’ve always wanted to play in Japan.”

He said the suspension dealt technically with matters of pay, and he said he had contacted major league teams about playing this year. He said he would have been eligible, but did not say if he had offers.

The 2020 NL Cy Young Award winner was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers on Jan. 12, three weeks after an arbitrator reduced his suspension imposed by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred from 324 to 194 games.

The penalty followed an investigation into domestic violence, which the pitcher has denied.

Manfred suspended Bauer last April for violating the league’s domestic violence and sexual assault policy, after a San Diego woman said he beat and sexually abused her in 2021.

Bauer has maintained he did nothing wrong, saying everything that happened between him and the woman was consensual. He was never charged with a crime.

Bauer joined his hometown Dodgers before the 2021 season and was 8-5 with a 2.59 ERA in 17 starts before being placed on paid leave.

Bauer said his goal with the BayStars was to strike out 200 and keep his average fastball velocity at 96 mph – hence his uniform number. He said he is also working on a better change-up pitch.

He said he hoped to play by mid-April – about two weeks after the Japanese season begins – and said he has been training for the last 1 1/2 years.

“I’ve been doing a lot of strength training and throwing,” he said. “I didn’t really take any time off. So I’ve had a year and a half of development time. I’m stronger than ever. More powerful than ever.”

Yokohama has not won a title in 25 years, and Bauer said that was his goal in the one-year deal.

“First and foremost, I want to help the Stars win a championship,” he said. “That involves pitching well. That involves helping teammates and learning from them. If they have questions – you know – share my knowledge with them.”

He also repeated several times about his desire to play in Japan, dating from a collegiate tournament in 2009 at the Tokyo Dome. He said playing in Japan was on his mind even before winning the Cy Young – and also immediately after.

“The Tokyo Dome was sold out,” he said. “I’d never played in front of that many people – probably combined in my life. In the United States, college games aren’t very big, so seeing that amount of passion. How many people came to a college game in Japan. It really struck me.”

He said he’d been practicing with the Japanese ball, which he said was slightly softer with higher seams.

“But overall it just feels like a baseball and the pitches move the same. The velocity is similar. I don’t notice much of a difference.”

Other teams in Japan have made similar controversial signings before.

Former major league reliever Roberto Osuna – who received a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy – signed last season with the Chiba Lotte Marines.

He has signed for this season with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

In 1987, Dodgers relief pitcher Steve Howe, who had a career plagued with drug problems, tried to sign with the Seibu Lions. But he did not play in the country after the Japanese baseball commissioner disqualified Howe because of his history of drug abuse.

Bauer was an All-Star in 2018 and went 83-69 with a 3.79 ERA in 10 seasons for Arizona (2012), Cleveland, (2013-19), Cincinnati (2019-20) and the Dodgers. He won the NL Cy Young Award with Cincinnati during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.