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.”