The Dodgers haven’t played a game this postseason but have already conquered their own worst enemy: themselves.
With Julio Urías named the Game 1 starter for the National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres, Andrew Friedman has broken from the most troubling of October traditions.
The president of baseball operations has refrained from overthinking. He’s not being controlled by his fears of what could go wrong. He isn’t prioritizing his vanity over what’s best for the team.
And in doing so, Friedman has removed the front office as a potential obstacle for the Dodgers, clearing the way for them to claim their second World Series championship in three seasons.
Starting Urías in the postseason opener Tuesday feels like a no-brainer, as it positions the best pitcher on the team to potentially start twice in the best-of-five series. But nothing is ever that simple for the Dodgers.
Just last year, Friedman’s Frankenstein pitching experiment backfired spectacularly, resulting in their elimination and costing them a World Series they should have won.
There were suspicions the front office was up to its old tricks again, with Friedman and manager Dave Roberts declining to name a Game 1 starter until Monday afternoon. The misgivings were justified, as team officials considered opening the series with Clayton Kershaw on the mound instead of Urías.
“We thought about it, kind of kicked a lot of different scenarios around,” Roberts said.
The reasoning: With Kershaw starting Game 1, he would have been lined up to start a hypothetical winner-take-all Game 5 on regular rest. The Game 2 starter would have been available to pitch in relief in Game 5 on three days’ rest, a task the 26-year-old Urías was believed to be more capable of performing than the 34-year-old Kershaw.
Ultimately, the Dodgers decided they were too good to make plans based on a worst-case scenario. They decided they didn’t have to prepare for a Game 5 in which Urías would have to pitch multiple innings in relief because Kershaw was knocked out early.
They made the right call.
The Dodgers are a juggernaut and won a franchise-record 111 games. They’re a team that has dominated the Padres, winning 14 of their 19 regular-season meetings and finishing 22 games ahead of them in the standings. They’re a team that has brutalized the Padres’ Game 1 starter, Mike Clevinger, who was 0-2 with a 9.69 earned-run average against them in three regular-season starts.
The Dodgers should win, and they’re behaving like it.
The appointment of Urías as the Game 1 starter was a statement in and of itself: We’re the better team and don’t have to resort to any gimmicks to win.
The team’s decision makers from Friedman to Roberts are trusting their players to perform, as they should. They’re trusting their Cy Young Award candidate to pitch like a Cy Young Award candidate, as they should.
“We felt that having Julio for Game 1 and potentially for Game 5 on regular rest made the most sense,” Roberts said.
Urías won 17 games this year and finished with an NL-leading ERA of 2.16, including 1.26 after the All-Star break. He dominated the Padres, against whom he was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four starts.
The elimination of Urías as a relief option in Game 5 also speaks to the confidence Friedman and Roberts have in their bullpen.
The Dodgers don’t have a closer but have a variety of high-octane arms to pitch the late innings, includingEvan Phillips, Alex Vesia, Tommy Kahnle and Brusdar Graterol. This isn’t the short-handed bullpen they had in their championship season in 2020, which required Urías to be a part-time closer.
“Speaking to the depth of the bullpen, it is the most talented, up and down, ‘pen that we’ve had, or just kind of arms to prevent runs,” Roberts said.
Compare that with last year, when Urías was in line to start Game 5 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants. Urías had won 20 games, but the Dodgers used an opener in Corey Knebel. Urías entered the game in the third inning and pitched four innings in relief. Max Scherzer closed the game.
The Dodgers advanced to the next round, but the unforeseen consequences of that final game in San Francisco caught up to them. Scherzer’s first start against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series was pushed back, and his second one was canceled. Urías’ lightened workload in the NLDS made him available to pitch in relief in the NLCS, but that also resulted in a defeat.
A more hands-off approach this year won’t guarantee success. This isn’t basketball or football. The best team usually doesn’t win.
But if the Dodgers lose like this, if they are eliminated at some point with Urías as the No. 1 starter, they will know they were just beaten. It happens. As painful as that might be, that beats the alternative, which is to spend another offseason wondering whether they beat themselves.