SAN FRANCISCO — In perhaps the biggest game in the 131-year history of the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants rivalry, the Dodgers have decided to rely on analytics instead of tradition, by not starting 20-game winner in favor of a reliever as an opener.
The Dodgers are starting veteran reliever Corey Knebel on Thursday night in their winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series instead of Julio Urias, creating a stir heard ‘round the baseball world.
“I wouldn’t say it’s riskier,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “I think that what it does is it opens up for criticism. But I think that you can’t do a job for fear of failure or potential criticism. I think that you have to do your job given whatever you feel is the best way to win the game.
“It doesn’t mean it’s riskier, it’s different. But it does open up for potential criticism, which I’m imagining is already out there.’’
The Dodgers were getting lambasted by former players, baseball executives and scouts, saying the Dodgers were trying to reinvent the wheel with their decision.
Urias, 24, after all, is a 20-game winner. He won more games than any pitcher in baseball this season. In his last seven postseason games, he’s yielding a 1.29 ERA, striking out 34 batters in 28 innings.
Now, he is being asked to change his routine, sit in the bullpen, and enter the game at a strategic time when the matchups are favorable for the Dodgers.
“We brought it up (Wednesday) and kind of laid it out (to Urias),’’ Roberts said. “We feel that it’s not only about Julio. I think that he’s smart enough to understand that it’s about other guys, other pitchers, that are going to take the baseball that actually gives him a better chance to perform.
“So I think that the first look is to say that it’s a slight on Julio, which actually is a compliment to him being able to adjust, and also allowing for other guys to have the best opportunity to take down outs. He completely understood kind of the thought behind it.’’
Roberts, who has led the Dodgers to six postseason berths, three pennants and a World Series title, made sure to clarify that this was an organizational decision – “From the tippy-top of the organization on down’’ – and he had only one vote in the matter. This came from the analytics department, trying to minimize the Giants’ platoon system that has worked all season, leading them to a franchise-record 107 regular season victories.
“They have been the best team in baseball as far as getting matchup advantages, platoon advantages,’’ Roberts said. “This allows us to get a neutral pitcher who’s done it, who’s had success, who’s all-in on doing it, and potentially giving us some matchups going forward throughout the game. …You have to try to get every edge, win every margin you can, if it makes sense.
“The feeling is that this just gives us the best chance to win a ball game.’’
Certainly, it wasn’t a matter of gamesmanship, like the Milwaukee Brewers tried in Game 6 of the 2018 NLCS by starting Wade Miley. Roberts sent a text message to Giants manger Gabe Kapler on Wednesday night telling him that Knebel is starting, his fifth of the season as an opener. If they had chosen, they could have actually waited until the lineup cards were exchanged at home plate, catching the Giants by surprise, and using a primarily right-handed lineup against right-handed Knebel. Instead, it allowed the Giants to adjust.
“It’s understandable,’’ Kapler said of the decision, “I don’t think it was unexpected. Certainly changes the way we were thinking about today’s game, but nothing out of the ordinary.’’
Well, no one can remember Walter Alston asking Sandy Koufax to enter the game after an opener, or anyone daring suggest to Juan Marichal that an opener would start one of his games, but these are different times.
“There’s downside in him starting if he were to start the game because you could look at familiarity,’’ Roberts said. “He just faced this team five days ago. Those guys stacking and setting the matchups that they want.
“There’s downside in doing it the way we chose. Corey’s never started a playoff game. But I think that ultimately we trust both players can handle this and we expect him to go out there and execute and we feel in one game, with the familiarity of both clubs, this gives us the best chance to win tonight.’’
Win, and the Dodgers are off to Atlanta to play Game 1 of the NLCS on Saturday. Lose, and they’re home for an awfully long winter, with a whole lot of questions to answer.
“Anything can flip the momentum or win the game or lose the game,’’ Roberts said. “The bottom line is that at the end of the day we still have to execute. We have to make pitches. We have to catch the baseball. And we have to take good at-bats. And whatever team does that best will win the game.’’
Which just so happens to be the biggest ever in Dodgers-Giants history in the words of Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully.
“Now,’’ Roberts said, “I feel pressure. Gosh darn it, Vin.’’
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NLDS Game 5: Dodgers to use opener, not Julio Urías vs. Giants