Around the Horn

So, that happened

Both the American League and National League Championship Series ended in six games, with the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves emerging victorious. Houston’s win, achieving their third pennant since coming to the American League in 2013 and fourth overall, was less surprising that Atlanta’s.

The Astros, preseason favorites and steadily strong throughout the year, bested a Boston Red Sox team that had struggled through much of the season to overcome poor expectations, a significant COVID outbreak, and key injuries only to battle until the last day of the season to qualify for the playoffs. Atlanta, meanwhile, had a poor first half; lost their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., for at least six months to a torn ACL; were at .500 as late as August 5th, and entered the postseason with the fewest wins of any division winner (88) and were facing the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were a superteam with 106 regular season wins, clearly they should have won.

Credit Atlanta, for sure. They earned their pennant. But they did have help from their opponent.

The Dodgers went into the NLCS having decided, apparently, that the mismatch was so stark that the only sporting thing to do was to voluntarily handicap themselves. Manager Dave Roberts, with or without input from GM Josh Byrnes or others high in the LA food chain, built on the questionable decision to use ace starting pitcher Max Scherzer in relief for the last inning of the Division Series against San Francisco by choosing an NLCS roster with three starting pitchers. They were not going retro with that decision—a couple decades back, a three-man rotation in the postseason after playing the season with a five-man staff was normal—they still were using a four-game rotation; they just opted to make that fourth game a bullpen game. On purpose. In the League Championship Series. When they were already missing one of their key hitters in Max Muncy, out with injury.

Moreover, having burned Scherzer in NLDS Game 5, the bullpen game wouldn’t come last, it would be first. First! Meaning it would be necessary to happen again if LA was fortunate enough to get to a fifth game!

True, Los Angeles had a fantastic bullpen. The Dodger relief corps had no less than three closers in it and solid support arms. But the more pitchers you turn to in a game, the more likely you’re going to get to one that isn’t sharp that day. And by the time you get to him, you’ve already used several others, unless you “luck out” and get a guy that coughs up a bunch of runs right away. Still, you might not get a bad outing in a bullpen game. Everyone might be as good as they can be. But you’ve still used a lot of arms, and you’ve got to play the next night. What if your starter in Game 2 can’t go very long? Suddenly you’re in trouble with a depleted ’pen.

In the Dodgers’ case, that Game 2 starter was Scherzer, who was already overtired and couldn’t finish five frames. Roberts also opted to use Game 4 starter Julio Urias in relief since Game 1’s slew of pitchers weren’t fresh, learning nothing from the Scherzer example. Sure enough, Urias was hit harder in his Game 4 start than he had in any game over the course of the season and the relief corps was needed for a good chunk of his start as well with another bullpen game coming the next day.

Now, it wasn’t just an overworked pitching staff that accounted for the Dodgers’ loss. Their bats also failed to produce in key spots, squandering several opportunities to score when it would have mattered in close contests. Credit Atlanta’s pitching for some of that, of course, but it looked as if the Dodgers had all taken lessons from the Mariners about how to approach easy RBI opportunities—that is to say, swing for extra bases at all times, regardless of circumstance.

It’s a shame, really. The Atlanta team is a good one, they play excellent defense and clearly have a quality group of hitters as well as pitchers. But to my mind their pennant will be less than it might otherwise have been—they won fair and square, of course, and they played smarter than their opposition and that’s well in their favor. But how would they have fared against a Dodger team that hadn’t chosen to tie one hand behind its back from the start? One that hadn’t taken stupid pills before plotting out their pitching roster and stacked their lineups with questionable platoon matchups?

Atlanta is your NL champion, and good for them (tomahawk chop notwithstanding). I’d just have preferred a championship series that both teams approached with a modicum of intelligence.

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