ARLINGTON, Texas — A week ago, when a similar scenario presented itself in the opener of a shorter series, Dustin May approached his pitching coach, Mark Prior, immediately after completing two innings out of the bullpen and declared he would be ready to go the following day. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who had taken notice of the durability in May’s right arm, playfully dismissed the possibility.
Now, it seems, May’s resilience might be imperative. On Monday night, in a 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves to open this National League Championship Series, the Dodgers used May against eight batters — partly because Walker Buehler once again wasn’t as efficient as he was effective, further complicating matters in a best-of-seven series that doesn’t include off days and could very well go the distance.
The strategy was both common and predictable: The Dodgers had used a starter — be it May or Julio Urias — to piggyback Buehler after each of his past two postseason starts, and manager Dave Roberts recently mentioned the importance of maintaining “optionality” with his pitchers. But that one short outing from May, lasting all of 21 pitches, carries ripple effects that could have a major impact on the rest of this series. Consider …
• In the NL Division Series, May provided two innings in Game 1, pitched only one inning in Game 3 and wasn’t available for much more than that. The soonest he’ll now be able to provide anything closely resembling a starter’s workload won’t be until Game 5, which would still only be under three days’ rest. And that’s only if he isn’t used in any of the next three games. That appears to be the more likely outcome.
• Buehler lines up to start again in Game 6 (if it’s necessary). But if his blister — he has been dealing with two blisters, which “take turns” affecting him, Roberts revealed after Game 1 — warrants another short outing, the Dodgers probably wouldn’t be able to use May in that piggyback scenario once again.
• This assumes the Dodgers will deploy their other two young starters, Urias and Tony Gonsolin, traditionally in Games 3 and 4, in whatever order they line up. They might still deploy an opener like, say, Brusdar Graterol, especially given how good the top third of the Braves’ batting order has been this season. But Urias and Gonsolin will probably end up contributing the equivalent of a start in those games.
Or maybe not. The Dodgers, who haven’t revealed their pitching plans beyond Game 2, only really view Buehler and Clayton Kershaw as traditional starting pitchers for the purposes of this postseason. May, Urias and Gonsolin are pitchers on their staff who just so happen to be able to pitch deeper into games than all the others. Their usage this week is anybody’s guess. The goal — evidenced by May coming on in the seventh, when the top of the Braves’ order was up again — is to maximize the amount of matchups in their favor, regardless of how they utilize three-fifths of their rotation. It’s a forward-thinking strategy that could prove to be revolutionary, but it’s a massive challenge both because of the way this year’s NLCS is structured and the formidability of the Dodgers’ latest opponent. It also puts more pressure on Buehler and Kershaw to pitch deep into games on the days they take their turn.
Buehler, who has required 268 pitches to complete 13 innings this postseason, needs to be more efficient.
“It’s the playoffs: You’re trying to be fine; you’re trying to be perfect,” Buehler said after allowing only one run but walking a career-high five batters in five innings. “That’s kind of how the playoffs have affected me: I’ve always kind of walked more guys and ended up striking out more guys, for some reason.
“But at the end of the day, it’s my job to go deeper into games, and that’s on me.”
Buehler has allowed only four runs in 17 innings since returning from the injured list with a blister that originally began in his right index finger. But he has yet to complete six innings during that stretch. The 26-year-old right-hander said he feels “good” from a health perspective, and Roberts said the blister “held up as good as we’ve seen it in the last month.”
Buehler was already at 84 pitches by the end of the fourth inning in Game 1. He needed only 10 pitches to retire the top of the Braves’ order in the fifth, then came out again for the sixth; but he surrendered back-to-back singles that paved the way for Graterol, who picked up three consecutive outs to preserve what was still a 1-1 tie.
Two innings later, with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth, Roberts replaced May with Victor Gonzalez, who struck out Charlie Culberson to end the inning. Then, with trust in Kenley Jansen continually waning, Blake Treinen took the ball for the top of the ninth.
“I really loved Blake taking down that inning,” Roberts said of his confidence in Treinen going into the decisive ninth.
Twenty pitches later, Treinen had surrendered a leadoff homer to Austin Riley, a double to Ronald Acuna Jr., a deep fly ball to Freddie Freeman and a run-scoring single to Marcell Ozuna, prompting Jake McGee’s first appearance of the postseason — and the Ozzie Albies home run that sealed the Dodgers’ first loss in 19 days.
“Game 1 doesn’t mean anything if they don’t win four games this series,” Dodgers second baseman Enrique Hernandez said. “Whoever wins four first is the one that wins this series, so we’ll throw this one away and come back tomorrow with a fresh mind and do what we do.”
May, 23, is a tantalizing weapon, capable of producing triple-digit sinkers and unfathomable sliders. The Dodgers, who possess far more starting-pitching depth than a Braves team that only really trusts three starters, want to maximize the amount of games May impacts. But the schedule is not in their favor.
And a loss in Game 1 only complicates their plans.