Who will start Game 1 of the NLDS? Dodgers say give it a rest

On Tuesday night, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Julio Urías would get his vote for the National League Cy Young Award.

On Wednesday morning, however, Roberts said the Dodgers still haven’t picked a Game 1 starter for the NL Division Series next week, with the club still deciding between Urías and Clayton Kershaw.

So, what’s the disconnect? Why wouldn’t the Dodgers just start the pitcher who has been best for them this season?

The reason, it turns out, might really be all about Game 5.

While Roberts was largely vague when pressed about the Game 1 decision hours before the team’s regular-season finale Wednesday, he did make one thing clear.

“Just to give you a peek behind the curtain, it’s more of who we feel is best to potentially come back on regular rest in Game 5,” he said. “So it’s not opponent-driven. It’s not certainly talent-driven. It’s kind of where we feel: Who is in the best spot to do that?”

Read between the lines and it might be about who the team feels more comfortable pitching on short rest in a potential Game 5 as well.

This year’s NLDS schedule is more condensed than usual. Games 1 and 2 will be next Tuesday and Wednesday at Dodger Stadium against either the New York Mets or the San Diego Padres. After an off day Thursday, Games 3, 4 and 5 will be played from Friday to Sunday. (Normally, there is another off day before Game 5, but the lockout this spring forced Major League Baseball to shave days off the playoff schedule).

For the Dodgers, it means whoever starts Game 1 would be available on a normal four days’ rest for a possible winner-take-all Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. Whoever starts Game 2 would be on only three days’ rest for the series finale.

While Roberts said Wednesday that the team’s preference is to not use anyone on short rest (and, surely, to wrap up the NLDS before Game 5 anyway), he has also previously acknowledged that, in win-or-go-home scenarios, all hands likely would be on deck.

Earlier this week, Roberts left the door open to potentially use Urías out of the bullpen if “it makes sense down the road in a crazy series.”

Given all that, if the Dodgers decide to pitch Kershaw in Game 1 and Urías in Game 2, it could give them the option of having both available for a potential Game 5 — assuming the 26-year-old Urías, who has been healthy all season, would bounce back better on three days’ rest than the 34-year-old Kershaw, who twice went on the injured list this season because of back injuries.

Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw works against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sept. 19, 2022.

Clayton Kershaw will start either Game 1 or 2 of the NL Division Series for the Dodgers next week.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

It’s easy to see how that scenario could entice the Dodgers. They would have coverage in case their bullpen is worn out after games the previous two days. They would have their two best pitchers available in case their season is on the line.

But it could also come at a cost.

Urías not only has been the Dodgers’ most dependable pitcher this season, he has been one of the best starters in the majors. He won the NL ERA title with a 2.16 mark. His 17 wins were third in the majors. Over the second half of the year, he orchestrated the most dominant stretch of his career, posting a 1.27 ERA over his final 14 outings.

While Kershaw also was excellent when healthy — he entered his final start Wednesday with an 11-3 record and a 2.30 ERA — Urías’ season was better by almost every measure except Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), an advanced metric that tries to isolate pitcher’s performances from variables out of their control, such as defense.

Starting Kershaw in Game 1 could save him and his balky back from pitching on short rest, but it would mean the Dodgers are also sacrificing the opportunity to have Urías start two NLDS games on normal rest.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Dodgers altered Urías’ postseason usage. In 2020, he balanced a hybrid role to perfection by closing out both the NL Championship Series and the World Series from the bullpen. Last October, he faltered after pitching in relief on short rest in the NLCS.

While discussing these playoffs Tuesday, he deferred to the team as usual to decide what is best.

“I just want to do my part,” Urías said through an interpreter. “Whether it’s [Game] 1 or 2, I just want to be there and do the best I can.”

Maybe none of this will matter in two weeks, if the NLDS is decided in Games 3 or 4, which are expected to be started by Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin (their order hasn’t been decided either).

Maybe the Dodgers roll the dice and end up looking smart, putting Kershaw before Urías in Games 1 and 2 and then utilizing both in a Game 5 with their backs against the wall.

Or maybe this all proves to be a smoke screen and the Dodgers ultimately go with Urías in Game 1, after all, electing to treat their apparent ace like one.

What is clear: Even at the outset of the postseason, the Dodgers are already beginning to evaluate complicated decisions.

They have a track record of using untraditional pitching plans, especially with Urías.

And with the regular season finally ending, their decision-making process is on the clock again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *