LOS ANGELES — The left field bullpen goal at Dodger Stadium kept opening up for a new arm that would introduce itself to a national audience this postseason. First up was Evan Phillips, who was released in last place by a Baltimore Orioles team just 14 months ago. Then Alex Vesia, who was originally acquired in a small deal by the financially troubled Miami Marlins. Then Brusdar Graterol, the most famous among them mainly because of his nickname (“Bazooka”). And then Chris Martin, whose takeover from the Chicago Cubs in late July barely made headlines.
Together, they halted the momentum of a San Diego Padres team that had pushed back into a game that appeared poised for a blowout and steered four scoreless, mostly dominant innings to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 5-3 Game 1 win of their National League at Division Series on Tuesday night.
The Dodgers, historically dominant throughout the regular season, entered these playoffs without an established closer and were armed with a complex, varied, largely mysterious pitching plan to counter it. They’d spent the past few weeks talking about the depth and strength of their bullpen, often declaring it their deepest group in recent memory – and then watching the game play out when it mattered most.
Graterol, who only recorded one of the last 12 outs, called this “the best bullpen I’ve seen in my life”.
“Everyone in this group has that belief and confidence that any one of us can finish a game,” Graterol added. “We have this mentality.”
The Dodgers, who had sat idly by while the Padres stormed past the New York Mets in the wildcard round, held their own early, scoring five runs in the first three innings and knocking out Mike Clevinger before he had nine outs. But the Padres eventually caught up in fifth place to a previously dominant Julio Urias, who hit three runs on a Wil Myers home run and a couple of productive at-bats with runners in goal position.
Urias had just 79 pitches by the end of the fifth game, but the heart of the Padres order was due a third time, and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts instead traded the ball to Phillips, who had been his most effective assistant that season.
Normally, someone like Phillips, who only allowed two runs in his last 39 regular-season appearances, would be held back for the ninth inning. Instead, he threw himself into the game’s most critical moment. The first two batters got a walk and an infield single, then Phillips knocked out Josh Bell and focused on inducing a groundball. The next batter, Myers, seared a 100 mph one-hopper down the right, but Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux fielded it clean and started a double play late in the inning.
“For me,” said Roberts, “that was the game of the game.”
Vesia, the Dodgers’ best left weapon from the bullpen, followed by the retirement of five of the next six batters, three on strikeouts. With two outs in the eighth, Graterol was called out to face Manny Machado, causing him to fly out on the first pitch. Then came Martin, who won a World Series Championship with the Atlanta Braves last season and only allowed two runs in his last 18 1/3 innings of the regular season. The 6-foot-8 right-hander posted back-to-back groundouts, allowed a single, and then got Ha-Seong Kim to hit a harmless flyball for the final out.
Martin, 36, had recorded the first save of his postseason career. The baseball was locked in its locker after the game. By the end of this postseason, several other Dodgers aides could warrant a similar keepsake.
“I feel like roles are probably a thing of the past,” Martin said.
That’s particularly the case in Los Angeles, which entered October with no set closure after a decade of heavily relying on Kenley Jansen for the last three outs.
“I really don’t think we invest a lot in the big names or who gets these outs,” Phillips said. “I think we just value each other as teammates, we value each other as a large-scale unit. Whenever the phone rings and our name is called, we treat everyone equally and go out and try to get the job done.”
The Dodgers entered 2022 with hopes that Craig Kimbrel, an eight-time All-Star with a career 394 saves, would hold the ninth inning in October. But Kimbrel struggled all season, posting a career-low strikeout rate and waiting until mid-August to record his first save in a run. Kimbrel was permanently removed from the ninth inning on September 23 and dropped from the NLDS roster two and a half weeks later.
Game 1 offered a glimpse into the Dodgers’ strategies without him. Phillips was fielded during the most stressful period of the game, regardless of the inning. Vesia was used against left-handers Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham and Juan Soto. Graterol was used to face off against Machado. And Martin was used to closing. But the ninth-inning duties will no doubt falter. Any other night it could be Tommy Kahnle, or maybe Blake Treinen at some point – or any of the other arms that served up in Game 1.
“We could certainly see something very different [in Game 2]‘ said Roberts. “I don’t want to show my hand too much, but it’s just the luxury of leeway that we have with our guys willing to put in every inning, every leverage.”