Dodgers face new postseason reality: Pen losing traction against Cubs

LOS ANGELES -- The Chicago Cubs are on the brink of a trip to the World Series, cutting a path into the Los Angeles Dodgers' central nervous system through the bullpen of all places.

The second-best bullpen ERA in baseball this season belonged to the Dodgers, yet the permanent high-wire act it has inherited in the National League Championship Series has proved too delicate of a balancing act. Joe Blanton's ineffective slider has been the biggest issue, getting hammered for Miguel Montero's grand slam in a Game 1 defeat and for Addison Russell's go-ahead home run in the sixth inning of Game 5 on Thursday. The Russell shot started an avalanche that ended in an 8-4 Cubs victory.

Relief has been anything but in the Dodgers' consecutive defeats at home, when the bullpen was teed up for six runs (five earned) in Game 4 and then seven runs (three earned) in Game 5. It left the Cubs with a 3-2 lead in a series that is headed back to Chicago for Game 6 on Saturday, and a Game 7 at Wrigley Field, if necessary.

"It has been a battle," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said about the bullpen's body of work this postseason, especially in the NLCS. "Those guys over there, they compete and don't give away many at-bats. They spoil pitches, they run counts. When you do make mistakes, these guys can slug. These are the guys we have, these are the guys that got us here. I'm not going to shy away from any of these guys."

The bullpen is the reason the Dodgers got this far, so Roberts will continue to trust the group. The Dodgers led baseball in relief innings with 590⅔ and appearances with 607, both numbers eclipsing previous franchise records.

Roberts was not going to alter the plan now. Thursday was the fifth time in 10 playoff games that a Dodgers starting pitcher has not recorded more than 12 outs. Kenta Maeda had his third such occurrence in three postseason starts, recording only 11 outs before Roberts went the bullpen route again. It has not been an effective strategy, as the Dodgers are 1-4 in those games, winning only the deciding Game 5 of the NL Division Series at Washington last week. The Dodgers have lost all three games Maeda has started.

"I think Kenta is fine physically," Roberts said. "For me, I felt that at 3⅔ [innings], he was around 75 pitches and I felt that he was starting to lose that fastball command. I thought the breaking ball wasn't as sharp."

Even though none of that could be argued, Roberts still went to his bullpen with Cubs pitcher Jon Lester coming to the plate. If his previous decisions to remove Maeda did not signal an apparent lack of trust in Maeda, this one seemed to suggest it.

"Lester put a good swing on the ball in his first at-bat, and I didn't see Kenta getting [Cubs leadoff man Dexter] Fowler," Roberts said.

Josh Fields started Thursday's 5⅓-inning bullpen march that gave the Dodgers a major league-leading 42 innings from its relievers in this postseason. No other team's bullpen has more than 34 innings in the playoffs.

Now it looks as if Blanton might be paying for the heavy use. His slider has been his most important pitch, but an ineffective one to Montero put Game 1 on ice, and one that floated to the plate Thursday to Russell is what started the Cubs on their way in Game 5.

"It's been my go-to pitch for the past year and a half now," said Blanton, whose 75 appearances led the Dodgers in the regular season. "To hang it twice, both ahead in the count, and to get beat on it twice, sometimes you get lucky when you hang it and sometimes you don't. The goal is to not hang it, especially in those counts, and that is what I'm doing right now."

Talk about bad timing. Blanton pitched in four of the five NLDS games, pitching 2⅔ innings over the final two games. Two days after he wrapped up a scoreless NLDS with five innings pitched total, the Cubs jumped him in Chicago with not only Montero's slam but a long ball to the next batter, Fowler. Blanton had a scoreless inning in Game 3 but was touched for two runs and three hits over 1⅓ innings Thursday.

The damage done by the Cubs to the bullpen has been thorough, as the Dodgers' relievers continue to find themselves in sticky situations.

"It's been like that all year, so for us it's really no different," Blanton said. "We have accepted it as far as I can remember this year, and we've really owned it as a bullpen. We've enjoyed doing it and we will continue to. Things are either, a, not bouncing our way, or we’re not executing right now. Hopefully that changes sooner rather than later."

It most definitely will have to change. The Cubs are 26-for-83 (.313) against the Dodgers' bullpen in the series and have eight doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs. In addition, the Cubs had a .363 on-base percentage against Dodger relievers and a .554 slugging percentage.

Relief for the relief could be on the way Saturday night. Clayton Kershaw will man the road block on the highway that could lead the Cubs to the World Series. In his previous start against the Cubs in Game 2, Kershaw threw seven innings and closer Kenley Jansen picked up the final two.

If the Dodgers are to advance to the World Series, they probably are going to have to go to Blanton again. The right-hander said he would work on a potential mechanical flaw on the takeaway when he starts his throwing motion, not too unlike a golfer whose takeaway is affecting his entire swing.

Blanton won't be afraid to hit the driver off the tee the next time. He knows how much his slider means to his game. His teammates trust that he will be fine as well.

"He is the epitome of a veteran and he has really done a lot for the young guys, the guys with less experience," Fields said. "Seeing him go out and do his routine day in and day out, it's been fun to watch. We wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for Joe doing his thing all year. You have to tip your cap to the Cubs, who have a good offense and capitalize on mistakes."

If it all plays out the way the Dodgers think it will, Blanton will get another chance to prove himself.

"We have Kershaw going the next game, which we're excited about," Blanton said. "Obviously our backs are to the wall, but we kind of feel like we have been there all year from day one all the way to the end when we clinched. We feel like everybody wrote us off to start, but we would end up winning [the division]. We got down to Washington and everybody wrote us off then, so I'm sure everybody is doing it now, which is fine."

In this series, the bullpen hasn't been what it was, and the offense has not matched the Cubs the past two days. The Dodgers don't see the problem.

"Maybe we're right where we need to be," Blanton said.