Dodgers' closer-by-committee approach halts Padres

LOS ANGELES -- The left-field bullpen gate at Dodger Stadium kept opening up to a new arm that would introduce itself to a national audience this postseason. First it was Evan Phillips, released by a last-place Baltimore Orioles team just 14 months ago. Then Alex Vesia, originally obtained in a minor trade from the cash-strapped Miami Marlins. Then Brusdar Graterol, the most famous among them largely because of his nickname ("Bazooka"). And then Chris Martin, whose acquisition from the Chicago Cubs in late July barely made headlines.

Together they halted the momentum of a San Diego Padres team that had forced itself back into a game that seemed primed for a blowout, contributing four scoreless, mostly dominant innings in the Los Angeles Dodgers' 5-3 victory in Game 1 of their National League Division Series on Tuesday night.

The Dodgers, historically dominant throughout the regular season, entered these playoffs without an established closer and armed with a complex, versatile, largely mysterious pitching plan to combat that. They had spent these past few weeks talking up the depth and strength of their bullpen, oftentimes declaring it to be their deepest group in recent memory -- and then they watched that play out when it mattered most.

Graterol, who recorded only one of the final 12 outs, called this "the best bullpen I've seen in my life."

"Everybody in this group has that belief and that confidence that any one of us can close out a game," Graterol added. "We have that mentality."

The Dodgers, having sat idly while the Padres surged past the New York Mets in the wild-card round, asserted themselves early, scoring five runs within the first three innings and getting Mike Clevinger out of the game before he could record nine outs. But the Padres finally got to a previously dominant Julio Urias in the fifth, scoring three runs on a Wil Myers home run and a couple of productive at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Urias was at only 79 pitches by the end of the fifth, but the heart of the Padres' order was due up a third time, and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts instead turned the ball over to Phillips, who had been his most effective reliever this season.

Usually someone like Phillips, who allowed only two runs over his past 39 regular-season appearances, would be held back for the ninth inning. Instead, he pitched in what was deemed the most critical juncture of the game. The first two batters reached on a walk and an infield single, then Phillips struck out Josh Bell and focused on inducing a ground ball. The next batter, Myers, scorched a 100 mph one-hopper to the right side, but Dodgers second baseman Gavin Lux fielded it cleanly and started an inning-ending double play.

"For me," Roberts said, "that was the play of the game."

Vesia, the Dodgers' best lefty reliever, followed by retiring five of the next six batters, three on strikeouts. With two outs in the eighth, Graterol was summoned to face Manny Machado and got him to fly out on the first pitch. Then came Martin, who won a World Series championship with the Atlanta Braves last season and allowed only two runs in his last 18⅓ innings of the regular season. The 6-foot-8 right-hander recorded back-to-back groundouts, allowed a single, then got Ha-Seong Kim to hit a harmless fly ball for the final out.

Martin, 36, had recorded the first save of his postseason career. The baseball was encased inside his locker after the game. By the end of this postseason, several other Dodgers relievers might warrant a similar keepsake.

"I feel like roles are probably a thing of the past," Martin said.

That is especially the case in Los Angeles, which has entered October without a set closer after a decade of relying heavily on Kenley Jansen for the final three outs.

"I really don't think we put much into the big names or who's getting those outs," Phillips said. "I think we just value each other as teammates, we value each other as a bullpen unit. Whenever the phone rings and our name's called, we treat every out equally and we go out there and try to get the job done."

The Dodgers entered 2022 with hopes that Craig Kimbrel, an eight-time All-Star with 394 career saves, would hold down the ninth inning in October. But Kimbrel struggled throughout the season, notching the lowest strikeout rate of his career and waiting until the middle of August to record his first one-run save. Kimbrel was removed from the ninth inning for good on Sept. 23, then left off the NLDS roster two and a half weeks later.

Game 1 offered a glimpse into how the Dodgers might strategize without him. Phillips was used in the most stressful juncture of the game, regardless of the inning. Vesia was used against the left-handed-hitting Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham and Juan Soto. Graterol was used to match up against Machado. And Martin was used to close. But the ninth-inning duties will undoubtedly fluctuate. On any other night it might be Tommy Kahnle or, perhaps eventually, Blake Treinen -- or any of the other arms who pitched in Game 1.

"We certainly could see something completely different [in Game 2]," Roberts said. "I don't want to show my hand too much, but it just kind of is the luxury of the latitude that we have with our guys, willing to pitch in any inning, any leverage."