LOS ANGELES — If the first round of the 2017 playoffs was defined by chaotic craziness, from starting pitchers getting shelled to defensive blunders of game-changing magnitude to managers hyperventilating with bullpen usage, we’ve had a return to normalcy after the first three games of the League Championship Series.
The Yankees and Astros have played two crisp, low-scoring games, with Justin Verlander throwing a complete-game masterpiece in Game 2. And in Game 1 of the NLCS, Jose Quintana and Clayton Kershaw delivered solid enough performances, both going five innings and allowing two runs.
It’s a reminder that even though managers continue to shift more innings from starters to relievers in the postseason, you still need good starting pitching if you expect to win the World Series. As much as the idea of relying on a conga line of flamethrowing relievers feels like the future of baseball, the early games of the playoffs exposed the risks of that formula — unless you have a bullpen that goes seven or eight deep, like the Yankees’ does. Otherwise, you’re exposing lesser relievers to critical situations, expanding the role of your best relievers, or using starters in an unfamiliar position.
That’s why the matchup of Chicago’s Jon Lester versus Los Angeles’ Rich Hill still looms as the most important facet of Sunday’s Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. In Lester’s case, the struggling Cubs bullpen needs him to deliver some length. Right now, Joe Maddon doesn’t know exactly whom to trust in his relief corps other than closer Wade Davis. In Hill’s case, the Dodgers’ bullpen suddenly looks like a dominant force, which means if he can hand the ball to his relievers with a lead, there’s a strong likelihood of the Dodgers heading to Wrigley Field with a 2-0 series edge.
Of the 19 games played in the wild-card round and the Division Series, a starter failed to go five innings 20 times and got knocked out before finishing even three innings nine times. Hill understands the nature of the quick hook in the postseason and said this is one area where experience does help.
“If you take a guy who is younger, he may be thinking about the hook quicker,” Hill noted. “If you take a guy who is more experienced, it’s a pitch-to-pitch process, and all you’re thinking about is executing that pitch that you have on hand, and that’s it. Whether it’s your first pitch or last pitch, you have no control over that. The only thing you have control over is your effort and the intensity that you bring out there to the mound.”
This will be just the sixth postseason start of Hill’s career, but he speaks with the wisdom of someone who pitched in his first postseason in 2007 with the Cubs — and didn’t appear in one again until last year with the Dodgers. In those intervening years, he battled injuries, wildness and ineffectiveness, and his transaction log is littered with more moves than a Yasiel Puig home run trot. He was released three times and granted free agency numerous other times. Just three years ago, the Angels purchased him and then cut him after two appearances in which he didn’t retire any of the four batters he faced.
In his start against the Diamondbacks in Game 2 of the NLDS, Hill didn’t have his best command, struggling through 78 pitches in just four innings, allowing two runs off three hits and three walks. It marked his second-lowest rate of strikes in a start this season, and the D-backs swung at just 31 percent of his curveballs, his signature pitch that has turned him into a quality starter the past two seasons.
His plan for facing the Cubs isn’t complicated. “They’ve done enough video and enough homework on all of us, right? But my approach isn’t going to change,” he said. “It’s just attack and continue to throw strikes. Make them swing the bat. I think that’s something that I feel comfortable in and I don’t really mind sharing because they know that or any team that’s faced me all year, they’ll come up to the plate saying, ‘He’s going to be Strike 1, he’s coming right at you.'”
Hill at least knows that manager Dave Roberts may ask for only five innings out of him, given the way Kenta Maeda, Brandon Morrow and Kenley Jansen are throwing in relief right now. The Cubs’ bullpen, however, has allowed 16 runs in 20⅓ innings in the postseason with nearly as many walks (15) as strikeouts (17) — and those numbers include Lester’s own relief outing against the Nationals in which he allowed one run in 3⅓ innings.
The state of the Chicago bullpen and the state of the series put Maddon in a tough position with Lester. Being down 1-0 means there’s a certain urgency to not leave a starting pitcher in too long, but handing three or four innings to the bullpen seems even riskier right now.
“We have to get our bullpen in order,” Maddon said after the Game 1 loss. “We have to be able to hold small deficits or small leads in the middle and then hopefully get to Wade in a positive situation.”
Of course, if anybody is likely to deliver a clutch outing, it’s Lester, the guy appearing in his eighth postseason with a career 2.57 ERA over 143 playoff innings. Maddon likes to say managing is more about knowing the heartbeat of the players. Well, he knows Lester’s heartbeat will be slow.
Lester also knows the Cubs have faced these kinds of situations before, noting, “We went through a lot last year in the postseason. I think we were down last year when we came in here. We were down in the World Series. So we know that we can come back in big situations.”
This is one of those matchups buried within in a series that makes the postseason special: these two veteran lefties with vastly different arcs to their careers. But both love the challenge of staring down a tough opponent.
“You get out there in these games and the adrenaline and excitement kind of take over,” Lester said. “So you don’t really worry about how tired you are. You just try to play baseball.”