LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Dodgers were asking the world of Julio Urías when he took the mound for the fourth time in 12 days.
Although Urías was the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, Los Angeles had used him in three roles in the past week alone. Urías and the Dodgers claimed it was nothing he couldn't handle, but the left-hander was out of rhythm and away from his normal between-starts preparation when he took on the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.
By the time Urías left the Dodger Stadium bump Wednesday night with a five-run deficit, it seemed clear Los Angeles was asking for too much — or isn't getting enough — from the top pitchers in its tumultuous rotation.
The Los Angeles front office is disregarding most traditional norms in an October attempt to get the most out of its pitching staff — but with the Dodgers on the brink of elimination, it's clear those decisions haven't worked out the way Dodgers boss Andrew Friedman hoped.
Both Urías and Max Scherzer have struggled in the NLCS when asked to start on just two days' rest after pitching in relief. Walker Buehler also didn't match his usual standard when pitching on extra rest.
And now the Dodgers are down to their last chance to get those decisions right against the Braves, who have a 3-1 series lead against LA for the second straight October and three opportunities to dethrone the defending World Series champs. The Dodgers will be facing elimination for the fourth time in these playoffs in Game 5.
Urías gave up three solo homers in two early innings — all on four-seam fastballs in the low 90s — before getting tagged for two more runs in the fifth. With his fastball velocity down slightly from its usual spot, he yielded eight hits and struck out only three.
Whether it's due to the Dodgers' unusual strategy, the pitchers' bad performances or the Braves' excellence, one thing is clear: The Dodgers' top three starters haven't pitched to their normal standards,
Three days after he closed out the NL Division Series in San Francisco, Scherzer couldn't get out of the fifth inning of Game 2 in Atlanta in his shortest playoff start since 2011. Two days later, Buehler lasted only 3 2/3 innings and left trailing in Los Angeles' come-from-behind victory in Game 3.
By the time Game 3 was over, the Dodgers had made 28 pitching changes in their past four games. With a planned bullpen game looming for Game 5, Los Angeles desperately needed a big start on short rest from Urías in Game 4.
Instead, the Braves hit him hard and put the Dodgers against the ropes for the second straight season.
In truth, the Dodgers’ rotation has been a patchwork group all year, belying their 106-win success. Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Trevor Bauer were key components of the rotation early in the season, yet Los Angeles somehow still headed to the postseason with the most quality starts in the NL.
Urías hadn’t allowed three homers in a game since his second major league appearance in 2016, but Eddie Rosario, Adam Duvall and Freddie Freeman all connected.
Urías' success in postseason relief is already a part of Dodgers lore: He got the save in LA's championship-clinching victory last season with 2 1/3 scoreless innings of relief against Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the World Series.
But the Dodgers stretched Urías even further in his past three appearances: He was a four-inning bulk reliever in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, and then he came on in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the NLCS and gave up Atlanta's tying two-run rally on a day when he would normally be doing his side work.
The Dodgers' debatable pitching strategies wouldn't carry nearly as much weight if their high-priced lineup had been able to hit the Braves' relievers while Atlanta threw a bullpen game Wednesday. Instead, LA couldn't get a hit until the fifth inning and finished with just four hits in Game 4.
And the Dodgers are still doubling down: Tony Gonsolin came on in the eighth inning of Game 4, limiting the normal starter's availability Thursday night when Los Angeles will face elimination with a bullpen game — although that might be a good thing, considering Gonsolin gave up four runs in the ninth.
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Greg Beacham, The Associated Press