As Dodgers pull away in standings, postseason pitching decisions start to take priority

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw works against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 29, 2023, in Los Angeles.
Clayton Kershaw, pitching against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, will again be counted on to anchor the Dodgers' rotation in the playoffs. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

When Dodgers manager Dave Roberts informed Ryan Brasier he’d get consecutive days off from pitching last week, the veteran reliever reacted with surprise.

“[He] told me he’s never had a manager tell him he’ll have two days off,” Roberts recalled with a laugh.

Then again, Brasier has never been on a team like this year’s Dodgers, either.

After a strong July and historic August, the club has emerged once again as one of the majors’ best teams.

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They’ve all but wrapped up what will be a second straight division title and their 10th in the last 11 years.

They have a sizable lead for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

And, even with a month to go, the club is beginning its prep work for October — making conversations like the one Roberts and Brasier had a lot more common in the season’s final weeks.

“Every game is important,” Roberts said, “but they're not created equal, given where we're at in standings.”

Indeed, as they’ve become accustomed to in recent seasons, the Dodgers can switch into cruise control for the rest of the regular season.

They are putting a premium on rest and workload management for their top players. They’re evaluating which depth pieces will be part of their playoff roster. And while they’d still like to finish the season strong, they don’t need to overexert themselves anymore.

“I wouldn't say [it’s time to] fool around,” Roberts said. “I think it's more giving us the ability to manage workloads … and give other guys opportunities.”

This weekend’s series against Atlanta could help decide exactly how much the Dodgers have to play for in September.

They enter the four-game set four games back of the Braves for the National League’s top overall playoff seed. If they can close ground in the standings come Monday, it might present a carrot for the club to chase over the next couple weeks.

“We’re going to try and win as many games as we can,” Roberts said. “And we’ll see how it plays out.”

Dodgers' Bobby Miller gives the ball to manager Dave Roberts as he is removed against Cleveland on Aug. 22, 2023.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts takes the ball from pitcher Bobby Miller during a game against the Cleveland Guardians on Aug. 22. Miller, a rookie who has eight wins, could play a big role in the postseason. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Still, even the pursuit of the No. 1 seed didn’t seem to excite the Dodgers this week.

“I mean, we had it last year, and it obviously didn't work for us,” said third baseman Max Muncy, referencing the Dodgers’ elimination by the lower-seeded San Diego Padres in a National League Division Series. “So you know, you still have to play the game, whether you're the top seed or the last seed in. The only thing that matters is making it and that's kind of all we're focused on.”

Roberts echoed that sentiment.

“I think us getting to the postseason healthy, that trumps everything,” he said. “I don’t think [this series against the Braves] will change how we manage usage or playing time.”

So what does it all mean for the Dodgers’ plans down the stretch?

First and foremost, expect the team’s top pitchers to get extra rest.

Closer Evan Phillips likely won’t pitch in many back-to-back games. Such key middle relievers as Brusdar Graterol, Caleb Ferguson, Alex Vesia and Brasier will have plenty of consecutive off-days. And the team could look to maximize days between starts for their rotation, with a bevy of minor league pitchers available to make spot starts.

“I think the main thing,” Roberts reiterated, “is getting to and through October healthy.”

With any luck, the Dodgers could emerge with improved health, as well.

Right-handed reliever Shelby Miller (out since June with a nerve issue in his neck) returned from his minor league rehabilitation assignment Wednesday night and was activated Thursday.

Fellow righties Joe Kelly (forearm) and Yency Almonte (knee) are targeted to return in the next several weeks.

Starter Walker Buehler has increased his workload in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Veteran reliever Blake Treinen has begun a minor league rehab assignment after missing all season with a shoulder injury. Fellow right-hander Daniel Hudson hasn’t yet given up hope of returning from a knee injury, either.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces,” Roberts said.

So much so that, in the interim, the team hasn’t been afraid of testing out different postseason pitching scenarios.

Young starters Ryan Pepiot and Gavin Stone have impressed in bulk relief appearances lately, getting experience in the kind of multi-inning role they could fill if they earn their way onto the team’s playoff roster. (Other pitching prospects, including Emmet Sheehan, have done the same in recent minor league games).

Left-hander Caleb Ferguson has been used as an opener three times in recent weeks, perhaps as a precursor for an October assignment.

Read more: Reinforcements on the way? Dodgers see positive signs from Walker Buehler, Blake Treinen

Ryan Yarbrough, a trade-deadline acquisition, has settled in as an effective swingman, piggybacking with starters to take down multiple innings out of the bullpen.

“There’s a handful of options,” Roberts said of the team’s potential postseason pitching staff, “that are gonna hopefully be harder decisions to make.”

The approach is an indication of another October tradition. Once again, the Dodgers seem unlikely to have a traditional playoff pitching plan. Outside of Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw, the club might not treat any of their other arms as true starters who could face a lineup three-plus times.

Instead, the team appears poised for more of a patchwork pitching design. Get a few innings from Bobby Miller or Pepiot. An inning or two from Yarbrough or Lance Lynn. And hope that the depth on the mound can compensate for their lack of star power at the top of the rotation, building a bridge to Phillips and Graterol at the back of the bullpen.

“I think anything is on the table,” Roberts said. “We’re still a long way from the postseason. We just don’t know right now. But anything is on the table.”

The good news for the Dodgers: They’ll be able to experiment stress-free leading up to October, their torrid play of late affording them the luxury of prioritizing health, rest and playoff preparations over the regular season’s final month.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.