With both the Giants and Dodgers facing elimination tonight, both teams need to put their best foot forward. The Giants are throwing Logan Webb, who also started Game 1 of this series, going 7.2 innings allowing just five hits, walking none, and striking out 10 (tied for his season high). Webb is 7-0 at home including his victory in Game 1 and had a 1.96 ERA at Oracle Park through the regular season. The Dodgers are opting for… Corey Knebel? Not Julio Urías?
Huh? Well, if this isn’t the head scratcher of all head scratchers. I can understand a manager opting for this strategy in general, but not at this pivotal juncture. The Dodgers have used openers, including Knebel four times, at other points this season, but why now?
In all fairness, the Dodgers are 8-5 this year when using an opener who goes two innings deep or less, and 3-1 in games where Knebel is that opener, but despite that success in such a small sample size, this seems like a very risky move, no? So, why are they doing it?
Obviously, I’m not inside the mind of Dave Roberts, so all I can do is speculate, but it’s probably just a matchup issue. Take Darin Ruf for example. He served as the Giants leadoff hitter in Game 2 and was the two-hole hitter in Game 4. While Ruf went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in Game 2 against Urías, Ruf has done very well against lefties in 2021. In 113 at-bats against southpaws in 2021, Ruf posted a 1.007 OPS. Other hitters consistently near the top of the Giants’ lineup like Wilmer Flores (.803 OPS against lefties), Austin Slater (.894), and of course Buster Posey (1.051) would all probably get multiple at-bats against Urías if Urías was starting the game. The decision to start Knebel seems to be an attempt to get the Giants out of their comfort zone.
Do they lead off Mike Yastrzemski now? He’s been one of their most consistent hitters against righties this season (.848 OPS), but he’s been a pretty poor hitter when placed at the top of the Giants lineup in 2021. He’s hitting just .176 with a .385 slugging percentage at the top of the order, and batting .213 with a .299 on-base percentage when placed in the two-hole. Not to mention that would also mean that Yastrzemski would have to face Urías at least once or twice afterwards while serving as the table-setter for the Giants. Yaz hasn’t been good against lefties this year, so that’s a pretty bad scenario for San Francisco. Of course the Giants could always just sub Yastrzemski out after the first, but in a winner-take-all Game 5 every substitution is critical, and maybe Gabe Kapler would hesitate on pulling the trigger on Yaz that fast. Normally, you want to save your subs for later in the game to pinch-hit for your pitchers or make defensive substitutions once you have the lead.
Maybe they could throw Steven Duggar at the top of the lineup? He hasn’t done well in the leadoff role either though (.375 OPS in eight plate appearances). He’s been semi-consistent against lefties and righties though, so maybe taking that risk would be worth it? All these questions, scenarios, and data points I’m throwing out are all running through Gabe Kapler and company’s heads right now, and that’s exactly why this is such a smart move by the Dodgers. It throws their opponents off their game. While the Dodgers knew who they’d be facing in Game 5 for days now, this decision to announce Knebel as the starter just hours before first pitch likely throws a wrench in the Giants’ entire plan. It’s tough to gameplan for something like this when the Dodgers haven’t done this much at all.
Furthermore, Urías is someone who’s comfortable coming out of the pen. I know some starters struggle with adjusting to a role out of the pen, even one as fabricated as coming in after an opener, but Urías has appeared in 36 regular season games throughout his career where he wasn’t the starter. In 2019, Urías was almost exclusively used as a reliever by the Dodgers, and he thrived in that role posting a 2.49 ERA (career-low) across 79.2 innings that season. If there’s anybody in the Dodgers’ starting rotation who could benefit from coming in after an opener, it’s Urías.
I love this move by the Dodgers. I was confused by it at first given how well Urías pitched in Game 2, but is the decision to start Knebel then bring in Urías really any different than bringing Knebel out in the sixth after five innings from Urías? If anything, this move either forces the Giants to roll out their normal lineup, which would force Urías to only face the top of that lineup just once or twice as opposed to potentially three times, or roll out a lineup they are uncomfortable with in order to get more of the matchups they want.
It’s a win-win for the Dodgers. No matter what it gives the Dodgers an advantage in the early stages of the game, and in a season series where the team that scored first is 21-2, getting an advantage early is hugely important. Let’s see how San Francisco retorts.