When people think about last night’s wild extra-inning win that not only pushed the Dodgers back to .500 but finished off a sweep that drew them to within 1.5 games of first place, they’re going to remember the back-to-back home runs by Hanley Ramirez & A.J. Ellis off Josh Collmenter in the 14th inning, or the Ellis RBI that tied the game in the ninth. That’s understandable, but it’s also worth remembering the unsung heroes of the game — the much-maligned Dodger bullpen that contributed nine scoreless innings from six relievers after Hyun-jin Ryu was only able to make it through five.
On the season, the Dodger bullpen is just 22nd in ERA, though they’re 14th in FIP, a discrepancy that can be chalked up somewhat to bad batted-ball luck and lousy defense behind them. But over the last week — I know, small sample size and beyond — they’ve been excellent, allowing a mere four earned runs in 23.2 innings.
Is that just a nice little hot streak in the midst of a much larger team hot streak? Possibly. Perhaps even probably. But I think we can also see that the bullpen this team has now is just a bit different from the one that we saw earlier in the year. For example, two of the four earned runs allowed over the last week belong to the dreadful Brandon League, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that despite the fact that League hasn’t pitched since last Friday, he was still the only Dodger reliever who didn’t appear last night. That probably would have changed had the game gone on much longer, but it’s still pretty clear that Don Mattingly views League as “break glass in case of emergency only”.
In fact, Mattingly’s bullpen usage last night was effective, even bringing in Kenley Jansen into a non-save situation in the 13th inning, and while it may seem like common sense to use Jansen rather than League after three good innings from Chris Withrow, know that all too often managers will lose a game with their closer on the sidelines rather than use them before they have a lead on the road.
But despite that, it’s not that Mattingly has suddenly become smarter. It’s that the personnel is improved. Matt Guerrier is gone, replaced by Jose Dominguez. Javy Guerra & Peter Moylan are gone, allowing Withrow a chance. (At least until Withrow probably gets optioned out today after throwing so many pitches last night.) League has been de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance, and while Ronald Belisario remains, he’s been outstanding over the last month (9/1 K/BB, no earned runs allowed in 8.1 innings) after struggling so badly before.
As I’ve said all along, it’s the players that win the games. If Mattingly had been fired in May, the team probably still goes on this hot streak and then we’d have been bombarded with volleys of “see, I told you it was the manager!” Yet while his bullpen management seems to be somewhat better, it’s the ongoing effectiveness of guys like Jansen, J.P. Howell, & Paco Rodriguez who are making the difference. Thanks to efforts like we saw last night, the Dodgers have a real chance to be in first place by the break. I still can’t quite wrap my head around that.