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Unless Clayton Kershaw Comes Through, Dodgers' Superior Bullpen No Longer An Advantage

October 24, 2017
Just about all evaluations of the teams in this year's World Series come to one conclusion -- that the Los Angeles Dodgers have the superior bullpen, which by any standards figures to translate to a victory for the National League champions.

But those evaluations are all predicated on the Dodgers' starting rotation, led by Clayton Kershaw, carrying a lead into the sixth inning and turning it over to a relief corps that has been just short of perfect during the postseason. And make no mistake about it, Kershaw is expected to push his postseason misery to the background and set the stage.

Widely acclaimed as the best pitcher in the game, Kershaw's 114-64 career regular-season record and 2.36 career ERA is more than slightly tainted by his 6-7, 4.40 postseason numbers spread over 21 games, 17 of which have been starts. This is the seventh year of postseason play for Kershaw and the first time the Dodgers have gotten this far.

Houston's bullpen almost cost the Astros their chance for the franchise's first World Series win by blowing a 4-0 lead in the final innings of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees. Conversely, the Dodgers' relievers simply blew away the Chicago Cubs in a five-game walkover. The trade deadline acquisitions of Josh Fields and Tony Watson have provided Dodgers manager Dave Roberts with the luxury of three quality late-inning specialists to set up ace closer Kenley Jansen.

Judging by the way Roberts has used his relievers, he could be setting up the Dodgers to duplicate what the Oakland A's did in 1973, when manager Dick Williams had a constantly revolving door out of the bullpen. Left-hander Darold Knowles became the first pitcher ever to pitch in all seven games of the World Series, as the A's edged the New York Mets -- and it wasn't because Williams didn't realize he had a future Hall of Famer, Rollie Fingers, in the bullpen.

Fingers pitched in six of the seven games that year -- a total of 13.2 innings, twice going 3.1 innings, in the first and last games -- and Knowles recorded a pair of saves while working 6.1 innings in seven appearances, the last of which coming on the last out of the game.

Watson and Brandon Morrow have been strikeout machines for Roberts, and the World Series is set up as a nice audition stage, as both are set to become free agents when it's over. It's doubtful Roberts will get to use anybody as often as Williams used Fingers and Knowles, but it's safe to say he'll be looking for relief any time he has a lead after the fifth inning.

Houston manager A.J. Hinch won't be nearly as quick with the hook. The Astros already have a complete-game win (by Justin Verlander) and four-inning save (by Lance McCullers Jr.) in the books this postseason, so expect him to go with the hot hand.

Maybe it's old school hangover, but I think the Astros have the best team and better depth to the starting rotation. I think the Dodgers have to get two wins in games Kershaw pitches -- and that still might not be enough. Against the trend, and despite my belief that predictions only set one up for failure, I'm taking Astros in seven games … and it might take extra innings, too!

Jim Henneman can be reached at