CHICAGO – (Wire Service Report – Special to Digital Sports Desk) – The Los Angeles Dodgers lost much more than a pivotal game on Thursday when they were defeated in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series by the Chicago Cubs. They lost one of their biggest weapons in this postseason. Joe Blanton is not injured. And he won’t be fatigued after the off-day Friday. But after relying on him almost daily to get the Dodgers this far, LA manager Dave Roberts has to think very carefully about using the right-hander out of the bullpen again. He has become predictable and the Cubs know it. That’s the worst thing a pitcher can be.
On Thursday night, he came on for the sixth inning — that early because the Dodgers don’t have the pitching to go deep in games like this beyond Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill. The series was tied 2-2. The game was tied 1-1. So critical would be understating the circumstances. He gave up a first-pitch single on a slider to Javier Baez and, after Baez stole second, intentionally walked Jason Heyward. Next up was Addison Russell. Blanton threw a slider for a first-pitch strike and then threw another slider that Russell turned around for a game-changing two-run homer. The Cubs went on to take an 8-1 lead en route to an 8-4 win.
“I knew what was coming,” Russell said after the victory at Dodger Stadium.
Of course he did. Blanton has a great slider — terrific even — but that’s where he goes every time the pitch is crucial. It’s gotten to the point that hitters are sitting on it because it is his best pitch.
That’s how Game 1 came unraveled for Los Angeles. That, too, was a tied game at 3-3. Ben Zobrist doubled on a changeup to start the frame. Then Blanton threw six straight sliders to get Russell to hit into a full-count groundout to third base. That’s when the chess match began where Roberts saw he could get Chicago closer Aroldis Chapman out of the game. Heyward was intentionally walked and Blanton got Baez to fly out on a first-pitch slider. Then, pinch-hitter Chris Coghlan was intentionally walked to bring up Chapman’s spot.
Miguel Montero pinch hit with the bases loaded. Blanton threw him three straight sliders.
The first one was fouled off and the second was swinging strike. The third went for a grand slam that gave the game to the Cubs. The next pitch was a Dexter Fowler homer, this time on a curveball; of course how could he throw another slider.
Blanton and the slider? He is a one-trick pony and you can’t use that in the playoffs.
Mariano Rivera of the Yankees had one great pitch and he was probably the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history. Rivera was going to throw his cut fastball with all its life and late movement and, for season after season, he threw it and no one did anything with it. Bats were broken. Swings hit nothing. And the wins piled up.
He was special. It’s the reason he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Joe Blanton is a very capable pitcher who has re-invented himself as a reliever and re-sculpted his body to improve himself. He pitched in four of the five division series games and didn’t give up a run. But he isn’t special like Rivera. Not even close.
Blanton alone cannot be singled out because the Dodgers bullpen that helped them oust the Nationals in the division series has been tagged pretty good in this one. The Cubs are slashing .313/.363/.554 with four homers and seven RBIs against LA relievers in the series. Only closer Kenley Jansen has stood out.
That brings us to the final game or two at Wrigley Field, where the Dodgers arrive down 3-2 in the series and facing elimination. Given the circumstances, it is a best-case scenario for them with ace Kershaw on the mound. The last time he pitched, the Dodgers beat Chicago with his seven strong Game 2 innings and a pair of innings from Jansen. Hill is the Game 7 starter and that is as good as they could hope for if they have a chance to win the pennant on Sunday.
But it remains to be seen if Roberts would dare go to Blanton in a pivotal moment given the way things have gone.
“I think if you look back, he made a couple mistakes in the series and we paid for it,” Roberts said. “But as far as fatigue, I think Joe feels great, feels strong, and he’ll be the first to tell you that he needs to execute a pitch. So when you look at Game 6, Game 7, I’m not going to shy away from going to Joe.”We shall see.