The implications were bigger than the email indicated.
The Dodgers are sending their ace to the mound on three days’ rest rather than Ricky Nolasco, who had struggled in his final three regular-season starts. The team insisted all week that Nolasco would start the game opposite Atlanta Braves right-hander Freddy Garcia. Manager Don Mattingly offered only the slightest hint of hesitation before Game 3 on Sunday.
“Right now Ricky’s the pitcher in Game 4,” Mattingly said. “That’s what we’ve decided.”
Something changed overnight.
Specifically, the Dodgers decided it was worth having Kershaw start on short rest for the first time in his career, with the potential reward of clinching the series early and not having to travel to Atlanta for a do-or-die Game 5, if they win.
Kershaw is coming off a historic season in which he led the major leagues in earned-run average (1.83) for the third consecutive season. No pitcher has done that since Greg Maddux from 1993-95, when he pitched for the Atlanta Braves. Kesrhaw’s 194 ERA-plus — a statistic that compares ERA to the league average and adjusts for a pitcher’s ballpark — is the highest in Dodgers history, better than Sandy Koufax‘s personal best of 190 in 1966. It’s no stretch to call Kershaw’s 25-year-old season the best by a pitcher in franchise history.
Nolasco, meanwhile, put the Dodgers in a tough predicament.
From July 9 to September 9, his first two months after arriving in a trade with the Miami Marlins, Nolasco went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA and didn’t miss a start. Then he collapsed.
In his next three starts, two against the San Francisco Giants and one against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nolasco posted a 12.75 ERA while lasting a total of 12 innings. Since Sept. 25, he’s only pitched one scoreless inning in relief and did not start a game.
Still, he was slated as the Game 4 starter from the outset, with Mattingly saying Friday that pitching Kershaw on fewer than four days’ rest had not been discussed at any point all season.
Garcia’s season was the mirror opposite of Nolasco’s.
The 37-year-old was cut in spring training by the San Diego Padres. He was picked up by the Baltimore Orioles three days later and went 3-5 with a 5.77 ERA. Cut by Baltimore, the Braves claimed Garcia on August 23, eight days before the deadline for adding players who can still participate in the postseason.
All Garcia did in Atlanta was post a 1.65 ERA in six games, striking 20 batters in 27 ⅓ innings while walking just five.
Combined with 10 games’ postseason experience (including a championship-clinching victory in Game 4 of the 2005 World Series for the Chicago White Sox), that was enough for the Braves to anoint Garcia their Game 4 starter.
Nolasco said Sunday that he wouldn’t object to being replaced.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about the team,” Nolsaco said. “Whatever decision they make, it’s going to be the best decision for the team. They’re the ones getting paid to make those decisions. I’ll be here ready to take the ball whenever they ask me to pitch.”
If the Dodgers lose tonight, Zack Greinke figures to pitch Game 5 on Wednesday in Atlanta on four days’ rest. Greinke was the losing pitcher in Game 2 despite pitching six strong innings in a 4-3 Dodgers loss.
If the Dodgers win, count on Greinke starting Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Friday. Kershaw would have four days of rest before Game 2, putting him in line to swap spots in the playoff rotation with Greinke.
According to baseball-reference.com, pitchers starting a postseason game on three or fewer days’ rest are 219-209