OK, first, let’s dispense with the rationalizations: when pressed after the game tonight on the fact that Ricky Nolasco isn’t really pitching well at all right now — he has given up at least six runs in each of his past three starts — Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pointed out that two of those starts were against the Giants — a team against which Nolasco has struggled THIS YEAR, going 0-2 with a 9.94 ERA in three starts — but three starts is a relatively small sample size, especially when you consider that Nolasco entered this game a respectable 5-4 with a more-than-respectable 2.73 ERA against the Giants for his career.
In fact, I’ll even do Mattingly one better in the rationalization department: besides the fact two of those three starts have been against the big, bad, fourth-place Giants, the other one, in Thursday’s clincher in Arizona, saw him give up all six of his runs in a single inning, the third, and he shut out the Diamondbacks on two hits in the other four innings he pitched.
That’s it for the rationalizations. Now, on to some hard facts that Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti may find hard to ignore when it comes time to set their playoff rotation.
Remember the collective eye-roll we all did when Colletti signed Edinson Volquez just hours after the Padres released him, at a point when it appeared he might be done? Remember how we all kind of doubted it when we were told that Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt might be just the man to fix Volquez, even though we had seen Honeycutt bring some other pitchers back from the brink before?
Well, Honeycutt has worked his magic on Volquez — largely, it was just a matter of moving him more to the center of the rubber — and Volquez suddenly is pitching fairly decently. In his past three starts, he has a 3.50 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio better than 3:1 and an opponents’ batting average of .203. In an identical sample size of his final three regular-season starts, Nolasco has a 12.75 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of barely 2:1 and an opponents’ batting average of .393.
The front half of the playoff rotation is set with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and although Mattingly won’t say it, it’s pretty clear Hyun-Jin Ryu is going to be the third guy. So who should be the fourth guy? And perhaps more importantly, WILL there be a fourth guy in the National League Division Series? It’s a best-of-five with an off-day between Games 2 and 3 and then another off-day between Games 4 and 5. The Dodgers could simply go with three starters, and the only guy who would have to pitch on short rest would be Kershaw for Game 4. If there IS a Game 4, the Dodgers will be either trying to close out the series or trying to survive for another day.
But if Mattingly and Colletti decide to go with four, who will that fourth guy be? Until now, we could assume it would be Nolasco. OK, so the Dodgers won’t be facing the Giants in the playoffs. But does that mean Nolasco is still a better choice, given the way he has pitched lately, than Volquez?
If the Dodgers are down two games to one at that point, my money is on Kershaw coming back short. But if they’re UP 2-1, Mattingly may gamble on a fourth guy closing out the series so he potentially could save Kershaw for Game 1 of the N.L. Championship Series.
All things being equal, managers like to reward the guys who have been there all year, the guys who have helped them get there. Nolasco hasn’t been there all year, but he has helped them get there. Before this three-start hiccup, he had made 12 starts for the Dodgers since being acquired from Miami on July 6, and in those, he went 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA. And before this three-start resurgence, Volquez, including his time with San Diego, was 9-11 with a 6.01 ERA. And while he has been much better in his past three starts, it’s not like Volquez has been dominating in them.
So this is one of those sticky situations. It’s a decision that doesn’t necessarily have to be made BEFORE the playoffs. Mattingly and Colletti could simply opt to keep BOTH pitchers, maybe see if a need arises at any point during the first couple of NLDS games for a long reliever out of the bullpen — not likely with Kershaw and Greinke set for those games, but possible. And then, they could even wait until the day of Game 3 before naming a Game 4 starter. I’ve seen it happen that way before.
This is a question for which I’m guessing we won’t get an answer for a while. If you watched Mattingly’s postgame video, which I posted a few minutes ago, you saw him dodge the question. Last night, he dodged the question of whether Ryu had cemented himself as the third guy, and it was clear by the way he said it that the only reason he wouldn’t answer was because he hadn’t told the pitchers involved. Tonight, in dodging the Nolasco-Volquez question, it was clear that he simply didn’t have an answer.
Of course, Volquez is starting here tomorrow night against the Giants. If he goes out and gets blown up, that might resolve the issue right there. But if he pitches well — or even if he just pitches adequately — the question isn’t going to go away.
The media was kept out of the clubhouse an unusually long time before being allowed to enter after the game tonight, and at one point during that wait, Colletti went in. I have no doubt he went straight to Mattingly’s office. That’s his standard routine when he goes into the clubhouse right after a game. Whether they discussed this particular issue, who knows? But it’s one they’re going to have to discuss at some point, and ultimately come to a decision on.
Even if that decision isn’t made until it absolutely has to be.