NEW YORK -- The Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen probably still wouldn't score well in popularity polls with the team's fan base, but if you canvas the clubhouse, you find a degree of faith is beginning to form.
"Especially with the last two," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "Those two guys are dominant."
It's amazing how much smarter Don Mattingly looks in October when his relievers get their outs. It's amazing how much easier it is to make decisions about the best starting pitcher on the planet when you don't fear imminent disaster the minute you pull him.
The New York Mets had a plan Tuesday night that involved getting Clayton Kershaw to the 100-pitch mark as quickly as they could. They knew that, with his ace -- and franchise icon -- on short rest, Mattingly wasn't going to let him go much beyond that. When he cracked 100 pitches in St. Louis last year, bad things happened, specifically a couple of cheap hits and a Matt Adams home run that ended the Dodgers' season.
So, when Mattingly lifted Kershaw after 94 pitches and seven dominant innings Tuesday night, an entire fan base groaned. The next two pitchers to enter the game were converted catchers who would have caught a lot of grief if things had unraveled, but not nearly the downpour of scorn that would have landed on Mattingly's head.
Unlike Octobers past, the late innings stayed under control this time. Chris Hatcher got two key outs and Kenley Jansen fought through a potentially pivotal non-call from the plate umpire to nail down the Dodgers' 3-1 win that sends the series back to Los Angeles with a humdinger of a pitching matchup in Game 5: Zack Greinke against Jacob deGrom.
Even Kershaw, a big admirer of Greinke's, called it "probably dead even, to be honest."
Hatcher had never pitched for a team other than the Miami Marlins before this season and he has acquitted himself quite well in his first postseason, giving the Dodgers 2 2/3 scoreless innings, raising hope they've finally found the bridge to Jansen they've been searching for since 2014. He had the daunting task of taking over for Kershaw after he finally turned off the noise about his playoff moxie. Kershaw made it pretty clear how big the moment was with an outpouring of emotion in the dugout. Kershaw slapped hands with his teammates hard enough to knock someone down if they weren't bracing themselves.
The crowd was loud, so throw that into the mix of chaos Hatcher was dealing with.
"I'll be quite honest with you. I had a little more adrenaline than normal and I'm not a big fan of going out there with too much adrenaline," Hatcher said.
Big as those final six outs were, the 21 that Kershaw got were the difference between everybody writing about whether Mattingly's job is safe and everybody writing about the Dodgers preparing for another game, still dreaming of a World Series. Ellis said he could feel Kershaw was extra strong in the bullpen and, in a long first inning, he actually needed to calm him down. He wasn't getting much action on his breaking pitches though his fastball was popping.
Eventually, when all three pitches got into sync, Kershaw became the practically unhittable "monster" Mets manager Terry Collins had feared. Aside from Daniel Murphy's home run, the Mets were overmatched. They managed just four base runners in Kershaw's seven innings, Murphy the only one to advance to second base.
"In L.A. you could almost go up there and forget about the curveball because he was having a hard time commanding it," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "Tonight he was commanding all three and he was just flat-out unhittable.
"The goal today was to go out there and, especially with him working on short rest, try to get his pitch count up. And, unfortunately, we couldn't do that because he was just throwing so many strikes. Again, when you have three terrific pitches, and you're throwing them all for strikes in any count and feeling confident with those three pitches, it's going to be a long night for the hitters."
The seventh inning was a nightmare for Kershaw in each of his 2014 postseason starts, so Yoenis Cespedes' leadoff single in that inning, a little dribbler that ticked off Kershaw's glove, started jangling some Dodgers fans nerves Tuesday night. But Kershaw soothed them and, after the game, declared, "I mean, there's no curse or anything," so that's settled.
Now, the Dodgers stand behind Greinke, quite possibly the 2015 Cy Young winner and the Mets stand behind deGrom, who looked every bit like a Cy Young winner in Game 1.
"As good as Zack is and has been the whole year, deGrom has been the same," Kershaw said. "So, there's really no home-field advantage when you're facing a guy like deGrom."
Ah, but there is. Because Kershaw and a couple of relievers kept things in order Tuesday, the Dodgers have at least one more home game in 2015. There's no underestimating the advantage in that.