When the Los Angeles Dodgers rallied Sunday night from an early deficit to defeat the Atlanta Braves 4-3 and advance to the 2020 World Series, it not only marked a team comeback after being down 3-1 in the National League Championship Series. It also provided redemption for manager Dave Roberts, one of only two full-time Black managers in Major League Baseball. The other, the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker, almost led his team to an even more amazing comeback, as the Houston Astros battled back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the Tampa Bay Rays before losing game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
But in Roberts’ case, it marked three games of triumph following the disastrous Game 4, where he was criticized nationwide for leaving in ace Clayton Kershaw one batter too long, at least according to many of the “experts.” Roberts defended his decision, even though Kershaw did surrender hits to Freddie Freeman and Marcel Ozuna. However it was relief pitchers that came after him who surrendered most of the runs that blew open the game.
Still, Kershaw’s long history of struggling after the sixth inning in postseason games was recounted endlessly, and once again the calls came from various Twitter types for Roberts to be fired. He’s been the manager since 2016, and over that time the Dodgers have won four division titles, been named Manager of the Year (2016), and is back in the World Series for a third time. He has won over sixty percent of his games as a manager, but despite signing a four-year extension in 2018 that runs through 2022, there remain those convinced he’s not doing a good job.
Roberts wasn’t a big star during his 10-year playing career, though he’ll always be remembered in Boston for his critical steal of second base during the Red Sox historic comeback from being down 3-0 in the 2004 American League Championship Series. Roberts played for five teams, then was a studio analyst for the Red Sox for a season before becoming first a special assistant. then later first base and bench coach with the San Diego Padres from 2011-2015. During that time he managed one game for the Padres.
He made history with the Dodgers as their first Black and Asian manager. The biggest complaint against him since taking over is a familiar one launched at any coach or manager in charge of a talent-laden team. The Dodgers haven’t won the World Series since he took over. In fact they haven’t won it under anyone since 1988, but that doesn’t matter to Roberts’ critics. They point to a huge payroll, the addition this season of former American League MVP (and Nashville resident) Mookie Betts to the roster, and the fact the Dodgers posted the best regular season record in either league during the COVID-19 shortened season as evidence that they should win the title this year. When they fell behind to the Braves 3-1, the criticisms were loud and prominent.
However Roberts stuck by his decision to stay with Kershaw in Game 5, and didn’t wilt under fire. He got sensational outfield play from Betts in Games 5, 6 and 7, including a tremendous double play that helped stop what looked like a big inning in Game 5, an outstanding grab of an Ozuna line drive in Game 6, and an even greater catch in Game 7 that prevented a Freeman home run and kept the Braves from getting a crucial run. No one questioned any of Roberts’ pitching moves over the last three games because they all worked, including leaving in Julio Urias to pitch the final three innings. Urias is typically a starter, but in the most critical game of the season Roberts left him in rather than bring in longtime closer Kenley Jansen, who has been shaky this year but is still a veteran closer with ample experience in one-run games. Urias held the Braves scoreless and maintained the one-run lead, propelling the Dodgers back into the World Series.
Until the Dodgers win a title, there will always be those who criticize Dave Roberts. But should he be in charge when the team finally breaks their long drought, Dodger players and fans will know he deserves a lot of the credit.