The MLB Playoffs are unlike any sports tournament you've ever witnessed.
After a marathon 162-game regular season, five teams in each league earn the right to participate in a first-to-eleven sprint. The Wild Card games are a winner-take-all, and the Division Series is a five-game stand-off in which anything can happen.
If you survive those two rounds, a team earns the right to advance to the Championship Series and World Series. Those are played in the traditional seven-game format in which the better team typically prevails.
What makes postseason baseball so exhilarating for players and fans alike, is that a single inning, a single out, or a single pitch can decide a game, and in some cases, an entire season. Often times, it is the players lurking in the shadows, ready to enter the game in a moment's notice, that can determine the outcome.
This is especially true for the 2019 Los Angeles Dodgers. Each and every year since 2015, the organization has prided itself on building a roster comprised of talent, determination, and depth. Arguably, the Dodgers roster has more depth than any other team in the league, and it has resulted in seven consecutive N.L. West Division titles.
As the Dodgers consistently dominant the regular season, they build a roster with enough depth and talent for two separate teams to make the postseason. That is why it is so difficult to make the necessary divisions to widdle the roster down to just 25 for the playoffs.
Additionally, the Dodgers depth makes them an arduous out for any team that faces them in the postseason. If the opposing starter survives the first five innings, then no matter who you send out of the bullpen, the Dodgers likely have a player on the bench to counter them. Lefty, righty, the Dodgers have the hitter on the bench that can beat you in any situation.
This has never been more evident than the 2019 NLDS between the Dodgers and Nationals. Bench players have played a pivotal role for both teams in each and every game thus far in the series.
In Game 1, both Gavin Lux and Joc Pederson entered the game as pinch-hitters and homered.
In Game 2, it was Washington's Asdrubal Cabrera, who recorded a clutch pinch-hit RBI single that proved to be an important insurance run after the Dodgers loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth.
In Game 3, it was Enrique Hernandez with a pinch-hit two-run double in the historic seven-run sixth inning, and David Freese became just the third player in MLB postseason history to go 3-for-3 in a game he didn't start.
As the NLDS series headed back to Los Angeles, we wanted to know what the life and routine is like for those role players off the bench. Do they stay in the dugout until their name is called? Are they lurking in the shadows somewhere beneath the stadium, waiting for their moment to enter into the spotlight?
The answer is different for every player. For Freese, the veteran of the bench unit and no stranger to the role, he likes to stay loose from the moment batting practice ends 1-2 hours before first pitch.
"We pretty much stay hot all the way through the end of BP [batting practice] until we come in the game," said Freese. "We're getting loose. Talking about what the other team is doing. We have a guy throwing to us, a machine going, that moment can come upon you quick."
For Freese, his moment came in the sixth inning of Game 3 with the Dodgers trailing 2-to-1. With a runner on first base and two outs, Freese, a right-handed hitter, was asked to replace the left-handed hitting Gavin Lux as a pinch-hitter.
The Nationals had just inserted Game 1 starter Patrick Corbin into the game, and after a leadoff single to Cody Bellinger, he easily struck out Corey Seager and A.J. Pollock for the first two outs of the inning.
"I got word that Corbin had gotten up and started throwing," said Freese of the moment. "I think they told me if they get to Lux, we'll think about it, and theyhey did. We're definitely always acting like we're going to get in there."
Freese singled to right field to put runners on the corners for Russell Martin. He did his job, he got on base, and passed the baton. Martin would hit a go-ahead double to give the Dodgers a 3-2 lead.
After Martin's double, Chris Taylor, entered as a pinch-hitter to face Corbin. Taylor's routine is similar to Freese's.
"I try and stay loose the whole game and get some swings down in the cage," said Taylor of his routine. "I stay down there most of the game watching the game on the television."
Taylor worked a walk to put runners on first and second. Sensing blood in the water, Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts pulled his leadoff hit Joc Pederson for another right-handed pinch-hitter off the bench in Hernandez.
Some baseball players are extremely superstitious when it comes to their pregame routine. Others are not. For Hernandez, repetition is the key.
"I eat a banana in the first inning, and I drink a coffee in the second," he said of his in-game routine when he's not starting. "It's been my fifth year pretty much coming off the bench for the Dodgers. It's a learning curve, it's a learning process. It's not something that you wake up one day and you're like, 'oh, I figured this out.'
"I think every year you figure out new ways, new routines, and little things that are going to help you come in the game," continued Hernandez. "The biggest thing about pinch-hitting or coming in from off the bench, is feeling like you've been playing in the game. I've found ways to start sweating and stay ready for whenever. Whether it's go in the weight room, ride the bike, or hit off the machine, or run some stairs or run some sprints, whatever it is, you also got to listen to your body, depending upon how your body is feeling."
Hernandez said he repeated the same routine he had in previous games in the series, and it paid off when he roped a two-run double to left field to break the game open and give the Dodgers a 5-2 lead.
As the Dodgers enter the decisive do-or-die Game 5 at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, don't be surprised to not find Freese, Pollock, Martin, Lux and Taylor sitting in the dugout during the game. The handful of players not in the starting lineup will be lurking somewhere, getting ready for their moment.
"You never know what they're [the other team] is going to do," said Freese. "We all get ready pretty early, and we never doubt ourselves. You can't doubt yourself against a team like the Nationals."