Jake Reed knew he was going to pitch Tuesday night. But not even he could have imagined such an improbable scene.
Protecting a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth against the New York Mets — in the first game of a series that manager Dave Roberts billed as a potential playoff preview — the Dodgers treated the moment like anything but a tense October night.
Closer Craig Kimbrel wasn’t summoned to pitch in back-to-back games. Setup man Evan Phillips wasn’t asked to return to the mound for a second inning. The team already determined that every other reliever who hadn’t been used would rest.
So, in a battle between the National League’s best teams … in front of a buzzing crowd of 40,607 at Citi Field … in the kind of dramatic, late-inning sequence that could repeat itself two months from now … it was a pitcher who’d been cut by both clubs in the last two seasons, and had been added back to the Dodgers roster only that afternoon, who came trotting out of the bullpen for the unlikeliest of save opportunities.
Three outs later, it became the best night of Reed’s brief career.
Reed recorded the save in the Dodgers’ 4-3 win with a scoreless ninth inning, erasing a leadoff single with a double-play grounder before fielding a comebacker to end the game.
As he went through the handshake line, his mind started to race and his emotions began to swell.
By the time he was doing an on-field television interview with SportsNet LA, he was pursing his lips and holding back tears.
“I’m super thankful just to be back here in L.A.,” Reed said. “To have the trust to be given the ball in that opportunity, it just means a lot. Just a crazy full-circle thing.”
Reed’s appearance was based less on trust and more on caution.
The Dodgers have decided to prioritize their pitching staff’s workload and health down the stretch, a luxury that comes with a 19½-game division lead and nine-game edge for the NL’s top playoff seed.
On Tuesday, that meant five of their nine relievers were down, leaving only four arms to cover the final four innings after Andrew Heaney gave up three runs (two earned) through five.
Veteran right-hander Heath Hembree pitched the sixth, preserving a tied score on the same day he was called up from triple-A Oklahoma City.
After Gavin Lux put the Dodgers ahead 4-3 with a single — his third RBI of a two-hit, one-walk night — trusted leverage relievers Alex Vesia and Phillips took the seventh and eighth. Reed was saved for the ninth inning, in part, out of fear he would blow the lead.
Had there been extra innings, the Dodgers could have sent him back out for the 10th and avoided burning another reliever who was planned to get rest.
“We just kind of had to piece it together,” Roberts said. “If you’re looking at having Jake at the back end, he has the most coverage for us to go back out there. … We just didn’t have anyone available.”
Reed got off to a shaky start, giving up a leadoff single to Eduardo Escobar. Then he fell behind in the count to fan-favorite pitch-hitter Daniel Vogelbach, bringing a near-capacity crowd roaring to its feet.
But in a season in which the Dodgers (90-38) have pulled one rabbit after another out of their hat when it comes to their banged-up, ever-evolving pitching staff, Reed served up the latest magic trick.
He got Vogelbach to hit a grounder to the right side, where shifted third baseman Max Muncy turned a difficult tag-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play.
Then Reed got Brandon Nimmo to hit a comebacker. After he knocked it down and threw to first, Reed pumped both fists in celebration of what he called the best moment of his career.
“It was way more than my debut, way more than getting my call-up,” said Reed, who made his big-league debut with the Dodgers last July, then was designated for assignment and claimed by the Tampa Bay Rays, then was DFA’d again and claimed by the Mets, then was DFA’d a third time this July and claimed back by the Dodgers, who had been carrying him on the taxi squad.
“High-fiving guys, you just kind of start to run your career through your mind a little bit,” he said. “It’s just crazy that I’m here and have a job with this team. At times it just blows my mind. So I think it was just a lot of things that came out in a couple screams, and some tears.”
Roberts announced Clayton Kershaw will make his return from the injured list in Thursday’s finale against the Mets. … According to a person with knowledge of the situation, prospect Miguel Vargas will be one of the team’s call-ups when rosters expand to 28 for September on Thursday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.