LOS ANGELES -- Weary, wounded and trailing in the World Series by a 3-2 margin, the Los Angeles Dodgers straggled onto a plane bound from Houston to Los Angeles in the early hours of Monday morning.
As he surveyed the group, manager Dave Roberts searched for signs of optimism after three harrowing games at Minute Maid Park, a mini-series that concluded with a marathon 13-12 defeat in Game 5 on Sunday.
"I think guys are looking forward to getting back home," he said later.
The prospect of a game at Dodger Stadium sounded welcome. Another night with the Astros offered less appeal. During the first five games, Houston's offense has punctured holes in Roberts' decision-making process, which he followed successfully throughout a record regular season but has led to gut-wrenching defeats in Game 2 and Game 5.
The Dodgers hope Game 6 will be different. While the offense attempts to conquer Astros ace Justin Verlander, Roberts must stitch together a bullpen behind his own starting pitcher, Rich Hill. Running a relief corps is one of Roberts' strengths as a manager, but his decisions during these World Series games have become lightning rods in the wake of late-game collapses.
The criticism of Roberts ignores the mistakes made by star pitchers in each defeat: closer Kenley Jansen blew a one-run lead in Game 2, top right-handed starter Yu Darvish collected five outs in Game 3, and ace Clayton Kershaw failed to protect seven runs of support in Game 5. Amid the tumult, Roberts has tried to stick with his process against a powerful Astros lineup capable of scrambling anyone's strategy.
As Roberts prepared for Tuesday, he indicated that every pitcher except Darvish and Kershaw would be available. Darvish is slated to start Game 7 Wednesday, if the Astros haven't clinched by then. Kershaw could relieve in that game. Even so, the Dodgers have not developed a trustworthy plan for defusing Houston's high-powered offense.
During the first two playoff rounds, across seven victories and one defeat against Arizona and Chicago, the Dodgers unveiled a strategy for deploying relievers based on a granular study of the opposing matchups, a keen understanding of the game's most important moments, and a trust of Roberts' instincts.
The approach was not foolproof, but Roberts is far from a fool. He won the National League Manager of the Year award in his inaugural season on the bench in 2016 and shepherded the Dodgers to 104 victories during the 2017 regular season -- the most since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
Roberts made his pitching decisions based on a few key principles. The organization trusted two of their starting pitchers, Kershaw and Darvish, to face opposing hitters for a third time through the batting order. They felt less confident in extending Hill and Alex Wood.