Sunday, October 17 2021

To call it inevitable now would be dishonest.

The Los Angeles Dodgers were in real jeopardy of failing to win the National League West, despite a relative super team assembled with a $275 million payroll, despite MVPs spilling out of the dugout like Hall of Famers crammed into a clown car, despite sporting so much depth they more or less ensured one All-Star a night would find himself parked on the bench.

But now that they are here, finally climbing atop the unsinkable San Francisco Giants to claim first place for the first time since April 28, there truly is a sense they will never look back.

Certainly, the final month of the season will see the Giants and Dodgers bob above and beneath the surface and perhaps exchange the West lead multiple times. It may play out that way this weekend at Oracle Park, where the Giants host a three-game series that had the looks of a showdown but now feels more like a requiem for the home team.

Yes, the Dodgers are those dudes, winners of 18 of their last 22 and methodically erasing a divisional deficit that was five games as recently as Aug. 13, a hole that actually deepened in the two weeks after they stunned the industry with a trade-deadline haul that included All-Stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) gets high fives in the dugout after scoring a run in the eighth inning against the Braves at Dodger Stadium.Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) gets high fives in the dugout after scoring a run in the eighth inning against the Braves at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (10) gets high fives in the dugout after scoring a run in the eighth inning against the Braves at Dodger Stadium.

Now? There’s a good chance the Dodgers may, in fact, be unstoppable, not just now but all the way through October. Here’s why:

Max Scherzer is better than ever

It’s been nearly two months since what we might call Scherzer’s nadir, a mind-boggling 3 2/3-inning, debacle in which Mad Max blew most of an 8-0 lead and suffered the indignity of yielding a grand slam to San Diego Padres relief pitcher Daniel Camarena.

Scherzer hasn’t lost since.

Including his final start with the Washington Nationals — a showcase of sorts, since he’d missed a turn with a minor triceps issue — Scherzer has been money, posting a 1.32 ERA, yielding a .505 OPS against, striking out 55 against eight walks. For a similarly dominant seven-start stretch, you have to go back to June 2019, when Scherzer went 7-0, struck out 79 in 52 innings and yielded a 0.87 ERA.

He was on pace to strike out more than 300 batters and walk away with a fourth Cy Young Award, but back issues felled him shortly thereafter. Scherzer and the Nationals threaded the needle on his health from that point, all the way through Game 7 of the World Series. In the past two seasons, hamstring and groin ailments have dogged him.

That included Wednesday night’s masterpiece, when he pitched through hamstring tightness but held the irrepressible Atlanta Braves lineup to three harmless singles in six shutout innings. His fastball is down a tick from its 95-96 mph sizzle, but his slider looks tighter than ever and he’s mixing his pitches to brilliant effect — three of his nine strikeouts against the Braves came on called strike threes.

That’s often what happens when players come to the Dodgers — average players are good, great players are greater. At 37, Scherzer is striking out 12.9 batters per nine innings as a Dodger — the highest rate of his career. For now, it is a small sample, but a chilling one for opponents.

That Other Max is pretty good, too

For all the harrumphing over the Dodgers’ payroll — and you’ll surely hear plenty about it should they win the World Series as talks on a new collective bargaining agreement accelerate — the fact remains that their very best players were available to all 29 teams. That includes a slugging first baseman who may become the first waiver claim to win an MVP award.

Max Muncy is now tied atop the NL leaderboard with Fernando Tatis Jr. in Wins Above Replacement, which may prove a significant tiebreaker come voting time if Tatis’s Padres miss the playoffs. While Muncy’s 30 homers are six fewer than Tatis’s 36, a deeper look at Muncy’s numbers reveal he’s morphed into what we might call the perfect hitter.

Long lauded for his discipline, Muncy trails only the great Juan Soto in lowest percentage of swings at pitches outside the zone (18.7% to 15.5%). His .388 OBP ranks fourth in the NL, though he has more home runs than the players ranked above him. Meanwhile, a recent Baseball America survey ranked him among the top three defensive first basemen in the league (his WAR seems to bear this out), while he also affords the Dodgers the choice to move him to second base when matchups dictate.

It remains a startling climb for a player waived by the Oakland Athletics in March 2017. Four years later, Muncy is a two-time All-Star and in this season, the glue guy on a Dodgers team with several of them.

Relief has arrived

Should the Dodgers win the World Series, the jewelry bill may be a bit more exorbitant. After all, even Kevin Quackenbush will get a championship ring — glittery thanks for that one-third of an inning he contributed to the cause.

But sometimes, that’s what it takes to build a better bullpen — throwing as many arms at the wall as possible to see what sticks. In 2021, with pitchers coming off a truncated and arrhythmic 2020 season, a wide casting call was all the more important.

And so the Dodgers have trotted out 37 pitchers this year — yeah, that’s the equivalent of three entire staffs — to take down innings. And after months of injuries (Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, Clayton Kershaw), insolence (Trevor Bauer) and ignominy (Justin Turner, one inning) the Dodgers have arrived at a very good place with their staff.

Even if Kershaw fails to come all the way back from an elbow injury — or can only provide limited servings of innings — the trinity of Walker Buehler, Scherzer and Julio Urias gives them a significant edge on any staff this side of Milwaukee.

Yet come October, relief can matter almost as much. And the Dodgers have stumbled upon an enticing mix.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen's save percentage has ticked back up to a respectable 86% (30 for 35), his best since 2018.Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen's save percentage has ticked back up to a respectable 86% (30 for 35), his best since 2018.

Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen’s save percentage has ticked back up to a respectable 86% (30 for 35), his best since 2018.

Start with Kenley Jansen, a lightning rod for boo-birds and a man left standing in the bullpen as Urias finished off their World Series triumph last October. While his strikeout and walk rate — 5.2 free passes per nine innings — are still going in the wrong directions, he is getting hit less and avoiding the long ball this season. Jansen’s yielded just three home runs, compared to nine in 2019, the last full regular season. As such, his save percentage has ticked back up to a respectable 86% (30 for 35), his best since 2018. Not Mo Rivera level, but enough to feel OK in the ninth.

Meanwhile, a combo of holdovers and newer blood has created a low-WHIP parade in front of Jansen. Veterans Blake Treinen (0.93 WHIP) and Joe Kelly (1.06) are both punching out more than 10 batters per nine and provide general comfort in set-up situations.

But it’s the emergence of rookies Alex Vesia and Phil Bickford who lengthen this group and could provide sufficient cover into October. Vesia is holding lefty batters to a .100 average and no home runs, and while his strikeout/walk ratio shrinks from 22-6 against lefties to 19-11 against right-handers, his overall 0.87 WHIP is sufficient to survive in this three-batter minimum era.

Vesia was plucked from the Marlins in exchange for Dylan Floro, while Bickford was — stop us if you’ve heard this — claimed off waivers from Milwaukee in May. The shaggy-haired right-hander has struck out 51 in 42 innings as a Dodger, with a 1.02 WHIP.

Both should prove more reliable come October than Victor Gonzalez and Brusdar Graterol, though the latter can still be counted on for the occasional timely punchout and accompanying histrionics.

Odd man out?

When the Dodgers acquired Trea Turner, it was immediately viewed through the 2022 prism, when he’s expected to take over at shortstop for pending free agent Corey Seager. Yet it was also insurance against the enduring struggles of 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger.

And now, five weeks into a roster where there was one too many All-Stars for the lineup to handle, Bellinger has largely played his way into first-guy-benched status.

Manager Dave Roberts acknowledged this week that Bellinger will sit against left-handers, and 2021 is largely looking like a sunk season for him. That’s no knock: Bellinger underwent off-season shoulder surgery after hitting the team’s biggest home run of 2020 led to an overly aggressive exultation. That was followed in April by a hairline fracture of his left tibia, resulting in a nearly two-month absence.

Asking a slugger to reset both his upper and lower half within the fire of a season is, well, a lot. The results reflect it: a .172/.247/.317 slash line, a 27% strikeout rate. Since Turner’s July 30 acquisition, it’s been identically bad: .190/.212/.360, with 28 strikeouts in 100 at-bats.

It’s September now, not exactly an onramp to work things out, particularly if it comes at the expense of Chris Taylor or A.J. Pollock or any other flourishing veteran. That’s not to say Bellinger won’t contribute in some meaningful fashion down the stretch or in the postseason. But with Mookie Betts back from a hip injury, it takes a minimum .800 OPS to get past Roberts’ velvet rope and into the lineup.

We know the opportunity will be there — especially now that the Dodgers are performing as we long anticipated.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Los Angeles Dodgers finally in first, playing like MLB’s super team

Source: Yahoo Sports

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