LOS ANGELES — A four-game set with great expectations was primed to go out with a dud. The Dodgers had a chance to tighten a race for the best record in the sport with the Braves coming into town, only to drop the first three and set an ominous tone early in the finale. They chirped Sunday about home-plate umpire Shane Livensparger’s strike zone. They struggled for offense. The game slogged through a sea of replay reviews. At one point, Mookie Betts even seemed to forget how many outs there were.
Bobby Miller provided something to get excited about in a weekend billed as a postseason preview but instead served as little more than a feeling-out period between the two teams with the best records.
“We needed it today,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Miller’s career-best performance in a 3-1 win.
Miller made his major-league debut with a start against the Braves in June and looked Sunday like a pitcher who has transformed since that night. His fastball popped at 100 mph. He incorporated his full arsenal to great aplomb, at one point retiring 16 consecutive batters. And for the first time as a major leaguer, he completed seven innings, allowing just one run to a team that had scored more of them than any team in baseball.
“I was really locked in,” Miller said. “I had a great feeling going into this game. Probably the most locked in I’ve ever been so far. I knew I needed my best stuff.”
It was more than a statement. It was a stamp that could shape the club’s evaluation over the final month of the season. Miller will be appointment television.
“He’s put himself right there, in front of the conversation, as far as starting a playoff game,” Roberts said. “He’s earning it.”
Miller gave the Dodgers something to monitor as the season winds down. Most of the regular-season stakes are taken care of with a month to go. The division has been a wrap for weeks now. Atlanta wiped away the semblance of a window for the Dodgers to sneak away with the National League’s top seed, but their odds as of Sunday morning to clinch a first-round bye were still at 99.4 percent, according to FanGraphs.
Alterations to the best-laid October plans will depend on factors outside of their control, from injuries to however the NL Central and NL Wild Card race shakes out. But it’s safe to assume they know they will host Game 1 of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium in 34 days.
So what do you even watch the final month of the regular season for? Here’s a viewer’s guide to this Dodgers stretch run:
Don’t view the club’s pitching plans through a traditional starter lens
The Dodgers’ pitching has stabilized after a brutal first half but is hardly the power it has burnished its franchise reputation on. Their ERA entering Sunday was 4.16, good for 17th in baseball and a mark that will face scrutiny in October. A pitcher-by-pitcher look at the club’s October options doesn’t provide the most satisfying projection.
This was a staff that, before the season, expected to have Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin play prominent roles. Both pitchers are done for the year. Julio Urías has a 4.60 ERA with a month to go — “It’s not something that anyone expected,” Roberts said. Clayton Kershaw has topped out at five innings and will be watched closely over the final month as he works past a shoulder issue.
Those were your preseason locks to be part of an October rotation. The plan will look vastly different next month.
Roberts said he expects Urías to get around 15 to 18 outs in postseason starts. That very well could be the high-water mark for this rotation in any game, by a wide margin, for anyone besides him or Kershaw.
Miller rounded into form as the summer progressed and could be used to get through the lineup for a turn or two — or more if he keeps throwing as he did on Sunday.
“It’s hard to see too many guys in any particular time that are a better option than him when he’s throwing the baseball well,” Roberts said.
Lance Lynn could be used in an abbreviated role, should he cure his case of gopher-itis (his 37 homers allowed are the most in the majors).
But expect the Dodgers to continue what they’ve started, throwing arms into different spots to see how matchups work. Ryan Pepiot, Emmet Sheehan and Gavin Stone all have experience starting, following an opener or even after a couple of arms. Each has intriguing mixes that could fit into an October pitching staff. Ryan Yarbrough has done a little bit of everything as a change-of-pace arm.
“You don’t just have to win in the postseason with starters,” Roberts said. “I think there are different ways to do it. We’re going to be relying on our whole pitching staff to prevent runs. I can tell you that.”
Another arm could enter the fray soon. Walker Buehler on Sunday pitched in his first competitive game since last June. He started a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City just 376 days after undergoing his second Tommy John surgery. The results were promising: he didn’t allow a base runner over his two innings, touching 96.1 mph on the radar gun. But what that looks like in October remains to be seen. He’ll require at least two more rehab outings, and while the Dodgers are building Buehler up to start games, he won’t be ready for full-fledged starts in October, either – he’s working to enter the Miller/Lynn/etc. bucket of arms.
Try to see who gets hot who isn’t named Mookie Betts or Freddie Freeman
What the Dodgers are getting out of their MVP-candidate duo is historic. Among the potential milestones: If both finish with an OPS of 1.000 or higher, they would be just the second such duo in Dodgers franchise history, joining Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, who did it in 1953.
It’s clear how the Dodgers will sort out their lineups against righties and lefties the rest of the way, with established outfield and infield platoons filling out the bottom of the order.
Most of the questions reside in the middle. Will Smith was a first-time All-Star this season but entered Sunday with a .713 OPS since. Both Smith and Roberts denied that fatigue has played a factor in the 28-year-old catcher’s slide, with Smith noting he has been working through some “bad habits” at the plate that have been a common bugaboo.
“Just getting a little long in the backswing, which is making me leak,” Smith said. “Just something that’s kind of been there. It’s always creeped back at times. It had been there. Just trying to get it to go away again.”
It will be critical for Smith’s production to get back on the upswing as he slots into the third spot in the order. Behind him, J.D. Martinez has appeared in just 18 games since the All-Star break with a nagging groin issue that has him on the injured list. Will he have enough time to reestablish a rhythm?
Max Muncy’s apparently left shoulder injury comes at an inopportune time. The two-time All-Star has found his form (he entered Sunday with a .956 OPS since the start of the club’s last road trip in Cleveland) creating a version of him that could be impactful in October. While Roberts said he’s optimistic about Muncy’s odds of avoiding the injured list, it’s something to monitor.
Tommy Kahnle threw just 12 2/3 regular-season innings for the Dodgers last season but was the man the Dodgers trusted in key spots along with Chris Martin and Evan Phillips last October. Who is next? It might already be Ryan Brasier, who has a 0.89 ERA in 30 1/3 innings as a Dodger since joining the organization on a minor-league deal in the middle of the summer.
Kolten Wong might not be on the big-league roster in a week – either he or Michael Busch will have to go down once Martinez comes off the IL. But it’s hard to make a better first impression than the three-run, pinch-hit blast he had in his debut with the club on Friday night. After a miserable season with Seattle (.468 OPS) that led to him getting designated for assignment on deadline day, the postseason-eligible Wong claims to have fixed some things.
“Right after I signed I went down there to Arizona and started working with the hitting coaches, working in the hitting labs,” he explained. “Just kind of cleaned up some things.”
Could it even be Miguel Rojas, acquired to be a utility man but who has thrived defensively as the everyday shortstop? He’s floundered at the plate but showed some life in August and got the Dodgers going with a run-scoring double Saturday.
“He will get big hits for us this postseason,” Roberts said. “I’m certain of it. I believe it. I see it.”
(Photo of Bobby Miller: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)