Improved pitching, soft schedule help Dodgers take charge in NL West

Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, center, celebrates with relief pitcher Ryan Brasier (57) and catcher Will Smith.

The bedrock upon which so many Dodgers playoff teams were built seemed more like quicksand in July, the club’s usually stout rotation posting a 6.18 ERA, the worst mark of any month since the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Then the calendar turned, and Dodgers starters found their footing with a 2.22 ERA in the first 13 games of August, with elements of the rotation resurgence conjuring up that Old English rhyme about the items a bride should have on her wedding day.

There was something old (the return of veteran left-hander Clayton Kershaw), something new (the emergence of rookie Bobby Miller as a rotation mainstay), something borrowed (trade-deadline acquisition Lance Lynn) and something blue (the arrivals of the sad-sacks Oakland Athletics and Colorado Rockies in Chavez Ravine).

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Kershaw, 35, ended a six-week stint on the injured list because of a shoulder injury with a five-inning, one-run, three-hit, four-strikeout effort in a 2-1 win over the Rockies Thursday night, the 67-pitch effort a promising first step for a three-time National League Cy Young Award winner whom the Dodgers need for a deep playoff run.

Miller, the hard-throwing, 24-year-old right-hander, is one of the top rookie pitchers in the majors with a 6-2 record and 3.89 ERA in 13 starts entering Tuesday night’s game against Milwaukee, and he’s coming off one of his best starts of the season, a six-inning, no-run, four-hit effort in last Wednesday’s 2-0 win at Arizona.

Lynn, who had a major league-high 6.47 ERA and 28 homers allowed in 21 starts for the Chicago White Sox, is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in his first three starts for the Dodgers, including Friday night’s 6-1 win over the Rockies, in which the burly right-hander gave up one unearned run and four hits, struck out nine and walked one.

Tony Gonsolin, whose season-long struggles put him on the verge of losing his rotation spot, delivered what was probably his best start of the season Saturday night, when the right-hander gave up one run and three hits, struck out six and walked none in a 4-1 win over Colorado.

And Julio Urías, who tied a career high with 12 strikeouts in Sunday’s 8-3 win over the Rockies, is 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA in his last four starts, fueling hopes the left-hander is on the way toward regaining his 2022 Cy Young-contending form in time to anchor the team’s playoff rotation.

It hasn’t hurt that nine of the Dodgers’ first 13 games this month were against the two worst teams in baseball — the Athletics and Rockies combined for a 78-158 record through Sunday — and the badly slumping Diamondbacks, who had a four-game NL West lead June 12 before losing 34 of their next 50 games.

The Dodgers opened August with a three-game sweep of Oakland, they swept a two-game series at Arizona last week, and their four-game weekend sweep of the Rockies pushed their division lead to 8 ½ games entering Monday. They have won 12 of 13 games entering Tuesday night’s game against the Brewers.

Dodgers pitcher Lance Lynn faces the Colorado Rockies on Aug. 11

Lance Lynn, pitching against the Colorado Rockies on Friday, is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in three starts with the Dodgers. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

But manager Dave Roberts doesn’t believe the fortunes of the rotation, which has yielded 17 earned runs in 69 innings this month, turned because of the softer schedule.

“I think if you look at the last road trip — I think the starters, the guys we acquired at the deadline, are a big part of it,” Roberts said. “I think Lance, [relievers] Joe Kelly and Ryan Yarbrough, have done a fantastic job. I think the bullpen has settled in. And I think Julio, the start from Tony, has been a big lift for all of us.

“I don’t think it’s the opponents. When we weren’t throwing the baseball [well], I don’t think it really mattered who we were playing. It just wasn’t a good result. We’ve thrown the baseball much better.”

Although the rotation has stabilized, the bullpen took a few hits over the weekend. Right-hander Yency Almonte went on the 15-day injured list Saturday because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, and Kelly went on the IL on Sunday because of a right forearm strain.

The loss of the hard-throwing Kelly, who was acquired from the White Sox with Lynn, snapped a branch off what Roberts calls his “trust tree” of high-leverage relievers he prefers to use in front of closer Evan Phillips, a group that includes right-handers Brusdar Graterol and Ryan Brasier and left-hander Caleb Ferguson.

Brasier, the 35-year-old right-hander who is 2-0 with a 1.21 ERA in 22 games since his June 20 recall from triple-A, had already worked his way into a high-leverage role, but the loss of Almonte and Kelly will put more of a strain on left-hander Alex Vesia and possibly Yarbrough, the lefty acquired from the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 1.

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Yarbrough, who has a funky sidearm delivery and four-pitch (sinker, curve, cutter, changeup) mix, has given up one run and four hits in 7 1/3 innings of his first two appearances for the Dodgers, striking out seven and walking none, but he’s more of a long man who needs several days to recover from his multi-inning appearances.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Yarbrough threw three scoreless innings in relief of Kershaw on Thursday and will probably piggyback Kershaw again Wednesday night.

“He’s kind of a sneaky, under-the-radar deadline play,” Roberts said of Yarbrough. “What he’s done for us, protecting the bullpen while giving us good, quality innings, has been huge.”

The two position-player trade-deadline acquisitions have also had an impact, infielder Amed Rosario batting .289 with an .860 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, three homers and 11 RBIs in 14 games since his July 26 acquisition from Cleveland, and utility man Kiké Hernández batting .315 with an .856 OPS, one homer, seven doubles and eight RBIs in 16 games since his July 25 acquisition from Boston.

The right-handed-hitting Rosario and Hernández are here to beef up the lineup against left-handers; the Dodgers are 7-1 against left-handed starters this month. Both provide defensive versatility; Hernández has played all four infield spots and two outfield spots, and Rosario plays second base and shortstop.

They’ve turned the Dodgers into the kind of platoon-heavy lineup their 2018 World Series team had, with left-handed-hitting outfielders David Peralta, Jason Heyward and sometimes James Outman sharing time with Hernández, Rosario and Chris Taylor. A deeper bench also allows Roberts to employ more in-game line shifts.

“You can argue that it’s nice to have seven guys like we had last year, who you can pencil in every night regardless [of what side they bat from],” Roberts said. “But you can also argue that having four guys you can kind of mix and match and get matchups late in games with is beneficial for the club.”

The Dodgers' Amed Rosario hits a two-run single against the San Diego Padres.
Amed Rosario, running to first after hitting a two-run single against the San Diego Padres on Aug. 4, has 11 RBIs in 14 games with the Dodgers. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

The addition of Rosario and Hernández, the continued contributions of Heyward and Peralta and the consistent production of Outman have added considerable depth to a top-heavy lineup that leaned heavily on Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, J.D. Martinez and Max Muncy for the first four months.

Though Outman was expected to sit against more left-handers, the rookie has essentially forced his way into an everyday role with his hot bat and improved defense in center field.

Outman was named NL rookie of the month after batting .292 with a .991 OPS, seven homers and 20 RBIs in 29 games in March and April. He slumped badly in May and June, batting .192 with a .551 OPS, two homers and 15 RBIs, 60 strikeouts and 14 walks in 47 games.

But since July 1, Outman is batting .317 with a .954 OPS, five homers and 16 RBIs in 34 games, with 31 strikeouts and 23 walks in 104 at-bats. He’s hitting .333 with a .1045 OPS, two homers and seven RBIs in August. He’s batting .294 with a .759 OPS against left-handers, and .244 with an .811 OPS against right-handers on the season.

“He’s taking consistent at-bats, making hard contact, getting on base and driving in runs against left-handers and right-handers,” Roberts said. “I no longer look at him as a rookie. I look at him as a major league player. He’s playing to that level lately.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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