The Dodgers starting rotation is facing a sea of questions over the final couple months.
Will Clayton Kershaw stay healthy?
Will Julio Urías continue his return to form?
Will Tony Gonsolin ever figure things out?
Will Walker Buehler return from his Tommy John rehab in time to contribute as a starter?
Of all the components in the team’s late-season pitching plans, however, few are bigger than Bobby Miller — the 24-year-old phenom who could emerge as an X-factor down the stretch or fade down the pecking order if rookie struggles mount.
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And in a 2-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday, he offered more promising signs in a six-plus inning, shutout start.
“He’s having to learn to do this on the fly,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But he’s tough mentally. He’s a tough competitor. He’s got really good stuff. And I think he’s really starting to understand how to use it.”
The Dodgers (67-46) won the game on David Peralta’s two-run single in the eighth, when the outfielder rewarded Roberts’ decision to let him take a rare left-on-left at-bat (Roberts didn’t want to risk the Diamondbacks summoning a right-handed pitcher to counter a pinch-hitter) by breaking a scoreless tie with a line drive to right.
The team also finished an intra-division road trip through San Diego and Arizona going 5-1, returning to Los Angeles with a season-high six-game lead in the National League West.
The real story, though, was Miller, who lowered his ERA to 3.89 — second-best among Dodgers starters — through his first 13 career starts.
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Miller didn’t have a flawless outing against the Diamondbacks (57-58), not after yielding four hits, four walks and failing to record an out in the seventh.
But he further cemented his importance to the Dodgers, nonetheless, showing the kind of continued growth that has him primed for a potential impact role over the season’s final stretch.
“He’s gonna have opportunities and tests he’s got to continue to pass,” Roberts said. “But hopefully, if we can put ourselves in that situation [to be a playoff team], he’ll be a viable piece.”
Miller was at his best early in Wednesday’s outing, when he attacked with well-located, 100 mph fastballs early in the count to induce quick, easy outs, throwing only 30 pitches in the first three innings.
The second turn through Arizona’s order, Miller and catcher Will Smith changed up the game plan, turning to secondary pitches at the start of at-bats. The only problem: Miller too often failed to locate them, issuing leadoff walks in the fourth and fifth innings to put himself in a couple of difficult spots.
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Where the right-hander once struggled to work out of trouble, however, on Wednesday he showed more growth.
In the fourth, he stranded a pair by fanning Jace Peterson with a curveball and getting Alek Thomas to ground out on a full-count four-seamer. In the fifth, he left runners on second and third by spinning a slider past Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — a pitch he had focused on better tunneling with his fastball during a between-starts bullpen session.
“I’m just trying to get better every time I’m out there,” Miller said. “There were some walks today, but being able to work around that was huge for me.”
Even Miller’s demeanor proved to be a point of progress.
Unlike his previous start in San Diego, when he felt he got too emotional after escaping a couple of early jams, Miller consciously tried to stay cool between innings Wednesday. As he walked off the mound in the fifth, his only show of adrenaline was a quick shout into his mit.
“That’s definitely a part of growing and getting better,” Miller said. “You see it from some of the older guys, and kind of learn that from them. They’re kind of head down, tunnel vision and staying locked in. It helps when you go deep in a game.”
Indeed, after pitching a clean sixth inning, Miller earned the opportunity to work into the seventh for the first time in his big-league career.
It didn’t go great: He gave up a leadoff single and, in a frustrating end to his outing, walked a hitter trying to lay down a bunt.
But his night still finished with a zero in the run column after reliever Caleb Ferguson escaped the jam by turning an impressive double-play on a popped up bunt.
“There’s a lot of people — players and coaches — that have been pouring into him,” Roberts said of Miller. “And he’s making us all look good.”
So much so, Roberts pulled Miller aside in the dugout at the end of the seventh, lauding the rookie for his best start yet — and reminding him of how much more there is to come.
“I know he was frustrated. He wanted to finish that inning because I gave him a little bit more leash,” Roberts said. “But I didn’t want it to take away from what he did tonight.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.