LOS ANGELES — The key number for the 2021 Dodgers, it seems, is three.
After Friday night’s 3-0 victory over the San Diego Padres, the defending champs had played 142 games this season. They’re on a pace to top 100 victories for the third time in five seasons, their pitching staff statistically is baseball’s best even with what has turned into a patchwork rotation for the last couple of months, and they have an offensive attack potentially powerful enough to have scored 22 runs in a game and double-digit runs on 12 occasions.
And yet they were three games back of the Giants in the loss column after Friday’s games. But that’s not the “three” to which we refer.
When they’ve scored three or more runs, they were 81-23 through Friday night. When they’ve scored two or fewer? They’re 8-29, often look like they’re slumbering and remind us that this team capable of dominance is equally capable of frustration.
So while there didn’t seem to be a mass exhale in the ballpark on Friday night when Will Smith scored the night’s third run on Chris Taylor’s scoring fly ball in the fourth inning, maybe there should have been.
Reminder: The Dodgers were tied for first place going into last Sunday’s game in San Francisco. They dropped that one, a Giants bullpen game, and really didn’t put up much of a fight until the ninth inning. They scored four runs in the first inning the next day in St. Louis, on short rest thanks to abysmal scheduling, and were silent the rest of the way in the late afternoon shadows. Lucky for them that Max Scherzer had flown back there a day ahead of everybody else.
They were solid on Tuesday in a 7-2 win. They didn’t put up a fight until the ninth, again, in a 5-4 loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday and went meekly on four hits in a 2-1 loss on Thursday, with the bottom six spots in the batting order going 0 for 20.
On Friday night, they were just good enough, with Max Muncy’s two-run homer and Taylor’s sacrifice fly holding up when Julio Urias (17-3), Blake Treinen and Kenley Jansen combined to shut out San Diego on six hits. The Dodgers themselves got only four. In six games from Sunday through Friday night they hit .193 as a team (37 for 192) and .114 with runners in scoring position (4 for 35).
Whatever you might think about batting average as a statistic, those are sickly numbers. And potentially costly, given the Giants’ five-game winning streak that enabled them to regain control of the NL West.
But let’s face it: This is vintage Dodgers, yet another example of why this team’s organizational hashtag could easily be #BoomOrBust.
The most glaring weak spot on this talent-laden roster is expected to spend most of this weekend on the bench. Cody Bellinger and his .158 average were held out of the lineup Friday night. He hasn’t had a hit since Aug. 31, and the deeper this season-long slump goes the more he seems to be flailing. Manager Dave Roberts said before the game he was going to “give Cody a few days just to kind of work through some things” and definitely wouldn’t start him Saturday night against Padres right-hander Chris Paddack. Given that lefty Blake Snell starts Sunday, Bellinger probably will start that one on the bench, too.
Bellinger did come in for defensive purposes in the seventh Friday night. That might seem like a comedown for a former MVP, but defense is the reason he’s stayed in the lineup this long.
Taylor has been in the same position recently. He made a couple of sensational catches in center field Friday night and just missed a third, which papered over the fact that after Friday he was 2 for his last 40 dating to Aug. 29. (He was intentionally walked in the sixth with men on second and third, which would be puzzling save for the fact that Urias was up next and struck out to end the inning.)
Taylor has been dealing with a “neck thing,” Roberts said, “but he’ll never make excuses. I trust him as a ballplayer.”
That trust, according to some fans, is part of the problem. But what choice does the manager have?
The production deficit is why Gavin Lux – hitting .221 when he was optioned on Aug. 26 – was recalled Friday and started in left field. It’s why Matt Beaty was recalled Friday as well, with Billy McKinney moving to the injured list with a left hip impingement.
And for all of their star power and talent at so many positions, it’s fair to ask where the Dodgers would be at this point without a pitching staff that went into Friday leading the majors in ERA (2.03), WHIP (1.03), opponents’ batting average (.208) and opponents’ on-base percentage (.266) and lowered each of those numbers against the Padres. And it’s not just starters Scherzer, Julio Urias and Walker Buehler, but a bullpen forced to work even harder than usual with two bullpen days out of every five, bolstered by unheralded guys like Phil Bickford and Alex Vesia as well as the known quantities like Corey Knebel, Brusdar Graterol and Joe Kelly.
Help is on the way. As of Friday afternoon, Clayton Kershaw was still on track to start Monday against Arizona, the three-time Cy Young Award winner’s first appearance since July 3.
Incidentally, Friday’s announcement by MLB that Trevor Bauer will not pitch again this season, while allegations of sexual assault against him continue to play out, underlines two facts: Andrew Friedman made a huge mistake signing Bauer over the winter, but his acquisitions of Scherzer and Trea Turner not only made up for it but might have saved the season.
But it’s not hard to deduce that if this season ends earlier than it should, the #BoomOrBust pattern might very well make scapegoats out of hitting coaches Robert Van Scoyoc, Brant Brown and Aaron Bates.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter