LOS ANGELES — It is the middle of August, but the Los Angeles Dodgers can exhale and look at the distance they’ve created behind them.
Their pitching staff has started to stabilize. Their lineup is producing. They are rolling, with a five-run sixth inning powering a 6-2 win against the Milwaukee Brewers on Tuesday.
It was the club’s ninth straight victory, the 13th win in its last 14 games for the team with baseball’s best record since the trade deadline. The Dodgers are 26 games above .500. Even as a slumping San Francisco Giants club stemmed the bleeding with a win against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Dodgers ended Tuesday night with a nine-game advantage in their division, matching a season high — a lead that feels like it was built about as quickly as Tuesday’s two-hour, 10-minute game time.
“In the standings, we definitely have separated a little bit,” Mookie Betts said.
Los Angeles was supposed to be in a dogfight right now. Instead, the Dodgers are in their usual position: waiting on everyone else to try to catch up.
That’s nine in a row! pic.twitter.com/U8BtAARdYE
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 16, 2023
“I’m not gonna apologize for it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said hours before another win Tuesday night.
August has taken on a familiar script: a strong start from a pitching staff that produced a historically bad July, followed by an offense capable of giving opposing managers fits trying to find the optimal ways to navigate. Each provides promising signs for October.
Brewers star Christian Yelich didn’t wait around for Tuesday night’s starter, Bobby Miller, lining the first fastball he saw up the box for a leadoff single and coming around to score three batters later to put the Dodgers in an early hole. But Miller didn’t allow another hit and retired the last 18 batters he faced as he continued what has been a midseason corner turn for the hard-throwing 24-year-old rookie. The Dodgers have been adamant about blending development and winning with the promising right-hander, and they have had to absorb growing pains in the process.
But Miller has delivered consecutive outings of at least six innings while allowing just one run between them, and his diverse pitch mix has quietly elevated his name onto the list the club might feel comfortable throwing out into October.
“I’m really impressed with the way he’s managing major-league lineups right now,” Roberts said.
Given a cushion of a five-run inning to take the lead, the Dodgers could afford to lop off his night at just 74 pitches and save some bullets. The organization has discussed giving Miller a two-week break as a breather before his upcoming workload, Roberts said, but has opted to keep the right-hander going. So, if given the opportunity to save an inning here or there, the Dodgers will.
That, as much as anything, has emphasized the strides Miller has made.
“I’m trying to be a ‘count on’ guy,” Miller said. “Trying to prove to myself that I can be a ‘count on’ guy, the guy I want to be.”
Through his first 14 starts (and 75 1/3 innings), he has a 3.70 ERA, behind only the New York Mets’ Kodai Senga, the Cleveland Guardians’ Tanner Bibee and the Houston Astros’ Hunter Brown among rookie starters with his 1.8 FanGraphs WAR despite trailing each by at least 25 innings.
“He reminds me a lot of Walker (Buehler),” Kiké Hernández said. “He’s got great makeup on the mound, great attitude and obviously a power arm with really good off-speed pitches. Sometimes, there’s outings like tonight where you can’t really tell how young he is.”
Especially given what the club is asking of him: to do enough to let the rest of the roster work.
The club’s deadline acquisitions have given the lineup balance, the ability to match up to any spot regardless of handedness. It allowed the Dodgers to all but make a line change in the sixth inning Tuesday night as they built an inning against Brewers right-handed starter Adrian Houser, taking a lead on J.D. Martinez’s double roped off the wall, and capitalize once they brought in lefty Hoby Milner. A pinch-hitting Hernández singled to break things open, Miguel Rojas added a run-scoring single through the infield, and Betts’ bloop single off righty Bryse Wilson served as the cherry on top, rendering what was shaping up to be a tight ballgame into another relatively painless win.
“We have a very complete team, as you saw tonight,” Hernández said. “We’ve got a lot of guys, one to nine, that can get the job done. If they’re going to bring somebody that’s going to go their way in matchup favor, we’ve got some guys on the bench on any given night that can come in and match up better against that guy.”
The Dodgers have had plenty of those wins of late, which puts them in a familiar position, an opportunity to spend the final few weeks of the regular season with decisions geared as much toward October as completing what should be a 10th division title in the past 11 seasons.
“It’s hard to say it doesn’t change,” Roberts said. “Obviously, you feel better when you’re in first place versus chasing. … I’m gonna watch guys’ workloads and things like that. We’re still trying to win every game. That’s clear. But you really got to be careful about complacency, and I believe that this group won’t fall victim to that.”
That word, “complacency,” has become a common refrain to avoid. It is hard to say a club that won 111 games a year ago let its foot off the gas, but Roberts noted the Dodgers’ early exit last October and lamented how they went out. The Padres, a club they had battered during the regular season, found a gear the Dodgers couldn’t over the course of four season-altering nights.
“Last year was certainly a sour note that I still believe a lot of people in that room feel,” Roberts said. “I certainly do.
“Albeit it’s a different year. There’s a lot of new personalities, ballplayers that I think are just as hungry. … It’s easy for me to bet that complacency won’t come into our process.”
They’ll have time to prove it.
(Photo of Miguel Rojas’ sixth-inning RBI single: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)