The Dodgers fell to 65-45 on the season on August 6th, losing a frustrating game to Patrick Sandoval and the Angels, 4-3. The loss kept them 4 games behind San Francisco, and LA fans were frustrated. The team had been scuffling, having won only 14 of it’s previous 28 games dating back to July 2nd. The prevailing thought between Dodgers fans at that stage was that this team needed to go on a run. They had acquired Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, and the team was slowly but surely getting healthier. Had you told me on August 6th that the Dodgers would go 29-8 over their next 37 games, I’d have slept well – there’s no way San Francisco would maintain a division lead, right?
Heading into this weekend’s series in Cincinnati, the Dodgers have done just that – unfortunately for LA, though, the Giants have done 26-11 and still hold a one-game lead in the NL West. As Trea Turner alluded to in a press conference last week, the Dodgers can only control what is in front of them. Sure, they’ll check the score of the Giants game at the end of the day, hoping for good news. But if the Dodgers continue to win 78% of their games through these final 15, they’ll tie 2019’s franchise record with 106 wins – if that doesn’t bring home a 9th straight NL West crown, it’s difficult to do anything more than tip your cap to the season San Francisco’s had and look forward to the possibility of beating them in the Division Series.
Of course, continuing at that pace for the Dodgers won’t be easy. First on the docket is a 9-game road trip through three different time zones, beginning tonight in Cincinnati with the Reds. Like the Dodgers, the Reds have plenty to play for. At 76-71, they find themselves 1 game behind St. Louis and half a game behind San Diego for the final Wild Card spot, jockeying for position that would grant them a one-game road playoff at either Dodger Stadium or Oracle Park in San Francisco.
The Dodgers last played Cincinnati all the way back in April, in the midst of the team’s worst skid of the season. It was the second of five consecutive series losses for Los Angeles, a stretch that left them 18-17 and looking for answers as players went down with injuries left and right. The Reds won 2 of 3 then, stopping a cold streak of their own. Mostly, the Dodgers were punished by Jesse Winker in their two losses – his 5-for-10 stretch at the plate saw him drive in a third of the Reds runs (4) over the first two games of the series before Kershaw shut them down in the finale.
Cincinnati doesn’t have Jesse Winker in this series, but boasts a mostly healthy lineup otherwise. They’ve been better at home than on the road, playing to the dimensions of Great American Smallpark en route to a 38-33 record. Both the Reds and Dodgers will be turning to most of their best pitching this weekend as well, making for a compelling series between two clearly contending teams in the National League.
Friday, September 17
4:10 pm PT
Walker Buehler (14-3, 2.32 ERA) vs Luis Castillo (7-15, 4.24 ERA)
Until recently, Walker Buehler had cemented himself as the clear cut front runner in the Cy Young race. Due partially to his own teammate Max Scherzer’s surge and partially to his own (relatively very mild) struggles, that’s no longer the case – if Dodgers fans have anything to say about it, it’ll be Buehler and Scherzer trading dominant starts the rest of the way with the chips eventually falling where they may.
Buehler’s start on September 5 in San Francisco was particularly rough. Having seen him so many times this season already, the Giants finally broke through for 6 runs over 3 innings. While such a start is always at least slightly concerning, Buehler reasserted himself with a strong 7 innings against San Diego last Saturday, only allowing 2 runs. Over 29 starts this season, Walker Buehler has allowed more than 3 runs only 3 times, and pitched fewer than 6 complete innings only twice.
One of those three slightly more porous starts came against these Cincinnati Reds on April 27, when Buehler allowed 5 earned runs over 6.1 innings. He allowed 7 hits while also walking one batter and hitting another, and was punished twice by Jesse Winker for RBIs, the first of which came on a solo home run.
To be fair to Buehler, the Reds’ offense has caused problems for right-handed pitching all season – as of today, they rank 8th in MLB with a wRC+ in that split of 106 (100 being average). If there was ever a time to catch this offense, though, now would be it – since September 1, the Reds are only 21st against righties in MLB with a wRC+ of 91. It’s been a frustrating month for Cincinnati generally, as they’ve failed to take advantage of San Diego’s struggles with a 5-9 record this month (despite series against the Tigers, Cubs, and Pirates).
Cincinnati will send Luis Castillo to the mound on Friday night, who they’d hoped would be their unquestioned ace heading into 2021. It’s been a strange season for Castillo – after the two worst months of his career in April and May (6.29 and 8.04 ERA’s, respectively), he was dominant through June and July (1.71, 2.15). Since August 1, though, he’s hopped back on the struggle bus to the tune of a 2-5 record and a 4.28 ERA. He’s done a great job of pitching deep into games, if nothing else – over that same stretch, he’s failed to finish 6 innings only once in 8 starts.
Castillo boasts a dominant fastball and a wipeout changeup while mixing in a slider as well – he throws all three pitches between 24% and 30% of the time, and can be extremely difficult to contend with when he’s locating them well. This season, that hasn’t always been the case, and he’s seen his walk rate reach problematic levels (37th percentile, per Baseball Savant) – if the Dodgers want to have success against Castillo, they’ll need to be patient.
Saturday, September 18
11:10 am PT
Max Scherzer (14-4, 2.17 ERA) vs Sonny Gray (7-7, 3.80 ERA)
Max Scherzer’s success since joining LA’s pitching staff has been well-documented – since joining the team, Los Angeles has yet to lose a game he’s pitched. In doing so, he’s passed Walker Buehler in the Cy Young race (for now) and has a chance to pitch the Dodgers into a tie (or a lead) in the NL West on Saturday afternoon. He’ll need to pitch down in the zone on what is expected to be a hot, humid day in the Queen City – luckily for Max, Saturday marks his third consecutive day game start. His previous two were against the Padres and Cardinals, and each saw him pitch 8 scoreless and borderline perfect innings. I wouldn’t bet against another great outing, even against a strong offense on a hot day at a hitter’s park.
The Reds will turn to Sonny Gray, who turned in 7 strong innings his last start in St. Louis despite picking up the loss. Gray has been decidedly above average this season while not spectacular, seeing mixed results month to month. He pitched against the Dodgers back on April 28, picking up the loss while allowing 2 runs in 5.2 innings. What hurt Gray in that start was a lack of command – his 3 walks pushed his pitch count upward and shortened his outing. Walks are an issue that have been consistent in his bad starts, but are an issue he’s curbed in September so far (1 walk in 17 innings). If he has good command Saturday night, his stuff certainly plays – the Dodgers will need to be patient with Gray just like Castillo, and Scherzer will need to once again be at his best on Saturday afternoon.
Sunday, September 19
10:10 am PT
Clayton Kershaw (9-7, 3.33 ERA) vs Wade Miley (12-5, 3.09 ERA)
Clayton Kershaw will pitch Sunday for the Dodgers, taking on a Reds lineup that he thoroughly dominated in April (7 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 1 BB). He’s been very good against the Reds throughout his career, going 4-2 with a 2.33 ERA over 12 career starts (1-0, 3.27 ERA at Great American Ballpark). In just his second start off the Injured List, the Dodgers won’t try to stretch Clayton out terribly long in this one – and with him following Buehler and Scherzer in the rotation, the hope is that plenty of the bullpen will be available to follow.
In a pretty big surprise for Reds fans, Wade Miley has been the ace of the Cincinnati staff in 2021. A wiley veteran considered one of the nicer people in baseball, the Louisiana native is a big reason the Reds have held their position in the Wild Card race for as long as they have. Most notably, he pitched his first and only career no-hitter on May 7 in Cleveland – but his successes this season have gone well beyond that one shining moment. He’s pitched to ERA’s under 3.00 in 4 of 5 completed months this season, a model of consistency the Reds desperately need alongside pitchers like Gray and Castillo who have been anything but.
Recently, though, there are signs of unraveling for the 34-year old lefty. His 6.46 ERA in September hasn’t been particularly fluky – he’s been hit hard, allowing 27 hits over just 15.1 innings of work including 4 home runs. Both the Cardinals and Pirates touched him up for 10+ hits and 5 runs each as he’s seen his season-long ERA rise from 2.74 to 3.09. As a pitcher who hardly reaches the low 90s in velocity, Miley’s command needs to be excellent in order for him to have success at the big league level. His fastball velocity is slower than 98% of big league starters, and his strikeout rate lower than 84% of them per Baseball Savant. His strongest trait is his ability to force soft contact and induce hitters to chase, something the Dodgers do less than any other team in Major League Baseball. If he’s not careful, the Dodgers very well might send a few balls flying toward the Ohio River by the time the afternoon ends in Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon.
With the Giants feeling the heat seeing their lead shrink to only a game, it’s critical that the Dodgers continue their winning ways on the final road trip of the season. San Francisco has a difficult matchup with Atlanta this weekend of their own. If the Braves do the Dodgers any favors, the next two weeks present an opportunity to sprint through the finish line and deflate the Giants once and for all.