As the Dodgers approach the All-Star break, it is hard to argue it could possibly come at a better time for the defending World Series Champions. To call their road trip to Washington and Miami tumultuous would be an understatement – in the span of 8 days, the Dodgers experienced a season’s worth of ups and downs.
The series in Washington was a success on the field, sweeping four games from a team previously on a hot streak of their own. Off the field, the controversy surrounding Trevor Bauer’s investigation under MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence policy cast a dark shadow over an otherwise bright Independence Day weekend in DC. The team then arrived in Miami and played an incredibly sloppy series, looking hungover as they dropped 3 of 4 to the last place Marlins.
A 5-3 road trip is never a terrible result, to be fair – but for the Dodgers, the trip proved more costly than positive as they find themselves with only 3 starting pitchers following Clayton Kershaw’s unexpected trip to the IL.
With the break looming, the Dodgers have only a home series with lowly Arizona this weekend to go before a much-needed stop in the action. Trailing the Giants by only a single game, a sweep would go a long way for the Boys in Blue.
Let’s take a closer look at the 3-game set from Chavez Ravine.
Friday, July 9
Taylor Widener (1-0, 2.63 ERA) vs Dodgers Bullpen (sigh)
As the Dodgers limp into the break from a pitching perspective, they’ll be looking for another 9 innings of relief work to top Arizona on Friday night. They’ll likely look for multiple innings from David Price, who rumor has it may be headed to the rotation himself out of necessity on the other side of the All-Star Break. It’s likely we’ll see lefty Darien Nunez make his Dodgers debut as well, the 7th reliever the Dodgers have added to the roster in the last week alone. He’s drawn comparisons to Aroldis Chapman from Dave Roberts, and the Dodgers would certainly be thrilled if that prognosis proves remotely true.
Taylor Widener will take the mound for Arizona, making his sixth start of the season and first since May 23. Widener has had up and down results, mixing two starts in which he tossed six scoreless frames with two others that saw him allow 4 runs to the Cincinnati Reds. Widener’s last outing saw him pitch four innings on a rehab assignment for the Hillsboro Hops, so it’s unlikely that Arizona will be expecting him to push deep into the game on Friday night. Widener throws his fastball and changeup 84.2% of the time combined, a combination the likes of which the Dodgers have hit well in the past (see: Sandy Alcantara).
If the Dodgers get to Widener early, this game could easily be bullpen versus bullpen by around the fourth inning, where LA has a massive advantage (9th vs 29th in bullpen ERA). I’ll be looking for a lot of runs and a Dodgers victory tonight.
Saturday, July 10
Caleb Smith (2-5, 3.45 ERA) vs Walker Buehler (8-1, 2.49 ERA)
Saturday night’s contest could take on an entirely different character than Friday’s, with both teams more likely to lean on their starting pitching. Between two relief appearances and one start, the Dodgers have seen nine total innings of Caleb Smith on the mound this year and have yet to score a run, amassing only 3 hits against the lefty. Smith moved from the bullpen into the rotation at the beginning of June, and has mostly been in a grove, completing at least 5 innings in every start but one during that time.
With a tough customer on the mound for Arizona, the Dodgers will need a good start from Walker Buehler to keep themselves in a good position when they eventually welcome Arizona’s terrible bullpen back into the fold. Buehler’s never lost to Arizona, going 3-0 over 10 career starts with an ERA of 2.47. In two starts against the Diamondbacks this season, Buehler has thoroughly dominated to the tune of 14.1 innings pitched and only 2 runs allowed, winning both.
Both starting pitchers should feel relatively confident entering Saturday night, and I think we’ll likely see a low scoring game through the early innings. If Buehler pitches like he has in the past against Arizona, though, I’d bet on the Dodgers’ bats being first to break out.
Sunday, July 11
Merrill Kelly (5-7, 4.60 ERA) vs Tony Gonsolin (1-0, 2.11 ERA)
Tony Gonsolin’s start on Tuesday in Miami was a sight for sore Dodger eyes, as he finally eclipsed 5 innings, allowing only a single run in a very solid outing. With injuries and disturbing allegations poking holes in the Dodgers’ rotation left and right, he figures to be a big part of the picture moving forward if L.A. is to win their ninth straight NL West title. As Tony continues to build back into full-time starting pitching shape, he’s pitched better and better – over his last three starts, he’s allowed only 2 runs in 12.1 combined innings pitched. Gonsolin notoriously struggled mightily in his MLB debut in Arizona, allowing 6 runs (4 earned) over 4 innings. He’s still never beaten Arizona, but will look to build off of a relatively successful 3.2 innings against them on June 20 in Phoenix.
The Diamondbacks will send starter Merrill Kelly to the mound on Sunday afternoon, a pitcher the Dodgers have seen plenty of since his debut in 2019. Kelly has never beaten the Dodgers, going 0-2 with a 4.70 ERA in four career starts. When he’s pitching well, Merrill Kelly has been the Diamondbacks’ best bet to lead them deep into games in 2021 – against the Dodgers on May 20, he pitched 7 innings while allowing 3 runs en route to a loss. Kelly has completed at least 6 innings 10 times in 2021, the most of any Arizona starter.
Kelly thrives by locating effectively in the zone and avoiding barrels – his walk rate and barrel rate against ranking in the 84th and 68th percentiles respectively per Baseball Savant. With a below-league-average fastball, things can get ugly for Kelly in a hurry if he’s not locating well. His xBA against ranks in MLB’s 16th percentile per Baseball Savant, with below average Whiff% and K% as well. Put simply, Merrill Kelly relies on staying in the zone and pitching to soft contact – the Dodgers will look to punish fastballs left over the plate Sunday and knock him out a lot earlier than they did in their last matchup with him.
There’s no success to be had in overlooking an opponent, something Dodgers fans surely understand having watched the team struggle in South Florida this week. The Dodgers will need to play well to sweep Arizona, but make no mistake about it – anything short of a sweep this weekend will feel like a missed opportunity for the Boys in Blue.