A Dodgers’ crisis, or just a small sample size? – Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES – Too soon to panic, Dodger fans?

It’s probably fair to suggest that the past week, when the Dodgers were 3-4, lost two games off an 8½-game division lead and had their starting pitchers compile a 9.00 ERA in those seven games, represented a short sample size in a long season rather than a troubling trend.

Calm down, folks. Crisis averted. For now.

James Paxton made it through five innings Saturday, reinventing himself as he goes. And some late inning thunder and a managerial move that almost backfired but didn’t – we’ll explain – gave the Dodgers a 5-3 win over Milwaukee, the NL Central leader, and cinched their first series win in over a week.

If you’re seeking a reason why spirits have been so down – or at least up and down – among certain segments of the fan base, here’s a hint: The first 12 questions manager Dave Roberts fielded in his pre-game briefing Saturday involved injury updates. Among the revelations: Max Muncy has stopped swinging the bat in his rehab process, because the oblique injury that has kept him out of the Dodgers’ lineup since May 15 just won’t allow him to do so freely.

“Everything he does, turning and rotating, is good except swinging the bat,” Roberts said.

Given that swinging the bat is what Muncy does best, and is not only his best contribution to a Dodgers lineup but creates a giant chasm when he’s not in it, that’s a problem.

Go down the list. Clayton Kershaw has another simulated game lined up Sunday, as he tries to regain momentum after a slight rehab setback of his own. Joe Kelly is getting hitters out for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes but is probably still at least a couple more outings away from returning. MVP candidate Mookie Betts, recovering from a broken left hand, is doing some baseball-type activities but is still a few weeks away – and he, too, can’t swing a bat yet. (But his appearance in the Dodgers’ TV booth Wednesday night suggested he could have a post-career future in the booth if he wants it).

Meanwhile, relievers Brusdar Graterol and Ryan Brasier are still working out at Camelback Ranch, Michael Grove and Yoshinobu Yamamoto are in various stages of their rehabs … and the list goes on. The upshot: A team that still has a healthy division lead also has plenty of needs as the July 30 trading deadline approaches. Clearly, $1.1 billion doesn’t guarantee health.

Layered over all of this is the realization, within the organization as well as among its fan base, that the only achievement that means anything has to come in October.

So on social media, our current bastion of learned discourse, Dodger fans are chill, nobody’s suggesting any outlandish trades and Roberts isn’t getting hammered for his in-game decisions, right?

Right??

Hey, if you allow it to, following baseball can be a nightly nervous breakdown.

To be sure, Roberts gave the wannabe managers more ammunition Saturday. Nursing a 3-2 lead, he used Daniel Hudson in the sixth, Blake Treinen in the seventh and normal closer Evan Phillips in the eighth, guessing that Phillips could handle the middle of the order in that inning and Alex Vesia could pitch the ninth for the save. Roberts had done so at the start of the last road trip against the woeful White Sox and got away with it.

This time, Christian Yelich sent a 2-2 pitch into the net above the kids’ play area in dead center field off Phillips to tie the game 3-3.

But Roberts ultimately got away with it again. Miguel Vargas pinch-hit for Gavin Lux leading off the bottom of the eighth and hit a paint-scraper that just cleared the left field fence to break the tie. Two hitters later Shohei Ohtani left no doubt with his 28th homer of the year, a 430-foot cannon blast (one estimated foot longer than Yelich’s). And Vesia retired the Brewers in order in the ninth, so what could the critics say?

“It was a right, left, right” situation, Roberts said afterward, given that righties William Contreras and Willy Adames bookended the left-handed Yelich. You could make the counter argument that the dominant hitter in the eighth, Yelich, was left-handed, while right-handed Rhys Hoskins – who had already homered in the fourth Saturday, after hitting a grand slam Friday night – was likely due up in the ninth.

“I feel confident with Alex versus either, but I think that for me, just having the righty on Contreras and Adames, I like that,” Roberts said. “And, you know, (Phillips) had count leverage on Yelich (it was 2-2) and left a sweeper middle, middle. But if I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing.”

Footnote: Vesia struck out Hoskins on a 2-2 slider to start the ninth.

Meanwhile, maybe Paxton provided a sliver of hope by battling his way through five innings and 83 pitches and leaving with a 3-2 lead.

He acknowledged he’s not the same pitcher he was before Tommy John surgery in 2021, and Saturday he was working with a four-seam fastball that topped out at 93.9 mph and averaged 92.8, a couple of ticks below his 93.3 average for the year. He’s thrown mostly four-seamers and knuckle curves this season, with a few changeups and very few cutters (Saturday he threw two). Three years ago he was throwing the cutter nearly 30 percent of the time according to Baseball Savant; this year, less than four percent.

“I think I’m just evolving as a pitcher,” he said. “You know, my stuff isn’t what it used to be, but I’m pitching differently, pitching to weak contact, and still trying to give us a chance to win.

“I kind of figure it out as I go.”

That’s sort of the way baseball works in general. In this case, they’ll be figuring it out not only on the field and in the dugout but in the executive suite as July 30 approaches.

Meanwhile, after this series the Dodgers head to Philadelphia to play the team with baseball’s best record. So if your daily mood depends on the previous night’s results, you might want to hold on tight for a while.

jalexander@scng.com

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