By Don Wanlass
The best team in baseball has a weak spot and it’s a major weak spot. It was on display for everyone to see Aug. 16 when the Dodgers lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-4 in 11 innings.
As good as their offensive lineup, starting rotation and most of the bullpen are, the Dodgers weakest link this season could be what ultimately defines the success of the team. I’m talking about closer Craig Kimbrel.
Kimbrel blew his fourth save of the season, giving up two runs on a bunt single, a walk and a bloop single that fell in front of right fielder Mookie Betts, driving home the tying and winning runs.
The Dodgers still lead the San Diego Padres by 17 games in the National League West and appear to be headed for their ninth division title in the last 10 seasons and their 10th consecutive post-season appearance.
But if they are going to make it to their fourth World Series in the last six seasons, they are going to need more from Kimbrel than they have been getting.
A closer has a simple — but very important role — on a baseball team. Get the last three outs of the game.
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. And Kimbrel is making it look even more difficult.
He has given up runs in five of his last eight appearances. He has more hits allowed (46) than innings pitched (44.1) this year, and has also walked 18 hitters, not something you want your closer to do.
In Kimbrel’s defense, he is 12th in the major leagues (fifth in the National League) in saves this year with 20. No one pitching today has more saves than the 392 Kimbrel has produced in 13 seasons.
A closer has a slim margin for error and that was never more evident than Kimbrel’s latest blown save.
He entered the Aug. 16 game with the Dodgers holding a 4-3 lead against the Brewers with a runner on second base.
Leadoff batter Hunter Renfroe made a great baseball play, laying down a bunt single, giving the Brewers runners at first and third. Kimbrel struck out the next hitter and had two strikes on the next one but let him get away with a walk.
With the bases loaded, Kimbrel saw the game get away when Victor Caratini dropped a fly ball in front of Betts and Renfroe, who made a good read on Caratini’s hit, beat Betts’ throw home.
Kimbrel didn’t get lit up by any means, but he lost his fifth game of the season and the Dodgers are starting to lose confidence in his ability to close games. Most of the fans lost confidence in him months ago, but that’s how fans are.
They spent the last two or three years booing Kenley Jansen. The Dodgers let Jansen leave in free agency after last season and he is tied for third in the major leagues with 27 saves for the Atlanta Braves, a team the Dodgers could see in the postseason. For the record, Jansen has as many blown saves as Kimbrel does this year, four. But his WHIP rate (walks and hits versus innings pitched) is 1.04, compared to Kimbrel’s 1.55.
Of the top 25 best closers in terms of saves this season, only one has a higher WHIP rate than Kimbrel.
Like he did with Jansen for many years, manager Dave Roberts continues to support Kimbrel, hoping he will regain the form that has seen him post a 2.33 earned run average over his career.
Unfortunately, since 2019, Kimbrel has posted a 3.94 ERA, and if you take away his work with the Cubs at the start of the 2021 season, his ERA since 2019 soars to 5.17.
It takes a special breed to become a closer and not every good relief pitcher has what it takes to come in to a pressure-filled situation night after night and not fold under that pressure.
Blake Treinen, currently on the injured list, has closing experience but the Dodgers would rather use him in the seventh or eighth inning in high-pressure situations.
Evan Phillips has been the Dodgers’ best relief pitcher all season, but he has not been asked to be the closer yet.
The Dodgers have been grooming Brusdar Graterol, currently on the injured list, as a possible closer, but he seems to fold whenever he is put in high-pressure situations. So it looks like the Dodgers are stuck with Kimbrel.
The Dodgers might have thrown Walker Buehler into a closer’s role for the rest of the season if he had made it back from his elbow injury. But he is now scheduled to undergo season-ending elbow surgery Aug. 23, so that option is off the board.
The Dodgers have six weeks to figure it out. Kimbrel could get his act together. Treinen could bounce back from his shoulder injury and provide another late-inning option.
But having a weakness in the closer role in baseball is like having a weakness at the quarterback position in the NFL. Eventually, that weakness will come back and haunt you.
EXHIBITION THOUGHTS: I rarely watch preseason football because so many teams these days don’t play many of their starters for fear of injuries.
That being said, I watched the third quarter of the Rams-Chargers exhibition game Aug. 13 in a game the Rams won 29-22. Third-string quarterback Bryce Perkins looked real good leading the Rams to a touchdown drive with the second-half kickoff.
Perkins moved the Rams 75 yards in 10 plays and scored on a one-yard run. He then hit Lance McCutcheon, an undrafted receiver out of Montana State for a two-point conversion and a 22-14 lead.
Easton Stick returned the favor, leading the Chargers on an 18-play, 75-yard drive that took the remainder of the third quarter and the first two minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the score.
Perkins then led the Rams on another scoring drive, hooking up with McCutcheon for the winning touchdown on an 11-yard pass play with 6:51 to play.
If Perkins or Stick sees the football field for the Rams and Chargers once the games actually count, then the local teams will probably be in trouble.
At least they have stories they can tell their grandkids some day.
The Rams got some good news regarding starting quarterback Matthew Stafford this week. Stafford completed 23 of 34 passes during an intra-squad scrimmage Aug. 16, easing concerns about his sore elbow.
Stafford has been bothered by tendinitis, an injury more common to a baseball pitcher than a quarterback. The Rams have been managing Stafford’s practice workload so far in training camp, making sure he is healthy once the season starts.
“He threw the ball incredibly accurately in all parts of the field,” head coach Sean McVay said following the scrimmage.
The Rams face the Houston Texans at SoFi Stadium Aug. 19 in their second exhibition game before going to Cincinnati next week for two joint practices with the Bengals before the final preseason game next week.
The Chargers meanwhile will practice against the Dallas Cowboys twice this week before facing the Cowboys Aug. 20 at SoFi Stadium in their second exhibition game.
They will close the preseason Aug. 26 with a game against New Orleans.
Off the field, the Chargers reached a contract agreement with safety Derwin James, making James the highest paid safety in the NFL. According to ESPN, James will be paid $76.4 million over four years, or $19.13 million a year.
“I don’t look at Derwin as a safety,” head coach Brandon Staley told the Los Angeles Times. “I look at Derwin as an impact player.”
James calls defensive signals for the Chargers and is “the heartbeat of our defense,” according to Staley.
He will be a key performer if the Chargers are to make a run for the AFC Western Division title this year.
That division is one of the strongest in football. All four teams have top-notch quarterbacks and NFL games are often decided by which quarterback played the best.
The Chargers need James to keep Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Derek Carr in check this season.
It was a good move to lock him up contarctually before the start of the season.
ANOTHER STREAKER: If the Dodgers have a local equivalent in Major League Soccer it would be the Los Angeles Football Club. LAFC won its seventh straight game Aug. 16, defeating D.C. United 1-0.
LAFC leads the MLS with 18 wins and 57 points, nine more points than its nearest pursuers, Austin FC and Philadelphia. The team is 9-1-1 in its last 11 matches, is 11-1-2 this year at home and hasn’t lost since July 2 when the Vancouver Whitecaps defeated them, 1-0.
Mahala Opoku came off the bench to score the only goal against D.C. United, converting a pass from Cristian Arango in the 67th minute.
LAFC is now 14-0 this season when scoring first. It is 8-0-1 against Eastern Conference opponents.
LAFC now begins a three-game road trip Aug. 20 against the San Jose Earthquakes. LAFC won the first meeting between the two teams, 3-2, May 28.