SPORTS DIGEST: Surging Dodgers put space between them and opposition

[adrotate banner="54"]

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Two months ago, I told Dodgers’ fans it was all right to panic.

The Dodgers had just been swept in a three-game series by the San Francisco Giants, who leap-frogged over the Dodgers into second place in the National League West.

The Dodgers were in the midst of their worst stretch of the season, losing 10 of 14 games and falling four games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Julio Urias was on the injured list. There were three rookies in the five-man starting rotation, four more in the starting lineup and the bullpen couldn’t get people out.

What a difference two months make. Since that low-water mark June 18, the Dodgers have won 33 of 46 games, they lead the National League West by 9 games and appear to be headed to another National League West division title.

What happened? Several things. 

You can point to the acquisition of four veteran players — pitchers Lance Lynn and Ryan Yarbrough, infielder Amed Rosario and utilityman Kike Hernandez — at the Aug. 1 trading deadline, but the Dodgers were 21-12 between the loss to the Giants June 18 and the deadline.  They are 12-1 since the deadline.

Basically, the Dodgers are winning now because their pitching has improved and because they are going to score six or more runs a night with their potent offense. 

Lynn has helped stabilize the starting rotation, which also welcomed back Urias and Clayton Kershaw from the injured list, providing even more stability.

Bobby Miller, the only remaining rookie in the starting rotation, is proving he belongs in the rotation and Ryan Brasier has helped stabilize the bullpen while Alex Vesia, Caleb Ferguson and Brusdar Graterol have bounced back from early-season difficulties.

And the Dodgers hitters continue to take the pressure off the pitching staff by scoring runs. 

In the last 46 games, the Dodgers have scored eight or more runs 15 times. Their pitching staff has allowed three runs or less in 24 of those games.

That’s a recipe for a winning ball club and people who were doubting the Dodgers’ chances of a lengthy post-season run two months ago — myself included — are starting to look forward to October baseball.

It all starts with the top of the batting order with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. Both are having most-valuable-player type seasons.

Betts is hitting .289, leads the team in home runs with 31 and sparks the offense from the leadoff position while moving back and forth from the infield to right field.

Freeman is even better. He is hitting .336 with 23 home runs and a team-leading 83 runs batted in.

Two others — Max Muncy and J.D. Martinez — have more than 20 home runs and four more players have 10 or more home runs for a team that is second to the Atlanta Braves in home runs and runs scored.

The Dodgers also use matchups better than just about any other team in baseball.

The acquisition of Rosario and Hernandez at the trading deadline extended the bench and allow manager Dave Roberts to mix and match his lineups, using David Peralta and Jason Heyward against right-handed pitchers and Rosario, Hernandez or Chris Taylor against lefties.

In a 6-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers Aug. 15, the Dodgers were leading 2-1 in the sixth inning when Brewers manager Craig Counsell replaced starting righthander Adrian Houser with left-handed reliever Hoby Milner.

Roberts sent Hernandez up to hit for Heyward. Hernandez singled in two runs and the Dodgers were on their way to a five-run inning and the victory. Equally impressive in that win were the pitchers Miller and Yarbrough.

Miller gave up a single to the leadoff hitter in the first inning, walked the next batter and then retired the last 18 hitters he faced, escaping the bad start with only one run scoring. He is now 7-2 and showing he is capable of being in the starting rotation for the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

Yarbrough, who can start or relieve, replaced Miller in the seventh inning, yielded a solo home run to Carlos Santana and retired everyone else. In three games since joining the team, he has allowed two runs and five hits in 10 innings with a win and a save. 

The Brewers, who lead the National League Central Division, had three base runners all night. The Dodgers were that dominating.

Six weeks remain in the regular season. A lot can happen in that time, but the Dodgers feel primed to make another October run like they did in 2017, 2018 and 2020, which found them in the World Series.

They could be even stronger come October because pitchers Walker Buehler and Blake Treinen appear to be getting healthy and could join the team in September.

Buehler underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2022 and is ahead of schedule in his recovery. He had replaced Kershaw has staff ace before hurting his elbow last season.

He might not be strong enough to throw six or seven innings a start, but he could prove useful in one- or two-inning bursts out of the bullpen if he continues to clear his recovery hurdles.

Treinen was the Dodgers best relief pitcher in 2021 before hurting his shoulder last year and undergoing surgery. If he regains his form he could join Evan Phillips as a key late-inning reliever.

Anything can happen over the next 44 games, but I like the Dodgers’ chances now a lot more than I did two months ago.

FIRST LOOKS: The Rams and Chargers met Aug. 12 at SoFi Stadium in the first preseason game for both teams. The Chargers won, 34-17, and looked like the better team in the process.

It’s hard to evaluate where a football team is after one preseason game, especially when key veteran players on both sides of the ball aren’t playing. But the results of the opener show the Chargers should be a playoff team again this season, while the Rams have some work to do.

Last year, the Rams were hit hard by injuries. This season, salary cap issues have forced the Rams to get younger, losing several key pieces from the defense particularly.

Highlights for the Rams’ first preseason game included the play of rookie quarterback Stetson Bennett. A fourth-round draft pick who led Georgia to consecutive national championships in college, Bennett doesn’t figure to play much once the regular season starts unless Matthew Stafford gets hurt. 

Still, he acquitted himself well in his first NFL appearance, completing 17 of 29 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. The Rams scored all 17 of their points with him at quarterback. 

Brett Rypien, a fifth-year pro who is the nephew of former Super Bowl winning-quarterback Mark Rypien, started the game at quarterback for the Rams, played the first quarter and turned things over to Bennett.

It was a close game until the fourth quarter when Chargers’ rookie running back Elijah Dotson broke loose for 37- and 40-yard touchdowns to turn a 20-14 game into a rout.

The Rams’ defensive line gave up 6.9 yard per carry to the Chargers, but that will change once Aaron Donald starts playing when the games count.

The Rams’ special teams also need work, giving up an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the second quarter when punter Ethan Evans outkicked the coverage.

The Rams are hoping to bounce back from last season’s 5-12 record, the worst record in history for a team that won the Super Bowl the previous year. The San Francisco 49ers appear to be the class of the NFC Western Division this season, but if the Rams stay healthy and Stafford has a bounce-back season, they could compete for a wild card spot.

The Chargers, meantime, hope to return to the playoffs, where they suffered a devastating end to their season last January, losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars 31-30 after leading 27-0 in the second quarter.

They got stronger on the offensive end of the ball in the offseason, drafting wide receiver Quentin Johnston in the first round and Derius Davis in the fourth round. Both are from TCU, which played Georgia in the NCCA title game last January, and both scored in their NFL preseason debut. 

Davis returned that punt 81 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Johnston caught an 8-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, but also dropped a couple of passes.

With quarterback Justin Herbert, running back Austin Ekeler and returning wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the Chargers should score plenty of points this season. Their problem will be preventing their opponents from scoring.

Outside pass rusher Joey Boza and safety Derwin James need to stay healthy all season if the Chargers are going to contend with the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West title. 

Defensively, the Chargers allowed two touchdowns and a field goal against Rams’ backups. A 16-play, 75-yard drive that took up eight minutes of the second quarter was aided by two third-down penalties by the Chargers defense. 

The second touchdown came on a 7-play, 60-yard drive late in the third quarter that made it 20-14.

Dotson’s two touchdown runs put the game away in the fourth quarter. 

The Chargers will practice against the New Orleans Saints this week in preparation for their second preseason game Aug. 20 at SoFi against the Saints.

The Rams are practicing with the Las Vegas Raiders before facing them Aug. 19 at SoFi. 

The Chargers conclude the preseason Aug. 25 against the San Francisco 49ers while the Rams close the preseason Aug. 26 against the Denver Broncos.

[adrotate banner="53"]

Must Read

[adrotate banner="55"]