Max Muncy is expected to return to the Dodgers’ lineup for this week’s showdown series with the first-place San Francisco Giants. Mookie Betts, Gavin Lux and Corey Seager will not be back this week, and Cody Bellinger might or might not.
As the final two months of the season approach, the offensive help figures to come from within. The pitching help? This is the week we find out.
That became clearer on Sunday, in a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies, when the Dodgers’ top pitching prospect made his first major league start but did not last beyond the fourth inning. And, in a potentially related development on the East Coast, the man who could become the best available starting pitcher in the trade market might have suddenly become available.
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, has proven he can find an incremental update without a trade. He will give up prospects — although not elite ones — to get a potential difference-maker. In 2017, that difference-maker was Yu Darvish. In 2018, it was Manny Machado.
In 2021, could it be Max Scherzer? His Washington Nationals were swept this weekend by the lowly Baltimore Orioles. The Nationals are in fourth place in the National League East, eight games out of first place, 11 games out of a wild card spot.
The Giants are looking for pitching too, and talk about a difference-maker: For the Giants and Dodgers, the three-time Cy Young Award winner could be the difference between an NL West championship — and a bye into the division series — or a one-game, sudden-death wild-card playoff.
And, if Scherzer does become available, the suitors would include the third-place San Diego Padres, who acquired infielder Adam Frazier from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday and remain aggressive in pursuit of pitching.
There are other starters that could be had, including Tyler Anderson of the Pirates, Zach Davies of the Chicago Cubs, and Danny Duffy of the Kansas City Royals. Jon Gray, who held the Dodgers to two runs over five innings Sunday, could be among the available starters as well. Friedman would have to decide whether the cost would warrant the relatively marginal upgrade.
The Dodgers also could try to raid the Cubs’ clearance sale for closer Craig Kimbrel, who would be a nice complement to Kenley Jansen and Blake Treinen at the back of the Dodgers’ bullpen.
On a day when Jansen and Treinen did not pitch, the bullpen carried the Dodgers’ pitching load. Four relievers combined to shut out the Rockies over the final five innings, with Phil Bickford earning his first major league victory and Joe Kelly recording his first save in two years and 10 days.
The Dodgers scored all their runs on solo home runs: Chris Taylor hit one in the first inning and another in the fifth, and Will Smith hit the game-winner in the eighth.
Josiah Gray, that top Dodgers pitching prospect, gave up two runs in four innings, pitching well enough that manager Dave Roberts said Gray would be afforded another start, probably next weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“I think I’ve showed flashes of having good stuff out there,” Gray said. “Obviously, you’ve got to improve every day. In whatever role I’m in, I’m just going to go out there and improve.”
For Gray, the stuff looked good, the results not so much.
He walked the game’s first batter, who came around to score. He pitched four innings but never retired the side in order. By the end of the fourth inning — in which he walked three, threw a wild pitch, and threw another pitch so wildly that he fooled an umpire into thinking a batter had been hit — he had made 79 pitches.
To his credit, after he had loaded the bases on walks, he ended the inning by striking out the final two batters, on six pitches.
“He stepped up and made pitches when he needed to,” Roberts said.
That was the end of his day. In two major league appearances, Gray has pitched eight innings and given up six runs, including four home runs. He has walked five and struck out 13.
In five appearances this month — counting the majors and minors — he has yet to complete five innings. The Dodgers are gradually increasing his workload after he missed two months because of a shoulder impingement.
“To keep him stretched out and making starts, I think, is best for him and for the Dodgers,” Roberts said.
“If we do get to a point where we see his value for the ‘21 major league club in the ‘pen, I’m sure we’ll have that conversation. It just speaks to JoJo as a man, the buy-in in doing whatever he can to help us. He’s a major league pitcher. Right now, we see him as a starter.”
And, right now, the market is filling with starters.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.