The Dodgers appear poised to get the right stuff back from the left side.
Left-handed starters Clayton Kershaw and Andrew Heaney took major steps toward coming off the injured list long before fans arrived at Dodger Stadium on Monday night for the opener series against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Then the game began and staff as Walker Buehler and closer Craig Kimbrel took pronounced steps backward, enabling the Pirates to escape with a 6-5 victory.
Buehler gave up two homers in the first three innings, including a three-run shot in the second to light-hitting Tucupita Marcano. After the Dodgers clawed back to take a one-run lead into the ninth, Kimbrel blew a save for the first time this season.
“It’s kind of been a thing this year with Walker,” manager Dave Roberts said. “And like Walker, [Kimbrel] is going to have to figure it out and fix it. ”
The winning run scored on an uncharacteristic error by first baseman Freddie Freeman, but Kimbrel had set the table with a walk and a wild pitch ahead of a run-scoring single that tied the score. Cal Mitchell shot a ground ball that handcuffed Freeman’s backhand attempt, allowing Michael Chavis to slide home with the decisive run.
Trailing by one run in the eighth, the Dodgers scored twice when Trea Turner’s leadoff hustle double was followed with two outs by Justin Turner’s RBI double and a bloop single by Chris Taylor that landed squarely between three Pirates fielders as Justin Turner crossed the plate.
“Our eighth was a textbook,” Roberts said. “I like the way we fought back.”
The Dodgers had whittled away at their early 4-0 deficit on back-to-back solo home runs by Hanser Alberto and Mookie Betts with two outs in the fifth and another home run by Edwin Ríos in the sixth.
Betts doubled with one out in the ninth – enabling him to break Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers record for extra-base hits in May with 22 – and Freeman walked, but Pirates closer David Bednar got Trea Turner to fly out and Will Smith to strike out. Bednar slogged through the eighth and ninth, logged 50 pitches and the admiration of Roberts.
“I was surprised he came out for the ninth inning,” he said. “That shows the belief they have that even if he stumbles, he’ll prevail.”
Buehler’s early missteps put the Dodgers in a hole. Marcano’s blast to the right field off a 95.8-mph fastball was the first of his big league career. He hit only 12 homers in nearly 1,500 minor league plate appearances. The more accomplished Bryan Reynolds homered in the third, also off Buehler’s four-seam fastball.
Buehler regrouped and got through six innings, giving up seven hits while striking out seven, keeping the Dodgers within striking distance.
The loss soured a day that began well for the Dodgers. Kershaw has been on the injured list since May 13 because of a balky back, but it has come around late, and Monday he threw 38 pitches in the bullpen, using his entire arsenal. Roberts said Kershaw could go on a minor league rehabilitation assignment after one more bullpen session.
Heaney pitched two innings against Dodgers minor leaguers from the Dodger Stadium mound and struck out all seven he faced. He threw 24 strikes in 33 pitches and looked as effective as he was in his last start April 17, when he hit out 11 and allowed one hit in six scoreless innings.
The Dodgers signed Heaney to a one-year, $ 8.5-million free-agent contract during the offseason despite a horrific finish to 2021 after he was traded by the Angels to the New York Yankees. Heaney posted a 7.52 earned-run average in 35 2/3 innings with the Yankees and surrendered a staggering 13 home runs.
Spring training proved revelatory. Heaney learned a sweeping slider, and the immediate positive impact experienced by many pitchers under the tutelage of the Dodgers’ coaching staff led by Mark Prior was especially profound for him.
In two starts before injuring his left shoulder, he pitched 10 1/3 scoreless innings, giving up four hits while striking out 16. And he said Monday that the shoulder pain is gone.
“Knock on wood, I don’t feel anything,” Heaney said. “I’m definitely getting back to executing pitches and doing what I was doing. I’m not thinking about how it feels or anything like that. “
Kershaw last pitched May 7, and he too was dominant, beginning the season 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts. He pitched seven perfect innings in his first start and shined in three of his next four as well.
His back injury was troubling, but an MRI exam did not show structural damage. Kershaw’s bullpen session Monday was a major step.
“He was outstanding,” Roberts said. “He might argue that it wasn’t outstanding, but he used his entire pitch mix.”
The absence of Kershaw and Heaney has been blunted by the unexpected effectiveness of two unheralded starters – Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin are a combined 11-0.
Anderson, a left-hander, has a 2.90 ERA in nine appearances and leads the National League with a 6-0 record. Gonsolin, a right-hander, is 5-0 with a 1.80 ERA in nine starts.
“Every season, you need guys to step up who you really don’t know what you’re going to get,” Roberts said. “It’s gone really well for Tyler and Tony.”
And less so for Buehler and Kimbrel, both of whom have fallen into troubling patterns that don’t appear to have easy answers.