LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers might appear to be a better playoff matchup for the Washington Nationals, but they are starting to believe they can give the Chicago Cubs fits, too.
The Dodgers still need to make the playoffs first, of course, and a 3-2 victory Saturday over the team with the best record in baseball will help.
It was not easy, but nothing has been with the Dodgers this season. A day after they squandered a two-run lead in the eighth inning to the Cubs, four relievers managed to close out the most recent nail-biter for revenge.
After his wicked pitch movement Friday was too hot to handle for new catcher Carlos Ruiz, Kenley Jansen recorded his 38th save Saturday while pitching to Yasmani Grandal. Ruiz was in the bullpen late in the game helping to warm up the relievers in a mid-game, get-to-know-you session.
The Dodgers know every little detail will help. Of all the National League division leaders, their 72 victories are the fewest. But the Dodgers won five of six games against the Nationals this season. And after losing three of four at Wrigley Field earlier this year, the Dodgers would have been looking at a sweep Sunday if their normally dependable bullpen could have held Friday night.
Friday’s loss wasn’t all Jansen’s fault, but he came into Saturday’s game as though he had something to prove. Stalking the mound in the ninth inning, and showing an uptick in velocity from his normal mid-90s-range fastball, Jansen was determined while retiring the side in order to end the game.
“I just wanted to get back out there, especially after [a] game like yesterday,” Jansen said. “You want to be out there.”
He did not take his second chance for granted.
“That is a club with a lot of expectation,” Jansen said of the Cubs. “Us, being the underdogs, we’re just trying to compete against them and win ballgames. Six weeks left, we have to fight with the Giants to win division.”
A first-place team with a quarter-billion-dollar payroll might not sound underdog, but all the Dodgers’ injuries issues this year have them playing with an us-against-them mentality. The mindset started on Opening Day, when the Dodgers placed 10 players on the disabled list, but really crystalized when Clayton Kershaw went down with a back injury in late June.
Since Kershaw has been out, the team’s scrappy mode has carried it to a 31-21 record. The Dodgers have been able to both catch and pass the Giants in the standings. Winning series has always been the mantra, and the Dodgers could finish a key homestand with a series victory over the Giants and another against the Cubs if they can take Sunday’s clash.
“To perform well and go toe-to-toe with a team that has been very good all year, it sends a message to our guys, as well as those guys in that clubhouse,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The Cubs won’t quake in their spikes just yet, not with a baseball-best 82-46 record and a 19-5 mark this month alone. And, of course, the Cubs have that 4-2 overall advantage on the Dodgers this season.
But the current series was never really about the Cubs proving themselves; it was more about seeing where the resurgent Dodgers stacked up against the league’s best club. Just as Jansen stalked around the infield Saturday, the Dodgers are starting to get a quicker and more confident step about them.
“That’s what you need,” said rookie Corey Seager, quickly turning a question about the team’s play against the Cubs into an overall view. “You need to play well versus everybody right now. Try to keep winning series.”
Seager continues to show what he is all about with a first-inning home run Saturday to erase the Cubs’ quick 1-0 advantage. It was Seager’s 23rd home run, a Dodgers franchise record for shortstop.
With the deficit vanquished, rookie starter Julio Urias was able to settle in and get to work. Just as the Dodgers have started to feel good about themselves in the second half, so has the 20-year-old Urias.
It was a rough go for the rookie at the outset of his career, falling flat on his face in his May 27 major league debut on the road against the New York Mets, then stumbling against the Cubs less than a week later, when he gave up six runs in five innings. Fast-forward to Saturday. Urias appeared to be a much different pitcher, giving up one run on six hits over six innings.
The biggest evidence of his growth can be seen in his 1.29 ERA over his past four starts, including one earned run over 12 innings in his two most recent calls to the mound. It looks nothing like the guy who gave up eight hits, including three home runs, June 2 at Wrigley Field.
“I feel a lot more confident,” Urias said through an interpreter. “A couple of starts ago, I started picking up my confidence, and that really helped moving forward.”
Growing confidence has become a trend in the Dodgers’ clubhouse.
“I think the thing we’re most proud of is the ability to come in fresh every day and refocus,” Roberts said. “Whether it’s a big win, or a big loss, we come in fresh and prepared to win. So there really is no hangover from these guys. It’s hard to put in one sentence, or one word, but we are doing a lot of good things.”