PHOENIX — There is no flash or flair about Kenta Maeda, just a workmanlike calm that has made him the steadiest Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher this season.
It is not to say he is the most talented, just the one who has been able to take the mound every time he has been asked and to offer consistency like no other. He does not dominate like Clayton Kershaw and does not have the curveball of Rich Hill. He lacks the youthful high upside of Julio Urias and Jose De Leon.
Maeda was not necessarily at his best Friday, struggling with fastball command, but he overcame what ailed him to make yet another outing look somewhat like the last.
“I wasn’t able to get into my groove and I put a lot of pressure on the position players to pick up the slack,” Maeda said through an interpreter.
Perhaps his new schedule was to blame, but he made it a nonissue when he gave up only one run and three hits over five innings with six strikeouts. Offered an extra day between starts lately, to better mimic the schedule he was on while pitching in Japan, Maeda showed Friday he can operate with regular rest, too.
So after giving up only two earned runs Sunday at Miami, he returned to the mound Friday at Arizona and topped it with one earned run allowed to start the Dodgers on the way to a 3-2 victory over the Diamondbacks and against an opposing starter in Zack Greinke, no less.
“He started to get a little better with his command, but he was just on the edges too much and missing with his fastball,” manager Dave Roberts said. “With Kenta, you can tell. When he is getting ahead of guys with the fastball and then throwing the slider and is around the zone you know he has good rhythm. And he didn’t have it [Friday] until the fourth inning. It was a grind for him.”
Grinding away is what Maeda seems to know best. The 28-year-old rookie appears aware of the perception that he might not be able to handle the regular major league workload, or go deep into games.
It seems to be why he insisted after his outing against the Marlins last weekend that he is as strong as he has been at any point this season. He prefaced his statement by saying through an interpreter: “I know you’re not going to believe what I say …”
The Dodgers tested that premise by bringing Maeda back five days later. If he stays on that schedule again, he would pitch Wednesday in the finale of a three-game home series against the San Francisco Giants.
“He still found a way, like he seemingly always does, to give us a chance to win a baseball game,” Roberts said. “That’s a sign of a great competitor, which Kenta is, and a winning pitcher. I don’t know the win-loss, but Kenta, every single time he takes the mound he gives us a chance to win.”
Outside of a little pitch-efficiency issue, Maeda has been everything the Dodgers could have hoped for this season. If there is anything to work on, outside of assimilating to the schedule of a major league starter, it is his average of 5⅔ innings per start. But those concepts might not be mutually exclusive.
Despite his few shortcomings, he still has managed a 15-9 record and a sparkling 3.24 ERA over 29 starts.
At present, Maeda would project to being the Dodgers’ No. 3 starter in the postseason, if they can ultimately get themselves into the National League Division Series. Kershaw and Hill probably would pitch in the opening two games of an extended playoff series.
When Maeda was signed out of Japan, and brought aboard on a massively incentive-laden contract, he was not asked to be the new Greinke, just to give the team a chance to compete. Well, he has kept the Dodgers in games start after start, and in a rewarding twist, he has been every bit as good as, if not better than, Greinke has been for the Diamondbacks this season.
In fact, Maeda picked up the victory in a duel with Greinke for the second time in 11 days, adding yet one more reason to deem his season a success to this point.
Greinke, meanwhile, has been unable to gain complete traction in the desert. The right-hander, who came to Arizona on a blockbuster six-year, $206.5 million contract, started slowly, got hot for a lengthy stretch then missed time because of an oblique injury. Since he has been back, his ERA nearly jumped a full run higher in eight starts.
But Greinke was more like himself than he was Sept. 5 when he gave up five home runs to the Dodgers. It was the most he had ever given up in one game. Greinke gave up the Dodgers’ three runs Friday but only one was earned.
Yet it was Maeda who owned the day, although he completely deflected the credit.
“Just like the last outing [against Greinke], our team scored early in the outing and that helped with me overall,” Maeda said.