LOS ANGELES — With another postseason approaching, there is a new Los Angeles Dodgers tag-team pitching duo now, although it is one that has shown more vulnerability than dominance in the second half, and still is not being allowed to muster a full roar.
Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill both have shown in the past week and a half that they are equally capable of shredding an opponent, yet the question remains as to how in sync either will be when the unforgiving lights of the playoffs are shining bright.
Both have missed more time in the second half of this season than they have pitched, but both gave intriguing performances on the most recent road trip, with Hill firing seven perfect innings at the Miami Marlins and Kershaw flinging five one-hit innings at Yankee Stadium.
As a power duo, Kershaw-Hill offers intrigue, but how are those two supposed to lead the Dodgers to the promised land when the Kershaw-Zack Greinke combination could not?
The answer is not as simple as comparing 2015 Kershaw to the 2016 version, or 2015 Greinke against 2016 Hill. By no means are the Dodgers a perfect team, but they feel more complete this season, able to take over games with offense at times.
The Dodgers still have their issues, such as mustering any kind of an attack against left-handed pitching, but as they showed Monday against the San Francisco Giants, if the pitching can keep them in the game, the offense might be able to figure out an answer eventually. That feeling was not often present in recent seasons.
And it is not just the offense that gives the Dodgers reason to believe; it is a bullpen that has been as good as any this season, even with a workload that would have broken other groups. The Dodgers headed into Tuesday’s game with 539 bullpen innings, second in baseball to the Reds’ 540 2/3. Los Angeles’ 3.29 bullpen ERA is better than anybody’s.
On defense, the Dodgers lack the range of some younger rosters, but they offset that with good hands, solid instincts and accurate throws.
So even with a somewhat flawed roster, the Dodgers can actually play a better brand of overall baseball this season, making the dependence on two players far less than it has been in seasons (and postseasons) of recent past.
Yet do not think that Team Kershaw-Hill is a dish only palatable with a generous serving of salt. Hardly. Hill has reinvented himself with one of the better curveballs in the game and Kershaw is, well, Kershaw.
The trick, then, is to get both into midseason form — and do it in a hurry. Kershaw has recently returned from 75 days away because of a lower back injury, and Hill missed six weeks while dealing with blister issues on two of the fingers on his left (pitching) hand.
As good as the result was for Kershaw on Monday (one unearned run on three hits over six innings with seven strikeouts), the left-hander talked afterward about building up his maximum pitch count, while testing his body five days after the New York start.
Even after holding the Giants in check on that one unearned run, Kershaw admitted that he still is working toward being the kind of pitcher he is used to being.
“Yeah, I mean, you definitely don’t want to just come off the [disabled list] and be thrown into the postseason, but at the same time, where we’re at, you kind of have to be on your A-game to a certain extent,” Kershaw said. “You can’t lose games in September either. It’s a little bit of a tough spot, obviously. It’s really helpful that we are in September and we have so many bullpen guys that are able to bail me out the first couple of starts. Our bullpen has been amazing to say the least.”
The situation is not much different for Hill, who was famously removed from that Sept. 10 perfect game at Miami, allowed to throw just 89 pitches in only his third start off the DL. On Thursday at Arizona, he threw 93 pitches in a rough outing in which he gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings and the Dodgers lost the game.
Hill could be allowed to throw as many as 100 pitches Tuesday night against the Giants, something he has not done since throwing 101 on July 7 for the Oakland Athletics at Houston. Hill struck out 10 while allowing just one run over six innings that day.
The blister issue is kind of, sort of, almost a thing of the past.
“I hope so but I think it is something that we will continue to manage,” manager Dave Roberts said. “We have to continue to manage it.”
While so much has been made of the curveball Hill seems to be able to throw at all stages of the count, what the pitch really has done is set up his fastball. Hill might not be known as a flamethrower, but the .248 slugging percentage against his fastball is the lowest in all of baseball this season. He also leads the major leagues in miss percentage (34.6) against his fastball and hard-hit percentage (7.0).
So while it is difficult to compare what Hill has done in the game to what Greinke has done over an extended period, the Dodgers are not looking at their newest left-hander as somebody who is doing just enough to keep the team afloat for nine innings every five days.
Hill is actually the team’s best pitcher since he made his Dodgers debut on Aug. 24, leading the club in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.53), opponents’ OPS (.311) and hard-hit percentage (1.0). He is second in strikeout percentage (32.6).
So, no, it is no longer Kershaw-Greinke, but the Dodgers aren’t feeling sorry for themselves over having to put Kershaw-Hill on the marquee now.
“They’re very comparable and I think that is what makes these two guys elite pitchers,” Roberts said. “They feel that they can get any hitter out at any point and time, they want to finish a game they start and they are focused on getting guys out. It’s great, and I love the competitiveness. It’s just my job to kind of navigate through it.”
Blister issues and all, Hill is ready to be unleashed. He has just one postseason appearance to his credit, a 2007 National League Division Series loss to the Diamondbacks while pitching for the Cubs, and sounds ready to experience the thrill again. In order to get there, he’s keeping it simple.
“You bring it every day and keep bringing it and get up, keep moving forward, continue to do the work and that’s it,” he said.
It’s far from a memorable catchphrase for a tag-team duo, but the Dodgers, no doubt, like the sound of it.