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Why the Dodgers' Brandon League is so much better this year

Los Angeles DodgersSportsBaseballMajor League BaseballBrandon LeagueNew York MetsPaul Maholm
Brandon League has turned things around in setup role for Dodgers
Brandon League leads Dodgers with 1.40 ERA
Hyun-Jin Ryu scheduled to return Wednesday

Rather than save games, Brandon League's primary function this season has been to save the arms of more highly regarded teammates. When League runs out of the bullpen these days, the Dodgers are often ahead or behind by several runs, the outcome of the game already determined.

But under the relative anonymity of this unglamorous role, the former closer is starting to rediscover himself.

League's 1.40 earned-run average is the best on the Dodgers, who open a three-game series against the New York Mets on Tuesday at Citi Field. League hasn't been charged with an earned run in any of his last 13 appearances, a stretch covering 20 1/3 innings.

"It definitely feels good to get outs," he said. "Last year, I couldn't buy an out."

Last year was League's first with a three-year, $22.5-million contract, and he posted a 5.30 ERA in the nightmare season. He was replaced by Kenley Jansen as the team's closer, then was left off the postseason roster.

It was not the type of performance he or the team expected coming off a strong finish to the 2012 season, when he was acquired by the Dodgers in a midseason trade and became their closer over a dominant two-month stretch.

"I'm not closing, so I wouldn't say confidence-wise it's the same," he said. "I'm not in the same role. I'm not complaining about where I'm pitching. Like I said in spring training, I'm here for whatever role or no role or however they see fit. I'm here to pitch and help the team get outs."

Only twice this season has League entered the game with the Dodgers leading. One time, they were ahead by five, the other time six.

Twice, he went in with the score tied. Both times, the game was in extra innings and the Dodgers had no other relievers available.

"When you talk about confidence, you can't compare your mind-set pitching early in the game to later in the game," he said. "It's just not the same. Pitching in a tied ballgame versus pitching when you're down by 11 or up by 11, it's just not the same."

But League's role could change soon.

Hyun-Jin Ryu is scheduled to return from the disabled list and start Wednesday's game, which would move Paul Maholm into the bullpen. With Maholm available to pitch as a long reliever, the Dodgers will have the flexibility to use League in tighter situations.

Asked whether he would prefer to pitch in more critical spots, League said, "If someone tells you otherwise, they don't deserve to pitch at all."

Manager Don Mattingly was noncommittal, but said of Ryu's comeback, "It does allow us to do different things, that's for sure."

As for why his performance has improved as much as it has, League said it's simply the result of pitching down in the strike zone consistently.

"Basically, the difference is my ground balls. They're hitting the dirt in front of the plate instead of the grass," he said. "Ground balls are finding gloves. That's basically it."

He pointed out that his strikeout rate isn't significantly higher. Last season, he averaged 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings. This season, he is averaging 5.7.

Keeping the ball down has produced another benefit: He still hasn't given up a home run.

However, League downplayed the significance of how he has started the season.

"It's May," he said. "I mean, I could not have a scoreless inning the rest of the season and you wouldn't be talking about my April and May."

Up next

Josh Beckett (1-1), who has a 2.38 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings, will face the Mets and Rafael Montero (0-1, 4.50) at Citi Field at 4 p.m. PDT. On the air: TV: SportsNet LA; Radio: 570, 1020 (Spanish).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Los Angeles DodgersSportsBaseballMajor League BaseballBrandon LeagueNew York MetsPaul Maholm
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