A five-run cushion and a low pitch count allowed Kenta Maeda to boldly go where he has never gone before, into the ninth inning of a major league game for the first time since he joined the Dodgers in 2016.
The right-hander did not reach the final frontier Wednesday night, falling two outs short of an elusive complete game. Not that the Dodgers complained.
Maeda gave up two runs and five hits in 81/3 innings of a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Dodger Stadium, completing a three-game sweep and giving the Dodgers 10 wins in 12 games entering a four-game series against the National League West-leading Colorado Rockies in Denver.
"He was efficient, he was pounding the strike zone, his secondary stuff was really good, he was using all quadrants, so yeah, I was absolutely pulling for him to complete it," manager Dave Roberts said of Maeda.
"But you get to a certain point where you want to make sure you win the game, and I didn't want him to have a sour taste after that briliant outing."
Maeda needed only 89 pitches to blank the Pirates on three hits through eight innings, but he gave up a single to Josh Harrison and a two-run homer to Francisco Cervelli to open the ninth. Maeda struck out Andrew McCutchen before yielding to left-hander Grant Dayton, who got the last two outs.
"Yeah, definitely," Maeda, speaking through an interpreter, said, when asked if he was disappointed he didn't finish the game. "The home run in the ninth was a tough one to swallow."
Maeda opened the season with a 1-2 record and 8.05 ERA in four starts, giving up 24 hits, including seven homers, in 23 innings. He simplified his windup, began throwing more ground-ball-inducing cut-fastballs and fewer fly-ball-inducing four-seam fastballs, and the results have followed.
In three starts since, Maeda is 2-0 with a 2.21 ERA, giving up five earned runs in 201/3 innings, striking out 21, walking four and holding hitters to a .181 average (13 for 72). That helped the Dodgers rotation lower its major league-leading 3.31 ERA.
"I've been relying on the four-seamer too much — it was mostly elevated, so hitters took advantage," Maeda said. "I'm not a power pitcher."
Maeda got plenty of support from a young power hitter. Cody Bellinger hit an opposite-field, two-run home run to left-center field against starter Chad Kuhl in the first inning, the 21-year-old rookie's sixth homer in 14 games.
Yasmani Grandal, who reached base four times, singled, Chris Taylor walked and Chase Utley poked a run-scoring single to left for a 3-0 lead. Utley, who entered with a .115 average, had a run-scoring double to right-center field in the fourth, and doubles by Corey Seager and Grandal in the eighth pushed the lead to 5-0.
Maeda ran into trouble in the first when Harrison led off with a double to left and took third on Cervelli's fly to deep center. Maeda struck out McCutchen with an 84-mph slider and got Gregory Polanco to fly to right.
Maeda benefitted from some great defense and good fortune. Taylor, the Dodgers second baseman, made a superb backhand diving stop of Max Moroff's grounder up the middle, scrambled to his feet and fired a throw to first to end the second.
Jordy Mercer led off the third with a grounder down the first base line that seemed ticketed to right field. The ball hit the bag and popped into the air, giving Utley, the first baseman, enough time to pirouette, scoop up the ball and flip to Maeda for the out.
With one out in the fourth, Polanco sliced a line drive to shallow left, where Bellinger made a full-extension, diving catch before rolling over onto the turf. Maeda clapped his pitching hand and glove together in appreciation.
Moroff sent a fifth-inning grounder to the right of Utley, who whiffed while trying a backhand stop. No worries. The ball rolled under Utley's glove and to Taylor, who fired to Maeda covering the bag for an out.