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The Dodgers' bullpen has been their saving grace during surge

The home runs flying off Dodgers bats — they have gone deep 34 times in the first 13 games of June, most in the major leagues — have obscured the work of the bullpen during a month-long surge that pushed the team into playoff contention.

“Outstanding, consistent,” manager Dave Roberts said of his relievers. “Without those guys, we wouldn’t be on this run we’re on.”

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Relievers combined for a 4.54 ERA in 42 games through May 16, striking out 163 and walking 70 in 1582/3 innings. They had seven saves, 10 blown saves and yielded a .255 average. The Dodgers went 16-26 in those games and were 8 1/2 games back in the National League West.

In the next 27 games including Saturday night, the bullpen combined for a 2.79 ERA, 111 strikeouts and 38 walks in 116 innings. They have 13 saves in 15 opportunities. The Dodgers won 21 of the 27 games and closed within 1 1/2 games of first-place Arizona.

“This year, it just took a little bit of time to figure out what roles people might fall into,” right-hander Josh Fields said. “Now, we have an idea of what guys might do and what’s expected of them. It makes it a little easier. We’re just trying to pass the baton to the next guy.”

The anchor leg of that relief relay team has been the biggest factor in the bullpen’s success. Closer Kenley Jansen, who made only five spring-training appearances, was 0-1 with an 8.10 ERA, two saves and two blown saves in his first seven games, the velocity of his cut-fastball lagging.

In his next 24 appearances through Saturday night, he gave up three earned runs in 26 innings for a 1.04 ERA, with 26 strikeouts and six walks. He is 15 for 15 in save opportunities, including two in a row against the Giants.

“He didn’t throw a lot in spring training,” Fields said. “I think early in the season was his spring training, and once the rust wore off, once he ironed things out and was feeling good, it was full-go, and you’ve seen what he’s done since then. When Kenley is doing what Kenley does, it gives everyone else confidence.”

The bridge from starter to closer has been more pliable than it was in 2017, when Brandon Morrow emerged as the primary setup man.

Tom Koehler, signed to set up Jansen, hasn’t pitched because of a shoulder strain. Fields, who has a 2.51 ERA in 34 games after a perfect eighth inning Saturday, has drifted toward the back of the bullpen. Pedro Baez and left-hander Tony Cingrani pitched in high-leverage situations before going on the disabled list.

“I think they’re playing matchups before Kenley instead of having one guy do it every time,” Fields said. “They’re trying to set up the bullpen for success, which is pretty nice.”

Kershaw plan

The next step in Clayton Kershaw’s recovery from a lower-back strain will be a simulated game of three or four innings in Los Angeles on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Roberts said if the left-hander doesn’t have any setbacks he will “probably” make a minor league rehab start next weekend. That would align Kershaw to return to the rotation against the Colorado Rockies on June 29 or 30.

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