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Kenta Maeda’s strikeouts have Dodgers in striking distance

Los Angeles Times writer Andy McCullough and columnist Dylan Hernandez talk about the Dodgers' good luck and how close they are to being first in the NL West.

Kenta Maeda balled his right hand into a fist and hopped off the mound. A scream escaped his lungs after he executed his 97th pitch of the evening, a well-placed changeup that resulted in his 10th strikeout, ended the top of the sixth inning and erased a threat from the Rockies in a 3-0 Dodgers victory. Maeda skipped into his dugout as the crowd at Dodger Stadium rose to salute him.

In an upset, it was not the final pitch of Maeda's evening Wednesday. He returned to strike out two more in the seventh before manager Dave Roberts removed him. The crowd jeered Roberts' intervention after Maeda issued a walk. The applause returned for Maeda as the Dodgers (22-27) won their first series at home since taking two of three from Washington on April 20-22.

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The victory brought the Dodgers within 31/2 games of first place in the National League West, despite their losing record and generally dispiriting play this season. Seeing Colorado, the temporary kingpins of the division, for the first time this week revealed the mediocrity of the competition. The Dodgers can muddle along and remain within striking distance.

After a demoralizing six-game losing streak to Cincinnati and Miami, the Dodgers have rebounded with six victories in their last seven games. They can extend their momentum when the bottom-dwelling San Diego Padres visit Friday.

"You can see the energy in the clubhouse," closer Kenley Jansen said after earning his 10th save. "Everybody is like, 'Oh man, we're about to get out of this.' We've just got to continue to play baseball."

Maeda (4-3, 3.38 ERA) finished one shy of a career-high with 12 strikeouts. He held Colorado to a pair of hits, both singles. He allowed only one batter to reach third base. In his last two starts, Maeda has struck out 20 batters across 142/3 innings.

Neither team produced a hit until the third inning. Colorado started former first-round pick Kyle Freeland, a left-hander who took to the mound with a 3.17 ERA, the lowest in the Rockies rotation.

Yasiel Puig collected the first hit of the game. He led off the third with an opposite-field single. Freeland clipped Chris Taylor with a fastball to put another runner on base but retired Austin Barnes on a comebacker to end the inning.

Maeda struck out the side in the fourth. He left outfielder David Dahl looking at a 2-2 curveball. He spun a slider past Nolan Arenado. He finished the inning by inspiring a feeble swing from Gerardo Parra with another curveball.

"The ability to go east to west, and then to strike the slider has been huge," Roberts said. "He was in control."

The Dodgers staked Maeda a two-run lead in the bottom of the fourth. The offense taxed Freeland with a steady stream of quality at-bats. Justin Turner singled. Enrique Hernandez did the same. A six-pitch tussle between Freeland and Logan Forsythe ended when Forsythe pulled a ground-rule double into the left-field corner. Puig drove in a second run with a groundout.

Maeda yielded his first hit in the fifth, a single by first baseman Ian Desmond that bounced through the right side of the infield. Maeda was unbowed. He struck out two more in the inning to strand Desmond.

"I'm being aggressive in the zone," Maeda said through his interpreter, Will Ireton. "And the guys are missing my pitches."

The offense produced another run for Maeda in the bottom of the frame. After singles by Chris Taylor and Turner, Matt Kemp hit a sacrifice fly. Turner was thrown out at second on the play, but the run counted and the lead expanded to three.

In the sixth, Maeda extricated himself from his first real crisis of the evening. It arose after a one-out walk by outfielder Charlie Blackmon and a single by Dahl. The hit placed runners at the corners with the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters of Colorado looming. Maeda, however, made quick work of both.

Maeda dusted aside Arenado with three sliders. He collected his 10th strikeout of the evening when Parra swung through a changeup.

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"I think he trusts his pitches right now," Barnes said. "He's throwing all four very effectively. I think there's a lot of confidence in him in whatever he throws up there."

Before his last outing, Maeda had not pitched into the seventh inning all season. Roberts sent him back for the second game in a row. Maeda froze shortstop Trevor Story with a 91-mph fastball and whiffed Desmond with a slider. A walk by catcher Chris Iannetta brought out Roberts.

The crowd groaned when Pedro Baez entered and threw a pair of balls. The unease lifted when Baez induced a popup from Carlos Gonzalez to end the threat.

"We're starting to click a little bit better as a team," Barnes said. "We're starting to play complete baseball now. Pitching well, driving in some runs, putting together good at-bats."

Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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