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Pedro Baez emerges as linchpin of Dodgers bullpen

Pedro Baez emerges as linchpin of Dodgers bullpen
Dodgers relief pitcher Pedro Baez records an out at first base during Saturday's game against Milwaukee. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Seeking to keep a one-run deficit from ballooning and knowing the top of the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup was looming, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts turned to the best arm he had in his bullpen in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday afternoon. And so out came Pedro Baez, the notoriously methodical and occasionally maddening right-hander, to pitch the seventh inning at Miller Park.

Baez worked around a one-out walk, getting presumptive National League MVP Christian Yelich and former all-star Ryan Braun to fly out to center field, to emerge unscathed. He completed his day by striking out Domingo Santana to begin the eighth inning, pounding his glove in delight when the pinch-hitter swung through a wicked changeup before Roberts emerged to take the ball.

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Between those outs, Justin Turner belted a two-run home run to give the Dodgers a 4-3 lead and place Baez in line for his first career postseason win, one Kenley Jansen sealed for him with a clean ninth inning. The sequence would have been difficult to envision a year ago.

The Dodgers did not trust Baez last October during their playoff run to the World Series. He was left to root for his teammates. The Dodgers decided they didn’t need him. His 6.52 career postseason earned-run average and standing among frustrated fans, whose booing of Baez irritated the organization, did not budge.

“Even though I didn’t have the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs,” Baez said in Spanish, “I was always rooting for the team and energizing the team to go out every day and win the championship.”

A year later, Baez is the bullpen’s linchpin. Since Aug. 13, the 30-year-old has a 0.38 ERA in 24 innings. He has allowed nine hits and walked seven. He has 26 strikeouts. He’s arguably been the best relief pitcher in baseball during the stretch and catapulted within the Dodgers bullpen hierarchy.

“’I feel good to have won their confidence,” Baez said. “I feel good. I just got to keep working every day and pushing to move forward.”

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes talks about NLCS Game 2.

Baez entered Aug. 13 carrying a 4.14 ERA. The surface numbers did not suggest a 180-degree turnaround, but the Dodgers brass was puzzled. What they saw did not match the results. Baez had developed a quality changeup to complement his mid-to-high-90s fastball and slider. His stuff was better than ever. In their eyes, he should’ve been pitching better.

“We felt strongly that this version of Pedro Baez was the best we had ever seen,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “And as we’re saying that to ourselves he was struggling. But just believing in his makeup, his right arm, and the weapons that he possessed at that time, we felt confident that he would get through it.”

But a combination of factors — “an imperfect storm,” in Friedman’s words — haunted Baez, who spent six weeks on the disabled list in June and July with biceps tendinitis. He returned to author an 8.53 ERA over his next six outings, capped off by allowing four runs in one-third of an inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. He’s allowed one run since.

“Obviously, you don’t expect this kind of run,” Friedman said, “but it doesn’t surprise to see that he’s had a lot of success.”

On Saturday, he anchored a bullpen that allowed one hit — Travis Shaw’s solo home run off Alex Wood — in 5 2/3 innings. Seven relievers pitched in all. None got more outs than the four Baez secured. After he struck out Santana to collect the fourth and Roberts pulled him, Baez walked off the mound to applause from the smattering of Dodger fans behind the visiting team’s dugout.

“We’ve seen how much he cares, how hard he works,” Friedman said. “So for him to flip the script and be a big part of what we’re doing is huge.”

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