During the previous two evenings, the Dodger Stadium mound was filled with August greatness.
On Thursday night, it held that same old October fear.
One day after Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw combined to throw 14 scoreless innings and lead the Dodgers to two victories, the Dodgers were forced to face a question that could haunt them for the next two months.
What now? Where now? Where is the reliably proven third starter who can help them capitalize on what could arguably be one of the greatest regular-season 1-2 pitching punches in baseball history?
On Thursday night, that answer felt like a resounding “Sorry, dude, not here.”
On the mound was one of the guys the Dodgers acquired at the recent trade deadline instead of an ace like David Price or Johnny Cueto. His name is Mat Latos, and so far, watching him makes one want to scour the Dodgers’ dugout and wag a finger and shout, “Next!”
Latos lasted all of three innings before the Cincinnati Reds scored a run. He barely lasted four innings before the Dodger Stadium fans began to boo. He allowed four doubles to the field’s dark corners. He threw away a pickoff throw that resulted in two bases. Third base was stolen behind him. He was finally pulled out of the game with two outs and two runners on base in the fifth inning with the Dodgers trailing, 5-1, in an eventual 10-3 loss.
Latos allowed four earned runs in 42/3 innings and, believe it or not, that was one of his best starts as a Dodger. In three games since being acquired from the Miami Marlins, Latos has allowed 11 runs in 142/3 innings for a 6.75 earned-run average.
Even loud cheers for Justin Turner, returning from the disabled list and entering the game when Latos was leaving, could not mask the jeers that followed the newest Dodgers pitcher back into the dugout.
By the time you read this, those boos will have become frustrated screams, just in time for a Friday night start by another pitcher acquired at the deadline, a 24-year-old from the Atlanta Braves with a 5.56 Dodgers ERA named Alex Wood.
And the Sandy Koufax bobblehead wept.
The steamy 80-degree temperatures were filled with October fear indeed, perhaps even by the Dodgers themselves, The championship window on the Kershaw-Greinke duo is closing fast — Greinke could opt out of his contract this winter — and yet that title can probably be won only with a strong third starter.
And right now, despite having the richest resources in baseball, the Dodgers don’t have one they can completely trust.
Latos looks like a mess, Wood looks like a kid, and while Brett Anderson has a good 3.43 ERA with a nice postseason start on his resume from 2012, his 1282/3 innings are his most in the last six years, and more than in his last three years combined.
Can he stay strong and sound enough to last the next two months? And why on Earth should a team funded by deep-pocketed Guggenheim and run by the celebrated Andrew Friedman even have to worry about that question?
“They don’t get quite the attention focused on Clayton and Zack these days, but you need quality starts where they give you a chance to win,” said Manager Don Mattingly of the Dodgers’ “other” starters. “You ask them to keep you in a game.”
More to the point for Dodgers fans, one of these guys will be asked to keep the team in the postseason, where lack of starting pitching depth has combined with bullpen issues to wipe them out. In each of the last two Octobers, the Dodgers have felt forced to start Kershaw on an unfamiliar three days’ rest, and both times it has led to embarrassment. During that same stretch, they have used a third starter four times, but three of those appearances were by Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is out for the season with shoulder problems. The fourth start was by Ricky Nolasco, who lasted four innings in a Game 4 loss to the St Louis Cardinals in the 2013 National League Championship Series.
The Dodgers were 2-2 in those four postseason starts without Kershaw and Greinke, a bit of mediocrity that mirrors this year’s dilemma. They are 29-17 in games started by their two aces, and 33-34 in other games.
Mediocrity doesn’t work under pressure. Two starters are usually not enough, and why even take that chance? Even with two of the greatest postseason pitchers in modern history, the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling could not have won the World Series that year if Miguel Batista had not won a division series game on the road against the Cardinals.
Friedman, the Dodgers’ new president of baseball operations, has led a Tampa team to the World Series and is confident he has made the right moves to make it work here. He feels the need for a third starter didn’t outweigh the heavy cost of acquiring an ace because it could impact the team in future seasons, and he may eventually be right.
But many angry Dodgers fans are growing even stronger in their belief that Friedman’s trade-dead- line execution was as misguided as that of the Dodger Stadium scoreboard Thursday night. In printing the answers to one of those silly pregame quizzes, the Dodgers actually misspelled President Barack Obama’s first name while correctly spelling Donald Trump.
Of course, most Dodgers fans could watch the recent Republican candidate debates while 65% of the homes in Los Angeles still do not have the Dodgers’ channel as part of their lineup.
On nights when Kershaw or Greinke do not pitch, this can sometimes be a blessing.
MORE FROM PLASCHKE: