The Dodgers unveiled their starting lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates Friday at around 3:45 p.m. local time. They were facing an opener for the third consecutive game, so it was different than their usual configurations. Most notably, 26-year-old rookie Matt Beaty, a left-handed hitter with 13 career plate appearances, was in the leadoff spot to counter Michael Feliz, a mediocre right-handed reliever the Pirates chose to open.
But before the teams took the field at PNC Park for the scheduled 7:05 p.m. first pitch, the Dodgers changed the batting order twice as they bounced around ideas on how to optimize their attack against Feliz and the Pirates’ looming relievers.
Beaty stayed atop the lineup and, ultimately, the order didn’t matter much in the Dodgers’ 10-2 victory. They pulverized Feliz. Five of the six batters he faced reached base, capped by David Freese’s grand slam. He gave up five runs and threw 22 pitches before he was chased with one out in the first inning. His ERA ballooned from 4.63 to 8.25.
“There's a lot of thought that went through it,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But, obviously, it takes good players to execute and they did that.”
The Dodgers (33-18) tacked on two runs on Austin Barnes’ double in the third inning and two more on Cody Bellinger’s 18th home run in the seventh inning in support of Walker Buehler, who didn’t need much of it.
On the other side, Los Angeles continued succeeding with the conventional approach. Buehler avoided the lull of a big lead by attacking the strike zone early with his deep arsenal. He logged a first-pitch strike to 15 of the 23 batters he faced and missed more and more bats as his six-inning outing went along. He gave up one run and five hits, walking one with six strikeouts. After a bumpy beginning to his season, the 24-year-old right-hander has given up five runs and has compiled 28 strikeouts to two walks his last four starts.
It was the 11th consecuve quality start — defined as giving up three or fewer runs over at least six innings — for the Dodgers. Their starters have posted a 2.09 ERA in 24 games since April 25.
“That's been the strength of us for a long time,” Buehler said, “and I think this is just a continuation of that.”
Facing an opener has become familiar for the Dodgers. The Tampa Bay Rays used one Wednesday and Thursday. But the Rays’ use was planned. Tampa Bay was the first club to regularly start games with a reliever last season — starting a movement that caught on with some other teams — and built its pitching staff to sustain the scheme this season.
The Pirates (25-23) used an opener Friday out of desperation. Injuries have dwindled their starting pitching options, leaving Feliz to make his first major league start against the highest-scoring team in the National League.
The Dodgers knew Steven Brault, a left-hander, would follow Feliz to pitch the bulk of the game. That variable was incorporated into their thought process. They had Beaty lead off as their left fielder for the second time in three games over the left-handed-hitting Joc Pederson because the plan was to replace Beaty with Chris Taylor, a right-handed hitter, once Brault took over for Feliz.
The thinking was they wouldn’t have to face the decision of letting Pederson, who struggles against left-handers, face a lefty multiple times. The strategy would ensure Pederson, whose 14 home runs have all been against right-handed pitchers, would be available to pinch-hit against a right-hander late in the game.
Initially, Justin Turner, Bellinger, and Max Muncy followed Beaty, in that order. The third and final lineup iteration had Muncy, Turner and Bellinger batting second, third, and fourth, respectively, to break up Bellinger and Muncy, who are both left-handed batters.
Beaty began the game with a single and scored on Turner’s double. Freese received a hearty ovation and had his walk-up song played before his first at-bat in Pittsburgh since the Pirates traded him to Los Angeles last August. He then landed the big blow, launching a 3-2 fastball over the wall in right-center field for his third career grand slam and first since May 2013.
“They played my walk-up song so I was pumped,” Freese said. “It fired me up, so that was good.”
Freese’s blast prompted Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to replace Feliz with Brault as the Dodgers batted around. They countered by replacing Beaty with Taylor in the bottom of the inning before Beaty even played left field — perhaps giving birth to the position player opener.