As the ninth inning rolled around Friday, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts surveyed the sort of scene which had avoided his team for the previous week. The Dodgers held a lead, which was nothing new. Except this time, in an 11-1 victory over the Mariners, the advantage was large enough that Roberts did not have to fret about his bullpen incinerating it.
“That,” he said, “was much better.”
After seven games of relief-related agita, Roberts managed with little stress in this rare trip to Safeco Field. The offense supplied three home runs in the first four innings and capitalized on a crucial mistake in the field by the Mariners in the fifth. Manny Machado boomed a two-run shot in the seventh inning for his second homer of the game, and Matt Kemp followed with a two-run blast of his own.
The homers assembled a base of support for Walker Buehler (6-4, 3.19 earned-run average). He struck out eight across six innings of one-run baseball. After permitting a solo homer in the fourth, Buehler retired the final nine batters he faced. By the time Roberts went to his bullpen, he held a 10-run lead. It was a welcome change.
The Dodgers (66-57) rested Thursday after a wretched stretch of baseball. When Kenley Jansen felt an irregularity in his heartbeat last week in Denver, the bullpen disintegrated without him. The Dodgers lost five of seven games and fell into third place in the National League West.
The team avoided total collapse by recovering to snag an extra-innings victory over San Francisco on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. In the process, Roberts suggested before Friday’s game, “things were starting to turn” with the offense, which had provided only minimal support for the pitching staff during the losing skid.
“Guys in the ’pen have taken a lot of heat, but you can talk to everybody on our position-players side — those guys know they can be better,” Roberts said.
The offense provided Buehler a lead in the top of the third inning. Roberts used a variety of left-handed hitters against Seattle’s left-handed starter Wade LeBlanc, in deference to LeBlanc’s reliance on 83-mph cutters and 77-mph changeups. Yasmani Grandal resided behind the plate, in deference to Austin Barnes’ season-long funk.
Grandal led off the third inning with a rocket. LeBlanc pumped an 0-1 cutter on the inner half of the plate. Grandal was ready. He hammered the pitch beyond the left-field fence for his 21st home run of the season.
Buehler nearly gave the lead back in the bottom of the frame. Seattle threatened after Brian Dozier dropped a pop-up from Mitch Haniger. Walks by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz loaded the bases and compounded the trouble.
To escape the jam, Buehler needed his fastball. He jammed Denard Span with a 95-mph heater. Span chopped a grounder to first base, which Max Muncy pegged to the plate for a forceout. Buehler hung a 1-2 curveball to Kyle Seager, the elder brother of the Dodgers shortstop, but Seager managed only a flyout to center.
“Walker pitched his way out of some traffic,” Roberts said. “And from there, he was cruising.”
The lead swelled on two more Dodgers homers in the fourth. Machado opened the inning by whacking a shin-high curveball out to left. The location of the pitch from LeBlanc did not matter to Machado. He used his strength and leverage to power the baseball over the fence.
Four batters later, Muncy did the same. Kemp stood at first base after a one-out single. LeBlanc let a 71-mph curve float over the plate. Muncy lifted the pitch a few rows deep in right field.
“It was a fun night for everybody,” Muncy said.
Seattle recouped a run off Buehler in the bottom of the fourth when Ryon Healy hit a solo home run. But the Mariners played inelegant baseball in the fifth and allowed the Dodgers to build a comfortable lead, even for this group of relievers.
The top of the order stressed LeBlanc. Brian Dozier walked. Justin Turner singled. A single by Cody Bellinger brought Dozier home. It also caused Seattle manager Scott Servais to open his bullpen.
The first reliever out the door was right-hander Christian Bergman. His defense would let him down immediately.
Kemp hit a fly down the right-field line. Haniger, an All-Star last month, tracked the pitch down and lifted his glove. The baseball avoided it and bounced into the stands. Turner scored on the error, while Bellinger and Kemp trotted into scoring position. A sacrifice fly from Enrique Hernandez pushed the lead to six.
Another round of thunder followed in the seventh. Bergman remained in the game. After a single by Turner, Machado detonated a belt-high slider. The homer soared past the fence in center.
“I’m feeling more comfortable at the plate, more comfortable around the guys,” Machado said. “And we’re winning some baseball, so that makes it a lot more fun.”
It would not get much better for Bergman. He walked Bellinger. Then he flipped a curveball down the middle for Kemp. On Wednesday Kemp had recorded two hits, which improved his mark to a still unsightly five-for-58 since July 24. Now he launched his first homer since July 22, a majestic, two-run blast.
“Felt longer,” Kemp said. “But, hey, I’m going to celebrate tonight. We got a win. I hit a home run.”
As the baseball approached the center-field wall, Seattle’s Cameron Maybin gave chase. He leaped in vain to snag the baseball. Maybin missed, but standing at second base, Bellinger could not be sure. He held on the bag for a few seconds, before he realized the truth: For one night, at least, baseball could look this easy.