During spring training at Camelback Ranch, as he pondered how to regain his foothold within the Dodgers’ starting rotation, Kenta Maeda tinkered with the grip of his changeup. He wanted a pitch with teeth, not the noncompetitive version he felt uncomfortable throwing in 2017. He opened his fingers to create more downward action on the offering, a quality on display often in a 4-2 victory over the Padres on Wednesday.
Maeda struck out nine batters for the fourth game in a row. He held his hosts to one run before he departed with two outs in the sixth. He offset their timing with changeups again and again.
“I’ve been able to use it effectively, and I’ve been getting a lot of punch-outs with it,” Maeda said through his interpreter, Will Ireton. “But it seems like nine is the number I’m stalling at, so I was hoping for that today.”
What will it take for Maeda to reach 10 strikeouts?
“I’ve got to work harder,” Maeda said.
He will get an opportunity after the All-Star break. Maeda ended his first half on a stirring note. He has permitted only five runs in his last four outings. In the process, he has reduced his earned-run average to 3.13.
If the team’s six starting pitchers remain healthy, one will be bound for the bullpen by next month. Maeda appears to have secured his spot in the rotation. In the eyes of his organization, he has carried some of the attacking spirit he displayed as a reliever last October into his outings as a starter this season. Manager Dave Roberts referred to the changeup as “a game-changer.”
“It keeps guys more honest with the slider, with the fastball,” Roberts said. “Everything just plays up, off of that. He can throw that pitch, present it as a strike, and the bottom falls out. It’s been a huge weapon.”
The Dodgers (50-42) provided enough support for Maeda to pull back within a half game of Arizona in the National League West. The offense created three runs in the third inning as San Diego made a series of questionable plays in the field. Daniel Hudson gave up a solo home run in the seventh, but the hitters evened that out when Chris Taylor supplied a two-out RBI single as insurance in the eighth.
Maeda yielded a run in the first inning. The first two San Diego batters connected for hits. After a single by outfielder Travis Jankowski, second baseman Carlos Asuaje redirected a 91-mph fastball into right field for an RBI double. Maeda recovered to avoid further damage. He struck out five batters in the first two innings.
“As the game moved on, I felt better and better,” Maeda said.
A night before, the offense had managed only one run against Padres rookie Eric Lauer. Another rookie awaited on Wednesday. Joey Lucchesi entered the game with a 3.27 earned-run average. He ran into trouble in the third inning.
Robbed of hits on several occasions in this series, Enrique Hernandez splashed a one-out double. Matt Kemp tied the score by shooting a single into left field. A single by Max Muncy brought Logan Forsythe to the plate with runners at the corners and two outs.
Forysthe clipped a sharp grounder up the middle. Asuaje ranged to his right and scooped the baseball. His throw eluded shortstop Freddy Galvis at second base. Forsythe received credit for a go-ahead, RBI single. It was only his second hit of the month, as he adjusts to life as mostly a bench player.
“He’s doing whatever he can to help us win baseball games, so you’ve got to give Logan credit, to go through this,” Roberts said.
The scorer would not reward Cody Bellinger for the next at-bat, but the Dodgers still produced an unearned run. After a wild pitch moved the runners up, Bellinger hit a grounder. Galvis scudded his throw in front of first baseman Eric Hosmer, who could not catch it. Bellinger was safe, and the Dodgers led by two.
Back on the mound, Maeda resumed carving up his hosts. He fooled outfielder Wil Myers with a changeup to end the third. He opened the fourth by fanning Hosmer with another changeup and spinning a slider past outfielder Hunter Renfroe.
Lucchesi left the game after four innings. Maeda kept rolling. He erased a single in the fifth by inducing outfielder Franmil Reyes to hit into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play on an outside fastball.
The sixth inning was Maeda’s last. It started with a walk by Jankowski. A fielder’s choice followed. Maeda spotted a slider on the outside corner to Myers. The pitch earned the approval of umpire Ben May, who granted Maeda his ninth strikeout of the game. On cue, Roberts emerged from his dugout.
Maeda had thrown 92 pitches. At the plate was Hosmer, a left-handed hitter with a penchant for clubbing the baseball into the ground. Roberts brought in Scott Alexander, the Dodgers’ groundball specialist. The expected happened: Hosmer bounced into an inning-ending groundout. Maeda would receive credit for the victory.