The fireworks started a day early. The display started before the sun set on Dodger Stadium and it lasted deep into the night. On the eve of July 4, the Dodgers staged a pyrotechnics exhibition, launching six home runs in an 8-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The barrage could not be considered a holiday anomaly: It is this sort of power that has allowed the Dodgers to pull back within sight of first place in the National League West. The Dodgers are 1 1/2 games behind Arizona after setting a franchise record with 55 home runs in June and producing 11 in July.
The onslaught began in Tuesday’s first inning. Joc Pederson went deep on Pittsburgh’s first pitch of the game. Max Muncy swatted two to bring his season total to 20, enough for Clayton Kershaw to call him “the best hitter in baseball right now.”
Chris Taylor clubbed a two-run shot as part of a three-hit night; Taylor finished a single shy of a cycle.
“It’s pretty remarkable what we’re doing,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The offense eased the burden on Kershaw (2-4) as he took another step in his return from his second stint on the disabled list this season. He was making his third start back from a strained muscle in his lower back. He logged three innings in his first outing and five in his second. On Tuesday, the Dodgers expected to cap him at six innings or 90 pitches.
Kershaw completed six innings in 74 pitches. In between innings, Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt conferred with Kershaw on the bench. As the offense continued hammering starter Ivan Nova (4-6), the team turned to the bullpen for the seventh inning.
Kershaw gave up two runs and four hits. He struck out only two batters. He relied on his defenders — and the cushion created by his offense.
“I made some mistakes today,” Kershaw said. “But thankfully the way the guys are swinging the bats, they weren’t really noticed.”
The night before, the Dodgers squashed the Pirates pitching staff, collecting 17 runs and 21 hits. The lineup resumed the bludgeoning on the first pitch thrown by Nova. A 93-mph fastball hummed over the plate. Pederson hammered it into the right-field bleachers.
“We knew Max was a good hitter, but I don’t think anyone in the world would expect this,” Kershaw said.
Kershaw handed a run back in the second inning. Elias Diaz laced a leadoff double. David Freese was up next and stroked a 92-mph fastball into left field for a run-scoring single.
In the third inning, Muncy struck once more. Nova missed upstairs with two fastballs. Then a 2-and-0 changeup floated over the plate. The pitch darted downward, but not far enough. Muncy lifted it to right field, just beyond the reach of Gregory Polanco for yet another solo shot.
Muncy grinned as he rounded third base. He has been the most obvious avatar for the team’s resurgence. Unheralded upon his arrival in the organization last spring, he has emerged as the lineup’s most dangerous hitter. The production is astounding, compared to his resume: His previous career high for home runs in a season was 25, which he hit between Class-A and double A in 2013.
“I never thought I could hit this many home runs in this short an amount of time,” Muncy said.
Like Alex Wood the night before, Kershaw benefited from the offensive bounty. He lacked the crispness of his last appearance, when he held the Chicago Cubs to one run. He was still effective, save for his inability to solve Diaz and Freese.
The duo vexed Kershaw again in the fourth inning. The sequence was nearly identical. Diaz cracked a double, this one with two outs, on a full-count slider. Diaz pulled the pitch down the third base line, inches from the glove of Justin Turner. Freese rolled a 2-and-2 curveball up the middle for his second run-scoring single.
The contact was not fierce, but it was enough. Kershaw failed to miss bats throughout his outing. His first strikeout came in the third inning, against Nova. He did not register another one until Nova waved at an 0-and-2 curveball in the fifth.
It was not difficult for Grandal to travel the final 90 feet to home.
Nova again fell behind in the count, this time to Taylor, who obliterated a 3-and-1 fastball for a two-run blast and the fourth Dodgers home run.
“We’ve been swinging it well for a while now,” Taylor said. “Seeing what Muncy’s doing and Joc’s doing, it seems to be contagious.”
The fifth disappeared from sight in the sixth inning. Grandal hit it. Nova pumped a 2-and-2 fastball and Grandal did not miss.
A double by Taylor hastened Nova’s departure. Into the game came Dovydas Neverauskas. He received a rude greeting. Enrique Hernandez jumped on a 98-mph fastball for a two-run home run.
“Seeing everybody do great puts a smile on my face,” Muncy said. “I know it puts a smile on everybody else’s face.”