Come October, Dave Roberts probably will be handing Kenta Maeda the ball near the end of games.
But on Saturday, the Dodgers’ manager sat back and relaxed while Maeda cruised through his best start in months, if not the season: a scoreless seven-inning, three-hit, six-strikeout gem in a 4-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in front of 52,606 at Dodger Stadium.
“With Kenta, we use the word ‘conviction’ a lot on all of his pitches,” Roberts said. “You can see the awkward swings they were getting.”
This time last season, Maeda was gearing up for his move to the bullpen — an annual exercise for the right-hander. His final start in 2018 was exactly a year ago Saturday.
After that, he spent the rest of the regular season in the bullpen. As he did in 2017, he made all of his postseason appearances as a reliever as well. In 17 career playoff relief outings, Maeda has a 2.08 ERA and .212 batting average against.
The Dodgers are expected to shift Maeda back to the bullpen again this year. His mid-summer slump — 0-6 with a 5.26 ERA over his last 12 games — only strengthened that belief.
Saturday’s performance, in which he earned his first win since May 31, probably won’t change the plan. But it might make the Dodgers’ brass think a little harder about removing him from the rotation.
“Going into the postseason, we want the best guys making starts and guys we feel in the ’pen that can be successful with matchups,” Roberts said. “We see Kenta as a starter. The job for him is to go out there and keep pitching and make our job more difficult.”
Before the game, Roberts said he wanted to see the right-hander be more aggressive, sequence his pitches better and “not be so predictable.”
Maeda listened, mixing in sliders and changeups early in counts to get ahead and keep Arizona hitters off balance. He faced the minimum number of hitters in five of seven innings and allowed only one batter to reach second base. He didn’t walk anyone for the fourth time in a start this season. He exited after 93 stress-free pitches.
“He was striking his fastball, he was getting ahead,” Roberts said. “He was getting back in the count with the breaking ball, then mixing in his secondary pitches.”
Over the last week, Maeda (8-8) worked with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on resetting his arm position back to its normal, higher plane. It paid off.
“I was able to mix in everything tonight,” Maeda, who hasn’t been told how many more starts he may get this season, said through a translator. “The fastball location was there.”
Max Muncy opened the scoring in the second inning with a towering, 429-foot solo home run to center field off Arizona starter Alex Young (4-2). An inning later, Kristopher Negron doubled the lead with an RBI single down the left-field line.
The Dodgers tacked on a few more in the fourth. Russell Martin picked up his sixth RBI in the last six games with a single. Corey Seager scored on a safety squeeze from Maeda.
The Dodgers (78-41) maintained the best record in baseball and extended their NL West lead over the second-place Diamondbacks to 18 games. With seven weeks left in the regular season, they’re already in position to switch to cruise control — which, in the past, is usually when Maeda has been reassigned.
His presence in a beleaguered bullpen would be welcomed again this year. His sparkling start, however, was a reminder that he can have an influence from the rotation too.
“The postseason is a whole different story,” Maeda said. “I’ll think about it once we get there. As of now, my job during the season is to pitch as a starter.”