In the same stoic manner with which he operates on the mound, Hyun-Jin Ryu glided past a cluster of reporters in the Dodgers dugout Tuesday afternoon.
A blue Dodgers gym shirt draped over his imposing 6-foot-3, 255-pound frame, he shuffled past the spot of Dave Roberts’ daily pregame news conferences — the place where, for most of this season, the manager has faced few tough questions regarding the left-handed starting pitcher.
On Tuesday, however, in the wake of three consecutive lackluster appearances from the season-long National League Cy Young Award front-runner, a concern was finally raised.
Though the Dodgers are in cruise control and closing in on a seventh consecutive division title, Ryu’s start in Wednesday’s series finale against the Colorado Rockies feels strangely significant.
With the playoffs nearing, Roberts acknowledged Ryu’s outing Wednesday will be “important.” After all, Roberts said, “the last three haven’t been particularly good.”
After dominating his first 22 starts — when he went 12-2 with a 1.45 ERA, 121-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and allowed more than two runs just once — Ryu has indeed looked disjointed in his past three.
On Aug. 17 at Atlanta, Ryu lasted 5⅔ innings, issued two homers and was tagged with four earned runs in a loss. The New York Yankees took Ryu deep three times a week later, chasing him after scoring seven runs in 4⅓ innings. Last Thursday at Arizona wasn’t any better, as Ryu was tagged for seven more runs in 4⅔ innings against the Diamondbacks.
During the rut, Ryu hasn’t avoided contact the way he did earlier this season. Compared to his first 22 starts, Ryu’s numbers have tanked in his past three. His slugging percentage against has nearly doubled, his groundball-to-flyball ratio has been cut in half, and he’s allowed nearly three more hits per game.
“Obviously,” Roberts said, “he’s worked on some things.”
Under normal circumstances, Ryu lays low between starts. With a stall near the back door of the clubhouse, he can slip in and out undetected. Behind an inconspicuous countenance, he keeps his emotions under wraps. And, as Ryu transformed into one of the best pitchers in baseball earlier this summer, the Dodgers coaching staff left him largely to his own devices during off days.
This time, that wasn’t the case.
Infamous for evading routine bullpen work, Ryu did the opposite this week. He tossed a side session “a couple days ago,” Roberts said, to work on tweaks he and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt deemed necessary.
“He and Honey feel they’ve cleaned some things up with the delivery,” Roberts said. “Don’t think it’s fatigue. I certainly expect him to come out [on Wednesday].”
Ryu’s August blip, which bumped his ERA from 1.45 to 2.35, hasn’t diminished his importance to the team.
“It will be nice to see him bounce back,” catcher Russell Martin said. “He’s a guy who’s got tremendous ability. His command is arguably his best weapon, so looking forward to seeing him command the baseball like he wants to and execute pitches like he wants to.”
And because of a shaky bullpen and somewhat banged-up lineup, the Dodgers’ World Series hopes might rest on the strength of their rotation. Ryu has been the best of that bunch for most of the year. Roberts is hopeful that he’ll rediscover his elite form.
“I expect,” Roberts said, “the execution to be a lot better.”