Mookie Betts’ slump worrisome amid the Dodgers besting Braves: Five takeaways
Twelve games in, the Dodgers couldn’t have asked for a much better start.
They are 9-3, including wins in six of seven games during their first homestand and eight of their last nine overall.
They have won three straight series, earning their most impressive result by taking two of three from the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves this week.
And they have done it with production on both the mound and at the plate, ranking second in the majors in scoring (5.33 runs per game), second in team ERA (2.38) and first in run differential (plus-32).
Wednesday was one of the Dodgers’ most complete performances yet, a 5-1 win in which they took an early lead, tacked on insurance runs and limited the Braves to three hits.
“That was just one of those games where we can sit back after the game and it puts a smile on your face,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “Because that was just a well-played baseball game.”
The Dodgers aren’t free of worries. They are dealing with their first bout of injuries. A few of their big stars are in the midst of quiet starts. But so far, it hasn’t slowed them down, resulting in an opening couple weeks that have reaffirmed their place as one of baseball’s best.
Tony Gonsolin gives up one hit in six shutout innings and Freddie Freeman hits a home run in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win Wednesday over the Atlanta Braves
Here are five takeaways on where they stand.
Betts’ slow start
For as well as the Dodgers have played as a team, they are still waiting for their leadoff hitter to make his typical MVP-caliber impact.
So far, Mookie Betts has been arguably the club’s worst hitter, beginning the season just eight for 45 (.178 average) with two doubles, three RBIs, no home runs and a team-worst .511 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
“Certainly the at-bats aren’t Mookie typical,” manager Dave Roberts said prior to Wednesday’s game, when Betts snapped an 0-for-13 skid with a single in the first. “I don’t have an answer right now on why he’s sort of scuffling.”
Betts came into the season hopeful of putting his inconsistent 2021 campaign behind him, when a nagging hip injury contributed to a career-low .264 batting average and an .854 OPS that was well under his career norm.
So far, however, his surface numbers have only continued to slide. The underlying data don’t paint an optimistic picture either, with Betts ranking among the worst hitters in baseball in hard hit percentage, average exit velocity and expected batting average and slugging percentage, according to Baseball Savant.
“He is in-between. He’s late, and then he’s early. He’s underneath. He’s out and around. So I think when you’re struggling, that’s kind of what happens,” Roberts said. “His body’s working and moving right. It’s just not being able to sync it up at the plate right now.”
Roberts maintained confidence in the 29-year-old, claiming his early slump wasn’t yet a major concern. But the manager also acknowledged the team can’t afford to have the five-time All-Star — who is in the second season of a 12-year, $365-million contract — continue to struggle for too much longer.
“He can go out there and have a good series and he’ll get back on track,” Roberts said. “I think no one expected this, but — I won’t say it for too long — it’s still relatively early.”
Injury bug bites
For the first time this year, the Dodgers were dealing with injuries to key players during their series against the Braves.
Reliever Blake Treinen hasn’t pitched since April 14 because of an arm issue but is expected to be available for the start of the team’s upcoming trip in San Diego that begins Friday.
Infielder Gavin Lux missed the final two games against the Braves with back tightness but is also expected to be in the lineup Friday against the Padres.
The biggest concern right now belongs to Andrew Heaney, who went on the 10-day injured list Wednesday with left shoulder discomfort following his promising start to the season.
Roberts said Heaney felt soreness in his shoulder a day after his most recent start Sunday. The left-hander tried playing catch prior to Wednesday’s game but said “it didn’t go good,” leading the team to put him on the IL and tap Tyler Anderson to take his place in the rotation for Saturday’s game.
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Roberts said the team doesn’t believe Heaney’s injury to be serious but that they haven’t decided how long he’ll have to wait before trying to throw again.
“He’ll miss a start and we’ll see kind of how it goes,” Roberts said. “Don’t expect it to be long term. But right now it was a pretty easy decision.”
Freeman’s first homestand
The Dodgers’ best performer during their first homestand: Freddie Freeman, who navigated the emotions of his first home games at Dodger Stadium and first meeting with his former Braves team, to go 10 for 27 with two home runs and seven RBIs during the seven-game stretch.
“I hadn’t seen a lot of those guys since the parade,” Freeman said of facing the Braves. “It’s just good to see everybody. Ultimately we had a job to do and we were able to win the series.”
Freeman became an instant fan favorite at Chavez Ravine, serenaded with chants of “Fre-ddie! Fre-ddie!” almost every time he came to the plate.
“It’s getting crazy,” Freeman said of the chants. “For 50,000 people every single night, every time I walk into the box to make me feel good about myself and that they care about me, that means a lot.”
Freeman, who joined the Dodgers on a six-year, $162-million contract this spring, also began a new routine in his new home ballpark, waving to his family in the suite level whenever he got on deck — and after each of his home runs too.
In his first at-bat against his former team, Freddie Freeman hit a home run and helped power the Dodgers to a 7-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.
“I’m sure you guys will see over the next six years, if my son’s at the game I’d have to wave to him every single time,” Freeman said with a laugh, referencing his eldest son, 5-year-old Charlie. “So if you ever watch that, there’s always a wave to him because he will get upset if I don’t wave to him.”
Buehler still finding groove
Few would have expected it entering the campaign, but after a dozen games Walker Buehler has been the Dodgers’ least-effective starting pitcher.
In three starts, the right-hander has the rotation’s highest earned-run average (4.02) and walks-and-hits-per-inning (1.468), and its second-lowest strikeout rate (6.3 per nine innings).
His most recent start was his most frustrating yet, when he gave up three runs and eight hits to the Braves on Tuesday.
The 27-year-old made a minor tweak to his delivery in the game, abandoning his usual overhead pitching motion in his most recent outing. Still, the results are lagging for the two-time All-Star and preseason Cy Young Award contender.
“I’ve felt good, I’ve felt healthy,” Buehler said. “I’m just not getting the results that I want.”
Clayton Kershaw had difficulty appreciating a standing ovation at Dodger Stadium after the Atlanta Braves knocked him out in the sixth inning of a win.
Roberts believes a lack of fastball command and slider sharpness is at the root of Buehler’s issues.
So far, opponents are hitting .500 off his four-seamer, which has also accounted for both of Buehler’s home runs allowed. His slider is yielding just a .250 average but is also getting whiffs just 27.6% of the time, an almost 8% drop from last year.
“To have two [starts] here at home and not be super sharp, it’s not something that I enjoy, it’s not a feeling that I like,” Buehler said. “But it’s not something we’re just going to let stay that way either. We’re trying things and trying to figure it out and hopefully get back on track.”
Early-season standings check
Last season, the Dodgers’ 106 wins weren’t enough to capture an National League West division title.
Early on, the division isn’t showing signs of being any easier this year.
While the Dodgers sit in first place entering Thursday, they aren’t the only NL West club off to a strong start.
The defending division champion San Francisco Giants are 8-5, being buoyed again by strong pitching.
The Colorado Rockies have been an early-season surprise, beginning 8-4 after following up their opening-series win against the Dodgers with a sweep of the Texas Rangers, four-game split with the Chicago Cubs and series win against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Dodgers next opponent, the Padres, are 9-5 and winners of four in a row entering this weekend’s three-game set at Petco Park.
“They have a great atmosphere down there, especially when we come into town,” Cody Bellinger said of facing San Diego. “They’re a really good team, and it’s always fun playing against those guys.”
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