Dodgers takeaways: Hitting remains a concern, with Justin Turner front and center
Nobody encapsulated the Dodgers’ up-and-down performance at the plate this week against the Pittsburgh Pirates quite like Justin Turner.
In Monday’s loss, the third baseman hit the ball hard but came up empty, robbed by a diving catch in left, a line drive that just landed foul and a sharp one-hopper snagged at third.
The next night, Turner keyed the Dodgers’ blowout win, going 4 for 5 with three doubles and four RBIs in his — and the offense’s — best game of the season.
But on Wednesday, he and the Dodgers tumbled back to earth, with Turner having a hitless performance in the team’s rubber match loss that lowered his batting average to just .194.
Plenty of Dodgers hitters have started slowly this year, an early-season story line for a team that is a National League-best 20-9 and leads the majors in runs per game, but dropped a disappointing series to the Pirates this week in part because of inconsistency at the plate.
Turner’s slump, however, has been the most alarming.
Like some of his other struggling teammates, Turner said he felt better about his swing this trip, hopeful he has rediscovered a feel that can snap his opening month rut.
But the results have yet to show up consistently.
“The good thing is we’re winning a lot of games,” Turner said. “So you continue to grind through it and find ways to get on base, or get runs in and help us win. At some point it’s gonna start clicking. I’ve been here before. I know there’s another side to this.”
Here are takeaways on Turner and the rest of the team.
Ryan Pepiot needed 77 pitches to navigate three scoreless innings in his MLB debut, and reliever Tommy Kahnle gave up two home runs in a Dodgers’ loss.
Turner searching for right feel
Turner has indeed endured slow starts before, with a career .750 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in April that is significantly lower than his .830 mark overall.
But even he doesn’t usually struggle like this.
In addition to his .194 average, he has just a .543 OPS. He has only one home run and a .291 slugging percentage. He has more than twice as many strikeouts (20) as walks (9).
“I think what was different about this April was, there were a lot of out of character at-bats,” Turner said. “A lot of chasing, a lot of weak contact.”
The last time Turner was hitting below .200 on May 11 was his first year with the Dodgers in 2014, a campaign that turned around soon after and launched his storied nine-year tenure with the team.
Turner hopes this past week was the start of a similar rebound.
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Though he went only 5 for 21 on the trip, he collected his three hardest hit balls of the season and showed better discipline at the plate, going five straight games without a strikeout.
A hitter who describes his hitting process as “trial and error,” he believes he found a better feel with his swing, too, after tinkering with mechanics during cage work and batting practice.
“It took me a little bit,” he said, “but I think I found something that’s sustainable.”
The 37-year-old also brushed aside any suggestion age is playing a factor in his slow start, noting that offense is down around the league this year.
“I think it’s easy to point out in my case,” Turner said. “But a lot of other guys are going through it too. So what’s the excuse for those guys? I don’t think pointing a finger at my age is fair.”
Until his production rebounds, however, the questions will linger.
“Obviously, it looks uglier when it’s the first month,” Turner said. “But you can’t really sit and look at the scoreboard and feel sorry for yourself.… You’re still coming in every day and trying to hone things in.”
Other rebound candidates
Turner hasn’t been alone with a slow start this year.
Entering Thursday, several other Dodgers regulars had an OPS below .700, the clearest sign of their sluggish production so far:
— Trea Turner cooled off the last two weeks batting just .195 in his past 11 games. Manager Dave Roberts said Turner has chased too much off either side of the plate (Turner currently has a career-low contact percentage on pitches outside the zone), and Turner said he’s gone back to an old hitting routine he hopes will help.
— Chris Taylor was batting over .300 in late April but has since looked out of sorts at the plate striking out 24 times in his last 45 at-bats.
— Cody Bellinger has followed up his NL Player of the Week honors last month by going 7 for 52 over the last 14 games with 18 strikeouts.
— Max Muncy, who continues to lead the majors in walks with 25, is batting just .138. His latest moment of frustration came Wednesday, when he struck out looking with the bases loaded, freezing on a center-cut changeup after expecting to see a fastball.
Although the Dodgers still lead the majors in runs per game (5.13), they also insist they haven’t come close to reaching their ceiling yet.
“There’s a lot of guys up and down our lineup that say, ‘I’m not even close to where I need to be right now,’” Roberts said. “So yeah, I don’t think we’re hitting on all cylinders.”
Rios raking in opportunity
One player who did look at the top of his game this week: Edwin Ríos.
Before Tuesday, the Dodgers had faced a string of seven-straight left-handed starters, keeping the left-handed slugger on the bench for an extended stretch.
Given an opportunity to play more against the Pirates, however, Ríos delivered his best stretch of the season. He hit a pinch-hit home run Monday. He had three hits, including another homer, and three RBIs on Tuesday. And he completed the trip with a three-run double Wednesday — finishing the series 5 for 10 with seven RBIs, and raising his season average to .303 in the process.
“I’m always excited to get in there and play,” said Ríos, who had started just five of the Dodgers’ first 27 games. “I feel like I keep repeating myself, but just staying ready and being ready to play.”
With the Dodgers in the midst of a hectic 31-games-in-30-days stretch, Roberts said he’s expecting to give Ríos more consistent playing time.
“He’s prepared,” Roberts said. “Obviously I see that and he’s earning himself some more playing time. And also with the schedule when you have a guy you can plug in who you know is going to be productive, it’s certainly helpful.”
After its stellar start, the Dodgers bullpen stumbled in Pittsburgh.
Entering the series, the team’s relievers ranked first in the majors in WHIP, second in ERA and second in batting average against.
In 11 innings against the Pirates though, the group gave up nine runs.
Wednesday’s performance was the most surprising, with leverage relievers Tommy Kahnle, Daniel Hudson and Brusdar Graterol all giving up runs in a close game.
“It was certainly uncharacteristic,” Roberts said. “I thought it was the right guys. We just didn’t execute. It’s baseball. It’s gonna happen. But we’re going to be running them out there the rest of the way.”
The Dodgers’ bullpen still tops the league in WHIP (0.95), but now ranks fifth in ERA (2.94) and tied for second in batting average against (.195).
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announced pitcher Ryan Pepiot will make his major league debut Wednesday against the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
The Dodgers have been decent on the road this year, but not nearly as dominant as at home.
At Dodger Stadium, the team is 10-2. After three trips, their away record is just 10-7.
Asked about the discrepancy Wednesday, Roberts entertained the idea that teams give the NL-leading and highest-spending Dodgers their best shot when they come to town — with the manager citing the previously slumping Pirates as the latest example.
“It was marked on their calendar and they played really well,” Roberts said. “As long as I’ve been here wearing this uniform, people bring their best to beat us.”
“But,” Roberts added, “we’ve got to find ways to win on the road. I expect us to be much better on the road going forward.”
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