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Amid October pitching questions, Dodgers find ‘right lanes’ in win over Cardinals

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during the first inning.
Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during the first inning of a 6-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday. Kershaw threw six strong innings in the win.
(Raul Romero Jr. / Associated Press)

It was a straightforward game conducted with a straightforward pitching plan.

Leading after six strong innings from Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers looked just fine with a designated closer Saturday night, getting three scoreless innings out of their reshuffled bullpen to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 6-2 at Dodger Stadium.

In their first game protecting a lead since demoting Craig Kimbrel from the closer role, the Dodgers trotted out the kind of bullpen plan that could be repeated in October.

Chris Martin, a key trade deadline acquisition who is surging, retired the side in order in the seventh.

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Top set-up man Evan Phillips took care of the heart of the Cardinals order in the eighth.

A day after Craig Kimbrel lost his job as the Dodgers’ closer, the team put Dustin May on the injured list because of a strained muscle in his lower back.

Then neutral-split right-hander Tommy Kahnle was summoned for the ninth, in what wasn’t technically a save situation but represented the type of final-inning leverage spot that several names could cycle through down the stretch this season.

“To kind of find the right lane for guys, I thought was good and it played out great,” manager Dave Roberts said. “They all pitched well.”

Unless the Dodgers change course and decide to name a permanent successor to Kimbrel in the closer’s spot, this is exactly what the Dodgers could try to replicate late in games during the postseason.

Finding the “right lanes” for each pitcher. Looking for matchups to maximize success. Using their best arms to combat the opposition’s biggest threat, regardless of inning. And figure out who will take the final three outs as the game goes along.

It’s not traditional, but it’s what the Dodgers have decided is best for their bullpen, one that gave the struggling Kimbrel every opportunity to figure things out before finally pulling the plug this week, and that still doesn’t know exactly who will be healthy when the playoffs begin in less than three weeks.

“I’m going to use whoever is available that night and who is the best option for that part of the game or the lineup,” Roberts said.

On Saturday night, the first trial was a successful one.

The Dodgers (105-47) built their early lead via the long ball, getting a solo blast from Will Smith in the first, another from Trayce Thompson in the second, then a two-run shot from rookie Miguel Vargas moments later — the first big league home run of his barely two-month-old career.

Dodgers first baseman Miguel Vargas hits a two-run home run during the second inning Saturday.
(Raul Romero Jr. / Associated Press)

So far, Vargas’ first extended stint in the majors hadn’t exactly impressed. The club’s No. 3 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, has spent a lot of time on the bench as a September call-up and struggled in his limited opportunities at the plate. Entering Saturday, he was batting just .171 and hadn’t recorded an extra-base hit since doubling in his first MLB at-bat in August.

But after being added to the lineup late after Freddie Freeman was scratched because of a mild illness (Roberts hopes to have Freeman back at first base Sunday), Vargas got an inside fastball from Cardinals starter Jordan Montgomery and sent it sailing just over the wall in left center.

He briefly tried to hide his smile while rounding first, before eventually conceding an ear-to-ear grin as he crossed home plate. He was greeted with a hug from Mookie Betts near the on-deck circle, then a parade of high-fives in the dugout.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” Vargas said.

Albert Pujols, a beloved mentor as a Dodger last season, joined the elite 700-home run club with his former teammates bearing witness with conflicting emotions.

Kershaw cruised from there. He threw a first-pitch strike to 25 of 26 batters. He struck out seven while walking only one. And despite seven hits — the result of what he and Roberts said was the left-hander not having his best stuff — he kept the Cardinals (89-64) off the board until a Nolan Arenado home run in the sixth.

Kershaw’s ERA is now 2.42 on the season, and 1.80 in five starts since returning from a back injury at the start of this month.

“For him to take that three-week little blow and get him back and throw the baseball the way he has since coming back, much needed,” Roberts said. “It’s really good to see.”

So, too, was the bullpen performance that followed — giving the Dodgers what they hope will be a glimpse of what their ultra-deep, albeit banged-up and somewhat unsettled, pitching staff can provide in the playoffs.

“I think we feel good,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “We believe in everybody. Every time someone takes that rubber, they give us a shot to win.”


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