The Dodgers are in the playoffs. So are Game 1 starters Kenta Maeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu
The Dodgers need three starting pitchers for the first round of the playoffs. They’re sure about Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. They’re not sure, at least publicly, about how to arrange their talented young pitchers for Game 3.
They should be fine. Tony Gonsolin, for instance, has a 1.77 earned-run average, the lowest of any major leaguer to throw at least 40 innings besides Cy Young favorites Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer.
But, for Dodgers fans comforted by pitchers with postseason experience, the day before the Dodgers start the playoffs could be a bittersweet one.
On Tuesday, when the American League playoffs start, the Game 1 starter for the Minnesota Twins is scheduled to be Kenta Maeda. The Game 1 starter for the Toronto Blue Jays is set to be Hyun-Jin Ryu.
The Dodgers’ opponent in the best-of-three wild-card round of the NL playoffs next week will be one of six teams scurrying to finish above .500.
Rich Hill, who like Maeda and Ryu pitched for the Dodgers in their most recent Octobers, is not expected to start for the Twins in the first round but figures to rejoin their rotation if they advance to the division series.
The summer has gone well for the Dodgers, and for the veteran pitchers to which they bid farewell, but the summer might have been brightest for Maeda. The Dodgers moved him into the bullpen every October he was with them; the Twins are handing him the ball for Game 1.
“Generally happy to be starting in the postseason,” Maeda said through an interpreter on a videoconference, “and at the same time really honored. I’m just glad everything pitching-wise has gone in a good direction consistently throughout the season.”
In Octobers past, the Dodgers had depth among starting pitchers and a lack of trusted setup men, thus Maeda’s shift to the bullpen. And it’s hard to argue that wasn’t a good move: As a postseason reliever, he put up a 1.64 ERA.
But it’s also hard to argue with Maeda’s 2020 success: a 6-1 record, with a 2.70 ERA that ranks fifth in the American League. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.75 leads the major leagues, with Bauer second and Bieber third.
Mookie Betts is the first Dodgers player to lead the league in jersey sales since the year-end rankings started in 2010.
“Our group has tremendous, supreme confidence when he has the ball in his hand,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s hard not to feel really, really good about our chances any time Kenta is taking the mound. From Day 1, he’s been dominant.
“He’s pitched us to wins. He hasn’t just gone out there and put up numbers.”
Said Hill: “Kenta has been amazing. I know what he is doing different, but I am not going to go ahead and divulge any trade secrets right now.” (Here’s a hint: fewer fastballs.)
Ryu ranks fourth in the AL with a 2.69 ERA, just ahead of Maeda. He pitched seven scoreless innings to beat the New York Yankees on Thursday, clinching the Blue Jays’ first playoff berth in four years. After the game, he said he anticipated an October appearance when he assessed the team’s young talent and signed with Toronto.
“I like winning,” Ryu said through an interpreter, “and I came here to win.”
Hill is 2-2 with a 3.27 ERA this year, his first after elbow surgery. He is 40 years old, but he has repeatedly said this season that his elbow feels 18, and he said he “definitely, 100%” plans to pitch next season.
Hill speaks up about injustice
When Hill reported to summer camp, the Minneapolis area still was reeling from the death of George Floyd. And, although racial injustice protests are ingrained in the NBA, baseball players strikingly rose up and refused to play last month following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
Hill took a moment to consider why, then offered a thoughtful explanation.
“When you see things that are injustices that are happening throughout the world, and you can actually step back from your own reality and your world and educate yourself about what is really going on, and understand how we got to this point and why we are at this point, it’s extremely valuable,” Hill told The Times.
“Not to be getting into political issues, but we need people to lead, and we need people to direct this country in the right way, where we can all be unified and come together, and not divide. That’s one thing that is very valuable. We’re all Americans. We all love this country.
“... We are living history. We need to understand that we have an opportunity to make things come to light and understand, and have people step outside of their own backyard and see the rest of the country, the world and different backgrounds.”
Hill is the rare baseball player who has been included in a tweet from President Trump, who criticized Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for removing Hill in Game 4 of the 2018 World Series. In response, Hill said Trump should have been focused on a mass shooting earlier that day, not on the moves in a World Series game.
In this election season, Hill said, he was not speaking out in favor of one candidate or another.
“I’m not going to go ahead and jump on either side of anything right now,” Hill said. “I’m just saying, from my personal opinion and experience, if I was in that position of making a run or doing something for the country, it is to bring everybody together. We’ve been unified in the past. We’ve come together as a country in the past. We need to have that happen.
“I think that’s something that’s extremely valuable. If we do our little part here in baseball, that’s what it is. … The people who are listening are younger generations, kids who look up to baseball players. They want to understand the things that will make this country a better place moving forward.”
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