Diamondbacks-Dodgers preview: Pitching matchups, bullpens going strong

Oct 7, 2023, 9:30 AM | Updated: 6:18 pm

Merrill Kelly...

Starting pitcher Merrill Kelly #29 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 09, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Arizona Diamondbacks sweeping the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wild Card Series paired with a scheduling quirk has given the D-backs a pitching advantage in the next round.

All four division series begin on Saturday, but to stagger the two leagues, MLB pushed Game 2s of the NLDS to Monday.

D-backs starter Merrill Kelly did not have to throw in a Game 3 at Milwaukee, so he can pitch in Games 1 and 4 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Zac Gallen — with the extra day off — lines up for Games 2 and 5 on normal rest, if the series goes the distance.

“We feel like this puts us in a really good position because 1A and 1B are going to be able to potentially start four of these five games,” manager Torey Lovullo said on Friday.

On the other end, the NL West-winning Dodgers have had time to square up starters with the bye, but this is not a typical playoff rotation. Los Angeles lost significant firepower due to injuries and off-field issues.

Walker Buehler has not yet returned from Tommy John surgery, Julio Urias is on administrative leave after a domestic violence allegation, while Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin are on the shelf.

Clayton Kershaw and Bobby Miller will start the first two games, but from there is a question. Game 3 could go to veteran Lance Lynn, an opener or another rookie such as Ryan Pepiot or Emmet Sheehan.

“I think what is lacking potentially in experience we have in talent, but overall the group has performed really well,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes said on Thursday. 

When the Diamondbacks last faced the Dodgers at the end of August, they saw Miller, Kershaw and Pepiot. The Dodgers faced Gallen, Kelly and Brandon Pfaadt.

Both staffs had top-eight ERAs in September with their respective bullpens coming through.

Who’s starting for the Diamondbacks and Dodgers series?

Merrill Kelly

Kelly has historically struggled against the Dodgers, especially last season when he allowed 22 earned runs in 24 innings.

This year started differently, as he allowed two earned runs in his first 15.2 frames before a seven-run outing at Chavez Ravine on Aug. 29. Kelly still has not recorded a win against the Dodgers in five seasons, but the veteran said his confidence is not impacted going into Game 1.

“It would be nice to get my first Dodgers win … In my mind, I’m well overdue for one,” Kelly said on Friday.

“For whatever reason, there are certain players and certain teams throughout your career and your life in baseball that just seem to have your number. Unfortunately, throughout my career, this team seems to be that for me. But I’m as confident as ever. If I start thinking about my previous games and how they’ve gone and how bad my numbers are against these guys, I think I lose before I can step on the mound.”

This will be his first MLB postseason game since coming over from playing in South Korea before the 2019 season. He’s pitched for a KBO title, in the World Baseball Classic and at the College World Series for Arizona State.

“Pretty special, pretty excited,” Kelly said of the opportunity. “Obviously, my journey is a little different than everybody else to get us to this point. I couldn’t be more happy, more honored and excited.”

Dodgers standouts Mookie Betts (.914 OPS in 32 at-bats), Freddie Freeman (.980 OPS in 27 at-bats) and especially Max Muncy (1.118 OPS in 34 at-bats) have had Kelly’s number so far in their careers.

Kelly had a 3.29 ERA in the regular season.

Clayton Kershaw

Kershaw has 38 playoff appearances. That 38-0 difference in experience is the second-largest gap among starting pitchers in postseason history, according to MLB researcher Sarah Langs.

The future Hall of Famer missed all of July with a shoulder issue and has not thrown 85 pitches in a start since June 20. His last three starts have fallen on Saturdays, and he has not pitched without extended rest since he came back.

“Really messes up my college football watching,” Kershaw joked on Friday. “Game 4 or 5, whatever it is, if we get to that point, I’ll be ready to go. Obviously a little less rest, but I think that’s what we had to do to make the regular season work.”

He still managed 131.2 innings with a 2.46 ERA at 35 years old, his 13th sub-3.00 ERA season out of 15.

Kershaw is 2-1 against Arizona this year with five one-run innings thrown on Aug. 29.

Ketel Marte has the most career at-bats (46) against Kershaw on the D-backs and has fared well with three home runs and an .820 OPS. Christian Walker has five home runs and a 1.069 OPS in 34 at-bats against Kershaw. Corbin Carroll is 4-for-7 with a homer.

“They’re a great team, they’ve got a really good speed and power combination in their lineup,” Kershaw said. “We’re all familiar with each other at this point. So now we just gotta go play and see who executes better.”

Zac Gallen

Gallen threw six innings with two earned runs in Wednesday’s series-clinching 5-2 win over the Brewers. He allowed both runs in the bottom of the first but told Lovullo he would give seven innings if allowed 110 pitches. He settled for six frames, but the bullpen handled the job from there.

He said the environment was different but he maintained the mindset of treating the game like any other.

After the win, Gallen expressed, “If you’re scared, stay home,” when discussing the NLDS matchup.

“I mean, it’s an opponent we’re familiar with, it’s a place we’re familiar with, it’s a good team,” Gallen said. “We play in that environment with the crowds … it’ll be interesting to see it in a playoff atmosphere. I think we’re excited.”

Gallen has had a tough couple games against the Dodgers this year with 11 earned runs in 10 innings, although he has fared well over his career against L.A. (3.48 ERA).

Bobby Miller

Miller gave up four runs in six frames in his last crack against the D-backs.

The first-round pick enjoyed an effective rookie year with a 3.76 ERA in 22 starts (15-7 team record). He owns a 99 mph four-seamer and sinker with a put-away curveball.

He will be the first Dodgers rookie to start a postseason game since 2020 when May and Gonsolin both accomplished the feat.

Who could roll in Game 3?

Pfaadt started Game 1 of the Brewers series for Arizona and would be on more than a week’s rest for Game 3 against the Dodgers on Wednesday. He threw 67 pitches on Tuesday, as Lovullo had a short leash on him in his first playoff game.

The question remains how the Dodgers deploy their arms in a Game 3 at Chase Field.

Manager Dave Roberts said on Friday that Pepiot is in play to pitch in Game 3 but to what capacity is undecided. Lynn has 27 postseason games of experience, although the 36-year-old had a 5.73 ERA and 5.53 FIP this year between Los Angeles and the Chicago White Sox.

“We’ve talked about this in the past, we may have to approach it in a more unconventional way,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Thursday. “But the arm talent and the depth that we have, we feel really good about.”

Bullpens stepping up

The Dodgers, Brewers and Diamondbacks had the only three bullpens with a sub-2.50 ERA in September, and Arizona’s unit outperformed Milwaukee’s in the wild card round.

The D-backs’ pen accounted for 9.1 shutout innings, including two saves by Paul Sewald.

Kevin Ginkel and Ryan Thompson recorded 15 outs between them, and rookie Andrew Saalfrank entered Game 2 with the bases loaded and one out and escaped.

“You don’t win in October without a good bullpen, those guys have gone out and done the job for us,” D-backs general manager Mike Hazen said on Wednesday. “So we’re very excited about the way it lines up from the six until the ninth.”

Thompson joined the team on Aug. 27 after getting cut by the Tampa Bay Rays and signing a minor league deal with Arizona. Saalfrank was selected on Sept. 4. Sewald was a trade deadline addition and Ginkel has solidified the eighth-inning role.

L.A. closer Evan Phillips has locked down 24 of 27 save attempts, while Brusdar Graterol has a 1.24 ERA in the back end. The Dodgers have the ability to match up with lefties Caleb Ferguson having a big year and Alex Vesia coming around in the second half. Former Diamondbacks right-hander Shelby Miller found a role with a 1.74 ERA in 41 innings.

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