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End of record run will not soften Dodgers lefty Adam Liberatore

During Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore's recent scoreless streak, he faced 81 batters and opponents hit just .123 off him with a .198 OBP. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- An intimidating stare has never been an issue for Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Adam Liberatore, who has developed some intimidating results from the mound to go along with it.

A hulking 6-foot-3 and 240-pounds, Liberatore sports a shaved head and a black beard, looking like he arrives to games in leather and on two loud wheels. The look blends perfectly with menacing numbers this year, like his recent team record streak of 28 consecutive outings when he did not give up a run.

Liberatore's record run, previously held by John Candelaria at 23 games, ended when he was scored upon by the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday. In Liberatore-style, the Dodgers managed to stare down the Cardinals and still win the game going away.

Liberatore’s record run of success would seem to be improbable, especially when considering the big left-hander didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Except Liberatore was far from surprised.

When you say you’re the best, you have to back it up, and Liberatore has done both this year.

Manager Dave Roberts recalled Liberatore saying something this spring along the lines of wanting to be the best left-handed reliever in the game. Then Roberts paused, turning his eyes upward for a split second toward his memory bank.

"No, he said, quote, 'I am the best lefty in the game.'" Roberts said. "And I said 'Then prove it.'"

Roberts challenged Liberatore even further. On March 28, six days before the Opening Day roster was due, and a full week before the start of the season, Liberatore was sent back to minor league camp after posting a 3.00 ERA over nine Cactus League innings with 11 strikeouts.

Neither Liberatore’s confidence, nor his bravado, was deterred.

"I told them when I got sent down that they were making a mistake," Liberatore said.

The Dodgers’ tough love lasted all of three games and four innings. That’s all Liberatore had to give at Triple-A Oklahoma City before the Dodgers called him back up.

"I just knew I would go down to Triple-A, do my thing," Liberatore said. "I knew they would want me here.”

His confidence is real. It came from being honest with himself. Liberatore suggests that last year he relied on pure talent to help him post a 4.25 ERA over his first 29 2/3 major league innings.

"I felt like I had a lot of success (in 2015) when I really didn’t know what I was doing, you know?" Liberatore said. "So I felt like coming in, that if I was healthy, I’d be able to maybe get a game plan for hitters instead of going out and winging it. Maybe it would be better."

A game plan would explain why Liberatore’s fastball usage is down, while his slider and changeup usage is up. He has become unpredictable while still working in the strike zone more often. His walk rate is about the same as last year, but he has averaged 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings this year, after posting an 8.8 mark last year.

Then there is that confidence. In the spring, Liberatore knew he could be good. Now he can see just how good he is. The last time Liberatore gave up a run before Sunday was May 18, when he gave up two against the Los Angeles Angels. During the scoreless streak, he faced 81 batters and opponents hit just .123 off him with a .198 OBP.

He might not yet be among the top lefty relievers in the game like Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, but before Sunday, his WHIP was better than Chapman’s and his ERA was better than Miller’s.

"I like the way people say things and back them up," Roberts said. "And he said that (he was the best), and I challenged him and he responded. That’s what I like."

Roberts can admit now that the conversation in spring training, when Liberatore was sent back to minor league camp, was not a comfortable one.

"He was bummed out and was pissed," Roberts said. "But he went down there and pitched well and has done the same thing up here."

So was Roberts a little afraid of his intimidating pitcher?

"Maybe a little," Roberts said with a straight face before breaking out into a laugh. "No, he’s a great young man and he’s a competitor and he has a ton of confidence right now. You can see it."

The Dodgers have not had a setup man behind closer Kenley Jansen that they could depend on. Liberatore is starting to get chances in the role, and not just in matchup situations. He has been plenty tough on left-handed hitters (.138/.208/.231), but it’s not like right-handed hitters (.220/.322/.280) have found life to be much easier.

The Dodgers have had one of the best bullpens in baseball this year, so the lack of set roles has yet to be a detriment.

"We’ve had to throw a lot of innings (in the bullpen), so it’s kind of been like a situation where you just have to go get these outs, or you’re just going to look bad giving up runs," Liberatore said. "You have to go get the job done. We all have to. We’ve had to do a lot, but we’re cool with it. We’ve accepted the challenge. We’ve been rising to the challenge all year, and we’re going to keep doing that."

Nobody has been meeting the challenge better than Liberatore, as his scoreless streak showed. Yet the club record hardly registered on his radar. He has more to accomplish this season.

"To be honest man, I haven’t really thought a whole lot about it," he said. "It’s pretty cool. A lot of my family and friends, they were pretty excited when all that happened. But good or bad, whatever happens out there you just have to move on, so I don’t focus on all that stuff. It’s already happened. I had a good year so far, but the season’s not over so I’m just trying to finish."

Liberatore was asked if it felt good about telling the Dodgers they were making a mistake by sending him down in spring training.

"Well, I said it, so I must have felt good about it," he said. The matter-of-fact intimidation factor was not for show.

So is it just about rolling with confidence now?

"Yeah."

It is all he needed to say.