As October beckons, Dodgers sift through clues

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
9:59
PM PT


DENVER -- If you didn’t know Ricky Nolasco was this good, you’re not alone. He pitched a lot of good innings and won a lot of games with the Miami Marlins for eight years without people ever really making much of a fuss over him.

“I’ve been hiding in Miami, but I’m not going to complain,” Nolasco said. “I like flying under the radar.”

Soon, everyone’s radar will be too keenly attuned to fly under. It’s hard to be invisible in the playoffs. With a postseason berth getting closer and closer by the day, the Los Angeles Dodgers have turned this stretch of their season into an evaluation period, a chance to sift through their roster to determine roles, some of them crucial, for October.

[+] EnlargeRicky Nolasco
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRicky Nolasco is 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA in his 11 starts since coming to the Dodgers.
The Dodgers are lucky enough to have a solid month to ferret out answers. The league announced the playoff schedule Tuesday, and the Dodgers wouldn’t begin postseason play until Oct. 3.

Plenty of time to field the roster best suited for marching through the rigors of the playoffs.

After Tuesday’s 7-4 win over the Colorado Rockies and another loss by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers now have a 13½-game lead in the NL West. Their magic number is 12. The earliest they could clinch would be Tuesday, but it’s more likely they’ll be celebrating with the San Francisco Giants in town -– how much would Dodgers fans love that? -– in one of the games between Sept. 12 and 15.

In the meantime, some questions have emerged.

Could Nolasco, who has been largely dominant his past three starts, overtake Hyun-Jin Ryu for the No. 3 spot in the Dodgers’ rotation, a crucial distinction in a best-of-five first-round playoff series?

Which of the young relievers, and which of the reclaimed veterans, will merit that final bullpen spot? Could Michael Young or Jerry Hairston Jr., two battle-tested veterans, be in danger of not securing one of the bench spots on a 25-man roster?

They refuse to admit they’re thinking that far ahead. Nolasco has never pitched in the playoffs, and it’s impossible to believe he hasn’t started thinking about it -– particularly that he’s now on his hometown team –- but that’s what he says.

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiMichael Young had his first hit as a Dodger on Tuesday, but he might have arrived too late to make the postseason roster.
“Once we finish the season, we’ll start thinking about that,” he said.

Young made his Dodgers debut Tuesday, and it wasn’t particularly scintillating, though he had a single to fuel a key ninth-inning rally. Young hit into a rally-killing double play in the first inning and struck out twice to go 1-for-5.

These are important times for the new guys –- and other Dodgers on the bubble -- to cement themselves in the team’s October plans.

The Dodgers will get a look at another recent acquisition, reclamation project Edinson Volquez, who is starting Wednesday’s game in an audition for a possible postseason role. All of general manager Ned Colletti’s pickups have been solid or better. Carlos Marmol hasn’t allowed a run since July.

But Colletti’s biggest score, by far, has been Nolasco. Acquired from the Marlins on July 6 for three minor league pitchers, Nolasco is 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA for the Dodgers.

Tuesday’s wasn’t his most artful start, but it was more than adequate. Nolasco has looked better than what the Dodgers bargained for, a solid No. 4 starter.

He cruised through the first four innings, allowing just two base runners, but the Rockies got a better handle on him the third through the lineup. Charlie Blackmon hooked a double into the right-field corner and the pitcher, Jhoulys Chacin, shot a single to right to drive in one run.

Nolasco’s previous outings were both eight-inning shutouts.

Manager Don Mattingly conceded before the game that, aware of the Dodgers’ massive lead, he is beginning to rest the team’s regulars. Hanley Ramirez, Juan Uribe and A.J. Ellis were all off; he said Yasiel Puig, bothered by a nagging calf injury, would have tried to play if Tuesday were a playoff game.

But the watered-down lineup proved scrappy. That's how it has been lately. It doesn't matter who they throw out there. Nick Punto went 4-for-5, Skip Schumaker scored a run, Tim Federowicz went 2-for-3 with an RBI. The biggest hit was Carl Crawford’s two-out, two-run single into the left-field corner.

The Dodgers lately have been able to beat the inferior teams even when fielding their least-competitive lineups.

So, yeah, a lot of the next few weeks will be spent watching games, finding clues to how players will perform under October pressure. But let’s not forget, the bulk of the evaluation has taken place over the past five months.

“If we don’t know them by now, then it’s our fault,” Mattingly said.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239