The Dodgers went with the skeleton crew Tuesday.
Get used to it: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Mark Ellis, four guys who might not start a game in October and a pitcher, Ricky Nolasco, who might be considered the team’s fourth starter if the playoffs began today. It’s a crew the Dodgers have every incentive to employ with a double-digit lead in the National League West standings. Michael Young’s days as a cleanup hitter might be numbered, but you might see a lot of lineups like Tuesday’s in September.
Low magic numbers and star-studded lineups have an inverse relationship in September. The Dodgers’ magic number to clinch the division is 13. The Diamondbacks, who are losing 6-3 to the Toronto Blue Jays, can make it 12 later tonight if that score holds.
Update: Arizona lost. The Dodgers’ magic number to clinch the West is 12, meaning they can wrap up a playoff berth as early as next Tuesday — the middle game of a head-to-head series with the Diamondbacks in Los Angeles. The Dodgers’ division lead is 13.5 games.
This wasn’t a smooth win, and the Dodgers particularly missed Yasiel Puig, who rested his stiff right knee. Puig’s right arm might have kept the Rockies off the scoreboard in the fifth inning, when Charlie Blackmon scored from second base on a routine single to right field. With Puig, there are always going to be good throws, always mistakes, but very few 0-for-4 games as the Dodgers’ cleanup hitter, which is what Young had going until he singled off Rex Brothers in the ninth inning. That was Young’s first hit as a Dodger; he also struck out twice.
But Nick Punto was curiously effective batting second and playing shortstop in place of Hanley Ramirez, going 4 for 5, to go nicely with Crawford’s 3-for-5 performance in the leadoff slot. Tim Federowicz went 2 for 3 with a double and a sacrifice fly. The lineup was odd, but it worked.
It worked because Ricky Nolasco (12-9) might have missed a shutout by one Puig throw and one Crawford error, when the left fielder bobbled a D.J. LeMahieu hit in the sixth inning. Crawford’s gaffe allowed LeMahieu to move up from second base to third, then score on Troy Tulowitzki’s groundout to make it 4-2.
When Nolasco lost the shutout, his scoreless-innings streak ended at 20. Dodger pitchers are collecting scoreless innings streaks like merit badges these days — you almost need a long one to stay on the pitching staff.
Nolasco has been pitching well enough to start another long streak in five days. The Rialto right-hander was 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in August. After allowing two runs and five hits in six innings Tuesday — a task that was too tall for even Clayton Kershaw at Coors Field on Monday — Nolasco is 7-1 with a 2.27 earned-run average since joining the Dodgers. The Dodgers have won 9 of the 11 games he’s started.
Again, Nolasco might be the Dodgers’ fourth starter in the playoffs. Assuming Kershaw’s struggles are temporary, and that he and Zack Greinke are 1-2 in some order come October, who pitches third? Nolasco, or Hyun-Jin Ryu? This qualifies as an important question in September.
So did the little quandary of how many starters the Dodgers can rest this month while still allowing Don Mattingly to field a competitive team. The Rockies are 10 games under .500 and are going to make their share of mistakes. Charlie Culberson’s dropped fly ball with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth was the worst, and it cost his team three runs. Those three runs made the difference in the game as much as anything the Dodgers did well. But the quest for 100 wins, the quest for the biggest in-season turnaround in baseball history and, oh yeah, the quest for the playoffs — none of these looked like they were in jeopardy with the skeleton crew Tuesday.
There were other only-in-Coors-Field moments. Paco Rodriguez gave up his third home run of the season, a solo shot by pinch-hitter Josh Rutledge that accounted for the rookie’s second earned run allowed since June 7. Ronald Belisario struggled too, forcing Chris Withrow to enter the game with two outs in the ninth inning and record his first major-league save.
It added up to the Dodgers’ sixth straight win. The beat goes on.
The box score is here.