Dodgers defeat Cardinals with potential playoff pitching blueprint

It was a straightforward game conducted with a simple pitching plan.

The Dodgers, leading after six strong innings from Clayton Kershaw, looked good with a significantly tighter Saturday night, pulling three scoreless innings from their newly shuffled bullpen to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 6-2 at Dodger Stadium.

In their first game to defend a lead since demoting Craig Kimbrel from the narrower role, the Dodgers laid out a bullpen plan that could be repeated in October.

Chris Martin, a key trade-deadline acquisition on the rise, retired the team in the seventh in a row.

Top setup man Evan Phillips took care of the heart of the Cardinals Order in eighth place.

Then neutral-split right-hander Tommy Kahnle was called out for the ninth time in a situation that wasn’t technically a safe bet but provided the kind of last-inning leverage point that several names have been able to drive down the stretch this season.

“Finding the right track for guys was good and it worked out great,” said manager Dave Roberts. “They all played well.”

Unless the Dodgers change course and decide to name a permanent successor to Kimbrel in the closer’s spot, the Dodgers could look to replicate that late in the games during the postseason.

Finding the “right lanes” for every pitcher. Looking for matchups to maximize success. Using their best weapons to take down the opposition’s greatest threat, no matter the inning. And find out who will make the last three outs as the game progresses.

It’s not traditional, but it’s what the Dodgers decided is best for their bullpen, one that gave the struggling Kimbrel every opportunity to figure things out before finally pulling the plug this week, and still does not sure who will be healthy when the playoffs start in less than three weeks.

“I’m going to use whoever is available that night and who is the best option for that part of the game or lineup,” Roberts said.

The first attempt was successful on Saturday evening.

The Dodgers (105-47) extended their early long-ball lead, getting a solo blaster from Will Smith in the first, another from Trayce Thompson in the second, then a two-barrel shot from rookie Miguel Vargas moments later – the first big league home run of his barely two-month career.

Dodgers first baseman Miguel Vargas hits a two-run home run during the second inning on Saturday.

Dodgers first baseman Miguel Vargas hits a two-run home run during the second inning on Saturday.

(Raul Romero Jr. / Associated Press)

So far, Vargas’ first extended stint with the majors hadn’t exactly impressed. According to MLB Pipeline, the club’s No. 3 spent a lot of time on the bench in September struggling with his limited opportunities on the plate. He batted just .171 on Saturday and hadn’t recorded an extra base hit since doubling on his first MLB at-bat in August.

But after Vargas was added late to the lineup after Freddie Freeman was scratched with a minor illness (Roberts hopes to have Freeman back at first base Sunday), Vargas got an inside fastball from Cardinals starter Jordan Montgomery and let sail him just over the wall center left.

He briefly tried to hide his smile as he first circled before finally admitting an ear-to-ear grin as he crossed home plate. He was greeted with a hug from Mookie Betts near the circle on deck, then a parade of high fives in the dugout.

“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” Vargas said.

Kershaw cruised from there. He threw a first pitch strike on 25 of 26 batters. He hit seven while only walking one. And despite seven hits — the result of what he and Roberts said was that the left-hander wasn’t at his best — he held the Cardinals (89-64) off the board until a home run by Nolan Arenado in the sixth.

Kershaw’s ERA is now 2.42 on the season and 1.80 in five starts since returning from a back injury earlier this month.

“For him to be able to take that three-week little slap and get it back and throw the baseball the way he’s done since coming back is badly needed,” Roberts said. “It’s really good to see.”

Ditto for the bullpen performance that followed, which will hopefully give the Dodgers a glimpse of what their extremely deep, albeit battered and somewhat unsettled, pitching team can accomplish in the playoffs.

“I think we’re feeling good,” said catcher Austin Barnes. “We believe in everyone. Every time someone takes that gum, they give us a chance to win.” Dodgers defeat Cardinals with potential playoff pitching blueprint

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