Dodger outfielder James Outman was a deserved winner of the National League Rookie of the Month award in April. His .292 batting average, .991 on-base plus slugging percentage, seven home runs and 20 runs batted were no coincidences. He was a great discovery in a year of great turnover, an obvious answer to the question of who would lead the next generation.
But as the calendar rolled to May and opponents began figuring out how to face him – fastballs in the strike zone were his nemesis – he had to struggle to avoid becoming a one-month wonder. In his first 44 shots this month, he hit 18 times. His batting average dropped to .257. “It is no secret. I milled,” he said.
His teammates constantly assured him that he would find a way out of his crisis. They had been there, feeling the fear and tempted to change too much – or too little. Catcher Will Smith told him to find the positive in the negative. That resonated with Outman, though the 26-year-old Redwood City native sometimes had to dig hard to find the tiniest sliver of hope.
“In this situation I at least swung good throws. At least I moved the ball forward and stuck to my approach. Something like that,” he said of what he was telling himself to keep in spirit. “I think finding the positive when grinding is very helpful.”
He found his first positive when he hit an infield single and hit a run in the fourth inning against Minnesota on Wednesday. “It was definitely a breath of fresh air just coming onto the base,” he said. “When they scored that, they thought, ‘Okay, I helped the team do their part today. Let’s keep going.’”
He did that and more, creating his biggest positive moment in a long time. Outman brought a flat first-pitch fastball from reliever Emilio Pagan into midfield for a grand slam in the seventh inning, giving the Dodgers a 7-3 win over the Twins in their final home game before beginning a season 10-game trip to St. Louis, Atlanta and Tampa. “Have a nice flight,” he said with a smile after the Dodgers’ seventh win in eight games and sixth straight win.
The sun-kissed crowd at Dodger Stadium roared as the 407-foot ride passed the fence. Outman’s reaction to his second career Grand Slam was calmer – more like a deep, cleansing sigh of relief. “Thank God,” he said. “It felt good to be getting out of there at a big point.”
Manager Dave Roberts was patient with Outman, knowing the rookie wouldn’t be able to keep up his early pace, but still confident Outman was better than the struggling hitter of late.
“He’s trying to figure it out, getting to know the league, they get to know him and they make adjustments,” Roberts said. “Like I said a few days ago, it’s not linear, you have to keep making adjustments the way the league makes adjustments to you.”
The teammates who had supported Outman were just as happy for him on Wednesday as he was. “I love it because you have to stay aggressive even when you’re going through a rough patch,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman. “The only way to get out of there is to swing and in that situation, guys in goal position, he had a throw to hit and he hit it.”
Third baseman Max Muncy said he was confident Outman would eventually break out. “I think he’s got a good mind to know that it’s in the big leagues and everyone struggles at that level and everyone’s going to go through little breaks,” Muncy said. “You just have to get through them and just know that you’re going to come out victorious.
“I think that was the biggest message we can send him that you have to get through the low and know you’re going to come out victorious and hopefully this is a start for him.”
It’s too early to tell if this game will be remembered as the day Outman broke out of his slump or the day the Dodgers’ season took a painful turn because starting player Dustin May on suffered from a flexor strain, Roberts said. It is on the same arm that Tommy John operated on May two years ago. He will undergo further tests after an initial MRI reveals the damage.
It’s another setback in a challenging season, but the Dodgers responded well, as they did on Wednesday, by maintaining the best record in the Netherlands (28-16). After May had to walk after just one inning, newly called up right-hander Dylan Covey came on to carry the Dodgers through four innings, giving a heavily used bullpen a boost. Victor González inherited a full bases situation when he relieved Covey in the sixth set and made three straight outs to ensure the Twins didn’t stop play.
Outman said Covey’s performance deserves as much praise as his own and typifies the team’s resilience. “I think we’re tough. I think that showed today,” Outman said. “Dylan, it was great for him to just gobble up those innings and get a good pitch. But yes I think we are a good ball club and our staff is really good. So they keep us in a lot of games.”
Outman found the positive in the negative that had happened to him. That’s the job of the Dodgers now.