Dodgers at Rockies Series Preview

Dodgers at Rockies Series Preview
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The Dodgers did what they needed to do earlier this week in San Diego. In the process of taking two of three from the Padres, they clinched the playoff berth that was never in doubt and dropped their magic number for clinching the division, and the National League’s top playoff seed, to seven. That may not sound like a very low number with just 10 games left in the season, but if the Dodgers split their remaining games (taking two of four in Colorado this weekend and just three more of their final six against the A’s and Angels), the Padres would have to lose just twice to deliver the division to L.A.

This weekend’s four-game set marks the Dodgers’ only trip of the year to Colorado and their final regular-season series against a National League team. The Rockies hold the distinction of being the only team to win a series against the 2020 Dodgers, but on the season as a whole, Colorado has won just two of the six games between these two teams, and the Dodgers have outscored them 38-25.

That Dodgers series was only one of two series the Rockies have won since their season took a bad turn way back on August 9. The Rockies opened the season 11-3, but have gone 11-23 (.324) since, including a 2-6 record since that series win against the Dodgers. The best thing that could be said about Colorado’s play of late is that the Rockies have gone six games without allowing a double-digit run total, their longest such streak since the Diamondbacks dropped a dozen runs on them on August 10.

Playing at home won’t help them. The Rockies have been better on the road this season and have allowed a whopping 6.9 runs per game at Coors Field. The Dodgers, meanwhile, arrive in Denver with the third-most-productive offense in the majors on the season, scoring 5.6 runs per game and leading the majors in home runs by a fair distance, with 93 to the runner-up Padres’ 85.

Still, don’t expect the Rockies to roll over. They are still in a tight scrum of teams battling over the final playoff spots in the National League. As things stand, the Dodgers have clinched, the Cubs and Braves have strong leads in their divisions, the Padres are a lock, and the Marlins have a game and a half lead on the Phillies for second place in the NL East. That’s five of the eight spots in this year’s expanded postseason. The other three teams, including the second-place team in the NL Central and the two wild cards, will come out of this group of seven teams, none of which enters Thursday’s action with a winning record:

Screenshot 2020-09-17 120954

According to Baseball Prospectus’s postseason odds, the Giants’, Reds’, Cardinals’, and Brewers’ chances of making the postseason are all close to coin-flips. The Phillies might yet switch places with the Marlins, but both will likely make it, regardless of the seeding. The odds are against the Rockies and Mets, but they’re still very much in the hunt. Per BP, Colorado has a 24 percent chance of making the playoffs heading into this four-game set against L.A. That’s an absurdly high chance for a team below .500 with a -48 run differential with just a dozen games left in the season.

Still, the Rockies are fighting. One way they are doing so is by rewarding performance rather than reputation in the lineup. Daniel Murphy may be a three-time All-Star with an eight-figure salary, but he hasn’t hit this season. Josh Fuentes is a 27-year-old non-prospect, but he has hit, so Fuentes, not Murphy has become the regular first baseman. David Dahl hasn’t hit, so even though he’s back off the injured list, he is sitting in favor of new-addition Kevin Pillar, who . . . okay, Pillar isn’t really hitting either, but he did hit that grand slam against the Dodgers two weekends ago.

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The lineup the Rockies are most likely to roll out this weekend is this one, with a right-handed catcher (Drew Butera or, more likely, Elias Díaz), subbing in against lefties Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw on Thursday and Saturday:

L – Raimel Tapia (LF)

R – Trevor Story (SS)

L – Charlie Blackmon (RF)

R – Nolan Arenado (3B)

R – Kevin Pillar (CF)

R – Matt Kemp (DH)

R – Josh Fuentes (1B)

R – Garrett Hampson (2B)

L – Tony Wolters (C)

Here are the game times and projected pitching matchups:

Thu. 9/17, 5:40 p.m. PT: LHP Julio Urías (123 ERA+, 43 1/3 IP) vs. LHP Kyle Freeland (153 ERA+, 56 IP)

Fri. 9/18, 5:10 p.m. PT: TBA vs. RHP Ryan Castellani (122 ERA+, 34 1/3 IP)

Sat. 9/19, 5:10 p.m. PT: LHP Clayton Kershaw (191 ERA+, 47 1/3 IP) vs. TBA

Sun. 9/20, 12:10 p.m. PT: RHP Tony Gonsolin (288 ERA+, 35 2/3 IP) vs. RHP Antonio Senzatela (163 ERA+, 62 2/3 IP)

Walker Buehler (blister) did not travel with the Dodgers to Colorado, and Dustin May threw 83 pitches on Wednesday afternoon, so Friday looks like another bullpen game for L.A. For the Rockies, Jon Gray has been shut down for the season with shoulder inflammation, and German Márquez pitched on Wednesday, so the most likely pitching option for Saturday, other than a bullpen game of their own, is Chi Chi González, who last pitched on September 8 and is the only other pitcher on Colorado’s roster to have made a start this season. González has an 8.68 ERA and has walked seven men in a mere 9 1/3 innings on the season.

As for the starters on the schedule, Kyle Freeland is a pitch-to-contact groundballer who gives up a lot of hard contact, but he has kept more of it on the ground this year, bringing his home run rate back down. He has done that, in part, by drastically reducing his fastball usage and increasing his reliance on his changeup and curveball. Mix in a career-low walk rate, and his results have been closer to his breakout 2018 season. The 27-year-old lefty turned in a quality start against the Dodgers in his only previous appearance against them this season, on August 22 at Dodger Stadium. On his career, however, the current Dodgers have hit him hard, with Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, AJ Pollock, and Justin Turner (the batter he has faced most in his career to this point), all sporting an OPS above 1.100 against him.

Ryan Castellani is a 24-year-old rookie righty whom the Dodgers saw for the first time two weeks ago and welcomed to the majors with a trio of home runs (one by Will Smith, two by Corey Seager). Castellani fared better against the Angels in his only start since then, but walked 10 men in 10 innings over those two starts combined. Castellani throws in the low-90s with a sinker, slider, change, and curve, and has done a good job of avoiding hard contact this season. However, he has an extreme fly-ball rate and lousy peripherals across the board, which translate to a 7.18 fielding independent pitching mark and a 7.05 deserved run average.

Like Freeland and Castellani, Antonio Senzatela has a well-below-average strikeout rate (Freeland leads the trio at 6.1 K/9, Senzatela brings up the rear at 5.2), but, more like Freeland than Castellani, he has mitigated that with groundballs (though not nearly as many as Freeland) and the best control of the group. Senzatela leans heavily on his mid- to upper-90s fourseamer, complimenting it with a slider and mixing in a curve and change. Thus far this year, his results have been the best of any Rockies starter, though he has had mixed results in two starts against L.A. this year. On August 23, he gave up four home runs (to Seager, Mookie Betts, Kiké Hernández, and Cody Bellinger). Max Muncy added a solo shot on September 4, but that was just one of two runs Senzatela allowed in that game. His last time out, Senzatela threw a complete game against the first-place A’s, allowing just one run, but in the start before that, the Padres pushed across four in just five innings. Over his last seven starts, he has had three dominant outings (totaling just one run allowed in 24 innings) and three poor outings (15 runs in 16 1/3 innings). That September 4 start against the Dodgers (5 1/3 IP, 2 R) was the only one that didn’t fit into either category. Among the active Dodgers who have faced him, only Chris Taylor and Will Smith (0-for-7 with a walk) haven’t had much success.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.

Video courtesy of Spectrum SportsNetLA/Los Angeles Dodgers.