Prior to the 2017 campaign, 29-year-old pitcher Kenta Maeda had never made a relief appearance outside of a single game for the Hiroshima Carp during his 2008 rookie season in the Japan Central League. But the manner which he handled himself in the bullpen during the NLDS sweep over the Diamondbacks may have persuaded the management crew of the Dodgers to use the right-hander in similar higher-leverage relief spots moving forward into the playoffs.
In the National League Division Series against Arizona, Maeda appeared twice, tallying a total of two innings of perfect baseball, which also included four strikeouts. And perhaps the most memorable of the two was in the final game of the series, when skipper Dave Roberts turned to him in the eighth inning to bridge the gap to All-World closer Kenley Jansen.
Not only did Maeda get the job done, but he did so in convincing fashion. The battle at the dish with center fielder A.J. Pollock may have been the showdown that stuck out most. The righty started Pollock out with four-straight sliders, which were masterfully located down and away in the zone. In what would be the final pitch of the AB, Maeda cranked up his four-seam to 95 MPH, and blew it right past Pollock to end the inning.
“The stuff played up,” Roberts told reporters after the series victory. “The velocity ticked up two, three miles an hour. The slider’s still sharp.”
The coaching staff of the Dodgers was aware that Maeda had the potential to flourish in such a capacity, but after seeing him throw so masterfully in a setup-type of scenario, the crew could continue to deploy him in similar roles heading into the NLCS.
Aside from Jansen, most of the higher-leverage spots have been placed in the hands of righty flamethrower Brandon Morrow, who has been spectacular in his comeback season after recovering from severe shoulder issues. Righty Josh Fields has shown a few flashes of brilliance, but has occasionally relapsed back into his normal mediocrity, as made evident by his 10 long balls and 15 walks surrendered in only 57 innings of regular-season work. The lefty trade deadline acquisitions Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani have delivered in a few key situations as well, but seemingly have not earned the full trust of Roberts and his crew, which opens up the door even wider for Maeda.
Kenta claims that adrenaline played a chief role for his increased velocity, saying that the big stage of the NLDS was the primary reason for his newly found bursts of energy. And if he continues to throw based on his current pattern, the Division Series may have been just a prelude of what’s to come in the latter part of the playoffs.
“Once you get into the game, the emotions kick in whether you want them to or not,” Maeda said. “It’s the postseason. I have strong feelings about wanting to play a part in helping the team win. As a player, I’m really happy they let me pitch and contribute in a game we won.”
In other bullpen news, Roberts acknowledged a potential return for southpaw Luis Avilan in the NLCS, which begins on Saturday at Dodger Stadium. The 28-year-old lefty found himself off the NLDS roster after suffering from shoulder soreness a few days before the beginning of the series. Avilan posted a 2.93 ERA and a 2.96 FIP over 61 appearances and an even 46 innings of work during the 2017 regular season. Avilan threw well in a bullpen session last Sunday at Dodger Stadium, and looked fluid in another on Wednesday.
“He’s on track. He feels good,” Roberts explained earlier in the week. “When we get to that point, he definitely will be in the mix.”
The final decision may boil down to the prospective opponent in the Championship Series, as the Cubs employ a much higher number of left-handed hitters than the Nationals, which will presumably favor into Avilan’s potential inclusion should Chicago advance.
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