6:13 AM UTC
ANAHEIM — Over the last month, the Dodgers struggled more than they’ve grown accustomed to, and the bullpen wore most of the blame as the team fell to third place in the National League West.
The Dodgers’ bullpen came into the two-game series against the Angels with a 5.04 ERA, the second-worst mark in the Majors behind the A’s, who have the worst record in baseball. It was quite the unexpected turnaround for a relief corps that was seen as a strength last season.
On Wednesday, that same bullpen was called upon to square off against Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who was making his first start against the Dodgers. On paper, given the way Ohtani and the Dodgers’ bullpen have performed on the mound, this was a significant mismatch.
Games aren’t played on paper, however, and a group of seven Dodgers relievers outdueled Ohtani by tossing a two-hitter in a 2-0 win at Angel Stadium. It’s just the second time the Dodgers have shut out the Angels in back-to-back games, which they last did on June 27-28, 2008.
“Any time you’re talking about the bullpen, it’s like a relay race, it’s pass the baton to the next guy,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “They’re really tight. And so when one guy is scuffling, you can sense that they’re all feeling it. And conversely, when one guy is doing well, throws a good inning, then the next guy wants to do the same thing. So tonight was picture perfect.”
Originally, the Dodgers had plans of using Michael Grove to take down the bulk of the innings. But Roberts said they shifted those plans late Tuesday night and notified the Angels early Wednesday that they were going to deploy a bullpen game instead.
Brusdar Graterol was told on Tuesday night that he would open the game, and he didn’t disappoint. The right-hander delivered one of his best performances in weeks, striking out three over two scoreless innings.
That set the tone for the rest of the Dodgers’ bullpen.
Victor González followed with 1 1/3 innings, getting some help from a great defensive play by David Peralta and Will Smith. With Luis Rengifo tagging to score, Peralta made a strong throw to the plate and Smith executed a perfect tag for the second consecutive night, keeping the game scoreless.
Once González got through his part of the lineup, in came Yency Almonte, who also went 1 1/3 innings. Almonte struggled to start the season, but the right-hander has been much more efficient over the past couple of weeks.
“Bullpen games are pretty difficult to navigate,” said Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who opened the scoring with a solo homer off Ohtani in the fourth. “They did an incredible job tonight.”
Perhaps the pitcher who most needed a solid outing was Alex Vesia. The left-hander was one of the Dodgers’ best relievers in each of the past two seasons, but he has been one of the most ineffective arms in 2023. In the fifth, Vesia worked his way out of a jam by getting Hunter Renfroe to fly out with the tying run in scoring position.
Vesia was then trusted by Roberts to face Ohtani and Mike Trout in the sixth, and he came through, getting Ohtani to pop out and striking out Trout swinging.
“It gives them confidence,” Roberts said. “We’ve never debated the arm talent, what these guys have done, but certainly [regarding] performance, the last couple of nights has been the level that we had expected. So it’s something for us to build on.”
The fifth pitcher of the night was Ryan Brasier, who retired all four batters he faced in his Dodgers debut. That opened the lane for Caleb Ferguson to take down a scoreless eighth for the second consecutive night and Evan Phillips in the ninth for his second straight save.
“Guys have been grinding,” Ferguson said. “I don’t really think it’s been as far off as it looks. Just a couple better pitches here, couple better pitches there and things are a lot different. But kudos to everybody for putting their head down and keeping grinding. Just continuing to get through the rough patch.”
Ferguson mentioned that the bullpen has had internal conversations amid this surprising stretch. They haven’t been anything formal, but there was a sense of urgency to get back on track. And for two nights, it looked more like the Dodgers bullpen of old.
If that continues, it would be a massive development for Los Angeles.
“[It’s a] ‘you’ve got to see it to believe it’ kind of thing,” Phillips said. “Success breeds confidence.”