The Los Angeles Dodgers have rebounded from a below average month of August to surge in September and whittle their magic number to clinch a playoff berth down to two.
Tonight, the Dodgers could be the first National League team to lock up a spot in the postseason by notching a victory against the Washington Nationals coupled with losses from the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves.
Chad Billingsley will return to the starting rotation tonight in an attempt to make his case for being in the postseason rotation, and he has his work cut out for him to earn his spot.
Currently, the Dodgers have six starters in the rotation: Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw, Randy Wolf, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland, and Vicente Padilla.
This means that two men have to be slimmed off the current rotation to build a four-man staff for a run in October.
In my opinion, the optimal rotation would look like this:
1. Randy Wolf
2. Hiroki Kuroda
3. Clayton Kershaw
4. Jon Garland
Wolf has just flat-out been the workhorse in the latter part of the season for the Boys in blue. He has made a habit out of working deep into games and limiting opposing batters without a dominant fastball.
He leads the team in innings pitched with 203 and has not lost a game since Aug. 1, against the Atlanta Braves.
Most impressively, he is limiting the opposition to a .227 average this season—the second-best mark of his career (.223, ’02).
Wolf has certainly set himself at the head of the pack and secured the right to start Game One in the playoffs.
Solidifying the front end of the rotation would be Kuroda, who has looked magnificent since coming back from a scary injury to his head.
Kuroda was drilled by a Rusty Ryal line drive in August, but has rebounded both mentally and physically to once again be a force in the Dodgers’ rotation.
He has won three consecutive starts and is 5-1 in his past six decisions overall.
So, with Kershaw looking good in his return last night, that earns him the upper hand in the rotation over Billingsley and Vicente Padilla.
Kershaw threw 39 pitches last night in his first appearance since Sep. 4 and looked very sharp.
The 21-year-old is looking to start either Sunday or Monday, and his body of work this season has been more than enough to guarantee his spot in the four-man working crew.
Despite tallying just an 8-8 record, he has a 2.89 ERA and opposing hitters have just a .202 average against the youngster.
He can be the power pitcher that can capture a pivotal Game Three in the divisional series for the Blue Crew.
Don’t get me wrong; Padilla has been reliable since being brought to the club. He has gone 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in five starts, but I think Garland has demonstrated better control of the game
Garland, who is 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA in four starts with the Dodgers, brings postseason experience to an otherwise young team.
He won a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox in ’06, posting a 2.25 ERA in two postseason starts.
The first of his two starts came in the ALCS, when he tossed a complete game victory against the Los Angeles Angels in Game Three.
Aside from the previous experience in the postseason, of which Padilla has zero, I just think Garland has a better chance at success.
Padilla relies heavily on what is basically a lob disguised as a changeup, a pitch that regularly registers in the low-60s on the radar gun.
Garland has a more reliable bag of tricks, regularly using five different pitches that keep hitters off-balance.
During his short time in Los Angeles, Garland has shown that he has a winning mental approach on the mound with the physical stuff in his arm to back it up, thus earning him a spot in the postseason rotation.
Billingsley doesn't make the cut for me because has been plagued throughout the season by running into one bad—or sometimes absolutely terrible—inning at some point. Until he proves otherwise, he can't be trusted in the postseason rotation.
At one time the Dodgers clear-cut ace, Billingsley must show that he can navigate the game without allowing an inning to snowball out of control.
Overall in ‘09, Billingsley is 12-10 with a 4.01 ERA.
Personally, I think that the broken leg he suffered over last winter is now taking a toll on him.
Not because the leg is hurting, but because the offseason injury derailed his conditioning and messed up the timing of his season.
He peaked at the start of the season, roaring out to a fast start with four straight victories.
He has run into trouble simply finding a consistent release point and that is holding him back from finding his dominant arsenal of pitches.
Like any other pitcher, when his fastball can’t be located, it diminishes his other pitches.
Tonight will be a telling outing for Billingsley, who didn’t look good in a short relief appearance last week. Time is running out for him to prove that he can be effective in important October games, and tonight is the first step for him to regain his spot in the rotation.
PJ Ross is a Featured Columnist for the Los Angeles Dodgers.