Lessons for the Dodgers: Hot-hitting Justin Turner poses a new danger.
SAN DIEGO —
The Dodgers are officially playoff bound after a weekend series win against the San Diego Padres, and could have the National League West clinched as soon as Tuesday.
With four wins, they will cross the 100-win threshold for the fourth time in the last seven seasons. To break the franchise record of 106, they don’t even need to play .500 over the final four weeks of the season.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” manager Dave Roberts said Sunday. “I feel our best baseball is yet to be played.”
As the team closes in on a drama-free stretch run with a division lead of 20 games and an eight-game edge for the National League’s top seed, here are four takeaways on where they stand.
Justin Turner’s hot streak continues
A notoriously slow starter, Justin Turner’s season-opening slump was starting to look like something more after a dismal first three months of the season.
From the start of April to June 28, the 37-year-old was batting just .217. He had a dismal OPS of .634 and just four home runs. And though he had 38 RBIs, there was speculation his best years had finally passed him by.
Since then, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball — and maybe the best in the Dodgers’ loaded lineup.
In his last 44 games, the third baseman is batting .371. After a two-home-run game on Sunday, which included his second career grand slam, his OPS in that stretch is 1.057, third-best in the majors among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances during that time.
“He’s very in tune with his body, his mechanics and how his swing works,” Roberts said. “They cleaned some things up and from that point he’s been on fire.”
When pressed for specifics about those changes, Turner didn’t reveal much.
He said for him, tweaks to his swing might not look very obvious, but he’s found a feel at the plate that has enabled him to stop “missing pitches that I shouldn’t miss.” An example was the down-the-middle cutter from Craig Stammen that he launched for his grand slam Sunday.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes into hitting, so it’s hard to put your finger on one thing,” he said. “But just at-bats, confidence and results, kind of helped feed that.”
Roberts said it has all added up to what he called “as good a stretch” as he’s ever seen out of Turner, whose season-long batting average (.277) and OPS (.798) both rank fifth on the team.
“Even when he was struggling, he was still one of our leaders in driving runs in, and he takes his walks,” Roberts said. “So now you’re kind of adding on the slug, it’s pretty special.”
There was something else that happened to Turner on the last day of June when Padres ace Joe Musgrove made some seemingly direct comments about Turner’s then-slump at the plate.
“When he’s in the box, I don’t feel like he’s a huge threat,” Musgrove said following a June 30 start against the Dodgers, a day Turner had three hits, including two home runs.
“He’s a good hitter,” Musgrove continued. “He’s done a lot of damage to the teams I’ve been on in the past. But out of all the guys in that lineup, I didn’t feel like he was a huge threat.”
As Turner has since heated up, the first part of Musgrove’s quote has been widely circulated among Dodger fans on social media.
And during Turner’s offensive explosion Sunday — which included a third career home run off Musgrove, something Turner has done to just four other pitchers — on-field cameras appeared to capture several of his teammates yelling out “not a threat” from the dugout.
Postgame, the three-month-old comments became a topic of conversation.
Turner brushed those questions aside and joked that, had they been any legitimate motivator for his recent performance, “I’d ask people to say stuff about me a lot sooner in the year.”
Musgrove said: “I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal out of it.” He tried to clarify that he only meant he didn’t view Turner as the biggest threat in a Dodgers lineup littered with other All-Stars and former MVPs.
“When I said that, it was not [with] intentions that I think he’s a … [bad] baseball player. That’s not it at all,” Musgrove said. “I’ve played against him for a long time now and he’s always been a good hitter. … [It’s just] there were other guys that I was a little more concerned about. And he got me that day, and again, he got me [Sunday]. So yeah, it is what it is.”
Roberts hadn’t been aware of the situation before Sunday. But when he was informed of Musgrove’s comments, he seemed surprised.
“Oh gosh,” Roberts said. “I think he might want to retract that.”
Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger bounce back
One of the coldest Dodgers hitters entering this weekend was Chris Taylor, who snapped out of his slump by going 4 for 12 in the series against the Padres, including a home run on Sunday.
Perhaps more importantly, the outfielder only struck out twice in three games, a positive sign coming off a 13 for 83 stretch that had 38 strikeouts in his previous 25 games.
“I thought he was taking better swings, making better contact,” Roberts said. “He elevated the ball pull side a couple times [Sunday]. Even his outs yesterday were hard outs. It’s good to see.”
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Cody Bellinger was mired in a 0 for 22 rut before getting two hits on Sunday, pushing his season-long batting average back over .200.
Like with Taylor, it will be important for the Dodgers to try and get Bellinger going down the stretch as well.
The team is still hopeful both can be key to their postseason plans, as they were last year with clutch October performances.
For that to happen, they’ll need more days like Sunday out of both.
Max Muncy to keep stepping back
While there hasn’t been just one thing behind Max Muncy’s mid-season turnaround, there may be no bigger factor than the new back-foot plant step he takes before each swing.
The only problem is the new move led to some knee irritation this week that necessitated a pain-relief injection and sidelined him for two days.
However, when Muncy returned to the lineup for a three-RBI performance on Sunday, his back step was still part of his mechanics, something he and Roberts believe he will be able to continue without issue for the rest of the season.
“[There is] no concern long term,” Roberts said. “It’s more going to be a nuisance.”
Would Muncy, who is batting .274 with 10 home runs since adding the back step in late July, consider getting rid of it?
“I don’t think he’s going to change that,” Roberts said with a sly smile, “because of the performance.”