Opposite dugout: Dodgers look to continue controlling NL West with strong pitching

DodgersLogo.jpgManager: Don Mattingly (5th season)

Record: 51-39

Last 10 games: 6-4

Who to watch: 1B Adrian Gonzalez (.283/.355/.520 with 18 HR, 55 RBIs), C Yasmani Grandal (.282/.401/.526 with 14 HR, 36 RBIs), CF Joc Pederson (.230 with 20 HR, 40 RBIs), 2B Howie Kendrick (.292 with 37 RBIs), RHP Zack Greinke (8-2, 1.39 ERA, 0.84 WHIP), LHP Clayton Kershaw (6-6 with 160 strikeouts, 2.85 ERA)

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (2-4 in 2014)

Pitching probables:

July 17: RHP Mike Bolsinger vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 18: LHP Clayton Kershaw vs. RHP Doug Fister, 4:05 p.m., MASN
July 19: RHP Zack Greinke vs. RHP Max Scherzer, 1:35 p.m., MASN

Inside the Dodgers:

A couple of factors have helped the Dodgers sit atop the National League West heading into the second half of the season. They have the fourth-best ERA in the majors at 3.30, which has allowed them to take advantage of sluggish starts by the defending world champion Giants and big offseason spender Padres. With the pitching, they have been able to get a Cy Young-type season from right-hander Zack Greinke to cover up an uncharacteristic first half by lefty ace Clayton Kershaw. Greinke went 8-2 with a major league-leading 1.39 ERA, while Kershaw made it to the All-Star break with only a 6-6 record.

The Dodgers hold a 4 1/2-game cushion in the NL West at the break, which is tied with the Royals' lead in the American League Central for the largest in baseball. L.A. has been at least tied for the division lead since April 17 and has been the sole leader since April 24, and could go almost wire-to-wire for the season (they didn't lead the division for eight games from April 7-15). But when is it time that regular season success isn't enough in L.A.? The Dodgers have won two straight division titles, but have no pennants to show for it after losing to the Cardinals in two straight postseasons. With the talent the Dodgers have and in his fifth season with the team, manager Don Mattingly could be feeling some pressure to at least win a pennant, if not a World Series.

Although the offense is overshadowed by the pitching, the Dodgers have a good number of contributing position players. Aside from Greinke and Kershaw, they sent three players to the All-Star Game this week. Rookie outfielder Joc Pederson started for the NL in place of injured Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday a night after reaching the Home Run Derby finals. Pederson has played in all but one game this season for Los Angeles, while starting 86 in center field. He is only batting .230, but has shown power with 20 home runs and 40 RBIs in the first half. All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has also played in all but one game so far this season, slashing .283/.355/.520 with 18 homers and a team-leading 55 RBIs. And finally, catcher Yasmani Grandal also made the trip to Cincinnati to represent the Dodgers by batting .282/.401/.526 along with 14 home runs and 36 RBIs.

Among the non-All-Stars, second baseman Howie Kendrick leads the team with a .292 batting average while also knocking in 37 runs. Right-fielder Andre Ethier's numbers aren't bad either - he's batting .281 with 10 homers and 31 RBIs. However, the Dodgers are also getting some disappointing seasons from two of the more recognizable names on their squad. Nats fans will be familiar with shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who is only batting .213 with 29 RBIs in his first year in L.A. Young star outfielder Yasiel Puig is hitting .261, but has only hit four homers and 14 RBIs after missing the month of May due to a DL stint with a hamstring injury. But even with the off-the-field issues and trade rumors, Puig has shown he can still contribute if he stays healthy and on the field.

Right-hander Mike Bolsinger brings his 4-3 record and 3.08 ERA in his second big league season and first in Los Angeles to the series opener. The 27-year-old is good at mixing his pitches, throwing an 87 mph cut fastball 46 percent of the time and a 79 mph curveball 37 percent of the time. The rest of his pitches are mostly an 80 mph slider while rarely throwing his changeup. Bolsinger has never faced the Nationals or any Nats hitters, but righties are batting .243 with eight homers, while lefties hit for a .311 average against him in his career. He is 1-6 in his career on the road, but has never won any start in the month of July, going 0-3 in four outings.

Kershaw will start on Saturday's matinee against Doug Fister. The southpaw took the loss in the All-Star Game after allowing three hits and two runs with one walk and one strikeout in the fifth inning. Uncharacteristically, Kershaw has been a little streaky this season, starting the season inconsistent, then winning four of five outings, before losing his last three starts in June. He did throw a complete-game shutout in his last outing before the break, giving up eight hits and striking out 13 Phillies, which was the most Kershaw-like outing he's had all season. Those 13 whiffs gave Kershaw the lead in strikeouts for the majors. July has been Kershaw's best month throughout his career. He is 23-6 with a 1.89 ERA in July, which has attributed to his .696 winning percentage and 2.20 ERA in the second half of the season. Kershaw is 7-2 with a 2.59 ERA versus Washington and 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA at Nats Park, although he is only 1-4 on the road this season.

Greinke will start Sunday's finale at Nats Park against Max Scherzer, who Greinke started in place of for the NL in the All-Star Game. He gave up a leadoff homer to the Angels' Mike Trout, but that was it after settling in for two innings with a walk and four strikeouts. Greinke is making a strong case for his second Cy Young Award, his first coming in 2009 with the Royals. He leads the majors in ERA and WAR for pitchers (5.5) with his 0.84 WHIP is second-best only to Scherzer's 0.78. Greinke won five straight starts from April 12 to May 5, and finished the first half winning his last three. And he's just as good on the road as he is at home, with 4-1 records no matter where he pitches. Greinke is 3-1 with a career 2.22 ERA against the Nationals, but hasn't won in two starts in Washington with an ERA of 3.00.

The Nationals and Dodgers have been frequent participants in the postseason the past three years, but have managed to avoid each other. Both teams haven't been able to shake the St. Louis Cardinals, and in the Nationals' case, the Giants as well. If the season were over at the break, the Dodgers would be hosting the Nats in the Division Series while the Cardinals would await the winner of the NL wild card. The way LA and Washington's seasons have gone so far, that could very well be the case come October. As long as they continue to control their respective divisions during the second half, come September they might be able to start looking to see if St. Louis can hold off the surging Pirates and Cubs in the Central to figure out where the chips may land for the postseason.

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