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Craig Kimbrel’s rough May, Walker Buehler’s fastball among concerns in Dodgers loss to Pirates

LA’s comeback all for naught

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone can see the road of the season isn’t always paved in gold. There will be no eternal summer slacking for the Dodgers, who lost to the Pirates for the third time in four tries this season. Monday’s back-and-forth affair went to Pittsburgh, 6-5, with a few red flags appearing along the way.

Craig Kimbrel’s bumpy ride continued, staked to a one-run lead in the ninth. He allowed a one-out walk, then an RBI single to tie the game. Cal Mitchell followed with a smash off Freddie Freeman’s glove for an error, scooting into short right field to allow the winning run to score.

Though Monday was Kimbrel’s first blown save, he has allowed runs in his last three games, and in five of his last seven outings. Only three of his 16 outings have featured a clean inning.

It erased a Dodgers comeback that began with a series of solo efforts. Hanser Alberto hit his first home run of the season in the fifth inning, and Mookie Betts followed with his National League-leading 15th. Those were off Pirates starter Zach Thompson.

Edwin Ríos hit reliever Dillion Peters’ first pitch out in the sixth, cutting the deficit to 4-3.

Trea Turner doubled to open the eighth against Pirates closer David Bednar, but was still in scoring position with two outs. Justin Turner followed with a two-strike double of his own to tie the game. The Dodgers’ 70 doubles in May are one short of the club record for any month, set by Brooklyn in July 1930.

Chris Taylor followed with a shallow pop fly to right field that somehow found grass, giving the Dodgers their first lead of the game.

Amazingly, Bednar remained in the game after a long eighth inning, and even though he allowed a double to Betts — his 22nd extra-base hit of May, one shy of the Dodgers’ record for any month — and a walk to Freddie Freeman, Bednar recovered with a high-wire, 50-pitch, four-strikeout save that lasted two innings.

It was Pittsburgh’s first win at Dodger Stadium since 2016, snapping a string of 12 straight losses in Los Angeles.

Finding the fastball

Part of the duties of an ace is to be compared to your own exacting standard, which for Buehler so far this season has meant falling a little short.

There have been no reports of Buehler dealing with any sort of injury this season. We’ve seen his strikeout rate dip early before returning later in the year, but this year’s 20-percent mark is well below his career 27-percent strikeout rate.

If there is one clear culprit in explaining Buehler’s struggles this season, it’s the decline of his four-seam fastball. Whether it’s the reduced spin rate or poor command, what’s usually his bread and butter pitch is getting pummeled this season.

After a walk and a bloop single in the second inning Monday, Tucupita Marcano deposited a pitch into the pavilion in right center field for a quick 3-0 lead.

Marcano’s first major league home run, in his 30th career game, was struck 102 mph off the bat, almost as hard as Buehler whipped his glove into the bat rack upon returning to the Dodgers dugout at the end of the inning.

Buehler’s fastball run value

Year Run value MLB rank
Year Run value MLB rank
2019 -19 6th
2020 -11 1st
2021 -19 5th
2022 +6* 297th
*before Monday’s start Source: Baseball Savant

In the third inning, Buehler’s former Vanderbilt teammate Bryan Reynolds also took him deep, off of another fastball.

Buehler’s four-seam fastball was one of the most valuable pitches in the majors the last three seasons. By run value, Buehler’s fastball ranked in the top six fastballs for three years running, leading the majors in 2020. This year, the pitch ranked 297th among four-seamers, and that was before Monday’s start. Buehler threw 31 four-seam fastballs on Monday, none of which induced a swing and miss.

He finished off 80 strikeouts with the four-seam fastball in 2021, but so far this year the pitch has ended only six strikeouts. Buehler’s thrown the fastball only about a third of the time in 2022, after using it roughly half the time in the previous three years.

Scuffling is a relative term, and even with the four runs allowed on Monday, Buehler still got through six innings without allowing anything else, and has a 3.22 ERA on the season through 10 starts.

Whether it’s a byproduct of Buehler coming off a career high in innings pitched, or if this is using the regular season to fine tune things for the playoffs after hitting a proverbial wall last postseason, Buehler will need to find his fastball at some point.

Monday particulars

Home runs: Hanser Alberto (1), Mookie Betts (15), Edwin Ríos (7); Tucupita Marcano (1), Bryan Reynolds (7)

WP — David Bednar (2-1): 2 IP, 4 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts

LP — Craig Kimbrel (0-1): 1 IP, 2 hits, 2 runs (1 earned), 1 walk, 2 strikeouts

Up next

Julio Urías gets the call for the Dodgers on Tuesday night (7:10 p.m.; SportsNet LA, MLB Network), with the Pirates starting pitchers yet to be announced.