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Dodgers beat big league-best Rays with timely offense and clutch relief pitching

From left, Dodgers catcher Will Smith, third baseman Max Muncy, reliever Caleb Ferguson and first baseman Freddie Freeman.

All season, the Dodgers' offense has been inconsistent yet productive, streaky but successful.

“If you look at where guys are at,” manager Dave Roberts said Saturday, “some guys have been ice cold and then they run really hot.”

That was the case again in the Dodgers' come-from-behind, 6-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, coupling superstar-like performances from Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts with just enough offensive punch from the rest of the team.

Despite blowing a three-run lead early, as Clayton Kershaw struggled again in a five-inning, four-run start to cap off one of the worst months of his big league career, the Dodgers (32-21) kept their poise and rallied late, tying a three-game series against the major league-leading Rays (38-16) the same way they have been winning most games recently:

Timely offense. Clutch bullpen pitching. And late-game heroics from an ever-rotating cast of contributors.

“That was a gritty win,” Roberts said afterward. “It's just a bunch of guys that are really bought into the team offense.”

The game’s key stretch came in the top of the seventh inning, when the Dodgers were trailing 4-3 and in danger of suffering a third consecutive loss.

The inning’s first batter, pinch-hitter Trayce Thompson, struck out to extend his six-week hitless streak to 39 at-bats — the longest by a Dodgers hitter in more than a century.

The next batter, shortstop Miguel Rojas, began the day with a .208 batting average, one of several players flirting with the Mendoza line on a Dodgers team that still somehow leads the National League in scoring.

“You just kind of bet on guys,” Roberts said about constructing a lineup full of talented but inconsistent hitters. “Figure out who is the best option that particular day.”

On Saturday, Roberts’ gamble on Rojas — who has been on an upswing lately with his bat and defensive play — paid off.

He roped a single through the middle of the infield, putting some stress on Rays reliever Colin Poche. Three pitches later, Poche spiked a slider that allowed Rojas to take second.

From there, the batting order turned over, and the Dodgers' big bats came through.

Betts knotted the score with an RBI single, raising his season batting average to .389 with runners in scoring position.

After Betts stole second base, Freeman gapped his second double of the day — extending his hitting streak to 16 games — to give the Dodgers a 5-4 lead.

The Dodgers' Freddie Freeman watches his go-ahead, RBI double during the seventh inning.
The Dodgers' Freddie Freeman watches his go-ahead, RBI double during the seventh inning. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

“We prefer to not play from behind, but you have to play the cards you’ve been dealt,” Betts said after the Dodgers' 15th comeback victory of the season. “We don’t care about the leads and whatnot. We have to play 27 outs.”

Earlier in the game, it didn’t look as if the Dodgers would need to mount a rally against the Rays .

Max Muncy entered the day in a two-for-27 slump but bashed a solo home run to open the scoring in the second before lining an RBI double to make it 2-0 in the fourth.

“We’ve been working hard the last week trying to just figure something out,” Muncy said. “Part of it is, there’s mechanics a little off. The majority of it is, there just hasn’t been much to hit over the plate.”

The Dodgers manufactured another run later in the fourth inning. Muncy advanced to third base on a productive groundout by Jason Heyward. Then he scored on a wild pitch from Tyler Glasnow, the Tampa Bay ace making his first start of the season.

“Stuff like that you don’t see in the scorebook or the box score,” Kershaw said. “You can’t say enough good things about our offense.”

The only problem: Kershaw couldn’t make the early 3-0 lead last.

In the bottom of the fourth, he walked the leadoff hitter, hung a first-pitch slider that Christian Bethancourt hammered for a double, then helplessly waved at a comebacker from Manuel Margot that got through the infield for a two-run single.

Things got worse in the fifth when Harold Ramírez jumped on a first-pitch fastball for a go-ahead two-run homer to right field.

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw gave up four runs in five innings, raising his ERA in May to 5.55.
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw gave up four runs in five innings, raising his ERA in May to 5.55. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

By the end of his start, Kershaw’s ERA in May had risen to 5.55 — the second-highest in a month, minimum three starts, in his major league career.

Asked what changed from April, when he was the NL pitcher of the month with a 1.89 ERA, the 35-year-old quickly pointed to one glaring issue.

“My command just became really inconsistent,” Kershaw said. “It’s frustrating. It’s not really something I’m used to having to struggle with. But it is what it is. You’ve got to keep grinding. I’ve got to try and figure that out the best I can.”

Yet, after Kershaw’s exit in the fifth, the Dodgers' offense bounced back.

The team's seventh-inning rally put it in position to use high-leverage relievers Brusdar Graterol and Evan Phillips.

The Dodgers' Miguel Vargas looks skyward after he hit a solo home run in the eighth inning May 27, 2023.

Then rookie Miguel Vargas smashed a solo homer in the eighth, providing what proved to be an important insurance after Caleb Ferguson gave up one run in the ninth before ending the game with men on the corners.

“For us to get a lead, and then lose it, and come back and fight back, scratch and claw, it was just overall a really good win,” Roberts said. “Now we have a chance to win the series.”

And if past is again precedent, the Dodgers will need more strong offense to do it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.