Dodgers ride Freddie Freeman’s grand slam, Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s strong start to victory

MLB

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA May 20, 2024- Dodgers Freddie Freeman hits a grand slam against the Diamondbacks in the third inning at Dodgers Stadium Monday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

There are days the Dodgers have to grind out wins, the way they did against the Cincinnati Reds to take a tight four-game series over the weekend.

Then, there are days like Monday, when the Dodgers blitz an opposing pitcher, take a massive early lead, then shift into cruise control, turning stress-free wins into something of a routine affair early on this season.

The club’s 6-4 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium featured all those familiar, one-sided hallmarks.

The Dodgers exploded for six runs in the third inning, keyed by a grand slam from Freddie Freeman. It erased a short-lived Diamondbacks lead, swiftly erasing an RBI single from Joc Pederson in the top of the third. And then it turned the keys over to starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, getting a strong two-run, 6-⅓ inning start from the Japanese rookie.

There was some late drama, when the Diamondbacks cut a four-run deficit in half in the eighth with back-to-back home runs off Elieser Hernández, a low-leverage long reliever in a banged-up Dodgers bullpen.

But, like usual, the club shut the door before things ever got truly interesting, getting a straightforward ninth-inning save from Daniel Hudson to complete their fourth straight win.

It was just a really good offensive inning,” manager Dave Roberts said of the club’s third-inning outburst.

Roberts’ only real complaint?

“I wish we could have put more of those together tonight,” he said, “to potentially stay away from our closer.”

In the end, though, any more productive would have been superfluous for the Dodgers, who own the third-best record in the majors and, at 33-17, have tied for the eighth-most wins through the 50-game mark of a season in the franchise’s Los Angeles history.

Read more: ‘He’s turned into a weapon.’ How Michael Grove became a high-leverage Dodgers reliever

The big lead allowed Yamamoto to throw 100 mostly stress-free pitches — his most yet in a big league start — as he struck out eight and lowered his ERA to 3.17.

“It does help,” Yamamoto said through his interpreter of pitching with so much breathing room. “I think I can do more different things than when the game is extra tight.”

It allowed Roberts to get a star player some rest, after he removed Teoscar Hernández (who has started all 50 games so far) at the beginning of the seventh.

It also allowed the Dodgers to stay on their torrid early-season pace, improving their record in May to 14-4.

“The pitching has been what has been the impetus for us during this hot streak we’re on,” Roberts said.

The six-run explosion from his lineup, however, was most important Monday.

The third-inning onslaught began quickly, when Kiké Hernández tied the score on a solo blast to lead off the frame.

The Dodgers jumped all over Arizona pitcher Slade Cecconi after that.

Miguel Rojas and Mookie Betts singled. Shohei Ohtani drew a five-pitch walk. Then Freeman unloaded on a 2-and-1 fastball at the knees, crushing a grand slam to center field — the sixth of his career — to earn a brief curtain call from a crowd of 37,634.

“It’s nice,” Freeman said. “We’re working every day, grinding every day, and when fans appreciate the little things in the games, when we’re all playing and trying to get the win, it feels good.”

In the next at-bat, Will Smith added on for good measure, hammering his fifth homer of the season to complete the Dodgers’ second-highest scoring inning of the season (and 14th inning scoring at least four runs).

“We should be able to put runs up every inning, whether it’s a crooked number or create some type of stress,” Roberts said. “When we’re clicking, that’s what happens.”

From there, Yamamoto’s job was easy: Fill up the strike zone, limit damage and pitch as deep as possible in a start that included seven hits, one walk and few legitimate threats from the injury-plagued Diamondbacks (22-26).

“I learned this lineup from the first time facing them,” said Yamamoto, who pitched six shutout innings in Phoenix at the start of the month. “So that was a little bit of an advantage for me.”

On Monday, it counted as one of many advantages for the powerhouse Dodgers, who once again made winning look easy to continue their fast start to the 2024 season.

Sheehan update

Seven days earlier, doctors told Emmet Sheehan he had a choice.

Keep trying to bypass surgery and hope his ailing arm might eventually heal, or undergo Tommy John surgery and attempt a comeback sometime next summer.

Sitting in the dugout with his arm in a sling Monday, Sheehan discussed for the first time why he picked the latter.

“I knew what it meant,” Sheehan said. “Obviously it’s not the best feeling in the world.”

Despite that, Sheehan wasn’t daunted by the diagnosis. He didn’t seem worried about his long-term outlook. During his chat with reporters Monday, he hardly looked shaken by the roughly 13-month rehabiltation process ahead of him.

Like most modern pitchers, he knows injuries are an occupational hazard of the job.

And, like most modern pitchers, he is hoping his operation is merely a detour in his career; that the progress he made while going 4-1 with a 4.92 ERA as a rookie last year won’t be erased by a year recovering from surgery.

Read more: Hernández: The Dodgers have good reasons to be patient, believe Walker Buehler can still dominate

“There’s no real point in thinking about that now,” he said of his disappointment to not be able to pitch this year. “Kind of just moving on to the next thing, trying to progress and get better and be healthy for next year.”

Sheehan first got hurt during the spring, when arm discomfort — and, as he revealed Monday, a previously undisclosed oblique strain — forced him to miss the start of the season. Sheehan said there was no one pitch when he felt his ligament tear. He had even tried ramping up in recent weeks, completing regular sessions of pre-game long toss in the outfield.

However, when his pain didn’t go away, doctors told him it might be time to go under the knife, leading to his decision to have a Tommy John surgery that also included an internal “brace” to give his damaged ligament extra support.

“There’s a lot of work to be done ahead of me, but I’ve been in situations before where it didn’t look like I was going to make it to the big leagues or get drafted, stuff like that,” Sheehan said. “I haven’t had a rehab that long. But I know what it looks like. So I’m not too scared.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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