ST. LOUIS -- In the middle of a stretch in which they’ll play on 13 consecutive days, the Dodgers have been proactive in finding spots to give their starting position players some rest.
It’s been a tricky balance for manager Dave Roberts, given that the team is starting to run out of time in its pursuit of a ninth consecutive National League West title. On Thursday, it was time to give Corey Seager, Will Smith and Chris Taylor a day off. With that, the Dodgers were forced to hope for offensive production from some players who have been subpar at the plate all season.
The offensively challenged lineup couldn’t get the job done, as the Dodgers’ struggles continued in a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. With the loss, the Dodgers are 2 1/2 games behind the Giants with just 21 games left in the regular season.
“For me, it’s either you get the job done or you don’t,” said infielder Trea Turner, who extended his hitting streak to 16 games. “Today we obviously didn’t do that, and we didn’t do enough offensively to get the win, so I would just say it’s not good enough.”
One positive for the Dodgers was the return of Tony Gonsolin, who made his first start since July 30. The right-hander saw an uptick in velocity, a good sign that the right shoulder issue that has plagued him all season could be behind him. Gonsolin allowed one run and struck out three over three innings of work, and he should be available for four or five innings during his next start.
As well as Gonsolin and the bullpen pitched on Thursday, though, they needed to be nearly perfect given the struggles in the middle of the lineup.
But the trio of Cody Bellinger, Steven Souza Jr. and Billy McKinney -- the starting outfield and 5-6-7 hitters on Thursday -- has combined for just one hit since the start of September. The 5-9 spots went 0-for-17 on Thursday.
“I mean, I think guys are gonna have tough days. That’s just the nature of this game,” said Roberts. “We’ve run other guys and had the same results. The great thing about this game is that it’s not predictable as much as you can say that it [used to be]. But we know our offense has struggled with different guys at the bottom [of the lineup] than today.”
Once again, Bellinger was in the middle of the offensive struggles. With another 0-for-4 performance, his batting average dropped to .158. He is now 0-for-his-last 24 and hasn’t recorded a hit since Aug. 31. Perhaps even more telling, however, is that he has drawn just one walk since Aug. 12 as he continues to chase pitches out of the zone.
Making his way back from offseason shoulder surgery has been more challenging than Bellinger anticipated. An injury to AJ Pollock forced the Dodgers to lean on Bellinger as an everyday player once again. But with Bellinger going into Thursday’s game with a 44 OPS+, which is 56 percent below the league average and the worst by a qualified position player in the Majors, the Dodgers are going to have to figure out if they have a better option over the next couple of weeks.
“Obviously, losing AJ was a loss, but there are some things he has to figure out,” Roberts said of Bellinger. “But also, I've got to take a look and see what gives us the best chance to win on a particular night. I’ll do that.”
Although Bellinger has been part of the offensive downturn, he’s certainly not the only one. The Dodgers’ depth is being tested, and they’re not responding. On Wednesday, first baseman Max Muncy said the offense has “sucked” in what has turned out to be a shockingly inconsistent season from a lineup that has former MVPs and current MVP candidates at every turn.
Turner believes the Dodgers are pressing and that they need to find a way to have more fun. But time is ticking. If the offense doesn’t pick it up over the next three weeks, the team's fate will ultimately come down to a Wild Card Game.
“I think we have a lot of good players, and it’s frustrating when you don’t produce or do what you’re capable of,” Turner said. “We’re capable of a lot, and we can play a lot better offensively going forward.”