This isn't the role Kenta Maeda envisioned for himself in October. He's thriving in it, just the same.Between his time in Japan and the Major Leagues, Maeda has pitched in 279 professional games during his 10-year career. He started 274 of them.:: NLCS schedule and coverage ::So when the Dodgers
This isn't the role Kenta Maeda envisioned for himself in October. He's thriving in it, just the same.
Between his time in Japan and the Major Leagues, Maeda has pitched in 279 professional games during his 10-year career. He started 274 of them.
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So when the Dodgers approached Maeda in the final week of the regular season to let him know they'd prefer to use him in a relief role in the playoffs, it seemed a bit unorthodox to Maeda. But he jumped on board with the idea.
Two weeks later, the Dodgers are 5-0 in the postseason and they lead the Cubs, 2-0, in the National League Championship Series presented by Camping World. Maeda has played no small part.
"Knowing that it's the postseason, ideally, I wanted to start, but I've been given this role," Maeda said through a team interpreter. "So my mindset is I'm going to do my best in it."
His best has been good enough for the Dodgers. In three outings this postseason, Maeda has faced nine hitters, and he's retired them all. He's established himself as a pivotal piece in the Dodgers' relief puzzle.
Though many expected Maeda to serve as something of a long man, he's become more of a righty specialist in the playoffs -- a role that seems to suit him well. Right-handed hitters are batting just .160 against Maeda since the All-Star break, and he is striking them out at a 41 percent clip.
"Obviously with shorter innings that I'm pitching now, my stuff is faster, I think my breaking stuff is a little sharper," Maeda said. "But that's to be expected because I'm throwing it a little harder. My best pitch is my slider, so I think I'm able to use that effectively [against right-handed hitters]."
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Four of Maeda's five professional relief appearances came this season, and the Dodgers noticed that -- perhaps more than most pitchers -- his stuff benefited from being used in shorter spurts. His fastball velocity has ticked up from 91 mph during the regular season to 95 in the playoffs. Only one opponent has managed to put his slider in play this postseason.
"We saw a little bit of it this summer, and the stuff really played up," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. "The credit goes to Kenta as far as buying in and understanding that every out in the postseason is important. When he gets his opportunity, he's been lights out."
Of course, Maeda isn't limited to a role as right-handed specialist. When the Dodgers pinch-hit for closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Sunday night, it was Maeda getting loose in the 'pen. Without Justin Turner's walk-off homer, Maeda presumably would have taken the ball as the long man for extras.
"To have him for a certain three-hitter spot and also to give us length, it's a luxury that we have," Roberts said.
Maeda has needed just 26 pitches to record his nine postseason outs. No outing was more impressive than Game 2 of the NL Division Series presented by T-Mobile against Arizona. With the Dodgers clinging to a one-run lead in the fifth, Roberts called on Maeda for the heart of the D-backs order. He struck out A.J. Pollock on three pitches and got Paul Goldschmidt to bounce to short to end the frame. He then fanned J.D. Martinez to begin the sixth after the Dodgers had tacked on four more runs. Three All-Stars retired with ease.
Much has been made about the Dodgers' relief corps this postseason -- and rightfully so. In eight innings this series, L.A. relievers have yet to allow a hit. Maeda seems to be embracing his place within that dominant 'pen.
"Everyone knows we have a lot of really good pitchers in the bullpen," Maeda said. "If I just do my job, there are plenty of other pitchers who will come in and do their jobs."
AJ Cassavell is in his seventh season as a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.