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Maeda's 4th straight 9-K effort has LA eyeing 1st

MLB.com @kengurnick

SAN DIEGO -- Kenta Maeda calls it a changeup. He holds it like a splitter. Whatever it is, it's nasty.

By all accounts, it's not only the pitch that helped Maeda and the Dodgers beat the Padres on Wednesday night, 4-2, it's the reason his strikeouts are up and home runs allowed are down.

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SAN DIEGO -- Kenta Maeda calls it a changeup. He holds it like a splitter. Whatever it is, it's nasty.

By all accounts, it's not only the pitch that helped Maeda and the Dodgers beat the Padres on Wednesday night, 4-2, it's the reason his strikeouts are up and home runs allowed are down.

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"I've been able to use it effectively and I'm getting a lot of punchouts with it," said Maeda, who struck out nine for the fourth consecutive start, allowing only one first-inning run and limiting the Padres to four hits over 5 2/3 innings.

Maeda's ERA, a season-high 4.75 on May 11, is now 3.13, and the Dodgers have won six of his last nine starts.

"Last year, I wasn't able to use it at all, but because I've been able to use it this year, it's made my other pitches better, too," said Maeda (6-5).

Maeda changed to a splitter grip in Spring Training. Because his fingers don't spread wide enough for the pitch to act as a change of speed, it looks like a fastball but drops at the end. He originally incorporated it into his repertoire as a weapon against left-handed hitters, but he's now found it to be effective against right-handers as well.

"That split, he was throwing it more than he really ever has, at least from our history with him," said San Diego manager Andy Green. "Our guys had a really hard time picking it up. It was fairly obvious they just weren't seeing the spin on it. It was different from the fastball, dropping below barrels all day. He kept us off balance."

Maeda averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings a year ago, but that number is up to 11.15. His 107 strikeouts lead the team. Last year, he allowed 1.5 home runs per nine innings. This year, 0.6. In nine starts since May 11, he's allowed two home runs.

"It's not just the changeup, but the rest of my pitches are being executed better," he said.

Meanwhile, a three-run third inning that included RBI hits from Matt Kemp and Logan Forsythe provided enough offense as the Dodgers again pulled within a half-game of first-place Arizona.

Video: LAD@SD: Forsythe plates Kemp on infield single

Maeda, who retired the Angels' first 10 batters in his last start, was ambushed by the first two Padres he faced, as Travis Jankowski singled to open the bottom of the first inning and was doubled home by Carlos Asuaje.

The Dodgers stranded a pair of runners in scoring position in the second inning, but Kemp didn't let that happen in the third. The former Padre cashed in Kiké Hernandez's one-out double with a two-out RBI single off Joey Lucchesi to tie the game.

Max Muncy singled Kemp to third and Forsythe followed with a bouncer up the middle that Asuaje gloved, but the second baseman bungled an underhand flip to second and Kemp scored. A throwing error by shortstop Freddy Galvis allowed Muncy to score an unearned third run.

Video: LAD@SD: Muncy crosses the plate on a throwing error

San Diego cut the lead to 3-2 on Christian Villanueva's 18th home run with two out in the seventh against Daniel Hudson. But the Dodgers got that run back in the eighth on a two-out double by pinch-hitter Chase Utley and an RBI single by Chris Taylor. Utley is 9-for-22 (.409) as a pinch-hitter.

New reliever Dylan Floro pitched a scoreless eighth inning, and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen notched his 25th save after working around a leadoff walk in the ninth.

Video: LAD@SD: Jansen retires Galvis to earn the save

SOUND SMART
Floro has pitched only twice since being acquired in a trade from Cincinnati, but it looks like he's already the eighth-inning setup man. Floro has retired all seven batters he's faced as a Dodger.

"Really big arm," said manager Dave Roberts. "I thought I saw more sinker in Anaheim, but tonight it was 94, 95 [mph] beating bats. More straight and life as opposed to run late. The fastball's getting on guys."

Video: LAD@SD: Floro picks up two strikeouts in the 8th

BELLY BEATING THE SHIFT
Cody Bellinger is adjusting to the shift. For the second consecutive night, Bellinger doubled through the vacated third-baseman position, as well as added a single to left. Bellinger has a team-high 21 doubles to go with four triples and 17 home runs for a team-high 42 extra-base hits. Bellinger is taking what the defense is giving him, instead of pulling into the shift and what amounts to a zone defense.

HE SAID IT
"It's been a game-changer for Kenta." -- Roberts, on Maeda's change/splitter

UP NEXT
Ross Stripling, the newest Dodgers All-Star, makes his final start of the first half against the Padres and Tyson Ross in Thursday's 7:10 p.m. PT series finale at Petco Park. Stripling couldn't get Mike Trout out (3-for-3 with a HR), but he otherwise held the Angels hitless in his latest win.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Kenta Maeda