LOS ANGELES -- As Hyun-Jin Ryu was getting ready to board the Los Angeles Dodgers’ charter flight from Philadelphia on Sunday evening, he ran into manager Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on the tarmac.
“I told him he had to throw a perfect game to top [Josh] Beckett,” Mattingly said.
We’re uncertain whether an interpreter was present, but Ryu apparently took Mattingly’s meaning quite literally. Either way, his response speaks louder than words:
Ryu carried a perfect game into the eighth inning Monday against Cincinnati Reds before Todd Frazier doubled into the corner and foiled the Dodgers’ bid to become the first team in baseball history to throw back-to-back no-hitters.
Ryu was brilliant, mixing his usual assortment of baffling changeups and soft curveballs with a livelier-than-usual fastball that touched 95 mph to render the Reds’ lineup lifeless until a long Dodgers’ seventh inning broke his momentum. It also sapped his legs of some of their vigor when he had to run all the way around the bases to score one of the three runs in the inning.
For a long while, in fact, Ryu was performing better than Beckett, who pitched the first Dodgers’ no-hitter in 18 years Sunday against the Phillies.
What that really tells us is that the Dodgers have a very good starting rotation that is trending toward special. After all, this was 17 hitless innings from the Nos. 3 and 4 starters. The next two guys to pitch are both Cy Young winners -- Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
If ever the Dodgers had a chance to get on a roll, it’s now, behind a rotation humming and purring its way through the schedule. And if ever they needed to fix their defensive shortcomings to appease those pitchers and go all-in on stopping the other team from scoring, it was now.
So, if it’s uncomfortable to see one of the team’s most talented players -- Matt Kemp -- stuck to the bench and, according to scouting reports, one of the organization’s weakest hitters -- Erisbel Arruebarrena -- playing every day, keep the prime directive in mind. The Dodgers are about pitching and defense ... always were, really.
They just lost some of their identity while they were jousting with the Washington Nationals for most errors in the league.
So, that’s why Andre Ethier and his two home runs are playing center field every day. That’s why Arruebarrena was tapped as Hanley Ramirez’s replacement. That’s why the Dodgers won’t think about moving Yasiel Puig out of right field, where they think he’s the best defender at his position in the league.
The organization has been in frantic, fix-the-fielding mode for a while now.
“It wasn’t about trying. We were trying, but it was just costing us too much,” Mattingly said. “I know it’s not sexy to play good defense and nobody talks about it too much. But when you watch games, it can cost your pitchers an extra 25 pitches and force you to use your bullpen in different ways.
“It tells you you’ve got to catch the baseball. This pitching is that good that we’ve got to be able to catch the ball for them.”
Justin Turner made two diving stops or nobody would have been buzzing about Ryu’s performance going into the eighth. Arruebarrena has a reputation for brilliant glove work, and if he can hit just a little he might force the Dodgers to consider moving Ramirez to third base when he returns from a strained calf.
In fact, moving Ramirez seems like a smart move this point. It would turn Juan Uribe into a utility player, but they should be able to find at-bats for him at third, shortstop and second. Plus, neither Uribe, 35, nor Ramirez, 30, has held up physically when asked to play every day over the past two seasons.
Kemp might prove a perfectly serviceable left fielder or someone you can live with in center when you’re facing a left-handed pitcher. But leaky defense has always looked like the thing that could sink this Dodgers season.
When you have pitching this good, the last thing you want to do is leave your pitchers stranded.