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Stronger rotation has Dodgers upbeat even after defeats in Miami

MIAMI -- Optimism is not supposed to be the presiding theme after a series defeat to a team that could potentially be a postseason opponent.

Yet the Los Angeles Dodgers boarded their bus to the airport Sunday at Miami walking tall with confidence following a 3-0 loss to the Miami Marlins.

The mini swagger was only partly to do with the fact that it was rookie dress-up day and the first-year players had to wear Dodger-blue cheerleader outfits on the plane, complete with skirts and their first names on the back.

The Dodgers are building a proverbial human pyramid now, by stacking high some quality pitching. Clayton Kershaw returned for the first game of the series (a loss), Rich Hill fired seven perfect innings in Game 2 (a victory), and Kenta Maeda showed that he continues to get stronger down the stretch with a solid outing Sunday (another loss).

With more run support, and a better defense Sunday, the Dodgers know they could have been better against the Marlins, and former manager Don Mattingly. But at least the starting pitching looks like it could be something to lean on rather than a part of their game they have to overcome.

“We’ve been waiting to see what happens,” catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “But yeah, having Kershaw back is obviously what we wanted. He’s the guy we want to have out there.”

Kershaw was far from at his best Friday, but he was expected to be a work in progress upon his return. He went just three innings Friday, throwing 66 pitches. He will make the second start of his comeback at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday and should get another 10-15 pitches added to his total.

Hill is the one now leading the way, even though he has only had three starts since arriving to the club Aug. 1 in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. But like Kershaw, Hill is still trying to work his way back into his top form following blister issues, which is why he was only allowed to pitch seven innings Saturday, even though he was six outs away from completing a perfect game.

Maeda is actually the starting pitcher in the Dodgers’ menacing trio that actually is at peak form with three weeks to go in the regular season. A major league rookie at age 28, Maeda has not allowed more than three earned runs in an outing since July 23, a span of nine starts.

Maeda delivered six innings on 93 pitches Sunday, giving up three runs, but only two were earned. He now has a 3.35 ERA over his last nine starts, with a .228 opponents’ batting average and a 1.08 WHIP.

“I don’t know if you are going to believe what I am going to say, but I do feel better now than in April and May,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “Going back to Japan, I wasn’t really the kind of pitcher that was 10 percent in April and May. That’s how I felt this year too. Right now I feel like it’s the perfect time for me.”

Except Maeda was solid in April too, delivering a 1.41 ERA over his first five major league starts, while opponents batted .205.

The Dodgers consider Maeda so valuable that they have gone out of their way to make his schedule more like it was in Japan where pitchers take the mound about once every week. The Dodgers have consistently given Maeda at least five days of rest, for the most part, since the all-star break.

“I think Kenta has done an amazing job and he has exceeded everything we would have hoped,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think with him, we’ve been mindful and to his credit, he’s been open to getting an extra days’ rest here and there to make his transition easier. But for Kenta to be open to being flexible with his routine has helped him to have the year he’s had. Every time he takes the mound, he gives us a very god chance to win a baseball game.”

Getting Maeda that extra day of rest has not been easy. Ross Stripling and Julio Urias, two pitchers who are supposed to be on strict innings limits, have helped make it possible by picking up starts in the second half. But it could be to the point now where both of those pitchers will be unable to assist the cause much further.

Urias will get another start Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, and after that his pitching schedule is unknown. Jose De Leon will get his second career start Monday, and he could be used to help space out the rotation moving forward. The Dodgers have just started a stretch where they will play a game in 16 consecutive days, and they have just one more off day until the regular season ends.

It means that time is running out to get the rotation in sync where Kershaw, Hill and Maeda are all in top form heading into October. But weekends like this one in Miami, even while losing two of three games, are giving the Dodgers a glimpse at what could be possible.

Those arms are also healthy heading into the remainder of the road trip, and for a team that has not been able to rely on good health much at all this season, that is a good thing.