Dodgers stumble as post-clinch balancing act begins

SAN DIEGO -- The first day of the Los Angeles Dodgers' pursuit of the Washington Nationals appeared far different from their previous race against the San Francisco Giants.

With the division title in hand, the Dodgers played a game Tuesday with the chase for home-field advantage in the National League Division Series in mind, and it was not exactly a win-at-all-costs type of attitude.

Manager Dave Roberts did start nearly all of his regulars in the first game after clinching the National League West on Sunday, but starter Kenta Maeda only went four innings, as did left fielder Andrew Toles and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

By the time the changes were made, the San Diego Padres held a lead they would not relinquish in an eventual 7-1 victory. Padres rookie Hunter Renfroe had a three-run home run and a grand slam to account for all of the Padres' RBIs. In the process, the Dodgers fell two games behind the Nationals in the battle for home-field advantage in their postseason series which starts Oct. 7.

"As you saw tonight, I normally wouldn't have taken Toles out as early as I did, but I want to get Andre [Ethier] some at-bats, and it was nice to see him get that last at-bat and get a walk and have a competitive three at-bats," Roberts said. "Toles will start tomorrow, and we'll see how the game plays out. And Adrian had a sinus infection, so that's why he came out of the game."

It's not as if the Dodgers do not care about playing host to the Nationals for the opening two games of the NLDS, plus a potential deciding Game 5. But post-clinch baseball is usually different from the version that preceded it.

So Roberts walked that fine line between winning games to gain an advantage moving forward and giving some of his regulars much-needed rest before the playoffs. Even though it might not have looked like it, Roberts insisted that home-field advantage for the division series is not an afterthought.

"I think considering the way we have played this year at home, we have put a lot of value on it," Roberts insisted. "It's not the end all, be all, but kind of where we are right now, with the win-loss [record], we're going to try to catch the Nationals."

At the start of play around the league Tuesday, the Dodgers were just a game behind the Nationals, knowing that they own the tiebreaker by virtue of their 5-1 mark in the season series. But the Nationals beat the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, meaning the Dodgers' defeat to the Padres knocked them two games back with five to play for both clubs.

In addition to walking that line between rest and catching the Nationals, the Dodgers are also in a delicate situation with Maeda. The Dodgers have agreed to give their rookie right-hander one more start Sunday, his 32nd, which will trigger another $1.5 million bonus.

But Tuesday's short outing could prevent him from hitting the 180-innings mark, which will trigger another $250,000 bonus. He did get a $250,000 bonus Tuesday when he passed the 170 innings mark.

Asked about his desire to pitch in two more regular-season games, as opposed to a regular-season game and then a simulated game, Maeda said he was not thinking about the financial impact.

"I felt like pitching in a live situation against live hitters in the regular season would prepare me better than pitching in a simulated game after the season ended," Maeda said through an interpreter.

Surely he must have reminded the Dodgers about the $1.5 million bonus.

"Well, I mean, what I always thought, that pitching in a live situation was better than a simulated situation," Maeda said.

Maeda certainly has earned his bonus this season, and the club has validated that goal by giving the right-hander another start. And it will come in a game that could possibly have nothing at stake if home field for the NLDS is wrapped up.

But Roberts insisted that home field or not, Maeda's final start will matter.

"I think on Sunday [at San Francisco] it will be a normal start, so depending on how well he throws the baseball, that will dictate how long he is out there," Roberts said.

In that case, maybe Maeda not only gets the $1.5 million bonus for making the start, but an additional $250,000 if he can pitch seven innings. It's not like rest will matter, since his playoff start will come eight days after the regular-season finale.

If Maeda does collect his final bonus, the Dodgers could have a motivated pitcher on their hands.

"After the first inning, Kenta was good," Roberts said. "He was missing with the breaking ball a little bit, missing with the fastball a little bit and left a breaking ball up to Renfroe, who hit a homer, but Kenta was good at getting strikeouts, getting soft contact. After he came out, I told him it was a positive outing, so he will be ready on Sunday."