Analysis: 'We need them.' Why it's crucial for Dodgers to find 'spark' from bottom half of lineup

It was a postseason flashback, in all the worst ways.

The Dodgers’ superstar hitters weren’t at their best. The lineup’s supporting cast offered little actual support. And, suddenly, a high-priced offense expected to fuel a World Series pursuit this year, instead flashed potential weaknesses Octobers past have seen exploited.

“It felt a lot like last year’s playoffs,” infielder Miguel Rojas said, “when we couldn’t get it going.”

Rojas was referring to the team’s recent offensive slump, a two-week malaise in which the Dodgers averaged just 3.5 runs per game while losing nine of 16 and, prior to a series sweep over the New York Mets this week, five contests in a row (the club’s longest losing streak in the last five years).

In the big picture, it may be no more than a regular-season blip for the Dodgers.

They’re still in first place in the National League West.

They’re still a near-lock to make the playoffs.

They’re still top three in the majors in scoring, batting average and OPS on the season.

Yet, as Rojas noted pointedly, the recent skid included hallmarks of last year’s National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, when the Dodgers’ offense disappeared in a decisive three-game sweep.

“We can’t just rely on Shohei [hitting a] homer, Freddie [hitting a] homer, Mookie being on a tear,” Rojas said. “We have to find a way to do it with small ball, too. The small ways of playing the game. On defense. Running the bases.”

And, as the first two months of the season have exemplified, getting more production out of the bottom half of the lineup.

To this point, the Dodgers couldn’t have asked for much more from their top-of-the-order bats — a group including Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani, Freddie Freeman, Will Smith and, depending on the handedness of the opposing pitcher, either Teoscar Hernández or Max Muncy.

From the Nos. 1-5 spots of the lineup, the Dodgers are a distant first in batting average (.299, 18 points better than any other team) and OPS (.902, 87 points better than the next closest club). They are second in RBIs (185) and third in home runs (52). They have the best walk-to-strikeout ratio. They are a headache to pitch against every time the lineup turns over.

Get past the first five spots of the order, though, and the firepower starts to cease.

On any given night, the Nos. 6-9 spots in the Dodgers order will be occupied by a combination of Kiké Hernández, Gavin Lux, Andy Pages, Jason Heyward, Chris Taylor, Austin Barnes and Rojas.

The hope was for that group to provide enough positional versatility, platoon advantages and timely offense to buttress the star-studded core the Dodgers built them around.

Instead, they’ve performed like one of the weakest offensive units in the majors.

The Dodgers’ Nos. 6-9 spots have batted a collective .200, fourth-worst in MLB. Their .586 OPS ranks only one spot better. They strike out a lot (26%, 10th-highest). They rarely walk (7%, 10th-lowest). And outside of Rojas (who is batting .284 with a .790 OPS) no one else among the group is providing much consistent offense.

There are top-heavy lineups. And then, there are this year’s Dodgers.

The team’s recent 16-game lull illustrated the consequences such shortcomings can create.

During the stretch, the Dodgers’ top half slipped out of top gear. Betts and Ohtani cooled off slightly. Freeman and Smith battled mini-slumps. Muncy was sidelined with an oblique strain.

The bigger problem, though, was that the bottom half provided virtually no production to support them. The Dodgers’ Nos. 6-9 hitters batted .187 over that period. At one point during the losing streak, they were on a combined 0-for-34 skid, going almost three whole games without a single hit.

As a result, the team’s offense came screeching to a halt (they surpassed four runs in just six of the 16 games). Troubles that had doomed them in last year’s playoffs (and, at times, the two postseasons before that) were abounding again.

“We need them,” manager Dave Roberts said last week of the bottom-half’s struggles. “I just don’t want to pin it on those guys down there. But we’re trying to find somebody that’s gonna spark us.”

That’s why, as MLB’s July 30 trade deadline creeps into focus, the Dodgers’ most basic need is already clear.

Either their current cast of bottom-half hitters finds some sort of breakthrough. Or the Dodgers will likely have no choice but to seek an impact bat or two, potentially requiring further roster reinforcements even after their $1.4 billion of spending over the offseason.

“I do think those guys at the bottom, outside of probably Miguel Rojas, are just underperforming,” Roberts said. “Now is the time, guys have had enough at-bats, where there needs to be some adjustments and certainly [better] performance.”

This week’s series in New York offered some hope.

Heyward, Lux and Taylor (on a bunt squeeze play) all hit late singles Tuesday afternoon in the Dodgers’ skid-snapping, come-from-behind win. Knocks from Pages, Vargas, Rojas and Barnes in the nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader keyed another victory.

Wednesday was one of the best games the Dodgers’ bottom half put together all year, highlighted by four hits from Rojas, a home run from Vargas and two-hit efforts from Heyward and Kiké Hernández.

Even on a day Betts and Freeman went hitless, the Dodgers’ 16 total hits (10 of which came from the Nos. 6-9 hitters) tied for their third-highest total of the year.

“There’s been a lot of talk, obviously, about the bottom of the order,” Roberts said Wednesday. “But today, you can see when they’re taking productive at-bats, getting hits, taking walks good things happen.”

Still, that was just one strong game, one bounceback series.

Two months into the season, bottom-of-the-order production remains a major, deja vu-inducing issue.

And, as the Dodgers chart a course from now to October, it is becoming perhaps the biggest problem they’ll have to get fixed.

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