12 Jul #SparksNotes: Let the Kids Play
By: Kylie Sparks
The 2019 Dodgers are on a historic run — they were the first team in MLB to 50 wins. They have a monstrous division lead in the National League West and the team’s cleanup hitter, Cody Bellinger, is the front-runner for NL MVP. He started in the All-Star game for the first time this year.
But the story of the Dodgers’ first place standing is only partially about the veterans. The team’s minor-league system has been farming some incredible talent, and with injuries plaguing A.J. Pollock, Corey Seager, David Freese, Austin Barnes, and most of the pitching staff (Rich Hill, Caleb Ferguson, Clayton Kershaw, Tony Cingrani, and JT Chargois alone have been out of commission at various points), some of the biggest stars this season have been the rookies. Expanded Roster saw the top pipeline talent in action at Cactus League, and here they are now in the big leagues, shining bright.
The 2019 Dodgers are now the first MLB team ever to win three consecutive games thanks to back-to-back-to-back rookie walk-off home runs. Matt Beaty, who was called up due to Pollock’s elbow infection and surgery and has been on the active roster intermittently since April 30, led the charge on June 21, followed by fan favorite Alex Verdugo on June 22, then the Fresh Prince of Chavez Ravine, Will Smith, who stepped off the plane from Oklahoma City hours before the game hitting the game-winning bomb June 23. The Dodger rookies have also been a collective run machine, with solid stats through the end of June: Beaty has two HR and 13 RBIs; Verdugo, who made the opening day roster and has been an asset both defensively and at bat, has 36 RBIs and nine home runs (and an incredibly impressive .859 OPS); Kyle Garlick, who has been racking up frequent-flyer miles from Oklahoma City to LA and back since May 17, has an OPS of .895; Smith, although currently in OKC, has an OPS of .999 with three HR and six RBIs; and Edwin Rios, who made his Dodger debut June 29, hit an RBI triple for his first big-league hit.
Defensively, the Dodgers have needed well-rounded utility players since Pollock’s surgery and Seager’s hamstring injury created the need for a bit of Dodger Tetris to maximize player availability and utilize everyone’s strengths. Beaty and Rios have been at first base with Max Muncy and… Joc Pederson (yes, outfield specialist Pederson has been playing first as part of the Tetris). Muncy is alternating at second base with Kiké Hernandez and at third with Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor has taken over for Seager at short (alternating with Hernandez).
In the outfield, Garlick has been alternating in left with Pederson, Verdugo has been mostly playing center, and Beaty has made starts in the outfield as well. All the rookies have made clutch plays, like Verdugo’s 98.4 mph throw from center to get Herman Perez of the Milwaukee Brewers at the plate, and who can forget Beaty’s dive into a chili dog to catch a foul ball against the New York Mets? While Smith has only been called up to serve as the third catcher or as an injury replacement, he has demonstrated the raw talent that was on display during spring training — his quick decision-making skills, ability to throw long distances — and showcased his great rapport with his pitchers.
Speaking of pitchers, while the Dodgers have yet to find their next Walker Buehler, they do have… Russell Martin? The veteran catcher returned to the Dodgers this season in a trade from the Toronto Blue Jays, the only team in his home country. He’s pitched two innings this season in bullpen relief — in his first appearance, March 30,against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he threw a 1-2-3 inning in an 18-5 win, after casually remarking he hadn’t pitched “since college.” On June 26, he threw another 1-2-3 inning, once again against the Diamondbacks (although the Dodgers lost 8-2 that evening), and recorded his first career strikeout. He currently has the best ERA in the Dodgers’ bullpen with 0.00 and even featured a 90 mph fastball. Yes, you are reading this right, THAT Russell Martin a pretty good rookie pitcher. Watch out Shohei Ohtani, you might have some competition on your hands for best two-way player in Southern California.
Rookies rarely make a large impact if they aren’t on the full-time roster, but Dodgers fans — as well as the Dodgers social team — have taken a shine to the newbies, initiating them with nicknames like “The Fresh Prince,” “Beaty Beaty Bom Bom” and “Garlick Fries,” as well as planning social media campaigns for their debuts, call ups, and clutch plays (or 1-2-3 innings when that’s not even remotely their job).
And there’s no end in sight. Verdugo has earned his roster spot. Beaty, Rios, Garlick, and Smith have all proven they are ready for the big leagues, and are on the verge of that full-time call-up. When you let the kids play, magic happens, especially at Chavez Ravine.