The Los Angeles Dodgers are off to the kind of erratic start they are built to be able to afford. Clayton Kershaw has been only occasionally brilliant out of the gate, the middle of the rotation misses the drop-and-drive dependability of the injured Hyun-Jin Ryu, and newly acquired veterans Yasmani Grandal and Jimmy Rollins have not yet shaken off the winter. Still, the team is stocked well enough that even concurrent slumps hardly register. After a series win against the San Diego Padres over the weekend—one that followed their own sweep in San Francisco—and another win over the Giants on Monday, the Dodgers are 12-7 and atop the division. That they still have room to improve is more scary than damning.
The early scufflers, to this point, have been offset by other Dodgers meeting or surpassing their reputations. Adrian Gonzalez lifted five home runs in the season's first three games and sports baseball's gaudiest slash line. Yasiel Puig, bat-flip sadness aside, was rounding into electric form before landing on the DL. In center field, young Joc Pederson has proven a handy replacement for the heavy-hitting but single-purpose Matt Kemp, and second baseman Howie Kendrick's daily line drives have scrubbed Dee Gordon's old slap-and-dash show from memory.
On the pitching side, the corrective for the April doldrums has been Zack Greinke, now in his third season with the Dodgers. In each of the previous two, he pitched to a sub-3.00 ERA and watched his teammate collect a Cy Young Award. Barring calamity, he will never be the best pitcher on his team as long as he remains in Los Angeles. Instead, he will provide what he has for a couple years and for most of a lightly turbulent opening month: added excellence when things go as they should, and relief when they don't. There is no more virtuosic afterthought in the game.
In the first game of the weekend series, Friday night in San Diego, Greinke faced off against Padres co-ace Andrew Cashner, a trunkish, be-mulleted right-hander whose repertoire resembles Greinke's—mainly fastballs, sliders, and change-ups—but for the markedly higher velocity. Cashner's is a classical heater, 96 and steep, and it found purchase on home plate umpire Mark Wegner's roomy outside corner, setting up Dodger hitters to swing over the top of the eventual offspeed offerings. He pitched well, allowing two runs on six hits in seven innings and mostly tamping the big bats.
Greinke pitched better. Watch him work on evenings like this one, when the ball goes mostly where he wants it to, and you can convince yourself that there's something not quite aboveboard about the whole thing. Maybe it's the way he reaches his glove hand straight out towards the plate right before the delivery, that reach combining with his subsequent squared-up hop from the rubber—he is a perennial Gold Glover, always ready to snare a shot up the middle—and pristine location to make it seem as if he's releasing his pitch from 45 feet in front of the plate. Maybe it's the ostentatious patterns of pitches, even early in the game. Greinke started Padres leadoff hitter Wil Myers off with a slider-fastball-slider-slider-fastball combination in the first inning, and followed that with a fastball-changeup-curve sequence to two-hole hitter Cory Spangenberg. They were effectively facing different pitchers, both of them mercilessly good.
Maybe it is just a general air of improbability. Greinke stands six feet tall, pole-thin, and even at 31 years old, he wears a prodigy's look of easy but imperturbable focus. He fidgets on the mound, tipping his shoulders to correct his jersey's hang. He grew his hair long this spring; now, swiping it back behind his ears has become part of the ritual. At the end of a tight but ultimately triumphant inning, he steps back to the dugout with a smirk. It might seem mean if he weren't such an outwardly unlikely bully.
One such tight spot came Friday night, in the second, when Greinke filled the bases with no outs. He then struck out Alexi Amarista and Cashner, though, and a soft liner from Myers fell into Kendrick's glove to end the inning and trigger the grin. From then on, the night went easily for Greinke. He allowed only one hit over the rest of his seven scoreless innings, all his pitches casual and obedient. The fastball went where Grandal put his glove, the slider bent down and away from righties, the change-up down and away from lefties. The occasional curveball seemed to be mostly for show, but it worked anyway.
Greinke ended up striking out seven, but the game's most characteristic sliver came in the K-less fifth. It was his third time facing the top of the San Diego order, and at this point, the Dodgers had only a one-run lead. Greinke made his way through the inning with the air of someone making a sandwich. A 1-2 slider, low, got Myers to lift a tidy fly ball to Pederson. A first-pitch change-up coaxed a dribbler from Spangenberg; Greinke hopped of the mound to grab it and flip it to first. To end the inning, he selected a high fastball to the ex-Dodger Kemp, who rolled it to short for Rollins to collect while Greinke tipped his shoulders. The ease gave a close game a suggestion of inevitability, and after two more scoreless innings from Greinke and two from the bullpen, the Dodgers won, 3-0.
Despite the wins, the weekend had its troubles for Los Angeles. Puig exited Friday's game after aggravating a hamstring injury trying to beat out an infield hit, precipitating his first career trip to the disabled list, and McCarthy left his start the next night with elbow tightness that proved a Tommy John-necessitating torn UCL. In some pockets of the Dodgers' expensive roster, things are not going quite as planned.
Then, withstanding this type of squall is half the point. A team like these Dodgers can be great, untouchable, can make montages out of Junes and Julys, but it can also avoid ever being the opposite of that. These twin duties—dominance and avoidance—are what so many of their players were brought in to perform. Baseball's best number-two is chief among them, helping out in his trim, quiet way.