February 23, 2024

Dave Roberts let out a belly laugh when asked how thrilled he was that the Dodgers will begin their final trip of the season with a split doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies in Denver on Tuesday. Inside, the Dodgers manager was wincing.

“I’m just grateful that it’s coming after an off-day,” Roberts said. “It’s not ideal in Colorado … yeah, I’m not looking forward to this. We’ll just try to manage it and get through it the best we can.”

The same conditions that make Coors Field baseball’s most hitter-friendly park also make it a mecca for muscle strains, the high altitude and thin, dry air often leading to dehydration that leaves players more susceptible to soft-tissue injuries.

And the last thing the National League West champion Dodgers (96-59) need as they steam toward a possible fifth 100-win season in seven years is an injury that could upend the lineup, rotation or bullpen for the playoffs.

But the Dodgers, who clinched their 10th division title in 11 years on Sept. 16 in Seattle, also need to play with a sense of urgency and a competitive edge that will give them momentum going into October, something they lacked last season, when they won a franchise-record 111 games and lost to the San Diego Padres in the first round.

Games like Sunday’s dramatic 3-2, walk-off win over San Francisco, which featured two fifth-inning web gems by second baseman Mookie Betts, Houdini-like escape acts by closer Evan Phillips in the ninth inning and Shelby Miller in the 10th, and Chris Taylor’s game-winning hit on a 100-mph fastball from Giants closer Camilo Doval, can only help.

“You still have to field a team, and any player that runs out there and plays, there’s always a chance for injury,” Roberts said. “Could you potentially overdo it [by playing regulars too much]? Sure. But there’s also a psyche part of it that guys have to still feel like they’re getting ready.”

These final two weeks of the regular season are a balancing act for Roberts and the Dodgers, who want to keep their foot firmly on the gas pedal as they head toward October but not to the point where they might blow a head gasket.

That can be a challenge with a player such as designated hitter J.D. Martinez, who missed three weeks because of left groin tightness and has found his stroke since his Sept. 8 return, batting .375 (21 for 56) with a 1.190 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, six homers, four doubles and 20 RBIs in his last 15 games.

“I definitely still feel it from time to time … but the biggest thing for me is playing — I’m at my best when I’m in there every day,” said Martinez, who has battled the groin issue since mid-July but is still batting .273 with a .902 OPS, 31 homers and 98 RBIs in 107 games.

Dodgers' Freddie Freeman hits an RBI single against the San Francisco Giants on  Sept. 22, 2023, at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, hitting an RBI single against the San Francisco Giants on Friday, has played in all but one game this season.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

“The off-and-on stuff, it’s kind of worn me down. It’s really hurt me as far as my performance on the field. It’s hard to get in a groove not knowing where my body is every day because I’m not in there every day. I’ve just got to stay on top of my rehab and exercises and keep my fingers crossed that everything is good going forward.”

There is little chance Martinez, 36, will play both games of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but some players will have to. Though September’s expanded 28-man rosters allow teams to carry 14 pitchers and 14 position players, an extra player can’t be added for September doubleheaders like they can in the first five months of the season.

Right-hander Ryan Pepiot is scheduled to pitch bulk innings after an “opener” in the first game. Fellow rookie right-hander Bobby Miller will start the nightcap.

Roberts expects first baseman and NL most valuable player candidate Freddie Freeman, who has missed only one of 155 games, to “lobby to play both” games. The manager will talk to Betts, who has slipped in the MVP race, about playing two.

Betts emerged as the front-runner over Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. by hitting .455 with a 1.355 OPS, 11 homers, 10 doubles and 30 RBIs in 28 August games, but his production has slipped in a September in which he’s batting .242 with a .746 OPS, one homer, four doubles and seven RBIs in 19 games.

“To be honest, we only have [seven] games left, and I want Mookie and Freddie to give it a good run for this MVP,” Roberts said. “Everyone knows Colorado is a hitter-friendly place, and if they can throw out some hits and some homers, pad their stats, and we win some baseball games, I’m all for that.”

The Dodgers will have five days to rest and recover before the Oct. 7 start of the NLDS, so Roberts will play his regulars over this final week as he would any week of the season. He also plans to stage some higher-intensity intrasquad games in Dodger Stadium next week.

Sure, he’d like to bubble-wrap some players to avoid injuries such as the one Max Muncy suffered on the final day of the 2021 regular season, when Muncy tore a left elbow ligament on a freak collision at first base and the Dodgers lost his 36-homer, 94-RBI bat for the playoffs. But that is neither possible nor prudent to do.

“If you look at Max’s situation, which was very unforeseen, somebody’s still got to play first base,” Roberts said. “I don’t look back at certain results and say we should have done it differently.

“We played eight other guys that day, and guys around the league played that day, and I don’t recall any other impact player getting hurt on the last day of the season like Max did. That’s just part of sports.”

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