LOS ANGELES — He handled the pressure of his major-league debut with aplomb. He controlled the emotions of his home debut with expertise. So when Dodgers rookie Bobby Miller was lined up to make his third career start on Sunday Night Baseball against the Yankees in front of 52,816 fans at Dodger Stadium, his manager didn’t hesitate to give him the ball.
Dave Roberts felt confident the flame-throwing, 24-year-old could manage the intense spotlight and any nerves associated with the highly-anticipated contest.
“Sometimes when you get here, the focus heightens or narrows even more,” Roberts said before the rubber match at Dodger Stadium. “And I think so far with Bobby, that’s what we’ve seen.”
That continued to be the case Sunday, despite the Yankees taking the series with a 4-1 win. All four runs scored after Miller’s departure against a Dodgers bullpen that has thus far lacked the reliability of past iterations. While L.A.’s relievers are searching for consistency, its rotation is going through its own trials and injuries, making Miller’s emergence all the more important.
On Sunday, Miller stifled the Yankees’ bats in six scoreless frames. The only hit he allowed came with two outs in the fifth inning, when fellow rookie Anthony Volpe laced a single.
“I can’t say enough about what Bobby’s done for us,” Roberts said.
As Miller joined Kenta Maeda as the only Dodgers pitchers ever to go at least five innings allowing one or no runs in each of their first three career appearances, he also demonstrated his ability to adapt at the big-league level.
The 6-foot-5 prospect knew teams were gearing up for his fastball, so he started placing more emphasis on his secondaries. Miller made a between-starts adjustment on his slider, throwing it harder and tighter in an effort to make it more indistinguishable from his fastball, which can reach triple digits. Ideally, that would yield more swings and misses.
On Sunday, the Yankees whiffed 11 times on 19 swings against Miller’s slider.
“His whole makeup, his competitiveness,’ it’s impressive,” catcher Will Smith said. “To be that young, to do this well and not back down from anybody, it’s impressive.”
The Dodgers knew this opportunity would come at some point this year for Miller, the top pitching prospect in their system, and Gavin Stone, another highly-regarded prospect selected in the shortened 2020 draft. They could not have expected it would happen this soon.
The injuries came at a time when Dodgers starters were also struggling to work deep into games, further taxing an already scuffling bullpen. At the time of Miller’s debut on May 23, Dodgers starting pitchers had logged nine straight outings of five innings or fewer. Miller, who went five innings at Atlanta in his major-league debut, then limited the Nationals to one run in six innings in his home debut, has helped stabilize the group.
“The way Bobby’s throwing, we’re gonna keep running him out there,” Roberts said. “It’s about seizing opportunities.”
It was a much more auspicious start for him than for Stone, who was sent back down to Triple-A after allowing 17 runs (16 earned) through his first three starts. Stone will get another opportunity at some point. Miller, who sports a 1.06 ERA through his first three starts, likely won’t be visiting Oklahoma City anytime soon.
Roberts said this week that both Miller and 26-year-old Michael Grove have an opportunity in front of them. The fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs even after Urías returns, which could happen as soon as next weekend, so every start is an audition. Grove allowed four runs in five innings Saturday before Miller’s scoreless performance Sunday.
Unlike Grove, Miller got to avoid Aaron Judge, who was out of the Yankees’ lineup Sunday after his extraordinary catch the night prior. Judge hurt his right big toe while slamming into — and through — the right-field fence. He is currently day-to-day, and the Yankees are hoping he can avoid the injured list.
Without the reigning MVP, Miller stymied the Yankees lineup, striking out seven and walking two — both in the first inning. Miller worked around the free passes, striking out three in the opening frame to keep the Yankees off the board.
Entering this year, he felt that his ability to sequence pitches and harness his emotions on the mound were the final necessary steps in his growth. His continued maturation in both areas could keep him in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future.
“I feel like I’ve been ready,” Miller said. “But executing all my pitches, staying composed out there, is going to show them I’m ready.”
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