WASHINGTON — No one will confuse the atmosphere inside Nationals Park with anything close to what Bobby Miller will see in October. An announced crowd of 34,562 had thinned to a few thousand by the time the 24-year-old right-hander took the mound for the bottom of the first inning, both teams’ patience worn by a combined five hours of rain delays over 24 hours in the mid-Atlantic. An afternoon spent passing the time and avoiding the downpour with college football does little to stir up adrenaline.
While the Washington Nationals have performed well since the All-Star break, they still sit in the bottom third of the league in runs per game. Their lineup Saturday night boasted one hitter with an OPS above .800.
Yet what at the time was an otherwise nondescript (and very long) Saturday night in September (at least before a furious ninth-inning comeback, extra innings and a Gus Varland walk-off wild pitch in a 7-6 loss) was reflective of something.
Miller has gained the Los Angeles Dodgers’ trust, in part by his own doing and in part by default. Miller entered the night having righted the ship on his rookie season. He’s already proved plenty to show why he should be an integral part of the organization’s postseason pitching plans. The alternatives have also thinned out in what has been a plate-shifting week.
“It’s changed because of things that have happened,” Dave Roberts said. “It’s also changed because you look at what he’s done the last four, five, six starts.”
So Roberts is content to push his young right-hander. Not in workload (though at 116 innings between the majors and minors, he’s set a new career high) but in responsibility. The club is already playing with house money with how well Miller — who started this season on the periphery of what was supposed to be a wealth of pitching depth — has performed. So why not see what you’ve got?
“I don’t think anyone outside of maybe Bobby saw this coming,” Roberts said.
Bobby nice. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/KwB5J6Xg2Y
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) September 10, 2023
Miller was strong, but not spectacular for much of Saturday. But he had done enough to be within an out of completing seven innings for the second consecutive start (and the second time in his career) when he approached another milestone. Before CJ Abrams strode into the box for the seventh inning, Miller had never faced a hitter four times in one game. Roberts had left-hander Caleb Ferguson throwing and warm in the visitors bullpen, but remained where he was. Miller’s pitch count was still manageable. His stuff was holding. This was a moment when Roberts wanted to see something.
He stayed where he was even after Miller walked Abrams on five pitches. He stood in the same spot when Lane Thomas, seeing Miller for the fourth time, roped a first-pitch hanging slider over the left-field fence for a two-run homer.
“Just an unacceptable pitch,” Miller said.
Miller struck out Dominic Smith to end the threat, trudging off with a bruised final line — he’d allowed five runs in his seven innings — but a sample collected. A stress test, survived.
“It’s hard to simulate what he’s going to be going through,” Roberts said. “So as best we can do, if we’re not going to put him in harm’s way, then I think it’s a good thing. These are good experiences, opportunities for him to kind of see how he responds.”
Odds are, Miller won’t face a single hitter a fourth time in the postseason. You can probably count on one hand the number of hitters he’ll face a third time. But there is something that can be gathered in the minor moments, something the Dodgers will have to see in their young pieces who will suddenly be thrust into the postseason spotlight in a month’s time.
It’s a test James Outman passed in the ninth inning, as the Dodgers clung to life down a run. The stakes will eventually be higher, but the situation will on its face surely be the same at some point next month. Outman has evolved his game over the course of the summer, trimming down his strikeout rate at the cost of power as he closed up the biggest flaw in his game. That was on display against Nationals closer Kyle Finnegan, with the rookie center fielder fouling off five consecutive two-strike offerings en route to an 11-pitch walk before showing off the other elements of his game in stealing second base and taking third on an error on the ensuing throw. Three pitches later, he was jogging home to tie the score on Kolten Wong’s two-strike single.
“I feel like I still have room for growth,” Outman said, “and I’m trying to take everything in stride and learn from everything.”
These are learning moments. The ones that provide glimmers even in the monotony of what this final month shall bring. It’s something worth waiting hours for in a game that ultimately will have little impact on the immediate standings, but perhaps for a similar moment (with higher stakes) a month from now.
“Whatever they throw at me,” Miller said, “I’m going to be ready for it.”
(Photo of Dodgers starting pitcher Bobby Miller working in the first inning Saturday at Nationals Park: Brad Mills / USA Today)