Freddie Freeman eyes batting title; Dodgers clinch first-round bye

Batting average is considered old-fashioned in today’s analytics-driven game, a statistical relic that has been replaced by on-base percentage, slugging percentage and wins above replacement as more accurate measures of offense, and a batting title doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

“It does for me,” Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman shot back before Monday night’s 5-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks before a crowd of 44,854 at Chavez Ravine.

“I know people don’t put as much stock in batting average and RBIs, but if you go to a stadium, what numbers do they put on the scoreboard? It’s batting average, home runs and RBIs. If they don’t really care, then take them off the board.”

Freeman’s defense of batting average might be a little personal. The 2020 National League most valuable player and 2021 World Series champion with the Atlanta Braves is in position to win the first batting title of his 13-year-career, his major league-leading .329 average seven points better than St. Louis Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt (.322) in the NL.

Freeman has hit .300 or better six previous times but has never won an NL batting title and the Tony Gwynn trophy that comes with it. He finished second with a .341 mark to Washington’s Juan Soto (.351) in 2020.

“Obviously, you don’t go into any season saying that’s my goal,” Freeman said. “Score 100 runs, drive in 100 runs and hit .300 are usually the goals for me.”

Check, check and about to check. Freeman, who hit .382 with a 1.114 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, four homers, 13 RBIs and 14 runs in his first 15 games this month, has 106 runs and 94 RBIs on the season.

Freeman also leads all major leaguers with a .390 batting average (55 for 141) with runners in scoring position.

“That’s how you get points on the board,” said Freeman, in the first year of a six-year, $162-million deal. “I think they brought me here to drive in runs, so I take a lot of pride in hitting with runners in scoring position. When there are guys on base, I want to keep them making left turns.”

Freeman didn’t generate any of those left turns Monday night — he went 0 for 3 with a walk — but his teammates produced enough of them.

Joey Gallo crushed a 437-foot solo homer to right field in the second inning, and Chris Taylor capped a four-run fourth with a three-run homer to back the stout pitching of Clayton Kershaw, who gave up one run and six hits in six innings, struck out 10 — including five in row in the third and fourth — and walked none.

Dodgers' Joey Gallo celebrates with Gavin Lux and manager Dave Roberts after scoring on a home run by Chris Taylor.

The Dodgers’ Joey Gallo, left, celebrates with Gavin Lux, middle, and manager Dave Roberts after scoring on Chris Taylor’s three-run homer in the fourth inning.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It marked the 27th game of Kershaw’s career in which he recorded 10 or more strikeouts with no walks, breaking Randy Johnson’s previous record of 26. He induced 19 swinging strikes among his 94 pitches. He threw 11 pitches in the first inning, 10 for strikes.

“It was great across the board,” manager Dave Roberts said of Kershaw’s outing. “I thought that first inning set the tone, just the way he attacked. I know he always does that, but that first inning was different. Overall, how he managed the strike zone, he was really methodical. … It was really fun to watch.”

The left-hander won a 12-pitch duel with Christian Walker, who fouled off six full-count pitches before whiffing on a 72-mph curve in the fourth.

“I don’t care if he hit it a million miles-per-hour to the warning track — I just wanted an out,” said Kershaw, who improved to 9-3 with a 2.39 ERA this season. “It was time to throw a curveball. I’d thrown fastballs and sliders the whole at-bat, and Will [Smith, Dodgers catcher] had actually called curveball the pitch before.

“I shook him off and he fouled off another slider, and I was, like, ‘Well, it’s time.’ The curveball, for me, is always, ‘Can I throw it for a strike or not?’ And thankfully, I threw it for a strike.”

The battle was further evidence of Kershaw’s disdain for the walk.

“You know he’s not gonna give in,” Roberts said. “Christian and Clayton have a lot of history, so you have to find different ways to get him out. He spoiled some tough pitches, and I don’t ever recall Clayton throwing a 3-2 breaking ball, but the 12th pitch he finally said, ‘I’m gonna try something different.’ and he punched him on a breaking ball. It was good to see.”

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw follows through after delivering a pitch Sept. 19, 2022.

Clayton Kershaw gave up one run in six innings Monday night, earning the win in the Dodgers’ 5-2 victory over the Diamondbacks. He struck out 10 and walked none.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kershaw has given up four earned runs and 14 hits in four starts since returning from his latest back injury, striking out 29 and walking four in 24 innings for a 1.50 ERA in that stretch.

“The health is there, the performance is there, the buildup is there,” Roberts said of Kershaw’s playoff worthiness. “The preparation, the mindset, all that stuff you can bank on, so we feel good right now.”

Kershaw improved to 20-11 with a 2.70 ERA in 41 career starts against Arizona. Diamondbacks right-hander Merrill Kelly fell to 0-9 with a 5.97 ERA in 12 career starts against the Dodgers.

Max Muncy sparked the fourth-inning rally with a one-out double to left field. Gallo’s RBI single to center made it 2-0, Lux singled to right, and Taylor homered to left for a 5-0 lead.

Dodgers right-handers Evan Phillips and Tommy Kahnle each pitched an inning of perfect relief with one strikeout.

Craig Kimbrel gave up a single and hit two batters to load the bases with no outs in the ninth, but second baseman Lux bailed out the closer with a spectacular backhanded, diving stop of Sergio Alcantara’s one-hop smash to start a double play with a run scoring.

Lux flipped to shortstop Trea Turner for a force at second base. Turner then cut down the runner heading to third.

“Just trying to keep the ball in the infield and trying to get an out there,” Lux said. “That was the main thing. Keep the ball in the infield to save a couple of runs. A double play is best-case scenario. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, just try to keep it in the infield and get an out.”

Kimbrel, who gave up a three-run walk-off homer to Alcantara on Wednesday in Arizona, got Daulton Varsho to pop to first as the Dodgers improved their major league-best record to 102-44.

With the victory, the Dodgers clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs, ensuring them of one of the top two seeds in an NL Division Series matchup beginning Oct. 11. The club’s magic number to clinch the top seed in the NL is six.

The Dodgers spent last season’s stretch run in a dog fight with the San Francisco Giants, who won 107 games to edge out the 106-win Dodgers for the division.

The Dodgers were forced to win a wild-card game against St. Louis and survived a grueling five-game Division Series against the Giants, but they were gassed by the end of a six-game NL Championship Series loss to the Braves.

“Man, what a difference a year makes,” Roberts said. “Not to make excuses, but I think that [2021] stretch took a toll on us. This year, we’re in a different position as to how we go about preparing ourselves.”

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