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Los Angeles Dodger Trevor Bauer starts strong and hangs on for win in debut

Trevor Bauer stood near the back of the mound, breathed slowly, swayed his head and took two steps forward to assume his position on the rubber.

It was the middle of the seventh inning, and Bauer was nine outs away from recording his first career no-hitter in impressive and emphatic fashion — at Coors Field, a hellscape for opposing pitchers, and in his first start since winning the National League Cy Young Award, signing with the reigning champion Los Angeles Dodgers and obtaining a record-setting contract.

Bauer’s first pitch in Friday’s bottom of the seventh, a 90 mph fastball, was lined to left field for a base hit by Trevor Story. His third pitch, a 75 mph knuckle curve, was deposited into the Colorado Rockies’ bullpen in right-center field. His 11th pitch, an 84 mph cutter to Ryan McMahon, sailed over the right-field scoreboard.

Bauer had gone from untouchable to unrecognizable in an instant, a reminder of the oddities that perpetuate a baseball stadium residing more than 5,000 feet above sea level.

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On Thursday, a Cody Bellinger two-run homer was scored as a one-run single after Justin Turner crossed paths with him on the bases. On Friday, a fluffy gray cat ran out near the third-base dugout and settled in center field to take a break. And through both nights, the mighty Dodgers accumulated a whopping 31 hits — none of which resulted in home runs. Weird.

“Weird? Come on, media, you guys should love this — we’re not just relying on the home run ball,” Turner said after an 11-6 victory. “How many times have we heard that in the past?”

There isn’t a whole lot that can be gleaned from 1.2% of a season, but the first two games of 2021 — a win and a loss — have reinforced two obvious points about a Dodgers team that might threaten to break the single-season wins record.

1. The offense could be among the greatest ever. Corey Seager (5-for-8) has stayed locked in through the 2020 regular season, the ensuing playoffs, the spring training that spilled over into the new year and the real games that followed it. But Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Will Smith are already in sync, Bellinger looks comfortable with a slightly open stance, and 23-year-old second baseman Gavin Lux, who simplified his swing largely by cutting out the excess hand movement in his setup, looks poised to break out.

2. Adding Bauer to this rotation is unfair.

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Through the first six innings of his 2021 debut, Bauer allowed one baserunner, recorded nine strikeouts and seemed primed to join Hideo Nomo as the only pitchers to throw a no-hitter at Coors Field. He was commanding his slider and cutter, two pitches that accounted for 12 of his 15 swings and misses, and staring down the Rockies’ hitters as they swung through them.

It marked the third time Bauer took a no-hitter into the seventh, but also the third time he couldn’t complete it.

“I don’t really care,” he said. “If it happens, it happens. It’s not something that’s in the pitcher’s control. Unless you strike out 27 guys, there’s gonna be balls put in play, and that’s luck, whether they get hit at people or the defense makes a great play.

“There were a lot of great defensive plays behind me tonight. I very easily could have given up hits before the seventh. I look at it as luck, and I try to focus on things I can control, which is my physical preparation, mental preparation, the stuff coming out of my hand, my decisions on the mound and where the ball ends up at the plate. Those are really the only five things I can control.”

Most of the questions surrounding the Dodgers’ surprise signing of Bauer this offseason centered on social-media history and overall reputation, but there were also questions about his pitching.

Before last year’s dominant season with the Cincinnati Reds — at least partly influenced by a regionalized schedule in which he constantly faced inferior lineups — Bauer had posted a 3.99 ERA while averaging 181 innings from 2014 to 2019. He was a reliable, well-above-average starter, but not necessarily the type of rotation anchor who would command $85 million over a two-year stretch.

Bauer refuted that notion in spring training, noting the injuries he dealt with in 2019 and stating that his numbers compare favorably to the likes of Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg since he altered his approach for the second half of the 2017 season. (For the record: Bauer’s numbers are very similar to Strasburg’s during that stretch, even though Bauer accumulated significantly more innings, but Cole’s are noticeably better.)

“If you actually look at it,” Bauer said in early March, “I’ve been pretty elite.”

His first six innings of 2021 seemed to validate some of that.

Watching it fall apart in the seventh — possibly a byproduct of Bauer spending a lot of time running the bases in the thin air of Colorado during the prior half inning — didn’t change much.

“This is the first time I really got to watch him compete in a regular-season game, and it was really fun to watch,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He was in complete control.”

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