Dodger outfielder James Outman was a deserving winner of National League rookie of the month honors in April. His .292 batting average, .991 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, seven home runs and 20 runs batted in weren’t flukes. He was a great find in a year of major turnover, an obvious answer to the question of who would lead the next generation.
But when the calendar turned to May and opponents began to figure out how to pitch to him — fastballs up in the strike zone were his nemesis — he had to fight to avoid becoming a one-month wonder. He struck out 18 times in his first 44 at-bats this month. His batting average dropped to .257. “It’s no secret. I was grinding,” he said.
His teammates constantly assured him he’d find a way past his slump. They’d been there, felt the anxiety, been tempted to change too much — or too little. Catcher Will Smith told him to find the positive in the negatives. That resonated strongly with Outman, though the 26-year-old Redwood City native sometimes had to dig hard to find the smallest hint of hope.
“This situation, at least I swung at good pitches. Or at least I moved the ball forward and stuck to my approach. Stuff like that,” he said of what he told himself to keep his spirits up. “Finding positives when you’re grinding, I think really helps out a lot.”
The first positive he found occurred when he reached on an infield single and scored a run in the fourth inning Wednesday against Minnesota. “It was definitely a breath of fresh air, just getting on base,” he said. “Them being able to score off that, it was like, ‘OK, I helped the team contribute today. Let’s keep it rolling.’”
He did that and much more, creating his biggest positive moment in a long time. Outman lined a low, first-pitch fastball from reliever Emilio Pagan to center field for a grand slam in the seventh inning, lifting the Dodgers to a 7-3 victory over the Twins in their last home game before they begin a season-long 10-game trip at St. Louis, Atlanta and Tampa. “Happy flight,” he said with a smile after the Dodgers’ seventh victory in eight games and sixth straight series win.
The sunbaked crowd at Dodger Stadium roared as the 407-foot drive cleared the fence. Outman’s reaction to his second career grand slam was quieter — more like a deep, cleansing sigh of relief. “Like, thank God,” he said. “It was a good feeling to come up big in a big spot right there.”
Manager Dave Roberts has been patient with Outman, knowing the rookie wouldn’t maintain his torrid early pace but still sure Outman was better than the scuffling hitter of late.
“He’s trying to figure it out, learn the league, they’re learning him, making adjustments,” Roberts said. “Like I said a couple of days ago, it’s not linear, you gotta keep making adjustments as the league makes adjustments on you.”
The teammates who had propped Outman up were as happy for him Wednesday as he was. “I love it because you have to stay aggressive, even when you’re going through a rough patch,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “The only way you can come out of it is by swinging, and in that situation, guys in scoring position, he got a pitch to hit and he hit it.”
Third baseman Max Muncy said he was confident Outman would eventually break out. “I think he’s got a good enough head to know that it’s the big leagues, and everyone struggles at this level, and everyone is gonna go through little lulls,” Muncy said. “You’ve just got to weather those and just know you’re gonna come out on top.
“I think that was the biggest message that we can send to him, that you have to weather the low, and know that you’re gonna come out on top, and hopefully this is a start for him.”
It’s too early to say whether this game will be remembered as the day Outman broke out of his slump, or the day the Dodgers’ season took a painful turn because starting pitcher Dustin May suffered what Roberts said was a flexor pronator strain. It’s in the same arm in which May had Tommy John surgery two years ago. He will undergo more tests after an initial MRI found the damage.
It’s another setback in a season that has been full of challenges but the Dodgers have responded well, as they did Wednesday in retaining the best record in the NL (28-16). After May had to leave after only one inning, newly summoned righthander Dylan Covey came in to carry the Dodgers through four innings, a boost to a heavily used bullpen. Victor González inherited a bases-loaded situation when he relieved Covey in the sixth and got three straight outs to ensure the Twins didn’t break the game open.
Outman thought Covey’s performance was worth as much praise as his own, and typical of the team’s resilience. “I think we’re tough. I think it showed today,” Outman said. “Dylan, that was awesome for him to just eat up innings like that and pitch well. But yeah, I think we’re a good ballclub and our staff is really good. So they keep us in a lot of games.”
Outman found the positives in the negatives that had happened to him. That’s the Dodgers’ task now too.