Oct 25

Don Mattingly, Trey Hillman, Sue Falsone and our ignorance

Well, folks, we sure got a humbling wakeup call about our understanding of the Dodgers this week.

For starters, all season long, everyone — and I mean everyone that wrote, commented, tweeted or otherwise published a word about the 2013 Dodgers — attributed in-game strategic decisions wholly to manager Don Mattingly. Then, this week, all of a sudden there was Trey Hillman.

Sure, the bench coach had been there all along, been there for three years, but he had walked the Dodger planet in almost complete anonymity, save for taking over after a rare Mattingly ejection. Hardly a word was uttered about his role with the team until Monday, when he was fired for whatever advice he did or didn’t give, day after day, to Mattingly. Even today, no one seems entirely clear what that counsel was or wasn’t.

Mattingly was the guy in the driver’s seat, of course. The in-game buck stopped with him. But now we’re told that the bench coach played a much more significant role with the Dodgers than anyone realized. There was this nearly invisible x factor that reminds all of us that as much as we think we know everything that’s going on with the team, we still operate in large pockets of complete ignorance.

On top of that, a new mystery about what exactly the Dodger clubhouse was like in 2013 emerged Monday, via the infamous Mattingly-Ned Colletti press conference. I made the point, on Twitter I believe, that this seemed to be the most peaceful Dodger clubhouse in my memory — certainly in my time doing Dodger Thoughts. Outside of roughly 24 hours worth of quickly defused tension between Mattingly and Andre Ethier and whatever wrassling might have been going on with Yasiel Puig, there was no hint of conflict reported by the media.

But on Monday, Mattingly opened a small window into what may actually be a large world of in-house second-guessing and authority-undermining, the extent of which still isn’t clear. Whatever it is, it was not a part of the published story of the 2013 Dodgers until after the 2013 Dodgers were history.

Part of what made Monday’s awkward press conference so shocking is that the organization has seemed so amazingly united this year. Even when Mattingly’s job was in jeopardy in May/June, the manager displayed a rather remarkable level of poise and understanding. Mattingly, in a fashion I’ve seen other managers make little use of, accepted the blame for the team’s last-place start and hardly hid behind the injuries. Even the incident with Ethier has always struck me as more about getting the team more focused than anything else, which is why I think the team moved on from it so quickly. From May 25:

… while I think Andre Ethier was clearly in mind as Mattingly spoke about what it takes to win and all that, I don’t think Mattingly was singling out Ethier.  I think he was making an example of Ethier, which is an entirely different thing.

Take note of this. The Dodgers put out their Wednesday lineup. Ethier isn’t in it. Reporters ask why. Mattingly doesn’t directly answer the question, instead delivering his rugged sermon about what he expects from every member of his squad. It’s clear that Ethier is falling short of this standard. But it’s also clear that Ethier is not the only one falling short of the standard (in Mattingly’s mind), and I don’t know why people didn’t see this. …

Ultimately, Mattingly seemed at peace with the responsibility of being the fall guy. But clearly, he was wrestling with other feelings that emerged this week, and even more clearly, not everyone was on the same page when Monday’s press conference was called. Perhaps rather than the epilogue of the 2013 season, what Monday brought us was the first page of the book on the 2014 Dodgers.

As for head trainer Sue Falsone’s departure (once more, the Variety term “ankling” seems useful here), it was celebrated by numerous fans who weren’t in thrall to her or her pioneering position in the guys’ club. But our ignorance about the impact of her presence or absence could hardly be higher.

Few inside the organization, and fewer still outside of it, have any idea how Falsone, Stan Conte or anyone on the Dodger medical staff improved or diminished the team’s overall health — that is, on the injuries they actually might have had any influence upon. There was undeniable inevitability of injuries to middle-age players like Chris Capuano, Carl Crawford or Mark Ellis, while putting mishaps like Zack Greinke’s broken collarbone on the staff’s plate is particularly ludicrous. Logically, the only question is not whether the 2013 medical staff wasn’t good, but whether anyone could do better. That’s a much different way of framing things than assuming they were actually contributing to the Dodger injury problems, which I’ve seen some fans posit.

Look, I’m not above questioning things that the Dodgers do, from player transactions to bunting decisions to the presence of in-stadium pregame hosts. Not only is that part of following the team, but sometimes, I think outsiders really do know better. But be wary of having too swollen a head about this stuff. There’s lots going on beneath the surface that we don’t know about until much, much later.

Oct 21

Don Mattingly channels Charlie Dressen

The Dodger managerial career of Walter Alston began when he was hired in the 1953-54 offseason on the first of 23 one-year contracts to replace Charlie Dressen, who had legendarily requested a multiyear deal after winning the National League pennant with 105 victories but was then shown the door.

Judging by tweets from today’s (by numerous accounts) tensely uncomfortable Dodger press conference involving Don Mattingly and Ned Colletti, Mattingly was unhappy that it was so easy to view him as a lame duck and is testing the same path.

Put another way, Mattingly may have decided to sacrifice his current managerial job to move his future to the next base.

Third-base coach Tim Wallach, by the way, is considered a top MLB managerial candidate by several observers. So aside from looking outside the organization, there remains at least one in-house alternative, should Mattingly and the Dodgers part ways.

Oct 21

Dodgers havana field day with Cuban talent, reportedly signing Alexander Guerrero

Likely settling one of their major questions for 2014, the Dodgers appear to have signed — after more than one false start — infielder Alexander Guerrero to a four-year deal worth at least $28 million, according to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com.

The 26-year-old Guerrero, who defected from Cuba earlier this year and can earn an additional $4 million in incentives, is a good bet to play second base and figures to be a step up offensively over Mark Ellis, according to Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness. Ellis, who has a $5.75 million club option or a $1 million buyout, has probably played his last game as a Dodger, though he could conceivably return on a lower salary as a backup and mentor to Guerrero.

Oct 19

Three top questions for the 2014 Dodgers

As we look to the future, in no particular order:

1) What happens to half the infield? Juan Uribe is a free agent, while Mark Ellis has a $5.75 million club option or a $1 million buyout. Signing a major bat for second base might make it more comfortable for the Dodgers to bring back Uribe (at a paycut) for his defense. If not Robinson Cano, then Alexander Guerrero? If not Guerrero, then whom?

2) What happens with the outfielders? You say it’s one too many, but the medical reports indicate otherwise. Remember the illusion of this year’s starting pitcher surplus. There’s little reason to give one away on a salary dump, and little more reason to think the Dodgers can get top value for any of those they would even consider trading before they prove themselves healthy. So whither the quartet? Does minor-leaguer Joc Pederson step into a major-league role or become trade bait?

3) What happens with the starting pitching? Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu are locks, but what about the other spots? Ricky Nolasco and Edinson Volquez will likely be free agents, and Chris Capuano will be bought out for $1 million. Chad Billingsley and Josh Beckett will be coming back from major injuries. If past patterns are any indication, the earliest arrival for Zack Lee from the minors will be May. That’s a lot of gray area in next year’s rotation. Bet the over on David Price trade rumors.

Oct 18

What a ride, what a ride

Oh, I had big dreams about this Dodger team today.

And what fueled those dreams was how resilient the 2013 Dodgers were and the heights they were able to reach. The truly fun Dodger teams are the ones you can never count out – the teams that could make comebacks something you not only hoped for, but nearly expected.

Moving from last place to first in such spectacular fashion this summer, peaking with that 42-8 run that made time travel seem possible, had the effect of a Cupid’s arrow in my baseball-toughened heart. There would be no easy surrender. It was what allowed me to believe as the final wave of injuries swallowed up Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez, what allowed me to believe as the Dodgers faced three consecutive winner-take-all games.

That, and the proof from 1988 that the improbable could come to life.

To say the least, tonight’s season finale, a 9-0 loss in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, did not do those dreams justice. Clayton Kershaw was on one end of the universe, and Michael Wacha was on the other. I was so prepared for a virtual repeat of Game 2′s vice grip on my nerves, but my vision just evaporated.

One of baseball’s eternal questions is whether it’s better to go down in bitterly close defeat or with a giant thud. I think this time, I’ll take the thud. But as time passes, it all blends together anyway, becoming yet another tally on our endless journey through the desert.

This has been the Dodgers’ biggest step in the past 25 years, but we still wonder how many more we’ll have to take.

I liked this team. I liked these guys, without exception. I would list them all, but I would just be listing the entire roster. (OK, I don’t really get Brian Wilson, but he sure joined in without a hitch.) This was as easy a Dodger team to root for as any.

However much you might be hurting, think of them. But also, feel free to revel in your community of fellow fans. Man, that conversation about which organization was superior or which fans were better was as dumb as it gets.

This was a different kind of year blogging about the team for me. I stayed on hiatus almost the entire offseason and didn’t even decide to resume more regular efforts until the day before the regular season began. And even then, my work was less dedicated than it had been, as I repeatedly questioned how much time I should devote to it. I felt a bit like an old man at the blogging game. I felt I could still reach some heights, but I was picking my spots. I took my rest.

As the season went on, however, these 2013 Dodgers energized me. They were in my head, and they got much more out of me than I would have expected. They reminded me that in some ways, this still feels like my calling.

We’ll see what happens next.

For those who came back around, thanks for reading. And let’s get these guys healthy and plug those holes and go get that World Series next year.

Oct 18

In standout seven innings, Wacha walks all over Dodgers

If it’s any consolation to Clayton Kershaw in the short term, it does not appear there was any besting Michael Wacha tonight.

While Kershaw unraveled, allowing four runs in the third inning and three more in the fifth in his worst performance in 15 months, Wacha dominated Los Angeles for the second time in the National League Championship Series.

Wacha, the youngblood compared with Kershaw, faced only two batters over the minimum in allowing no runs and three baserunners in seven shutout innings, needing only 95 pitches in the process. Only one Dodger advanced past first base and none past second before Wacha was removed with St. Louis comfortably ahead, 9-0, as this post was being written.

Tonight was ugly, but also numbing. Nothing about it eases the pain of how close the Dodgers came to winning Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS. Nothing short of an absolute, unconscious miracle in the final minutes.

Oct 18

What happened in a disastrous Dodger third inning

The Dodgers and their fans weren’t having a nightmare. It really happened.

In the third inning of tonight’s National League Championship Series Game 6, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw got in a jam he couldn’t dig out of. Here’s what went wrong:

Prelude
Kershaw had a stressful second inning, when he gave up a single to first-time postseason starter Shane Robinson, who previously hurt the Dodgers with a pinch-hit homer in Game 4. Kershaw threw two wild pitches to allow Robinson to advance to third, and only struck out No. 8 hitter Pete Kozma on a 3-2 fastball that was above the strike zone.

Carpenter with the wood
With one out after retiring opposing pitcher Michael Wacha, Kershaw could not put Matt Carpenter away. The Cardinal second baseman took ball one, then fouled off seven pitches in a row. It’s the ability to put away a hitter that helps separate Kershaw from other pitchers, but it was nowhere to be found in this at-bat. After ball two arrived, Carpenter fouled off another pitch, then drilled a no-doubt double to right field on the 11th pitch of the at-bat.

Beltran’s belt and run
Kershaw fell behind 2-1 in the count to Carlos Beltran, then gave up a solid single to right field that scored the game’s first run. Yasiel Puig’s off-balance throw was dropped in the middle of the diamond by Adrian Gonzalez, eliminating any chance the Dodgers had of throwing Beltran out trying to advance to second base.

Letting them off the hook
Kershaw’s next five pitches were strikes – three to fan Matt Holliday (the final one looking) and then two more to Yadier Molina, to put him within a strike of escaping the inning down by only a run. But the next two pitches missed badly, and then Kershaw came in with a hanging, shoulder-high pitch that Molina lashed up the middle for the second run of the game.

Freese framed
David Freese came to the plate with Kershaw having thrown 27 pitches in the inning already. The first pitch was strike-worthy but called a ball, the second was way high and the third was fouled off. The next pitch stayed up and was grounded between Kershaw’s legs and up the middle to put runners on first and second.

Squeeze play
Matt Adams, 3 for 20 in the NLCS, swung and missed at a 1-1 pitch, and once again Kershaw was one strike away from escaping with reasonable damage. But then, the 1-2 pitch just missed – Kershaw wanted that one – the 2-2 pitch was a bit outside and the 3-2 pitch was a hair low, angering Kershaw even more. Home plate Greg Gibson certainly did Kershaw no favors in this at-bat.

The big blow
Robinson took a called first strike that was no worse than the two key balls called for Adams. But the next pitch – the 39th of the inning – was a fastball in the middle of the plate that drove home two runs and emphatically made the bottom of the third a disaster for Kershaw and the Dodgers.  Puig’s throw home was wild, allowing the runners to advance to second and third, but the damage was already done.

The merciful end
Kozma was walked intentionally, bringing the inning’s leadoff hitter, Wacha, back to the plate. By this time, no hitter could be considered an easy one for Kershaw. Wacha took ball one, then fouled off three pitches before taking a called third strike on the 48th pitch from Kershaw in the bottom of the third.

Heaven will wait
The TBS announcers were like wild animals in on the kill going after Puig for his two shaky throws, and though he didn’t help the Dodgers, neither play really mattered on a night that Kershaw, at the worst possible moment, just didn’t have it. Robinson, in his first start of the series, beat the upcoming Cy Young winner in consecutive innings. Carpenter had the at-bat of the game in putting Kershaw on the ropes. Molina came off the hook after being behind 0-2 in the count.

You can blame Adams’ walk on the umpire if that makes you feel better, but the bottom line is that Kershaw had three other chances to minimize the damage against him in the bottom of the third, and he couldn’t convert any of them. He couldn’t catch a break, but except for Holliday, he didn’t make his own breaks either.

It was an inning that was in such contrast to Kershaw’s performance this year and our expectations for him tonight. But our hero was human.

 

 

Oct 18

National League Championship Series Game 6 chat

For the Dodgers’ first official Game 6 since October 11, 1988, I’m quivering. At least 52 batters will come to the plate tonight, and any one of them could decide the fate of the evening .. and beyond. We could be witnesses to history, or infamy.

And that’s just tonight.

World Series tickets go on sale Saturday, unless they don’t. Hanley Ramirez’s absence from the starting lineup will hurt the Dodgers, unless it doesn’t. Winter is coming, unless it’s not.

I can’t help think that all these games are tests of fortune, not of strength. The line between greatness and mediocrity, between glory and ignominy, is way too thin for us to invest so much meaning into.

And yet, we do. How good will it feel if we keep this going? No words.

Dodgers at Cardinals, 5:37 p.m.

Carl Crawford, LF
Mark Ellis, 2B
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Yasiel Puig, RF
Andre Ethier, CF
Juan Uribe, 3B
A.J. Ellis, C
Nick Punto, SS
Clayton Kershaw, P

Update: Hanley Ramirez is a last-minute insertion into the starting lineup, batting fourth. Yasiel Puig drops below Ethier to sixth and pushes down Juan Uribe and A.J. Ellis.

Oct 17

But can they hit?

They have Clayton Kershaw going Friday in Game 6. If they win, they’ll have Hyun-Jin Ryu, who preyed upon the Cardinals’ weakness against lefties, going Saturday in Game 7.

But the question that Dodger fans probably don’t want to confront, as the National League Championship Series careens toward its conclusion, is this …

Against Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and a tough bullpen, with walking wounded in Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier or scrappy subs in Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, even after four home runs on Wednesday …

Can they hit?

There were good signs in Game 5, but those came largely against pitchers the Dodgers won’t see again in this series. The challenge going forward for the offense rises to a different level.

Can they hit? Will they score?

 

Oct 16

And we go to St. Louis …

Down three games to one in the National League Championship Series, with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the first and the tying runs on base in the ninth, the Dodgers weathered their most worrisome storm of 2013 and then some, hitting four home runs to back Zack Greinke and earn a return trip to St. Louis with a 6-4 victory.

Clayton Kershaw will start Game 6 for Los Angeles on Friday against the Cardinals’ Michael Wacha, in a rematch of their Game 2 showdown won by Wacha, 1-0. Should the Dodgers survive, it would be Hyun-Jin Ryu and everyone else on the staff against Adam Wainwright and friends in Game 7 on Saturday.

Greinke had a most eventful first three innings, driving in the Dodgers’ second run of the second inning for a 2-0 lead, but allowing two runs of his own in the third. Seven of the first 13 St. Louis hitters in the game reached base against the Dodger right-hander.

But after Yadier Molina hit into his second double play to end the top of the third, Greinke went on to retire the next 12 batters, while the Dodgers took control behind solo home runs by Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and A.J. Ellis.

Following a shutout eighth by Brian Wilson, Gonzalez hit his second home run of the game to give the Dodgers a four-run lead. After hitting no home runs in the first 42 innings of the series, Los Angeles hit four homers in the next six innings. The Dodgers had not hit four home runs in a playoff game since 1978.

St. Louis scored two runs in the ninth, fueled by a sun double in front of Yasiel Puig in right field. Singles by Matt Adams, John Jay and Pete Kozma soon followed, but Kenley Jansen closed the door on the potential devastation by striking out Adron Chambers.

In a repeat of Tuesday’s Game 4, Hanley Ramirez once again started but had to leave the game in the top of the seventh inning after going 0 for 3. He’ll have about 48 hours off before he has to take the field again.

Oct 15

Three for the show

This is probably about 99 percent subjective projection, but …

When I went to the Dodgers’ National League Division Series clinching game last week, the Dodger Stadium crowd seemed to be brimming with optimism. Then Monday night, in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, the crowd was throaty with desperation. Both were really loud.

Tonight at Dodger Stadium, the crowd seemed much more wary and tense than either of those two games. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it also wasn’t exactly a house money game. And that made things not quiet, but a touch more subdued.

In reality, this game and the last one I went to against Atlanta were much the same experience — a promising beginning followed by slow, painful torture through the middle innings, and then a moment of hope in the Dodgers’ final at-bat. But the biggest difference of all was that there was no two-run home run to save the day, no echo of Juan Uribe from the previous week or Kirk Gibson from 25 years earlier.

The Dodgers need to win three games in a row over the next four days to reach the World Series and avoid elimination. They can do it, and I hope fans realize it. Odds are they won’t — odds are that St. Louis can win one out of three games. But having a fully rested Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenley Jansen over those final three games is as much as you could hope for from your pitching staff (although we might well have seen the last of Hanley Ramirez, who had to leave tonight’s game after six innings, for a while).

It’s worth keeping the flame burning.

I am curious what Wednesday’s crowd will be like. Many people who bought tickets for NLCS Game 5 probably didn’t anticipate it would take place during the day — that plus disillusionment will probably keep Dodger Stadium from being a packed house. In any case, the Dodger season has had enough twists and turns — there’s no benefit in assuming there won’t be any more.

Oct 15

The Sweetheart From ’88


It was 25 years ago today. Twenty-five years.

From 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die:

* * *

“A high fly ball to right field. She is …”

She is heavenly in our memory, still vivid, still true.

She is sailing from the pitcher’s hand toward a man on knotted stilts, all torso and determination and even a little secular prayer, but no legs, none to speak of. His bent front peg trembles, elevating slightly, the rear one already buckling.

She rises so slightly off an invisible cushion of air, then starts to settle, trailing away but not far enough away. The front peg descends under the weight of arms, strong, driving down into the strike zone.

She is inside the circumference of the catcher’s mitt, but the bat intercedes. The arms look horribly awkward, the back elbow bent at almost 90 degrees, the front arm cutting down in front to form a triangle. The back leg elevates at the heel as the batter lunges, almost to the point of falling down.

But she meets flush with the bat, ceasing to be a sphere, transforming into a comet. She is launched by a popgun, a croquet swing. The left wrist twists, then the hand loses the bat entirely. The follow-through whimpers like that of a novice tennis player, but it doesn’t change anything.

He looks up. His back leg comes down again, spread across home plate from his right. His left arm is cocked like a puncher. His first motion out of the batter’s box is of a runner. There’s been a mirage. The living, breathing, conquering athlete was in there all along.

She travels at the speed of light. The right fielder breaks back, taking one, two, three…four…five…six steps, slowing down, his mind and hope retreating before his legs even know. A single set of identical red lights, that’s all, prominently glowing but orphaned, can be seen under the peak of the pavilion roof, behind the brimming, jammed bleacher seats, not abandoned, not at all. Arms are soaring into the air in exultation.

She is crashing down from the sky; mass times acceleration, a shooting star at mission completion. She is in the crowd, she is in our heads, she is in our astonishment, she is in our incredulous joy, she has broken into our ever-loving, unappeasable souls and exploded.

She is …

“GONE!!!”