Jul 30

Almost heaven

A perfect lineup, as I call it, is when a team only uses nine players from the start of the game to finish to deliver a victory.

Tony Gwynn Jr.’s eighth-inning entry Sunday as a defensive replacement cost the Dodgers their first perfect lineup since August 19, 2010. That day, Los Angeles defeated Colorado, 2-0, using this lineup of perfection:

Scott Podsednik, LF
Ryan Theriot, 2B
Matt Kemp, CF
James Loney, 1B
Casey Blake, 3B
Reed Johnson, RF
Jamey Carroll, SS
Brad Ausmus, C
Ted Lilly, P

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  • A new biography of Jim Murray, Last King of the Sports Page, gets a tremendous review by John Schulian at the Wall Street Journal.
  • Reggie Smith, the subject of my piece in The Hall of Nearly Great, gave an Old School interview to the New School’s Fangraphs and David Laurila.
  • Former Dodger general manager Dan Evans provides Baseball Prospectus with an insider’s view of the trading deadline.
  • John Sickels of Minor League Ball gives a midseason update on his top 20 Dodger prospects list.
  • None of the nine Colorado Rockies in the field during the fifth inning of their game Sunday realized they had recorded the inning’s third out, writes Mark Townsend of Big League Stew.
Jul 29

Revenge of the sweep: Dodgers shut out Giants again

Well, that went well.

Yes, I had my guard up. No, I wasn’t ready for this.

For the first time since the teams moved to the West Coast 54 years ago, the Dodgers shut out the Giants in consecutive games in San Francisco.

Clayton Kershaw picked up where Chad Billingsley and Javy Guerra left off, surviving some hard-hit balls – including one off his glove wrist –  to pitch a five-hitter with one walk and seven strikeouts for his fifth career solo blanking, defeating the Giants, 4-0.

San Francisco’s three-game shutout sweep of the Dodgers this season has been avenged.

The Dodgers had 16 baserunners, not counting the dropped pop-up by James Loney that hepled them take a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning. The second run was driven home by the redoubtable Luis Cruz, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games (and finally pushed his on-base percentage over .300 in the process). Cruz, who went 2 for 4, made his second error as a Dodger as well, but like Elian Herrera before him, has generally done everything the Dodgers could have hoped from such an unheralded contributor.

(Herrera, in case you were wondering, is OPSing .729 since returning to Albuquerque.)

Mark Ellis, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Loney each had two hits, while A.J. Ellis became the first Dodger since Duke Snider in 1955 to have his second four-walk game in one season.

Oh – and I almost forgot to tell you – the Dodgers are almost in first place. With 59 games to go – nine against San Francisco – they trail the Giants by .001 in the National League West.

Jul 29

Levine, Suchon book it

Josh Suchon and Ken Levine (courtesy Crzblue's Dodger Blue World)

Apparently, if you were a DodgerTalk radio host in 2010, you have to be an author in 2012.

Ken Levine and Josh Suchon are both treating us with books. The Me Generation… By Me (Growing Up in the ’60s), by Levine, is already out, and should be of interest to anyone who has a connection to Southern California and/or likes to be amused. It’s more of the great work that Levine, who has a long list of comedy writing and directing credits including “Cheers,” offers on a regular basis at his blog, By Ken Levine.

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If that’s a natural fit for readers of this site, Suchon’s book needs even less explanation. Miracle Men: Gibson, Hershiser and the Improbable 1988 Dodgers will publish next spring, in connection with the 25th or first anniversary of the Dodgers’ last World Series title. Suchon, who wrote a much talked-about first-person piece about his encounter as a teenager with Orel Hershiser following the ’88 Series, plans to interview everyone remotely connected with that memorable year.

Congrats to both Levine and Suchon, and happy reading.

Jul 28

The counterintuitive Chad Billingsley shuts down Giants

Dodgers 10, Giants 0
In a glorious day for the Dodgers, Matt Kemp came a base short of the cycle, doubling in his final at-bat after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning off Barry Zito, singling in the sixth and doubling in the seventh. He scored three times and drove home four.

A.J. Ellis, who also homered, joined Mark Ellis, Hanley Ramirez (three RBI), Jerry Hairston Jr. and Luis Cruz in reaching base twice for Los Angeles, which put the game away with a three-run seventh inning for a 7-0 lead. Each of the above players except for Mark Elllis doubled.

Javy Guerra got Ryan Theriot to ground out with the bases loaded to end the eighth inning and pitched a perfect ninth to preserve the shutout.

The oddity of Chad Billinglsey’s 2012 season, prior to going on the disabled list in early July, was that the best K/9 rate of his career – 2.9 strikeouts for every walk – had not translated into any improvement in his overall performance. His 2012 ERA, standard as well as adjusted for park effects, was almost identical to his 2011 mark.

Billingsley was throwing more strikes and throwing fewer balls, but it wasn’t making any difference. Just to take a quick and dirty stat such as quality starts: In 2011, Billingsley had quality starts in 15 of 32 outings (47 percent), while in 2012, before the DL trip, it was eight out of 18 (44 percent).

Since coming off the disabled list, Billingsley has made two starts, pitching a combined 13 1/3 innings and allowing only one run on 12 baserunners. In the process, he has struck out only six batters, including two today while pitching 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball, allowing four hits and walking none in the Dodgers’ rousing 10-0 victory over San Francisco.

At one point today, I heard Dodger radio commentator Rick Monday – the toughest broadcast critic of Billingsley that I know of – praise the righthander, noting that he finally might be showing the consistency the Dodgers have been waiting for him to do. But there’s nothing new about Billingsley stringing together two quality starts in a row. In 2012 alone, this is the fifth time that he has done so.  And he completed the feat today while matching his lowest strikeout total for the season.

I know a lot of people don’t like it when luck is discussed in relation to a pitcher’s performance, and I don’t want to suggest that a pitcher has no effect on what happens when a ball is put in play. But I just don’t know how you can escape the notion that circumstance plays a role in what happens with a pitcher.

There’s just something counterintuitive to me about Billingsley missing fewer bats but getting better results. Yes, the efficiency is rewarding – Billingsley didn’t cross the 100-pitch mark until he gave up two hits in the eighth inning and took his leave from the game – but it wouldn’t have seemed so efficient if more of those 12 groundouts had eyes. And no, I don’t think Billingsley, Stephen Fife or even Greg Maddux has the ultimate power to decide where a grounder goes – much less to decide when Andre Ethier is going to make a leaping, ankle-testing catch at the right-field wall, as he did today.

We’d all like to see a 27-pitch complete game, but baseball doesn’t work that way – not even for the best.

One thing I think we can all agree on is that Billingsley can only benefit from attacking the plate. In an interesting post today at True Blue L.A., Eric Stephen noted that National League hitters have an OPS with a three-ball count of .973, and against Billingsley this year, they’re OPSing 1.116.

But attacking the plate does not guarantee positive results. Just to repeat – Billingsley has never had better control in his career than he has had in 2012. He has also never had a higher batting average against him on balls in play (.344 going into today). When you put those two factors together, I think it explains a lot about Billingsley’s 2012 season.

The temptation for many will be to hope that Billingsley has turned a corner. But it’s much more likely that nothing’s really changed. He’s been throwing strikes for some time now, and if you’re going to argue that the quality of strikes was better today, than why weren’t the Giants swinging and missing? I’m not quite believing that Billingsley has mastered the art of fooling batters just enough but not too much.

Billingsley makes mistakes. Maybe he makes more than he should, or maybe he just makes them at just the wrong times. And that’s something that he might have some control over, some ability to improve. But I remain convinced that Billingsley, who lowered his ERA to 3.89 today while winning only his sixth decision in 20 starts, has shown more improvement in 2012 than people – or the baseball gods – have realized. At the same time, today’s game, by itself, doesn’t prove anything.

Jul 27

Dodgers shock Giants with extra-inning blast

Stephen Fife allowed six of the first nine Giants to reach base and pitched four innings before getting a strikeout.

Matt Kemp went 0 for 5.

Ronald Belisario blew a two-run lead in the blink of an eighth-inning eye.

Kenley Jansen gave up consecutive base hits to start the 10th inning.

And still, the Dodgers broke through, ending their 38-inning scoreless streak in San Francisco and pulling out a 5-3, extra-inning victory.

Hanley Ramirez, whose bat launches balls like no Dodger infielder we’ve seen since Jeff Kent, hit his second high, sky-splitting drive in four games as a Dodger, this one clearing the left-center wall with Andre Ethier (2 for 4) aboard to break a 3-3 tie in the 10th inning. Ethier had walked on a 3-2 pitch that looked as unconvincingly like ball four as any Dodger walk I’ve seen this year, but so be it.

Jansen struck out two batters after allowing the tying runs to reach base in the bottom of the 10th, then got Joaquin Arias to fly to left field.

Shawn Tolleson, something of a surprise to pitch the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, retired the side in order and ended up with his first major-league win – a victory that appeared destined for Fife after he not only survived to pitch 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball, allowing nine baserunners while striking out two, but also delivered a fifth-inning double to lead to the Dodgers’ first runs.

Los Angeles left eight baserunners during the game, San Francisco nine. Dodger first basemen James Loney and Juan Rivera combined to go 4 for 5, accounting for a third of the team’s 12 hits.

Jul 27

Elbert pitching well prior to disabled list delegation

Dodgers at Giants, 7:15 p.m.
Jerry Hairston Jr., LF
Mark Ellis, 2B
Matt Kemp, CF
Andre Ethier, RF
Hanley Ramirez, 3B
James Loney, 1B
Luis Cruz, SS
A.J. Ellis, C
Stephen Fife, P

The Dodgers placed Scott Elbert on the disabled list with left elbow inflammation, and used the vacated roster spot to recall Stephen Fife for tonight’s start against Matt Cain in San Francisco.

Ken Gurnick of MLB.com reported that Elbert “has been dealing with discomfort for several weeks,” which is itself discomforting to hear. Interestingly, however, Elbert has been pretty strong in over the past two months. Since May 23, he has a 0.98 ERA in 18 1/3 innings over 22 games, allowing 18 baserunners while striking out 17 — and stranding all 22 inherited runners.

Elbert has also been more effective against right-handed hitters (.584 OPS) than lefty (.733) this season.

* * *

From the Wish I’d Thought of That Dept., Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus discusses the prospects of introducing a deep pit into a baseball field.

Jul 26

St. Louis is back to being St. Louis

The Dodgers had a nice winning streak going against the Cardinals for a while there, but St. Louis is now back to being a place of nightmares and daymares.  Pounding Los Angeles with 18 hits — the most the team has allowed since April 15, 2011 — St. Louis sent the Dodgers to a third consecutive sweltering defeat, 7-4.

Andre Ethier (2 for 4) and Hanley Ramirez (1 for 2 with two walks) each singled as the Dodgers scored four in the fifth to take a 4-2 lead, but the Cardinals came right back to knock out Chris Capuano in the bottom of the inning. Capuano allowed 12 baserunners while getting 13 outs.

Los Angeles will next play a three-game series against the Giants, whom they trail by three games in the standings. The last time these two teams played in San Francisco with one of the teams ahead by three games in the National League West, the other team swept the series.

Jul 26

Wishing Nathan Eovaldi well

Dodgers at Cardinals, 10:45 a.m.
Tony Gwynn Jr., LF
Mark Ellis, 2B
Matt Kemp, CF
Andre Ethier, RF
Hanley Ramirez, 3B
Juan Rivera, 1B
Luis Cruz, SS
Matt Treanor, C
Chris Capuano, P

Several Dodgers had some nice parting words for Nathan Eovaldi, reports Jim Peltz of the Times.

… Veteran pitcher Ted Lilly said, “I really liked Nathan Eovaldi. I think they got a pretty special pitcher and a really good, hard-working, talented young man.”

Right fielder Andre Ethier, noting that he and Eovaldi had “become really close” friends the last two months, said he saw Eovaldi in the lobby of the team hotel Wednesday “and it was kind of tough seeing him go.”

“I wish him the best,” Ethier said, “but also I think we got someone we need right away.” …

Jul 25

Hanley inspires, Dodgers expire

Hanley Ramirez hit the first pitch he saw as a Dodger for a sky-high triple to the center-field wall. He scored to give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead, then later rallied the team to a 2-2 tie with an RBI single in the sixth inning.

Even when he mangled a ball defensively, all was okay. A ninth-inning grounder richocheted off his chest to shortstop Luis Cruz, who threw to first base to end the inning.

Ramirez went 2 for 4 with a walk in his Dodger debut, but he could not prevent Los Angeles from dropping its second in a row in St. Louis, a 12-inning, 3-2 defeat.

The sixth Dodger pitcher, Jamey Wright, got into trouble by walking ailing pinch-hitter Lance Berkman with one out in the bottom of the 12th. Matt Carpenter singled pinch-running pitcher Joe Kelly to second base, and then Rafael Furcal, the guy that Ramirez is in some ways replacing, singled in the winning run – thanks in part to Tony Gwynn failing to come up with the the two-hop hit in left field for a chance to throw out Kelly.

Aaron Harang pitched well enough to win for the Dodgers – eight strikeouts, two runs, six baserunners in 7 1/3 innings – but he was long gone by the time the game ended.

The biggest key to the loss was arguably Matt Kemp, batting two spots ahead of Ramirez, going 0 for 5.

The one-run defeat matched the result of the Dodgers’ first game with Manny Ramirez, a 2-1 loss to Randy Johnson and Arizona on August 1, 2008.

Jul 25

Hanley Ramirez trade shakes baseball world

The earthquake before an earthquake — the Dodgers’ acquisition of Hanley Ramirez and Randy Choate from Miami — is official. Here’s some of what’s been posted in the 10 hours since the news broke.

  • Overall, the main concern regarding the decline in Ramirez’s performance in the past two years is that he might never be what he was thanks to a 2010 shoulder injury. It sure would be great to get Stan Conte’s take on him.
  • It’s been a weird year for Ramirez, who has a .336 batting average on balls in play at home, .198 on the road. His batting average reflects the difference, even though his power production is almost even home and away.
  • The Dodgers were able to nab Ramirez, according to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com (via Hardball Talk), mainly because they were willing to take on his full contract, while Oakland was not.
  • Chad Moriyama is apprehensive about the trade but sees the upside as a worthwhile gamble.
  • Cliff Corcoran of SI.com is a bit grimmer, noting that the only saving grace of the deal for the Dodgers is that it improves an area of the team from terrible to less terrible.
  • While the Dodgers were trading for Ramirez, the Yankees were losing Alex Rodriguez for a few weeks to a fractured hand. That puts New York in the infielder market, as Jay Jaffe of SI.com discusses.
  • Cole Hamels will not be putting on a Dodger uniform. Philadelphia signed him to a six-year contract extension worth $144 million, the second-biggest deal for a pitcher ever.
  • After seeming on the verge of acquiring Ryan Dempster from the Cubs, Atlanta has backed off, reports ESPNChicago.com. That leaves the Dodgers as the apparent leading suitor — thanks, apparently, to the friendship between Dempster and Ted Lilly.  But this saga has had too many turns to make confident predictions about.
  • Dodger prospect Tae Hyeok-Nam of Ogden hit for the cycle Tuesday. Robert Emrich has details for MLB.com. The last Ogden player to do so was former Dodger and current Ogden hitting coach Doug Mientkiewicz.
Jul 24

Report: Dodgers acquire Hanley Ramirez

The Dodgers made their first big move of the trade deadline, and it’s for former All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports report that the Marlins have traded Ramirez and Randy Chote to the Dodgers for Nathan Eovaldi and a minor-leaguer to be named.

Ramirez, 28, had a .410 on-base percentage and .543 slugging percentage as recently as 2009, when he finished second in the National League Most Valuable Player voting, but he has struggled in the past two years. In 2012, he has a .322 OBP and .430 slugging – far off his career totals, though still good enough at his worst to make him a central part of the shaky Dodger lineup. His 14 home runs this year top every Dodger save Matt Kemp.

Choate, who will be 37 in September, gives the Dodgers a second lefty reliever. He has a 2.16 ERA in 50 innings over the past two seasons, and left-handed batters in 2012 are 9 for 60 with three walks and 20 strikeouts against him.

At age 22, Eovaldi remains a pitcher with potential but an uncertain immediate future.  His ERA is a respectable 4.16, but he strikes out fewer than six batters per nine innings and allows more flies than grounders.

The trade won’t be ready for evaluation until the fourth player is named, but on the surface it seems sensible, offering from a position of relative depth for a position of desperate need (and using the Dodgers’ newfound cash reserves to make it happen by paying the remaining big salary owed on Ramirez’s contract, which runs through 2014). Ramirez can play shortstop, as he did until Jose Reyes joined the Marlins, or he can play third base, as he has this season. He happens to be the same age Rafael Furcal was when he came to Los Angeles.

Ramirez has been sidelined since July 20 with a hand infection that came after he punched a dugout fan.

To replace Eovaldi in the starting rotation, the Dodgers have short-term minor-league options, as well as their ongoing pursuit of such outsiders as Ryan Dempster and the imminent recovery of Ted Lilly, who is nearing a minor-league rehabilitation assignment. Next year, Rubby De La Rosa, whom I believe is the sole untouchable pitcher in the Dodger universe next to Clayton Kershaw, should be ready to step in to a starting slot as well.

Update: Rosenthal is now reporting that the other Dodger going to Miami is Scott McGough, a 22-year-old righty reliever who has a 3.88 ERA, 24 walks and 47 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings with Class-A Rancho Cucamonga.  It’s clear that the Marlins wanted to reconfigure themselves without the weight of Ramirez’s contract, which pays him $15.5 million in 2013 and $16 million in 2014, as well as the remainder of a $15 million 2012 salary.

“The Miami Marlins have identified infielder Hanley Ramirez as the core of their woes,” wrote Bob Nightengale for USA Today. “Ownership wants him gone. Manager Ozzie Guillen is tired of him. And the fans have grown indifferent.”

Update 2: Ramirez’s defense is an issue – so this is just speculation, but maybe Ramirez someday follows the Alfonso Soriano path to left field, or becomes the first baseman the Dodgers have been lacking …

Update 3: It appears that Ramirez will take Adam Kennedy’s roster spot. The reserve infielder is headed to the disabled list after aggravating a groin injury Tuesday, reports Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

Choate will probably take Shawn Tolleson’s spot in the bullpen.