Sep 10

The NL Wild Card race continues its reverse stampede

This pinch-hit Dodger Thoughts post is dedicated to Robin Ventura.

The Dodgers found perhaps the best way to gain ground in the NL Wild Card and NL West races: they didn’t play. While the Dodgers spent a day off in Phoenix, the two teams the Dodgers are pursuing, the Giants and Cardinals, both lost.

The Giants started a three-game series in Denver Monday against a Rockies team that had lost five straight and had been swept in a split doubleheader the day/night before in Philadelphia. The Giants were coming off a 4-0 shutout win over the Dodgers. So, the vagaries of baseball made the Rockies a 6-5 winner. Ryan Vogelsong took the loss for the Giants. In his last six starts, Vogelsong has a put up a 9.57 ERA. And he’s still managed to win two of those games. But it does appear that Vogelsong is pitching himself into a long relief role for the Giants in the playoffs. (Yes, I’m assuming that the Giants will make the playoffs.)

** Checking back in history, the 1951 Giants, with 21 games left in the season were trailing the Dodgers by six games. They went 16-5 before the tiebreaker. In 1962, with 21 games left, the Giants trailed the Dodgers by 1/2 game, although that would increase to four games with seven left to play.

Down south (as Vin likes to refer to San Diego), the Cardinals started a seven-game road trip to Southern California with an 11-3 pounding by the Padres. Old Friend Eric Stults improved to 6-2 on the season. NL RBI leader Chase Headley drove in … none.

So, as the Dodgers get ready to play Arizona Tuesday night, they will be trailing the Giants by five games in the NL West and trailing the Cardinals by one game for the NL’s second wild card.

The Pirates lost to the Reds, 4-3 in 14 innings to remain 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals. Making very late runs are Milwaukee and Philadelphia, both of whom are now 70-71. The Brewers have won 16 of their last 21 and the Phillies have won 13 of their last 17. So, if you’re looking for a 2007 Rockies-like run to the wild card, keep an eye on these two teams.

However, all the losing by teams in front of them won’t help the Dodgers until they actually win games. The Dodgers last trip to Arizona was at the beginning of July before the All-Star Break and they lost three of four games. The Dodgers lineup on the day before the break:

Tony Gwynn, CF
Mark Ellis, 2B
Bobby Abreu, LF
Juan Rivera, 1B
Jerry Hairston, 3B
Elian Herrera, RF
Luis Cruz, SS
Matt Treanor, C
Chris Capuano, P

The Dodgers lost the game 7-1, with the only run scoring on a pinch hit sacrifice fly by Juan Uribe in the ninth inning.

Tuesday should bring the return of Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp to the lineup. And Dodgers fans can only hope in the healing power of cortisone. And rest. (Or else we can read more about the relative levels of manhood shown by people in 1965 as opposed to today. Or maybe not.) The Diamondbacks will be countering with Ian Kennedy.

In other games of note Tuesday, the Giants will be at Coors Field in a 5:40 pm game matching up Madison Bumgarner and Jhoulys Chacin. The Cardinals and Padres start at 7:10 pm with Adam Wainwright pitching against Edinson Volquez.

There will likely be news during the day regarding injured players and maybe some minor league call ups, but I may not be able to get to them unless they are all announced while I’m on my lunch hour. And that never seems to happen.

Aug 29

You’re never too low to rise again

The past two nights have provided as big a gap between expectations and fulfillment as we’ve seen in a while, a combination of poor execution and poor luck, punctuated each time by Matt Kemp turning himself into a self-made pinata. The good news is that as soon as today, that gap can be bridged, even with Kemp spending the game on the bench. Save yourself talk of chemistry and curses – it’s heartily premature.

The more real concern is that a team that finally boasts a lineup equipped for the postseason has a gap to overcome to get there first. Los Angeles has fallen a season-high 3 1/2 games behind San Francisco with 32 remaining. That’s a reversal that will require a bit more patience.

It’s not that the ground can’t be made up – it can be, and with weeks to spare. A month from today, the Dodgers can be 3 1/2 games out of first place and still win the World Series. But I think most Dodger fans would rather feel more secure. That means having a cushion heading into the final three games of the regular season against San Francisco and a pitching staff that would test any lineup. That means going from 3 1/2 out to 3 1/2 up.

It’s far too soon to panic, but it’s not too soon to hope the Dodgers can pick their crumpled bodies off the ground right away. It has only taken three days for bravado to turn back into humility. Let the shell-shocking Rockies be the inspiration, and let the Dodgers now be the humble assassins.

Hit the ball, pitch the ball, catch the ball. If Colorado can do it, so can Los Angeles.

Jul 16

Two weeks to the trading deadline

With their 3-2 loss Monday to Philadelphia, the Dodgers for the 18th time in their past 24 games, falling to 48-43, two games behind San Francisco in the National League West – their biggest deficit of 2012. That includes a 1-3 record since Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier returned from the disabled list, the two star outfielders’ presence failing to slow the team’s tailspin.

Tuesday’s arrival will mark two weeks until Major League Baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline, the last two weeks when teams can trade freely with each other. The Dodgers find themselves in a predicament – looking very much in contention, but looking very little like a contender.

For more on this riddle, read my latest post at Los Angeles Magazine’s CityThink blog.

Jul 09

So, it’s gonna be one of ‘those’ divisions?

For a good portion of this season, the Dodgers had the best record in the majors. But at the All-Star Break, they have the poorest winning percentage (.540) of the six division leaders, and they are atop a division that is collectively 26 games below .500, also the worst in baseball. The National League West has been outscored by 130 runs in 2012, with the Dodgers and Giants at +10 each.

That could change, but right now, it’s a winning ugly scenario.  Not that Dodger fans won’t take it.

At the Hardball Times, Steve Treder takes the pulse of the NL West.

* * *

  • In a guest post for Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness, Christopher Jackson checks in on the progress (or regression) of the Dodgers’ top minor-league pitchers.
  • Former Dodger Jay Gibbons has retired.
  • Matt Kemp homered 17 times in 69 games (40-homer pace) after last year’s Home Run Derby.
Jul 01

How bad was June?

The Dodgers hit more home runs on September 18, 2006 (in the 4+1 game) than they hit in the entire month of June.

I’m guessing that it’s been a while since the Dodgers had as many triples as home runs in a month. Not to mention the same amount of hit batters.

Leaving aside the small-sample MVP performance at the plate by Chad Billingsley, this is what we have …

In his Dodger career, Juan Pierre had a .339 on-base percentage, .357 slugging percentage and .696 OPS.  Except for A.J. Ellis’ .380 OBP, every other Dodger in June was below the Pierre lines. (Pierre, by the way, OPSed .738 for the Phillies in June.)

As a team, the Dodgers OPSed .571.  The only pitchers last year to hold opponents to an OPS below .571 were Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander.

The Dodgers had 191 hits in 899 at-bats.  Steve Garvey had seven seasons in which he had more than 191 hits.

Juan Uribe went 5 for 42 with no walks.

Dee Gordon and Tony Gwynn Jr. managed to hit into seven double plays.

Gwynn’s .229 batting average was the second-best on the team. Every Dodger regular not named Juan hit between .200 and .230 in June.

With all that, the Dodgers were having a winning month until their current seven-game losing streak began.

Tonight could become the first night of 2012 that the Dodgers haven’t been in line for a postseason berth. They are currently tied with the Mets for the No. 2 wild-card position, .001 behind Pittsburgh.

Jun 26

The cruel shoes

Dodgers at Giants, 7:15 p.m.
Kershaw CXXXII: Kershawn the Waterfront
Dee Gordon, SS
Elian Herrera, 3B
Andre Ethier, RF
Juan Rivera, 1B
Bobby Abreu. LF
Jerry Hairston Jr. 2B
Tony Gwynn Jr., CF
A.J. Ellis, C
Clayton Kershaw, P

My latest piece for Los Angeles Magazine’s CityThink blog looks at how the past week for the Dodgers has played mind games with us, not unlike a certain pair of shoes made famous by Steve Martin.

Though it might seem as if the Dodgers have been struggling for quite some time, the team was 10-7 (.588) in June and held the best record in Major League Baseball until just a week ago. As it is, despite losing six of its past seven games, Los Angeles still has the top mark in the National League, a two game lead in the NL West and a four-game cushion for a playoff spot.

Nevertheless, the month has taken an ugly turn. The Dodgers’ on-base percentage (.301) and slugging percentage (.302) in June form a nearly matching pair of cruel shoes. The highest OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) belongs to Bobby Abreu at .740; no other Dodger is breaking the .700 club. …

Read the rest at CityThink.

Jun 23

Dodger Defcon ratings

Starting today, I’m making periodic contributions to the CityThink blog at Los Angeles Magazine. My first piece looks at the state of the Dodgers from a War Games perspective. Check it out …

Good teams have bad weeks, and one bad week like the Dodgers are having (with four losses in a row, including Friday’s 8-5 come-from-ahead defeat against the Angels) doesn’t ruin a season. At the same time, people have feared all along that the Dodgers are a team living on the brink of destruction in a dangerous baseball world.

In the spirit of War Games, here’s a snapshot of which Dodger problems are tic-tac-toe and which are global thermonuclear war …

Read the rest at CityThink …

Apr 15

The achievement

I don’t know anyone who thinks the Dodgers have guaranteed a pennant by starting the season 9-1 against San Diego and Pittsburgh, but alert me when everyone else plays .900 ball against the Padres and Pirates. I think each of those teams will win more than 16 games this year.

It doesn’t mean anything for the future, but it is an achievement to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat. I’ve seen numerous Dodger teams that couldn’t do it. And I’m glad the Dodgers are not the team that you’re supposed to beat right now. Ten days ago, many thought they were.

Six-game road trip beginning Tuesday. Hoping for four wins, will settle for three.

 

Apr 03

Lindblom, Sellers make Opening Day roster

The Dodger beat writers have reported that Josh Lindblom and Justin Sellers will fill the final spots on the team’s Opening Day roster. So barring any mishaps between now and Thursday at 4:05 p.m., here are the jockeys at the starting line.

Starting pitchers (4): Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang.
Relief pitchers (8): Kenley Jansen, Javy Guerra, Todd Coffey, Scott Elbert, Mike MacDougal, Matt Guerrier, Jamey Wright, Josh Lindblom
Starting lineup (8): Dee Gordon, Mark Ellis, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Juan Rivera, James Loney, Juan Uribe, A.J. Ellis
Bench (5): Matt Treanor, Adam Kennedy, Jerry Hairston Jr., Tony Gwynn Jr., Justin Sellers

Gentlemen, start your horses!

Apr 01

The 1-2 pitch

Chad Billingsley gave up a single to the first batter he faced today, Arizona infielder Ryan Roberts. It came on a 1-2 pitch. You never want to see that happen, though it’s easily forgiven if it comes on your pitch. Billingsley, instead, left a fastball over the plate and chest-high. Roberts grounded it to the left of shortstop Dee Gordon into center field. With a little luck, Roberts would have hit it a few feet over, into Gordon’s range. But there was as much luck for Billingsley as there was execution.

“Normally,” said Dodger commentator Rick Monday, “in your last outing in Arizona for Spring Training, you would say, ‘Well, it’s just a final tuneup.’ I really believe that for Chad Billingsley, this is more than just a final tuneup, because he has not been fine-tuned so far. And since this is his last outing, I think it’s imperative to get some batters behind in the count, as he had right here the leadoff hitter Roberts, (and) finish them off.”

“Imperative” would be an exaggeration – nothing’s imperative until at least the regular season starts. But shy of that, Monday’s overall point wasn’t lost. You want to see it done right.

Billingsley did do some things right – after walking Justin Upton with one out, he struck out Jason Kubel to start an inning-ending double play that found Aaron Hill (who had hit into a 9-6 bloop forceout) caught stealing by A.J. Ellis. Billingsley then struck out his first batter of inning two, Chris Young. But mostly, it was a rough outing – insufficiently sharp. The 27-year-old righty gave up four runs and six hits on 70 pitches in three innings, including two arguably wind-aided home runs to left field. He finished his 2012 exhibition season with a 5.91 ERA.

Monday was fairly relentless in his criticism of Billingsley throughout the three innings, and again, I was of two minds. The critique seemed a bit over the top for a practice game, even with the regular season coming later this week. At the same time, unless Billingsley was deliberately trying to hide his good stuff from his division, it was a hard outing to watch, both from individual and team standpoints.

I’m still wondering if the poor performance by Billingsley in the second half of 2011, following a solid first two months, was injury-related. I might never get the answer. But one scenario that certainly is possible is that Billingsley’s 2012 effectively becomes a repeat of Jonathan Broxton’s 2011. Problems from the second half of the previous season are never really solved, and the ensuing campaign becomes a lost one.

Without minimizing what this might mean for Billingsley’s career, it points to the cliff’s edge the Dodgers will be driving along in 2012. They’re counting on improvement from players like Billingsley, Andre Ethier (having the best kind of Spring Training) and James Loney. If those players instead take additional steps back, you’re basically left with asking the farm system (Nathan Eovaldi, Jerry Sands, etc.) to come to the rescue. They might succeed, just as Javy Guerra did for Broxton in 2011, but it’s a risky business.

That Clayton Kershaw had an uneven performance 24 hours before Billingsley, allowing three runs on six hits and a walk in 3 2/3 innings, offers a half-empty, half-full counterpoint. From Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

… Kershaw said he was missing his spots and that his slider, which he had struggled with in his previous start six days earlier, still wasn’t quite right. But when asked if the slider was a concern now that the regular season is upon him, Kershaw said it isn’t.

“It can’t be,” he said. “April 5 is coming up pretty fast. You have to be ready to go.”

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says he continues to see good sliders from Kershaw intermittently, but that the inconsistency could be the result of Kershaw trying to force the pitch, especially in light desert air where breaking balls tend not to break as much and where simply getting a proper grip on the ball can be tough.

“But he isn’t going to make that excuse, and I’m not going to make it for him,” Honeycutt said. “As long as he is healthy, that is the main thing. [The slider] isn’t something I’m worried about. He is going to continue to work on it until he feels comfortable with it.” …

Whatever the results of March 2012, hoping that Matt Kemp, Kershaw, Billingsley, Ethier and Loney perform to their previous peaks isn’t exactly the longshot of picking a MegaMillions jackpot. It could happen, and if it does, I wouldn’t call it a fluke – just good timing. That, plus new ownership itching to make a first impression, plus my perhaps irrational belief that Gordon is going to excite all expectations (“I’m a Deeliever,” I’ve started singing to myself), plus an awareness that other teams in the NL aren’t blessed with unlimited good fortune, is why I enter this season with the hope that the Dodgers can win at least 90 games and a spot in postseason roulette.

But the lack of Plan Bs makes the Dodgers’ 2012 season a perilous one, with 90 losses anything but a remote possibility. If Billingsley struggles, if Ted Lilly can’t stay healthy, if Juan Uribe is toast, if Kemp and Kershaw take perfectly reasonable steps back from their insane greatness of last year, and so on into the night, the Dodgers quickly run out of escape routes.

At the end, it all comes back to the beginning. You’re on the mound. You have a 1-2 count on the batter. You have talent, experience and an edge.

Can you make your pitch?

Can your defense save you when you don’t?

Can your offense save you when your defense doesn’t?

Can your management save you when your offense and defense can’t?

Mar 24

For you Rosterfarians

We’re within two weeks of Opening Day. Here’s the latest on the projected 25-man roster …

Starting pitchers (5):
On track: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Aaron Harang.
Any reservations? Ted Lilly missed a bullpen session today with neck stiffness, and Chris Capuano had a hamstring twinge in today’s start, but neither is expected to affect their roster status. If anything worsens.
Next in line: Nathan Eovaldi, with a 0.84 ERA and 12 baserunners in 10 2/3 spring innings, would step up.  Keep in mind the Dodgers won’t use a fifth starter until April 14.

Relief pitchers (7):
On track: Kenley Jansen, Javy Guerra, Todd Coffey and Scott Elbert.
Any reservations? Mike MacDougal has allowed six runs, six hits and seven walks in five innings with one strikeout in March. Matt Guerrier has thrown only two innings so far this spring.
Next in line: There’s at least one spot that’s open, and it will probably go to veteran Jamey Wright, because Josh Lindblom has minor-league options. But in addition to those two, John Grabow and Scott Rice are still alive. Don’t be surprised if Guerrier ends up on the disabled list to buy the Dodgers more decision time on this group.

Catchers (2):
On track: A.J. Ellis and Matt Treanor.

Infielders (6):
On track: James Loney, Mark Ellis, Dee Gordon, Juan Uribe, Adam Kennedy
Any reservations? Jerry Hairston Jr. is battling shoulder inflammation apparently related to an October 2011 injury, as Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. and Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com note.
Next in line: Justin Sellers, already a candidate to be the team’s 25th man, would move up a spot in the pecking order if Hairston can’t make it – assuming Sellers himself can stay healthy.  Corner infielder Josh Fields continues to make a case with some power in his past and a .937 spring OPS. And making a late bid, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, is Luis Cruz, 7 for 20 with a triple and home run this spring. However, Cruz only has a .535 OPS in 169 career major-league plate appearances and a .301 OBP in Triple-A last year.

Outfielders (4):
On track: Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Juan Rivera, Tony Gwynn Jr.

25th man
In addition to the folks mentioned above, there’s Trent Oeltjen, who held the spot throughout the second half of 2011 and is out of options. Some feel Cory Sullivan is in the running. One guy you can forget about is Jerry Sands, who has combined his remaining minor-league options with a terrible March.

And then after the season begins, the roulette wheel spins agaon.