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!!!”

 

Oct 14

Why Ricky Nolasco should start Game 4

The health of Hanley Ramirez remains the biggest concern for the Dodgers in their comeback attempt at the National League Championship Series, but they also face a much-anticipated decision regarding Tuesday’s starting pitcher.

Remaining NLCS schedule
Game 4: 5:07 p.m. Tuesday
Game 5: 1:07 p.m. Wednesday
Game 6 (if necessary): 5:37 p.m. Friday
Game 7 (if necessary): 5:37 p.m. Saturday

If the Dodgers start Ricky Nolasco in their next game against Lance Lynn, even if they lose, they would take their shots in the next three games with fully rested starters Zack Greinke against Joe Kelly, Clayton Kershaw against Michael Wacha and Hyun-Jin Ryu against Adam Wainwright. That’s still a nervewracking scenario, but things could be worse.

If the Dodgers skip Nolasco, that would signify a strategy of using Greinke and Kershaw on three days’ rest (and limited pitch counts) in Games 4 and 5, followed by the need to still push Nolasco out there in Game 6 – against Wacha in the less friendly confines of Busch Stadium. And through every game, there would be more pressure on the Dodgers’ middle relief.

Doesn’t the choice seem clear here?

Dodger fans have reason to be wary of Nolasco after his rough end of the regular season, but there’s almost no chance they go to the World Series without getting something out of him in the NLCS. Given that he is a better pitcher than he showed in his final three starts of September – and that he had a 2.48 ERA and .580 opponents’ OPS in Dodger Stadium this year – I don’t see why Nolasco shouldn’t start Game 4.

The return of Ryu to form tonight and the possibility that his work from the left side could still be a weapon (even in a Game 7), combined with the advantage of having Greinke and Kershaw on full rest, should provide all the assurance the Dodgers need to think long-term about this series and start Nolasco in Game 4.

Now, if Ramirez is able to get out of bed Tuesday, that would be nice, too.

Oct 14

Dreams stay with you

Hyun-Jin Ryu was knocked out of his last start – and pitched seven shutout innings in this one.

Yasiel Puig was striking out too much – and hit a funky cold triple in this one.

Hanley Ramirez was hurt – and then he had the big hit.

Meet the new Dodgers – same as the good ol’ Dodgers.

Ready to be buzzed out of the playoffs like a game of Operation, the Dodgers turned the tables on the St. Louis Cardinals and ground out a 3-0 victory in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, closing to within a game of evening things.

The night amounted to one sudden, giant reversal of the series’ narrative, as proud St. Louis wasted its ace, Adam Wainwright, and played alternatively sloppy and careless on defense and the basepaths, while the Dodgers got the key hits, the key hustle and the key “game of inches” moments.

That includes Puig’s fourth-inning RBI triple, which looked like a home run to me when it left the bat – and just the same to Puig, who paused to admire the shot for a moment before launching the rockets. He still made it into third, standing up, leading some to wonder whether he might have had an inside-the-park home run had he run from the outset. Me, I thought he was trying to hit for the cycle in one at-bat.

Puig’s RBI was actually the second of the inning, following doubles by Mark Ellis and Adrian Gonzalez that ended the Dodgers’ longest postseason scoreless streak since the 1966 World Series at 22 innings. (Puig’s hit ended his own 0-for-11 slump in the NLCS.) For all we knew, that first run would be the only one the Dodgers would get, and it came as a huge combination of relief and hope,. Puig’s triple, however, was the blow that really seemed to announce the Dodgers might be back.

Hardly independent of this was the adventures in center field by St. Louis’ John Jay, who had a hat trick of misplays that made Andre Ethier’s Game 1 outfield whiff on Carlos Beltran look relatively tame. Then came a combination of calamity in the top of the fifth for the Cardinals: Third baseman David Freese had to leave the game with a calf injury, and moments later, pinch-runner Daniel Descalso made a bad read on a fly ball to Carl Crawford and was doubled off second base.

That ended the biggest threat of the night against Ryu, who otherwise was in control from start to finish during his seven innings of shutout ball, allowing three hits and a walk. The Dodger bullpen didn’t even throw a warmup toss until a bloop single by Yadier Molina with one out in the seventh, but after Descalso grounded out, Ryu struck out Matt Adams to end his night with a flourish. Ryu became the first Dodger lefty since Jerry Reuss in 1981 to throw at least seven shutout innings in the playoffs.

Following a shutout frame by Brian Wilson, Los Angeles added one more insurance run in exciting fashion in the bottom of the eighth, with Ramirez, damaged rib and all, hitting a blooper to center field with two on and one out, and Carl Crawford hauling around third base to narrowly beat the throw home by backup infielder Kolten Wong.

Kenley Jansen put out the side in order in the ninth, and the Dodgers had their victory.

Coming up next … who starts Game 4 for the Dodgers?

Oct 14

Magic knows what Hanley Ramirez is going through

As we hope for 1981 and 1988-style heroics from the Dodgers, I’m not blind to the possibility that this season could end like that another team from that era, the 1988-89 Lakers.

That season, the Lakers cruised through the early rounds of the playoffs – going 11-0 in fact – before both Byron Scott and Magic Johnson pulled up lame before Game 1 and during Game 2 of the NBA Finals. You can see Johnson’s injury about 5:40 into the clip below.

There was no Kirk Gibson here – the Lakers ended up getting swept in four games.

The difference is that the Lakers had recently given fans a steady stream of NBA titles, including the previous two seasons, while Dodger fans are starving.

No Matt Kemp. Maybe Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez – who has a hairline fracture in his rib – can do something. Maybe. But otherwise, it’s time for the rest of the gang to step up and complete the greatest Dodger story of the past 25 years.

 

Oct 12

Scoreless in St. Louis, the Dodgers drop NLCS Game 2

Game 1 of the National League Championship Series took me back to 1988. Now, with the Dodgers falling 1-0 to the Cardinals in Game 2, I’m taken back to the first two games of the 1981 National League Division Series, when the Dodgers followed a 3-1 loss at Houston with a 1-0 defeat.

Back in ’81, the Dodgers returned to Los Angeles knowing they needed to win three straight games against Bob Knepper (2.18 ERA), Vern Ruhle (2.91 ERA) and Nolan Ryan (1.69 ERA) to survive the five-game series and advance. That they succeeded might be small comfort to Dodger fans today, but maybe it’ll provide some hope.

Clayton Kershaw was magnificent this afternoon, but for the second time this week – and much more calamitously – he was victimized by his defense. After a leadoff double by David Freese, A.J. Ellis’ passed ball put the runner on third with nobody out. Kershaw had escaped a similar jam in the first inning, but this time, John Jay hit a one-out short fly to left field, and Freese tagged and scored easily while Carl Crawford made a hopeless throw home that was the spectrum opposite of Carlos Beltran’s Friday strike to nail Mark Ellis.

The big comeback opportunity for the Dodgers game right away in the top of the sixth, and was started by Kershaw, who singled against the otherwise dominant Michael Wacha. Crawford followed with an infield single, and both runners advanced to third on an error by Matt Carpenter. But Mark Ellis popped out, and after an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe struck out.

Puig struck out four times today and is 0 for 10 in the series.

I disagreed with the move to pinch-hit for Kershaw with two out in the top of the seventh and a runner on first, but it could have some long-term benefit for the Dodgers. At the time, it seemed poor because of how low the chances were that Los Angeles would score in that moment, even with a pinch-hitter, and how much more vulnerable the Dodgers would be to giving up a second run over the next three innings.

I would have reconsidered once Nick Punto advanced into scoring position on a wild pitch, but at the time of the move, the Dodgers were relying on singles hitter Michael Young to get the run in. (Crawford, the on-deck hitter, would have been facing a lefty in a fairly grim situation even if Young had gotten aboard.) The alternative would have been Scott Van Slyke, a power hitter but one who hasn’t batted in a game since September 29.

To me, removing Kershaw – who had thrown only 72 pitches and allowed three baserunners in six innings – was more dangerous than removing Adrian Gonzalez was after he had batted in the eighth inning Friday.

Nevertheless, combined with Zack Greinke throwing a fairly modest 104 pitches Friday, there is an opening for the Dodgers to again skip Game 4 starter Ricky Nolasco and come back with their two aces in Games 4 and 5. The theory would be if you win those games, you could go back to St. Louis needing one win to clinch, and then throw the whole staff at the Cardinals over the next two games.

I realize how fanciful that sounds as I type it – especially with Hanley Ramirez’s status questionable – but do keep your mind open. If the Cardinals can win a Joe Kelly-Greinke game, then the Dodgers can win a Hyun-Jin Ryu-Adam Wainwright game. I know it doesn’t look like it, but they can.

The Dodgers are on their heels now and the odds are against them, but there’s nothing to gain from giving up.