By Jon Weisman
If this doesn’t get you pumped … well, don’t worry. It will.
Clayton Kershaw, April 1
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Photo highlights from Tuesday’s second day of the Dodgers Pitching in the Community Caravan (presented by State Farm) can be found here.
Elsewhere, the links keep coming …
… “I’ve thrown with it. You don’t look very cool, I’ll be honest,” he said.
“But technology is unbelievable and it really doesn’t feel that much different once you get used to it. Obviously, it would be a change. We wouldn’t look the same as everybody else, but if you’re that one guy who gets hit what seems like every year, there’s that chance out there. I’m definitely not opposed to it. I think it’d take a lot of getting used to. I think it’s a great thing and a step in the right direction, for sure.”
Kershaw said baseball could require minor leaguers to wear the cap, easing its way into the big leagues. …
The Dodgers signed Urias — who is the youngest player on this list by a wide margin — during the same trip to Mexico that netted them Yasiel Puig, which may end up one of the most productive scouting runs in baseball history, as Urias has enormous upside if he can just stay healthy while Los Angeles gradually builds up his arm to handle a starter’s workload.
By Jon Weisman
At first, when the run that became the Dodgers’ 42-8 midseason gambol began last year, it merely solved the dilemma of “This team can’t be this bad.” Los Angeles had spent the better part of 2½ months taking jokes that it was the worst team money could buy, and so when the Dodgers won six in a row to just to improve to 36-42, there was a sense that a modicum of balance was being restored. Only six games below .500? OK, maybe the team could be that bad.
The Dodgers were in last place, a position that seemed further justified when a 16-1 trashing by Philadelphia on June 28 ended the initial winning streak, their first of the season longer than three games, with a tremendous thud. The Dodgers’ final pitcher that day was utility player Skip Schumaker, who threw an inning of shutout ball – for the second time in 2013. That the Dodgers had twice need to turn to Schumaker said a lot about their struggles, and yet didn’t begin to tell the full story.
Injuries were such a big part of it. Hanley Ramirez was only one of many. Matt Kemp, bothered sequentially by three separate injuries, including lingering effects on his labrum from a 2012 collision with a Coors Field outfield wall, had a year so star-crossed, he might as well have been considered to be on walkabout. Carl Crawford, himself recovering from 2012 Tommy John surgery, gingerly made it back to the lineup after missing much of 2012, though not without his own 30-day stay on the DL. Andre Ethier stayed on the active roster despite a trip to the hospital to investigate a slow-healing bruise that had prompted fears of serious, limb-threatening malady. With Yasiel Puig (a latter-day Pete Reiser in the way he seemed like a collision waiting to happen), the Dodgers had four starting outfielders on paper, but only once before rosters expanded in September were all four active for the same game – and in the ninth inning of that one, Kemp gnarled his ankle sliding into home with the Dodgers ahead, 9-2, not even completing his first game back from his second DL stint.
Dodger pitchers offered little in way of contrast. Starting pitcher Chad Billingsley, putting off surgery after his 2012 season was cut short in August, succumbed after two starts in 2013. Josh Beckett was shaky, allowing a 5.19 ERA in eight starts (6.75 in the final five) before going on the disabled list with both a groin injury and tingling in his right arm, diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome and culminating in season-ending surgery to remove a rib and relieve pressure on his nerves. Chris Capuano, slated for the bullpen in Spring Training because of a perceived overload of starting pitchers for Los Angeles (a perception, it is to laugh, that lasted about two seconds), made two trips to the disabled list in 2013, as did Stephen Fife, the 26-year-old ticketed to the minors who had a 2.47 ERA in his first nine major-league starts when he wasn’t sidelined with bursitis.
Most of these injuries were taken with resignation, the inevitability of baseball in general and the Dodgers in particular. Kemp’s status, given his importance in the lineup – especially before Puig and Ramirez began their dance in June – was the one genuine frustration. But nothing vexed more than what happened to Zack Greinke.
The most expensive pitcher in Dodger history to date, Greinke was critical in the Dodger plans to mitigate concerns about offense with tough moundswork. Despite a Spring Training that had some hint of elbow soreness, Greinke was ready to go when the regular season began, In his first start as a Dodger, Greinke shut out the Pirates for 6⅓ innings of a 3-0 victory and held a 2-1 lead going into the sixth inning of his second outing, in San Diego.
Carlos Quentin was the batter. Greinke alternated balls outside the zone with swinging strikes, and the count went full. The next pitch sailed inside. Quentin turned to his right, and the ball struck him on his left arm below the right shoulder. Although there had been an 0-2 pitch by Padres starter Jason Marquis near the head of Matt Kemp in the first inning, the game scenario didn’t indicate intent to harm on Greinke’s part. But as the baseball world was soon to learn, Quentin – in his mind, at least – had a running vendetta with Greinke. He took a step toward the mound. Greinke slung out an undisclosed word or three in response, and Quentin charged.
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Greinke’s options at that moment were few and far from ideal. He could run away, at least until others were able to protect him. He could cock a fist and fight fire with fire. What he chose was what seemed the least horrible of horrible choices – he dropped his glove, lowered his upper torso as if he were about to go bodysurfing in the Pacific, and faced the charging Quentin, who drove into him with the same arm that had been hit by the baseball four seconds earlier.
From the melee that followed, Greinke emerged with what the Dodgers announced after the game was a fractured left collarbone. Though the Dodgers had won the game to improve their record to 6-3 on the season, the postgame was filled with anger and depression. Los Angeles then lost seven of its next eight games and went 10-19 with Greinke sidelined.
Greinke returned to the mound three weeks sooner than the initial eight-week forecast suggested, but he wasn’t a consistent pitcher. From May 15 through Independence Day, Greinke had a 4.84 ERA in 10 starts, averaging 5⅔ innings per start. He, like his teammates, had to figure it out, to dig themselves out of a hole.
Baseball doesn’t play like the lottery. You don’t change your fortunes in one play. You can have the game of your life, or the week of your life, but it’s just one game, just one week. You have to keep grinding, day after day after day. The excuses don’t matter. They are explanations, but no one’s really interested in explanations. People want results.
Injuries? Yeah, we understand that injuries hurt. What else is new? You need to beat your opponent, and if you can’t do that, we’ll see you next year. Get better at the game, get some luck, get whatever it takes. Baseball’s Shawshankism: Get busy winning, or get busy losing.
Somehow, the Dodgers got busy winning. Day after day after day.
By Jon Weisman
You can’t will yourself to victory, common as that cliche might be. You can only will yourself to make the effort that might lead to victory.
By the time August 2013 came around, you might not have been able to tell that was true with the Dodgers, partly because of the sheer, numbing yet exhilarating frequency of their wins, partly because at a certain point you couldn’t really see the effort – though of course, it was there. It’s an irony that in the first 72 games of the season, of which they won only 30, you could see the gears grinding every time. If you watched those games, without remembering any particular details, you can even hear the shrill shriek of the machinery.
Still, that early 2013 period was one when it was easy, if not facile and quite likely downright wrong, to accuse the Dodgers of making no effort. When they put their sport up against others, people who love baseball best have no trouble espousing how hard theirs is – the simple act of trying to hit a baseball coming at nearly 100 mph is a skill no other sport asks, even if they have their own special challenges (such as, in football, keeping your brain functioning). Yet within the not-always-friendly confines of the sport, the expectation to excel can be so high, at least for teams with potential on paper, that any shortfall is immediately attributed by the masses to a lack of commitment, pride or any other emotional intangible. People who wouldn’t stand for an exploration of their emotional sides in literature or the movies suddenly find themselves psychoanalytical experts, capable of discerning from the stands or their living rooms the metaphysical value of any ballplayer’s act.
In the first 10 days of May 2013, when the Dodgers lost all eight games they played, blame flew in every direction. At that time, their record was 13-21 (this after a 6-3 beginning, meaning they had lost 18 of their past 25 games), and they had fallen into last place in the National League West. Then, from May 11 through June 2, Los Angeles went 10-11, making mediocrity feel like an achievement but otherwise doing little to shake the feeling of a team content to settle for less, to do the minimum (for what’s more minimum than being in the cellar).
Something then happened on June 3.
The short backstory for Yasiel Puig was this. He made several attempts to defect from Cuba, finally succeeding on his seventh in reaching land in Mexico, where he waited for his moment to resume his baseball career in America. That chance came just as the major leagues were dramatically altering their rules about signing such players with a spending cap. Coming in under the wire, the Dodgers made what you can call the boldest of educated guesses. Through their limited scouting opportunities, they had concluded that Puig had sky-high potential, and with new, deep-pocketed ownership, they had the ability to bid high and take a chance. Many thought the Dodgers had been as reckless as a 50-year-old in a Maserati store.
Any payoff on the signing was not expected to be immediate, and Puig almost entirely became an afterthought as quickly as he signed. Hopes kindled and fantasies flourished the following March, when he batted a preposterous .517 in Spring Training. But Spring Training is a bunch of arcade games, not the real deal, and with no obvious openings in the starting lineup for the Dodgers and Puig’s rawness in the field as noticeable up close as his batting average from afar, the 22-year-old was sent to the Southern League in Chattanooga, two levels removed from the majors, where he figured to remain until at least September, when ballplayers on training wheels typically made their rickety debuts.
Only a hamstring injury to the centerpiece of the Dodger outfield and starting lineup, Matt Kemp, accelerated Puig’s path to the majors. Not the losing, not the disenchantment, not desperation. Not even strong statistics with Chattanooga. A .383 on-base percentage and .599 slugging percentage were nothing to dismiss out of hand, but mistakes had remained. Such was the ambivalence toward Puig’s readiness that some fans thought another top prospect, Joc Pederson, more viable to fill in for Kemp.
Puig arrived in Los Angeles on that June 3 Monday night for a game against San Diego, a dash of hope mixed with a prodigious attempt at managed expectations. To no small surprise, he batted leadoff. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the traditional speed for that position, but power was a big part of his game and arguably, strikeouts an even bigger part. A conventional move would have been to slot Puig in the sixth or seventh spots in the lineup – not so low as to embarrass him or stomp on his confidence on Day 1, but low enough to remove any pressure or responsibility. Putting the 6-foot-3, 245-pound dervish at the head of the Dodger table was one of manager Don Mattingly’s brashest inspirations of the 2013 season, before or since.
That being said, the story wasn’t Puig’s success at the plate. Singling in his first at-bat was a pleasant surprise, and an infield hit off the glove of San Diego first baseman Kyle Blanks made his night a statistical amuse bouche. But neither play led to a run, and the Dodgers scuffled per usual (against an old friend in Eric Stults) and clinged to a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning when then-closer Brandon League walked journeyman Chris Denorfia with one out.
Blanks, perhaps the only person in the ballpark with the size to make Puig look ordinary, was at the plate. He hit a slicing, hope-splitting fly ball deep to right field. Puig, the right fielder, retreated several quick steps with his glove side in front and his back to the right-field line, then suddenly, stumblingly shifted his left foot to the side, opening his body and turning 180 degrees to chase the ball over his opposite shoulder, his legs nearly splaying on the warning track half a second before the ball’s arrival.
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Mouth open and eyes wide like someone about to catch a water balloon, Puig mostly stabilized himself, but still caught the ball moving to his left, counter to his natural throwing motion. He took four more quick steps to orient himself, pulling the ball from his glove with his right hand and rearing back and firing it from mid-warning track toward first base, toward which Denorfia, who had not tagged up, was running back, his eyes on Puig and his expression displaying some combination of disbelief and fright.
The throw reached first baseman Adrian Gonzalez’s glove on the fly, just as Denorfia was sliding back to the bag.
“There goes Denorfia,” Vin Scully had said as Blanks swung. “And a high fly ball to deep right field. Puig to the track, one-hands it, guns it back to first – out! – for the double play.
“Hello, Yasiel Puig. What a way to start a career. That’s one happy Cuban.”
The crowd in a roar, the new hero charged toward the celebration, running steps with his arms locked by his sides and an open-mouthed yawwww, a boy turned cock of the walk, slickly low-fiving Andre Ethier’s glove, beaming in near-disbelief as he reached the rest of his newly found teammates.
It was an extraordinary play. But it was one play. It was an extraordinary finish, but it was one game. The finish was Hollywood, but it wasn’t scripted, it was high comedy, a ragged premise saved by an absolute Mel Brooks zinger. No one willed anything. The Dodgers’ victory that night was eight innings and two outs of survival followed by 270 feet of pure aerodynamic heaven, remarkable but also innocent. A baby’s confident first steps, but a baby nonetheless.
Did Yasiel Puig change the Dodgers that night? Did he awaken in them the possibility of conquering futility? There had been other magic moments, even in that disappointing season. As early as Opening Day, Clayton Kershaw had been Superman, hitting his first career home run to break a scoreless tie in the eighth inning and shutting out the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. On Memorial Day, the Dodgers, in another swamp slog of six losses in their past nine games, fell four runs behind their I-5 rivals, the Angels, before tying the game in the fifth, taking the lead in the sixth, giving up the lead in the seventh and finally stealing away an 8-7 victory.
So, what to make of Puig? He was a talent, and although raw to a degree, maybe to an overstated degree. He was exciting, and possibly inspirational. He was a piece of a puzzle that, at the time, seemed to have several missing, a blank Scrabble square the Dodgers needed to spell their magic word.
In Puig’s second game, a night later, he delivered a performance so awesome that Dodger fans had to be as scared as they were exhilarated. Three extra-base hits and five runs batted in. After doubling in his first at-bat, Puig hit a three-run home run to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth, then hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh. The first was a massive shot halfway up the bleachers in left-center, the second an arrow shot the opposite way down right field. The only similarities between the two blasts were the way he raced around the bases and the curtain calls that followed both. “Que viva Cuba! Viva Puig!” exulted Scully, whose usual A game in his 64th year broadcasting the Dodgers was becoming an A+ when Puig came to the plate.
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Maybe that was a clue that something special was developing. Never one to claim to have seen it all despite having seen more than anyone else, Scully was rapidly becoming entranced by the exploits of the immigrant six and a half decades younger. What was happening? Even a cynic would have to concede: Puig had willed himself to this continent. He had willed himself back into baseball condition. He had willed himself to be prepared for this moment.
He was indeed an overnight sensation but one, despite his youth, that was years in the making. He was not evidence that you could wake up and make things different in one day. At best, he was evidence or inspiration that, having made those choices, there might just be a payoff down the road, if you combined talent, effort and patience.
Looking back on 2013 from the new year, we know that there is still work to do, on the field and off. One thing worth noting: In his first 16 games, Puig went 28 for 62 with six home runs, for a .452 batting average, .477 on-base percentage and .790 slugging percentage. But the Dodgers lost nine of those games and only fell deeper into last place, 30-42 overall, 9½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks with 90 to go. Everyone had work to do.
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Thank You For Not ...
1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
2) personally attacking other commenters
3) baiting other commenters
4) arguing for the sake of arguing
5) discussing politics
6) using hyperbole when something less will suffice
7) using sarcasm in a way that can be misinterpreted negatively
8) making the same point over and over again
9) typing "no-hitter" or "perfect game" to describe either in progress
10) being annoyed by the existence of this list
11) commenting under the obvious influence
12) claiming your opinion isn't allowed when it's just being disagreed with
Dodgers at home: 1,028-812 (.558695)
When Jon attended: 338-267 (.558677)*
When Jon didn’t: 695-554 (.556)
* includes road games attended
Dodgers at home: 51-35 (.593)
When Jon attended: 5-2 (.714)
When Jon didn’t: 46-33 (.582)
Note: I got so busy working for the Dodgers that in 2014, I stopped keeping track, much to my regret.