What Is It About Clayton Kershaw?

For personal reasons, I can’t write a full post on this.  But given that Clayton Kershaw has received a one year extension on an already seemingly-bloated option- the total price tag is $93 million for 3 years- it’s somewhat baffling.  When Friedman traded Matt Kemp in 2014, it was “business”- they thought he was on the wrong side of 30, injury prone and overpaid. Kershaw has virtually the same baggage, but the Dodgers decide to reward him for what he HAS done. (At least through each September.) What gives??

kershaw1We all know Clayton Kershaw is a great guy, and one of the greatest regular season pitchers of all time.  We also know that AT TIMES, he’s just as great in the postseason.  But we are now at a point where for the past DECADE- and yes, 2009 counts- he has been considerably worse in October than he is in the prior six months.  We also know that he has back problems, and those don’t tend to get better at age 30.

To be sure, Kershaw has an increasing number of detractors, but nothing close to what just about every athlete on earth of his stature would receive, for continuously coming up short when it mattered most.  Chad Billingsley (remember him?) became persona-non-grata with most Dodger fans in 2008, after one bad postseason series against the Phillies.  (He did have some fervently loyal fans in the blogging community at the time, but it was a comparatively small portion of the fanbase, especially back then.)  With Kershaw, though?  With a still impressive number of defenders/apologists, it’s always someone or something else- the Cardinals, the 7th inning, the manager, bad luck, poor defense, poor offense, etc. etc..

And for the record, none of this is “hating”- Kershaw is likely a first ballot Hall of Famer, and deservedly so.  If not for him, the Dodgers wouldn’t HAVE all these opportunities to reach the postseason to begin with.   It’s just very peculiar that in the often overly critical world of sports, Kershaw continues to receive pass after pass from so many in the fanbase, in the media, and apparently, even in the Dodger front office.

goodbyeSo we’ll see what the future holds for Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers.  And hey, it’s entirely possible that the Dodgers WILL win a World Series with Kershaw as a part of the rotation- but at best, he will probably no longer be leading it.  That honor should now go to Walker Buehler.  And $30+ million a year for a #2 starter is an awful lot of money.  Lucky for the Dodgers, they can afford to find out.

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When “Going For The Jugular” Goes Wrong

Alex Cora Throws Everything But The Kitchen Sink At The Dodgers- Max Muncy Throws It Right Back At Him.

More than any other sport, baseball involves a lot of luck.  Someone can hit a weak ground ball that gets past the infield, and he will be praised for “not trying to do too much.”  On the flip side, someone can hit a scorching line drive right to the second baseman, with a runner on second that immediately gets doubled off the base.  Fans will then complain about a lack of “hitting in the clutch”.

That kind of mentality is even more extreme when it comes to managers.  Alex Cora is a perfect example of this.  A first year manager who’s “pushed all the right buttons,” he gets the kind of leeway rarely seen in baseball, let alone with rookies.  And to be fair, the record is on his side- a 108 win season and a trip to the World Series will do that for a guy.

cora

Still, contrary to what you’d believe from the media, both old and new, he’s far from infallible, and he proved that in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.  While not the main reason the Red Sox lost, he didn’t help matters, and unnecessarily put them in an even worse position going forward.  He managed as if he were down two games, instead of up two.  In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought yesterday was an elimination game!  He practically emptied his bench barely after extra innings began, had THREE starting pitchers in the game- poor “losing” pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, the previously assumed Game 4 starter, threw more innings in Game 3 than the ACTUAL starting pitcher, Rick Porcello- and reduced rising star left fielder Andrew Benintendi to a meaningless pinch hit at bat.  He also decided to pitch to Yasiel Puig instead of dependable but light hitting Austin Barners.  (In fairness, Puig got considerable help from Ian Kinsler, 2018’s version of Bill Buckner.)   Alex Cora will be AL Manager of The Year, but he didn’t look like it last night.

But enough about the Red Sox manager already.  The Dodgers, playing comeback kids all year- really almost all decade- toyed with their fans’ collective hearts once again, coming to life at the precise moment when everyone gave up on them- particularly Max Muncy.  Barely on the Dodgers’ radar at the beginning of the year- STILL barely on their radar in terms of payroll- Muncy would end the game with the most famous Dodger home run since Kirk Gibson.  But even more incredibly, Muncy showed highly alert baserunning- something sorely lacking in the Dodgers’ era of analytics- by ending up in scoring position, getting to second base on a foul popup catch by Eduardo Núñez, who subsequently ended up in the stands.  (On a sidenote, Núñez is taking WAY too much heat, IMO. Had Muncy not alertly tagged up, fans would say what a great catch it was. CLEARLY he was playing on a bad ankle, and seemed to be going with his momentum, rather than make a halting stop.)  With postseason-saving baserunning and game-ending hitting, Max Muncy was Dave Roberts and Kirk Gibson rolled into one!

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Finally, it would be criminal to recap Game 3 without mentioning Cody Bellinger’s amazing throw at the plate, gunning down- you guessed it- Ian Kinsler.  And then there was the starting pitcher Walker Buehler, the Dodger rookie who has pitched as well as he did in the regular season, and at times even better.  Going 7 innings in an era when managers give starters the hook before the game is even halfway done- well actually, in this case it ALSO wasn’t halfway done, but you know what I mean- the Dodgers would be dead in the water without his efforts.  When Clayton Kershaw has yet another attempt at redemption in Game 5, the fans don’t need to see all kinds of excuses, disguised in the form of stats,  showing how great he truly is- they need him to perform like Clayton Kershaw.  If a young rookie making the league minimum can do it on a consistent basis, then so can one of the greatest (not to mention one of the highest paid) regular season pitchers in the history of baseball.

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Before getting to Game 5, though, the Dodgers have a golden opportunity to even the series tonight, against a depleted Boston team.  Although still a game behind, after almost literally playing two games last night, the series FEELS tied.  With the momentum on the Dodgers side, it just might be soon enough.

Opening Day Expectations for the Dodgers Are At A Decades-Long High. But Why?

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Before answering the question of this admittedly loaded subject title, it’s worth saying that the Dodgers certainly appear to be one of the best teams in baseball, as has been the case for nearly four years.  Corey Seager will probably get even better, Clayton Kershaw is still the best, and after a brief offseason scare that they might land somewhere else, underappreciated Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner are back in LA for 2017, and probably beyond that.

The rest of the team looks pretty good, as well.  At least for the spring, Chase Utley seems to have discovered the fountain of youth.  Even if not, he won’t be the primary second baseman, anyway- Logan Forsythe, the only major acquisition for this year’s Major League roster, also had a great spring.  The outfield has the now-familiar core, anchored by centerfielder Joc Pederson.  The pitching is a bit of a question mark- we’ll get to that in a second- but Rick Honeycutt and company always seem to get the best out of them.

Arguably, the best thing the Dodgers seem to have going for them is the same thing they’ve had going for quite a while now- the rest of the NL West.  Do you even remember the last time someone besides the Dodgers or Giants won the NL West?  (Actually, the Diamondbacks did in 2011, but that was the only time in the past 9 seasons.  Also, for the current Diamondbacks, 2011 might as well have been 1911.)  That trend is likely to continue for 2017.  So when the regular season competition is almost exclusively between two teams, winning the division at worst should be like a coin flip for the Dodgers.

However…

None of that justifies the overwhelmingly and exceptionally high marks the Dodgers are getting for 2017, with Opening Day just hours away.  The talented Grant Bisbee, an SB Nation blogger for McCovey Chronicles, refers to the Dodgers as “the class of baseball”. This isn’t TOO surprising, as Bisbee’s loyalties towards the SABR ideology is about as strong as his loyalty to the Giants.   However, when seeing how Bill Plaschke- household curmudgeon and perennial whipping boy for The New School- has also gotten onboard, it’s clear that something is amiss.  ESPN’s baseball department, such as it still is, is not quite as overly optimistic on the Dodgers, with The Boys In Blue “only” the third favorite pick for champions, right behind the 2016 participants.  Still, the team receives very high marks all around, from people who do this sort thing for a living.  Which leads us back to the original question, “Why now?”

Before examining 2017 further, consider what happened at the end of 2016.  This is a team that made it past the Nationals by the skin of their teeth in the NLDS, and while they were competitive against the Cubs in the next round, there is no question who the better team was.  What has happened since, to create this surge in optimism?  Other than Logan Forsythe, the most significant signing has been Sergio Romo.  While Dodger fans can be forgiven for abandoning their hostility towards the flamboyant 3x World Champion for San Francisco- being a sports fan these days requires short memories about these sorts of things- there should be no forgetting of Romo’s contribution towards the Giants collapse last year.  Don’t let that 2.64 ERA fool you- part of the reason the Dodgers incredible, Kershless late-season comeback was a success, was because of the failures of the Giants bullpen.  Romo was every bit a part of that failure.  Does the 34 year old have enough left to turn it around?  Possibly- if he even stays healthy enough.  But this can’t justify the reasoning that the Dodgers have gotten that much closer to the Cubs, or perhaps even the Nationals.

romo.pngAnd speaking of bullpens, this seems to be a compelling reason- for some, anyway- as to why the Dodgers will repeat, perhaps even surpass, their success of last season.  But keep in mind that until the 2016 squad came along, there was no precedent- NONE- for a bullpen that was used so heavily, to have an even winning record, let alone one that ended up in the postseason.  In fact, there has never been a bullpen that was used so heavily period- probably the main reason why Dave Roberts deservedly won NL Manager of the Year.  For the 2017 Dodgers to live up to their reputation, though, they will have to get some length out of their starters, as opposed to repeating the unprecedented late season success of last season’s bullpen.  That, above all else, is going to be the key to whether or not the Dodgers even make it to October, let alone how far they make it into October.

And just how likely is it that this team WON’T overuse their bullpen this season?  One of the more curious aspects of the Friedman/Zaidi era is the much rosier (or should we say blue colored) interpretation of the facts, versus the glass-is-half empty recollection of the Colletti era.  What used to be seen as question marks and logjams are now seen as “depth”.  Sure, the Dodgers have lots of starting pitchers to choose from, but how many of them, not named Clayton Kershaw, can be relied upon?  Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, the guys who couldn’t be asked to go more than 5 innings per game in the postseason?  Brandon McCarthy and Hyun Jin-Ryu, with their injury histories?  The promising Julio Urias, who won’t even start at the Major League level this year?

And once they get to the bullpen, what can the team expect at that point?  Middle relief is fickle, in general, so how about we just skip to the 9th, and talk about Kenley Jansen.  Although arguably the most dominant closer in Dodger history- at least in terms of longevity- we still don’t know the effects of last October on him.  Kershaw got most of the accolades for his surprise save against the Nationals, but it was Jansen who was asked to save the team- literally and metaphorically- time and time again, including the game that Kershaw closed out.  Whether that can continue, given his past usage, remains to be seen.

Back To The Brightside…

Clayton-Kershaw-Justin-Turner

In just a few hours, it will be Time For Dodger Baseball once again.  There is too much past history and too much future promise to dwell on the questions and concerns brought up in this blog.  It’s just that with glowing reviews this offseason, it was at least worth CONSIDERING the kinds of things that will pop up eventually, especially seeing how few bloggers, journalists, and baseball analysts HAVE looked at the downside.  But during the spring, Justin Turner hit like Ted Williams, Clayton Kershaw pitched like Clayton Kershaw, and everyone else should be just about ready for the season now.  Who knows- maybe Yasiel Puig can remind us why we were so excited about him a few years back.  Maybe.  We’ll see.

 

’til next time…

2016 Dodgers Recap- A Different Formula Produces A Similar Result

In recent months, we’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to 1988, and they’ve been apt- the Dodger team from this year, like the team from that year, seemed to be powering ahead, against all odds.  In some ways, they seemed an even MORE unlikely winner.  They were also the greatest bullpen-by-committee playoff team in Major League Baseball history, because they were the ONLY bullpen-by-committee playoff team in playoff history.  It is amazing that they got this far, and even more amazing to consider that a few bounced balls here, a blown call there, and it really MIGHT have looked more like 1988, instead of 2008, or 2009, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015.  But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

But getting back to the similarities between this squad and the one from 1988, in some ways, that is the most concerning thing here- part of the REASON for the Dodgers futility after that season was because the team was not built on a strong foundation.  The very thing that made them so endearing is the same thing that made them so fleeting- they just weren’t built to last.  This team has a little bit more hope for its future, with Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, perhaps Andrew Toles, and a few others.  But will it be enough?  A lot of the guys who have been so good for the past few years are in their mid-30’s.  This team was built by the front office with strong duct tape, but how much longer can that duct tape hold?

Most troubling of all is the starting rotation.  In fact, who is the starting rotation?  The bullpen was incredible for a long stretch of time, but even in today’s era, having to regularly depend on them before the 7th inning is a really bad sign for the long term.  If the 2017 Dodgers have to heavily rely on Adam Liberatore and Joe Blanton again, they are in deep trouble.

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source: LA Times

And I’m sorry, but we have to talk about Clayton Kershaw.  He’s the greatest regular season pitcher in baseball, but how many more years are the majority of Dodger fans going to point their ire in other directions when he comes up short?  It’s the manager.  It’s the lack of offense behind him.  It’s Andrew Toles’ error.  STOP.  A large section of the fanbase never forgave Chad Billingsley, after one ineffective, weak start against the Phillies.  And here we are, after four straight years where Kershaw did not dominate from beginning to end, and most fans want to look everywhere but towards Kershaw himself.  This isn’t to say that Kershaw needs to be roasted like so many before him- not just Billingsley, but Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Brandon League, etc.- but it’s time to mix in some criticism with the endless praise.  He is the most heralded pitcher in baseball, as well as one of the highest paid.  He needs to pitch like it from beginning to end.

As for what next year and beyond hold?  It’s difficult to say, but as of now, it feels like if the Dodgers recipe for success in 2016 is not sustainable.  The Cubs have a young, strong core that should be together for some time, especially by the standards of today’s wheeling-and-dealing environment.  Unlike the Dodgers, the Cubs wouldn’t have had to do much more in the offseason, had they not advanced.  Looking within the NL West, even the Giants, with their awful bullpen, seem to have a pretty good core themselves.  Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi deserve a bit of a mulligan, with the job they did under some trying circumstances, and Dave Roberts looks like he’s here to stay, which is a good thing.  But the front office can’t expect to transact their way to a World Series- their short-term moves worked about as well as anyone could have imagined for the second half of the season, and they STILL came up short.  We’ll see how their plan is for building sustainable success for the future.  And for crying out loud, Guggenheim, get the team on television already!

’til next year…

Recap of NLCS at Dodger Stadium – 1 out of 3 Ain’t Good (…plus, In Defense Of Steve Bartman)

Well, a three game sweep by either team seemed pretty unlikely from the start.  However, with the Dodgers in full control for Game 3 and Adrian Gonzalez coming across the plate for what almost certainly looked like the first run of Game 4, Dodger fans couldn’t help but to wonder.  But alas, their hopes, much like Adrian Gonzalez’s would-be run, were not to be.  That probably-blown call, followed by some poor Dodger defense, combined with a few lucky hits for the Cubs against Julio Urias, seemed to be a turning point in the series so far.  Rather than actually run on Jon Lester, the Dodgers opted merely to try distracting him.  (It didn’t work.)  Joe Blanton could only be the “good” Joe Blanton for so long, particularly given how many times the Dodgers have called upon him this season.  He really looks like he has nothing left in the tank now.  The rest of the middle relief, so incredibly effective for the greatest two-and-a-half month stretch in the history of a bullpen-by-committee, has also fallen apart this series.  At the moment, things are looking sort of bleak.

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Caption not required. (source: trippingbaseballs.mlblogs.com)

Far from being over, though, there is plenty of reason to think the Dodgers have a reasonable chance of winning two games straight, even going into what is certain to be a rabid scene in the Windy City.  Having a fully rested Clayton Kershaw is a scenario that any team would want, regardless of where they were in the series.  While it’s understandable from an emotional standpoint why fans would be upset that he didn’t pitch in Game 5, this would have been a mistake on several levels.  For one thing, although the box score says otherwise, an already overused Kershaw had nothing left in the 7th inning of Game 2.  Only good fortune saved Dave Roberts from a Mattingly-esque fate, for leaving him in the game, for a batter (or two) too long.  For another, having him on short rest AGAIN would have gotten him into the sixth inning, maybe the seventh.  Then what?  Put Kenley Jansen in for another multi-out save?  And, even if THAT plan works, what happens in Game 6 and 7?

Oh, and by the way, though it’s been a while since Dodger fans experienced it (maybe not as long as Cubs fans, but still), there is a whole other round of playoffs after this.  What happens then, have Kershaw pitch in three games, and hope his arm stays intact?!  The 28 year old Ace-of-Spades has already been used more frequently than Orel Hershiser was in 1988, and while Dodger fans old enough to have fond memories of that October, Hershiser’s career was never the same after that.  (He did manage one more great year in ’89, but his arm gave out after that.)  We haven’t even mentioned that Kershaw missed about two months because of a bad back, and for those not close enough to 30 to understand this, those never go away.  (Kershaw himself will be 29 at the beginning of next season.)  The Dodgers will need pitchers besides Clayton Kershaw to contribute if they are going to win it all, and the massive usage that some are suggesting- to go along with the massive usage he’s already taken on- will not be worth it, if the team “only” goes on to win the National League pennant.

bill_murrayAs for the rest of the team, much like Game One against Jon Lester, the offense looked better than the Game 5 box score suggested.  This time, it wasn’t so much against Lester himself, but against the relievers, Pedro Strop and Aroldis Chapman.   Hopefully for the Dodgers, that’s a sign of things to come, as opposed to two bored relievers in a blowout.  Game 6 on the way Saturday night.  Bill Murray and much of the rest of the country will be watching.

As For Bartman…

bartmanWith the Cubs up 3 games to 2 and headed back to Chicago, the Steve Bartman references were inevitable- and let’s face it, it would be silly not to at least mention him in passing.  However, after 13 years of retrospect, as well as an excellent 30-for-30, with an in-depth look at the vicious scapegoating that he endured (with some stuff about Bill Buckner thrown in for good measure), it would seem that it was well passed time to put the incident in perspective.   Unfortunately, that’s just not how things are done around here, particularly in the media.  It’s a lazy, ready-for-made TV narrative- of COURSE it had to be a poor, clueless schlep, sitting in the front row of “The Friendly Confines” Wrigley Field , extending this “curse”.  Like Ken Bone in recent times (albeit different circumstances), the media were all too willing to make this anonymous man into a household name.

The problem is that it wasn’t true- well, for the most part.  Yes, Bartman reached over and deflected the ball from Moises Alou, but he didn’t do anything different than most of the fans surrounding him, as announcer Steve Lyons pointed out during the broadcast in the very next game.  (As a sidenote, why do fans still do this?!  If there’s one thing the “Bartman incident” should have taught ALL of us, it’s that fans in the first row of foul territory should make a conscious decision, BEFORE the game, to allow their team’s fielders every chance possible to catch a ball.  But I digress.)  Even more damning, the Cubs still had a comfortable three run lead and just two outs to go in the inning, but completely fell apart on their own.  Most notably, Alex Gonzalez’s error- undoubtedly enough to get the runner at second, and possibly even an inning-ending double play- would almost certainly been enough to stop the bleeding.  No one would have remembered Bartman, any more than they remember Yasmani Grandal missing an easy popup in Game 2 of this NLCS.

But none of the surrounding circumstances stopped some very public officials, fanning the flames against the unsuspecting lifelong Cubs fan, although karma would deal some pretty hefty blows to some of most high profile ones.  Then-Governor Rod Blagojevich said that he’d never pardon Steve Bartman, if ever given the chance- a statement that turned out as ironic as it was cruel, in light of where he ended up.  Then-Manager Dusty Baker had no problem assigning much of the blame to Bartman, when prompted to do so by the media.  The journeyman manager has not won a deciding game since.  (Most recently, his ordering of a sacrifice bunt, with the bottom of the order coming up, is about as much of a reason as any why he’s not getting another shot at a pennant at Wrigley, albeit this time in the visiting dugout.  He should take responsibilities for OWN decisions, before assigning blame to fans for his team’s woes.  But again, I digress.)  Even Jeb Bush got into the trolling act a bit, offering Bartman “sanctuary” in the state of Florida.  And, while we’re on the subject of trolling and Jeb Bush…..well, never mind.  This is the wrong site for that sort of thing.

Most of all, though, the media couldn’t wait to run with the story, and the game tonight gives them all the opportunity to rehash the narrative all over again.  It seems to provide them with some sort of weird nostalgia, to think back to one of the most undeserving character assassinations in recent American history.  MLB Network reran a clever-but-cruel (and okay, pretty funny) Bob Costas-narrated mockumentary, reimagining Steve Bartman as the hero, culminating in a *spoiler alert* victory over Barack Obama for a seat in the United States Senate.  I wouldn’t feel so guilty about laughing, or so compelled to be a Debbie Downer about it, if the man didn’t literally have to go into hiding for his “sin”.  (On the flip side, enjoying Will Ferrell’s fictional rendition of the late Harey Carey calling the play can be done guilt-free.)  Bottom line- whatever bit of responsibility Steve Bartman holds for the 2003 Chicago Cubs, pales in comparison to the responsibility held by the 2003 Cubs, as well as all the blame that he took for it.

Ending this post on a more positive note, particularly since I have almost NEVER said anything nice about Bud Selig, he deserves credit for being one of the few public figures to defend Steve Bartman, essentially telling Cub fans to stick to blaming goats, not fans, for their misfortune.  Even more noteworthy, former Cub great (and drafted Dodger) Rick Sutcliffe considered bringing Bartman out for the opening pitch of the 2003 World Series.  It turned out to be a moot point, of course.  The 2016 Dodgers are hoping, seemingly against all odds, that will continue to be the case.

NLCS Game 2 Recap- Kershaw and Jansen Pass Their In-Game Physicals, Dave Roberts Finds His Rabbit’s Foot

The Dodgers needed that.  The fans needed that.  The ANNOUNCERS needed that.  After playing so many ~4:00 hour games that it started to feel like standard practice, the Dodgers played a relatively tidy but nevertheless drama-filled 1 run game- that’s “1 run game,” as in 1 TOTAL run for the entire game.  Adrian Gonzalez’s home run provided the Dodgers with the only one they’d need, against starting pitcher Kyle Kendricks.

The reason why this paltry offense was adequate for the entire game was largely due to the pitching heroics of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen.  In Game One’s recap, this blog said the following

It’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.”

kershawAsk, and ye shall receive.  Far from being decent, Kershaw and Jansen were downright dominant, hitting their spots, and for the most part, keeping the Cubs off balance.  To be sure, there were a few good swings against Kershaw in the later innings, but in some respects, it seemed part of his game plan- he’d been used so much recently, he needed to keep his pitch count down, meaning that he had to pitch to contact more than usual.  Trusting his defense, combined with a little bit of luck- and a LOT of luck, on that final warning track shot from Javy Baez- Kershaw was masterful, and gave the Dodgers a much needed win, with a huge assist from Kenley Jansen.

And how about that Jansen?  Not even three full days after he’d thrown the last of a career high 51 pitches to the Washington Nationals in Game Five of the NLDS, Jansen looked as dominant as he had all year for TWO full innings of work, and had done so against one of the best offenses in all of Major League Baseball.  Even more incredibly, he was getting ready to throw in the seventh inning, before Kershaw talked Dave Roberts out of taking him out of the game- which brings us to where the rabbit’s foot comes into play.

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                Why so serious?!

Jerry Hairston Jr. mentioned on Twitter how Kershaw would always “win” arguments with Don Mattingly to remain in the game.  It’s completely understandable why the best pitcher in baseball would have the right to stay in, if he felt he could get the job done.  And of course he always believes that he can, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the best pitcher in baseball.  On the other hand, it puts the manager in a really difficult position.  If the job gets done, we sing Kershaw’s praises.  If it does not, it’s the manager’s fault for not doing his job, in seeing how “obvious” it was (after the fact) that Kershaw had nothing left in the tank.  Game 2 of the NLCS initially looked no different than a few other recent postseason shockers, only this time, Javy Baez’s rocket launch towards the outfield did not land in the gap, or over the wall, but safely in Joc Pederson’s glove.  The baseball gods were in Dave Roberts’ favor, and with the maniacal laugh that he let out at the end of the inning, it was clear that he knew it.

Back to LA

To the extent that there is such a thing as a “must win” Game Two in a Best-of Seven series, this was it for the Dodgers.  The Dodgers going back to L.A. down 2-0, knowing that Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t be pitching for at least two games (even with short rest), would have been a next-to-impossible task, with a starting rotation that has not been particularly effective so far.  But now that the series is tied and they’re going back to their home turf, there is a real chance this turns into an all-time classic, poised to eventually head back to Chicago.  But at Dodger Stadium, the Boys in Blue better get more out of their starting pitching, as it’s unlikely they can win more than one bullpen-by-committee game against the team with the most wins in Major League Baseball.  They’ll also need some middle relief to step, as Kenley Jansen will not be able to go for six out saves every night.  Then again, with all the improbable outcomes we’ve seen over the past few months since Kershaw initially went down, it’s foolish to dismiss anything at this point.  I’m half-expecting Mickey Hatcher to circle the bases at some point.

’til Tuesday…

 

Dodgers vs Cubs, Game 1 NLCS Recap- What Kind of Manager Is Dave Roberts, Anyway?

Looking at the rosters for the two teams on Opening Night of the National League Championship series, one might wonder how the Dodgers could possibly win Game One, particularly with postseason legend and potential Cy Young award winner Jon Lester going for the 103 game winning “Lovable Losers”.  For those who ended up watching the game, one might wonder how the Dodgers ended up losing.  The team hit into an astonishing six line drive outs, which actually accounted for seven outs total, given that the one which ended the game was a double play off the bat of an unlucky Chase Utley.  That doesn’t even account for the line drive single from starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, ultimately resulting in the fateful out of Adrian Gonzalez at home plate.  But for a short time late in the game, the team who had been beating the odds since Clayton Kershaw’s season altering injury- that is, altering in a good way, somehow- seemed poised to do it again.

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He did this TWICE!

Even with all the bad luck- and great defense, particularly from Dexter Fowler- the Dodgers  appeared to be copying the script from the fateful NLDS Game Five against the Nationals, knocking a potential Cy Young award winner out of a game, scrapping to comeback.  With the Cubs leading by two, but facing a bases loaded and no one out situation in the top of the 8th, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went to closer Aroldis Chapman an inning earlier than usual. (Wait- he’s with the Cubs now? I can’t keep up anymore.  Anyway…)  Chapman made fairly easy work against a sadly struggling Corey Seager, and a sadly declining Yasiel Puig.  Up stepped Adrian Gonzalex, who hit…you guessed it…a line drive.  This one was not caught, and suddenly, we had a tied game and a quieted Wrigley Field.

But unlike the deciding game against the Nationals, this time, the shocking late inning comeback only resulted in a tie, instead of a lead.  In other words, it more closely resembled the setup for NLDS Game Four, when the Nationals tied the game after a Clayton Kershaw exit at Dodger Stadium, only to have Chase Utley put the home team ahead for good.  But this time, the Dodgers were the road team, ending up on the wrong end of the emotional roller coaster ride.  Like the Nationals at Dodger Stadium, they almost escaped the bottom half of the innings unscathed.  Almost.  But a couple of intentional walks would ultimately seal the Dodgers’ fate.  If the Cubs end up in their first World Series appearance since the end of the previous (and hopefully last ever) World War, this series of moves will be discussed for a very, very long time.  But why wait ’til later to try figuring it all out?

Deconstructing Dave

daveWe here at DodgersFYI have made it perfectly clear that the entire staff are fans of Dave Roberts- all one of us!  Of the many, many, MANY roster moves that the front office has made over the past year, signing him has been the best one.  He is at least as good of a “player’s manager” as Don Mattingly was, and certainly superior to him from a tactical standpoint.  The Fox Sports broadcast showed an incredible stat during the course of the game- prior to 2016, of the five teams that had the most single season pitching changes in baseball history,  the MOST wins one of those teams had was 73.  Dave Roberts’ squad had more pitching changes than any of them, and somehow managed to win 91.  This is a man who knows what he’s doing, and if there’s any justice, he will be voted in as National League Manager of the year.

With all that in mind, baseball is more dependent on luck than any other major American sport, and prior to Saturday night, Dave Roberts’ short postseason record has been as charmed as Mattingly’s was snakebitten.  Riding a string of understandable but controversial decisions that worked in his favor over the previous week, the Dodger skipper doubled down in the 8th inning, with a runner already on second base- actually, tripled down, opting to turn one Cub baserunner into three, via intentional walks from Joe Blanton.  The first walk was to Jason Heyward, a guy who crushed a triple against the right-handed Maeda, finally looking like a $20 million man after a subpar season.  Seeing how Heyward was a .207 hitter against lefties in 2016, it’s unlikely that Maddon would have let him hit against the capable southpaw Dodger reliever, Grant Dayton, one of the unsung heroes that’s helped make Dave Roberts look good.  So walking Heyward and sticking with Blanton for the next batter appeared to be the right move at that time.  But then, Roberts ordered another intentional walk, this time to pinch hitter Chris Coghlan, whose batting average on the season was .188.  (To put that in perspective, Madison Bumgarner’s was .186.)  So not only were the Dodgers adding an extra baserunner, but they were advancing the two that were there already!  All this was to get to Chapman’s spot, to force Maddon’s hand, to see if he’d take Chapman out for a pinch hitter.  (Reading all this, can you believe some people want to add the DH to the National League?)

From one perspective and only one perspective, this series of moves is understandable- Chapman is probably the best closer in the game, two blown playoff saves notwithstanding.  Facing anyone else in the 9th inning would be desirable- desirable in a vacuum, as they used to say in Physics class.  However, this situation was the opposite of a vacuum- this was a bases-loaded-in-the-playoffs situation, with an overworked pitcher, now throwing for the fifth time in nine days.  In addition, for all his improvements this year, Blanton still gives up the long ball from time to time.   Seeing that the batter was Miguel Montero, a guy who had an off year but also hits the long ball from time to time, it seemed as likely a time as any for Dave Roberts postseason luck to finally betray him- and betray him it did.  Montero hit an 0-2 pitch way into the right field seats, in what could be the most critical home run in Cubs’ postseason history.  (We’ll know for sure in about a week.)

Considering how instantly visceral fan reaction can get in the age of social media, the hostility towards Dave Roberts was comparatively mild.  To be sure, there was lots of criticism in his direction, but he had a fair share of defenders, and the most heated rage was aimed in Blanton’s direction, for throwing such a lousy 0-2 pitch.  (I can only imagine what Vin Scully, who LOATHED hitable 0-2 pitches, would be saying!)   And really, it would be nice to live in a world where everyone didn’t want to fire the manager after a single move backfires, no matter how critical that move is.  But given how much Roberts has dealt with this season, and how well he’s handled it, no rational person can POSSIBLY consider him a lost cause after this.

At the same time, now that we’ve FINALLY seen something backfire on him, it seems like a good time to scrutinize the Dodgers’ first year manager a little bit.  After listening to the platitudes about how “he does what it takes to win”, it’s worth considering what “it” actually is.  Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it seems that he’s a fan of Russian Roulette, where the payoff is huge and percentage for success is huge, but the consequences of a loss are catastrophic.  In this case, facing a pitcher besides Chapman in the 9th gives his team a far better chance of winning, but in order to setup that scenario to begin with, Roberts has to voluntarily give the other team a shot at scoring four runs with one swing.  This is a calculated risk, but it is a risk all the same.  Roberts was willing to take it, and he paid a heavy price for it.  (Ironically, he was somewhat justified in his thinking, by the fact that the Cubs pitcher in the 9th was far easier for the Dodgers to handle than Chapman.  But with such a large deficit, the point was moot.)

Going forward, the scrutiny of Roberts’ gambles will come into more focus.  Consider how pundits and fans alike have profusely praised his use of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen as “gutsy”.  Without reliving the entire previous two postseasons, at least recall the 7th inning of the 2014 NLDS in St. Louis, an inning that cemented many (if not most) Dodger fans’ hearts and minds about Don Mattingly’s ineptitude.  With a 2-0 lead, Clayton Kershaw gave up two relatively cheap back-to-back singles to the St. Louis Cardinals.  With Matt Adams at the plate, Kershaw threw the worst curveball of his career to a left handed hitter, and it ended up going over the wall.  But most of the blame went to Mattingly, for supposedly overusing the Dodger ace.  That “overusage” of that NLDS was NOTHING compared to what we’ve seen in 2016, with Kershaw throwing pitches into triple digits on short rest, then coming back two days later to close out the series.

As for Jansen, he threw 51 pitches in that same game, by far a career high.  You have to go back to Joe Torre, leaving Jonathan Broxton to wilt against the Yankees on 48 pitches in 2010, to recall such heavy usage of a closer.  Broxton then got several days off, but the 2016 Dodgers don’t have that luxury- not when they’re already down 1-0.  Luckily, he’s already had two days off, so perhaps he will be ready for game 2.  He’d better be, because while “anything can happen” is one of the most cited mantras of Major League Baseball, it’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.  To put it another way, the chance of everyone forgetting about the bases loaded gamble, is tied directly to how the (over?)usage of the Dodgers’ two best pitchers effects them, going forward.

In The Bigger Picture

The Dodgers offense was far better than the box score indicates, and the fact that they didn’t give up, even in the 9th, is very encouraging.  But Dodger fans can be forgiven for feeling a little bit concerned, if not downright morose.  For nearly a decade now, in spite of all the roster changes, front office changes, even ownership changes, the Dodger postseason always seems to follow a pattern.  Since 2008, each postseason the Dodgers participate in contains at least one dramatic, “I WAS THERE!” triumph, and at least one gut wrenching, heartbreaking defeat.  Given how this franchise hasn’t won it all since 1988, the heartbreaker always comes last.  It remains to be seen for 2016’s Boys in Blue, whether the heartbreaker that was NLCS Game 1, will also end up being a back breaker.

Some Random Observations

dont_call_me_vedder

Isn’t He From Seattle?

The Cubs, for some reason, came out to the “Rocky” theme, which is normally used for Philadelphia teams.  Maybe they’ll come out to “I Love LA” for Game Two…Javy Baez is getting praised for his baseball IQ, yet he still didn’t run right out of the box, on what ended up as a bloop double.  His electric steal of home, which actually started as a baserunning miscue, somehow seems like a microcosm of everything he’s involved in…Cub fans in the first row of foul territory started to go for a popup, then pulled back in horror, realizing they almost “Bartmanned” Anthony Rizzo.  Seriously, how does everyone in the front row not think at the BEGINNING of a game, “If the Cubs are on the field, DO NOT REACH OUT”?!…Seeing Eddie Vedder, Bill Murray, John Cusack (and Chris Chelios) in the crowd was kind of funny, for some reason…Andre Ethier’s home run, which unfortunately no one will remember now, was off of a left handed pitcher.  So all he needed was a few months off to figure out how to do that…