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.

roberts_maniacal

                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…

 

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The Return of DonnieBall- For Dodgers at Citi Field, Bunting Strategy Proves To Be The Wrong Strategy

I really had hoped that I wouldn’t have to write a post like this again.

It had been well over a year since I could recall Don Mattingly ordering a sacrifice bunt in a situation that absolutely didn’t call for it.  Specifically, the last one I could truly remember was Andre Ethier, ordered to move Dee Gordon (DEE GORDON!) over to second base- and in a game that the Dodgers were losing!  These days, sacrifice bunting is a controversial strategy in MOST baseball circles, to put it mildly, especially among the sabermetric community.  While I take issue with that group in many respects- wait until my upcoming Moneyball-related post- I’m pretty much with them on this one.  Even so, there are at least a few situations where I can tolerate a sacrifice bunt from someone with a batting average higher than .180.  For the Dodgers, Sunday’s extra inning heartbreaker in Queens, New York was not one of those times.

After mounting an inspired comeback in the 9th inning against the Mets to spare Zack Greinke another hard-luck loss, the Dodgers managed to make it to the 10th, where Mets killer Jimmy Rollins managed a leadoff walk.  The next batter, Scott Van Slyke, struck a pose that struck despair into the hearts of Dodger fans- he squared to bunt, as though he was a relief pitcher who hadn’t picked up a bat since Little League.  Almost as though to show Mattingly how bad a strategy sacrifice bunting was in this situation, Rollins was ambitious enough to steal second.  Didn’t matter.  The Mets’ actual relief pitcher had trouble finding the plate.  Didn’t matter.  With a count of 3-1, Mattingly had Van Slyke hand the Mets an out, on a silver platter, applauding from the dugout as though something good had just happened.  Others didn’t feel that way.  “Wow,” Mets’ announcer Keith Hernandez exclaimed in disbelief.  Sadly, Dodger fans did not, as we’ve seen this all too many times before to be surprised.  (Still, many of us managed to exclaim something.)

This wasn’t even the end of it, though.  The next batter up was Joc Pederson, a man who currently specializes in three things- walks, home runs, and especially and unfortunately, strikeouts.  None of these things are conducive to a “productive out”, the only type of outcome that even REMOTELY justifies sacrifice bunting.  Going for a one run inning on the road in extra innings is bad enough.  Doing so on a 3-1 count?  Even worse.  Doing so with a guy who, under the circumstances, is more likely to produce an at-bat which will produce anything BUT one run?  Inexcusable, particularly for a manager who has been given the occasional nickname “Buntingly”, and supposedly improved his strategic acumen (or at least, surrounded himself with better people).

I have defended “Donnie Baseball” many times, holding onto the belief that his skills in dealing with personnel are more important than his occasional head scratching in-game decisions.  He often gets too much of the blame when his star players come up short, or his front office does not give him the best players to work with.  But this is not one of those times.  Joc Pederson exploded onto the seen, showed a lot of promise, and already does some things very impressively.  But it has become increasingly that against good pitching, he is often overmatched.  In this at-bat, Pederson ultimately did what he does more than anything else- he struck out, and the Dodgers would ultimately strand Rollins on third base.  This is not to give the young Dodger centerfielder a lot of grief- just his manager.

Dodger fans would have hoped the presence of Uribe would remind Donnie of the fallacy of sacrifice bunting.  Dodgers fans would have been wrong.  (source: unknown)

Dodger fans would have hoped the presence of Uribe would remind Donnie of the fallacy of sacrifice bunting. Dodgers fans would have been wrong. (source: unknown)

As for the rest of the game, it was all too predictable from that point.  The Mets would win on a walk-off in the bottom of the inning.  Adding insult to injury, the winning hit was delivered by Juan Uribe, of all people.  Dodger fans will always remember Uribe fondly for hitting one of the greatest post-1988 home runs in team history, against the Atlanta Braves, in the 2013 NLDS.  How did it happen? Uribe failed to get the sacrifice bunt down- twice, no less- at which point Mattingly called off the bunt sign in the nick of time, setting the stage for Uribe to play hero.  It seemed that perhaps the Dodger skipper had seen the light, going so far as questioning why he had put the bunt on in the first place.  That self-doubt didn’t last a single game, as he employed it against the Cardinals in extra innings during the next round.  (The Dodgers didn’t score then, either, and ultimately lost the game.)  And here we are now, nearly two years later, having the same scenario play out right in front of us.  It’s all too predictable, and tiring to talk about.  And if Juan Uribe’s presence wasn’t enough to show Mattingly the fallacy of this, chances are that nothing will.  The Dodgers and their fans should just hope that they are not even presented with such a situation in mid-October, should they be so lucky to make it that far.

All is not lost, though, as the Dodgers have managed to hold onto first place, heading back to Los Angeles.  (Barely, but they have.)  The always streaky Giants have streaked the wrong way lately, from a “blue” point of view, thanks in part to the Oakland A’s, waving the green, yellow and white flag of surrender.  And now the Dodgers face that same pitiful team, hopefully with the same results as the archrivals.  The Moneyball post can’t come soon enough.  I’d better get started on it.

A Tribute to the Dodgers’ 6 (yes, SIX) All-Star Participants

While All Star game participation is not the best indication of a winning team, it’s pretty safe to say that when 1/5th of your team’s roster is heading there, they’re probably in good shape. It’s an even better indication when the manager is joining in on the festivities.

Here is a celebratory look at how these half-dozen Boys in Blue made their way to the hometown of the Reds-

Source: Gary Vasquez, USA Today

Source: Gary Vasquez, USA Today

Joc Pederson – In light of the Dodgers’ most common batting order this season, it seems appropriate to leadoff with Joc here. Normally, a rooking hitting .230 with 105 strikeouts would not be the starting centerfielder of the All Star game, if he’d be there at all. But Joc Pederson is not a normal rookie. Already one of the better defensive centerfielders in Los Angeles Dodger history, along with already being one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball today, Pederson has anchored an outfield that has needed anchoring for YEARS. His game-saving plays have become regular features on sports highlight shows, as have his Mantle-esque, tape measure home runs. Pitchers have adjusted to him in recent weeks, and he will need to adjust back. For now, though, he has a tailor-made swing for the Home Run Derby, which should serve him far better than it did for his talented but miscast Dodger predecessors, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.

Yasmani Grandal– I’m not going to lie. Had you asked me on Opening Day who would be the least likely Dodger to end up in Cincinnati this week, I’d probably go with this guy. Originally drafted BY the Reds as one of the most promising catching prospects in baseball, Grandal was sent to San Diego as a centerpiece of the Mat Latos deal, where he had a very successful rookie campaign in 2012. Then, he got busted in the Biogenesis scandal, tore up his knee, and seemed destined for MLB’s scrap heap. Fortunately for the Dodgers, Andrew Friedman and company saw something there that a lot of us didn’t.After a slow start offensively, Grandal hasn’t looked back since early May, often being among one or two other guys doing ANYTHING in the Dodger lineup, through some rather lengthy team slumps. But as valuable as he’s been at the plate, his game calling behind the plate is what really sets him apart, drawing praise from none other than fellow All-Star Zack Greinke- not a guy who hands out compliments very easily. His pitch framing abilities have been widely praised amongst the sabermetrics community, and his rate of throwing out runners has improved dramatically from last season’s campaign. If “Yaz” can keep up this pace throughout the remainder of the season, he will not just be an All Star- he will be Comeback Player of the Year.

(Special tip of the cap to Rob Neyer for going out on a limb, contemplating that Grandal could be an All Star before the season even began.)

Adrian Gonzalez– As of right now, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Gonzalez has had a Hall of Fame career. However, he has consistently put up numbers that quietly guarantee he will, at the very least, be on a Hall of Fame ballot. A blockbuster trade by the Dodgers that drew lukewarm praise at the time, also being criticized as too costly to be worth the price, Gonzalez is the only player on EITHER side of that trade, still making key contributions to his team. (No disrespect intended to Carl Crawford, who has been sidelined most of the season.) But not only has he been valuable, he been exactly the player whom the Dodgers envisioned since day one- a steady, middle of the order “gap power” threat, with steady, occasionally spectacular, defense at the corner. Moreover, though he is a mild-mannered guy, he turns up the intensity when necessary, such as when he nearly dove into the stands in the 9th inning of today’s win against the Brewers, narrowly missing a game ending catch. He leads by example, and neither apologizes, nor makes excuses, when things don’t go the Dodgers’ way- just calls it as he sees it. Though he has put on way more different uniforms than a player of his caliber ever should, even in the era of free agency, he will hopefully end his career one day, in the Dodger uniform that he wears now.

Source: J Pat Carter, AP

Source: J Pat Carter, AP

Zack Greinke– Okay, we’re done with the warmup act. Now, we can get to the headliners. Look, we all know how important the three Ohio-bound position players have been for the team, but ten years from now, no one will look back at any of their numbers and say, “Now THAT was a season to remember!” The same cannot be said of the Dodgers’ two phenominal aces, anchoring not just their own team, but the entire National League. When one thinks of the Los Angeles Dodgers historically, one thinks of starting pitching, and that has rarely been more true than this season. If Zack Greinke isn’t starting the game on Tuesday, Major League Baseball will need to open an investigation.

Incidentally, many of the same things said about Adrian Gonzalez can be said about Zack Greinke. Among them, he’s not Hall of Fame bound (yet), but is certainly Hall of Fame ballot bound. He was signed in a deal with measured praise at the time- an upgrade who supposedly wasn’t worth the price, when in actuality, it has been a bargain. Also similar to Gonzalez is his quiet determination- not a very animated guy, to say the least, but as fierce a competitor as one can imagine. (Note the way he takes his at-bats.) And finally, like the Dodger first baseman, Zack Greinke has changed teams far more than someone of his ability should.

On almost any other team, someone of this description would be an Opening Day starter. But not the Dodgers, because of the next guy.

Source: Chris Carlson, AP

Source: Chris Carlson, AP

Clayton Kershaw– Much as it was appropriate to start this player list with Joc Pederson, it’s appropriate to save the best for last, ending it was Clayton Kershaw, as he was the last person to be added to the National League squad, somehow. It’s an annual tradition for a successful fanbase’s team to seethe about their guy(s) getting snubbed, but Dodger fans were primed for once-in-a-generation, next level outrage. I’ll be honest- on some level, I was kind of looking forward to it! The very idea of the Giants’ skipper, so publicly snubbing the best pitcher in baseball (even if that wasn’t his intention), was going to make a fun narrative for years to come. Now, we have Kershaw, making another ho-hum mid-July appearance, something that he might not have even wanted to do! (We’ll never know.) But regardless, if you’re going to leave off someone who is both the reigning Cy Young AND MVP winner, you’d better have a really good reason to do so. Bruce Bochy did not. He is fortunate that circumstances bailed him out.

As for Kershaw himself, yes, he’s having an “off year” by HIS measures, mainly due to lack of run-support, and a few more home run balls than he’s accustomed to giving up. But by any other measure, he is still an Ace-of-Spaces, even on a team WITH Zack Greinke. If past seasons are any indication, he will only get stronger as the summer goes on.

ENCORE!

So that’s the player list, but we promised SIX Dodgers at the beginning of this, so here’s one more:

Don Mattingly– Making his first All Star appearance since 1989- then as a player, obviously- he is a rare controversial selection for many fans of his OWN team. Seeing how the Dodgers have been in first place all season, it’s been puzzling to listen to the fan reaction when Mattingly’s name is announced at Dodger Stadium, prior to the starting lineups. And yes, we all know about his shortcomings strategically, but that’s hardly a reason not to give a polite applause for your first place team’s skipper! (In small but clearly audible cases, there have actually been BOOS.)

The fact is, Mattingly will never be Joe Maddon. But he has always been a high character guy, demanding the best effort from his players while simulataneously supporting them when they give it. He has navigated through ownership scandals, players demanding more playing time, and various other personnel conflicts. We will see what the rest of the season brings, but so far, he has been the right man for this team, and his selection is well deserved.

And Finally..

After what happened in 2002, you never know WHO will be pitching in extra innings!  (source: Claudia Gestro - Baltimore Post Examiner)

After what happened in 2002, you never know WHO will be pitching in extra innings! (source: Claudia Gestro – Baltimore Post Examiner)

With Bud Selig now retired, we hope that we will be able to retire the “This-Time-It-Counts” silliness after this year, as well. But while it’s still with us, let’s also hope that at least this time around, the cause that Greinke, Kershaw and everyone else will be contributing to, will ultimately be their own this October.