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…

What A Relief…Pitcher! Kershaw (and Jansen) Carry The Dodgers Across The Finish Line

Oh, where to begin. What can be said about the longest 9 inning game in postseason history, a game with a box score that looked like something out of spring training, where the closer recorded almost as many outs as the starter, yet STILL managed to not even close the game himself?!  Actually, I think that last sentence says plenty- and they don’t pay me enough to recap everything that went into THAT game- whomever “they” may be, and however much “they” may be paying me…which is to say, absolutely nothing.

Forgive the bizarre opening paragraph, but it just seems appropriate for such a bizarre game.  The starting pitcher- who I think was Rich Hill, it’s hard to remember- didn’t last passed the 3rd inning.  And let’s face it, if anyone had told you that the road team’s starter had been knocked out in the 3rd inning of a winner-take-all game, while the home team had the likely Cy Young award winner pitching a shutout into the 7th inning, you’d be reasonably sure how the game would end up…unless, of course, the road team was the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, but this team’s success has been every bit as improbable as the 1988 squad to this point, perhaps even more so.  That team at least had a solid starting staff.  This team’s starting rotation was basically Clayton Kershaw and about a dozen question marks.  (Literally a dozen- look it up!  And who is Nick Tepesh?!)  Granted, a few of those “questions marks” were talented- most notably Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias- but none could be relied upon to go deep into games, that is when they were even healthy enough to pitch at all.  And yet, it was when Kershaw went down that the team really got rolling, mounting an incredible second half comeback, riding a bullpen-by-committee into a division title.  Now, they have ridden a bullpen-by-committee into the NLCS.

It wasn’t without some help from the other side, though.  Taking some misguided advice from his third base coach, Jayson Werth ran into an easy out at home in the 6th, killing his team’s momentum, not to mention the inning.  Joc Pederson wasted no time claiming that same momentum on the very next pitch in the very next inning, thereby ending the shutout, the tie, and Max Scherzer’s night.

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Onward! (source- Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

As it turned out, though, the Dodgers were just getting started.  A seemingly endless stream of Washington pitching changes couldn’t stop the Dodgers’ momentum- nor could three straight failed sacrifice bunt attempts, courtesy of Charlie Culberson- with pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz ultimately giving the Dodgers the lead, and Justin Turner adding to it.  This game was far from over at that point, however.  After ex-Dodger Chris Heisey’s two run homer put the game within reach for the Nationals, Dave Roberts went to Kenley Jansen- in the SEVENTH INNING with no outs yet recorded.  Without reliving the mayhem all over again, the most notable play on the Nationals’ side was Dusty Baker, a manager good enough to consistently get hired but not good enough to stop needing to look for work, ordering a sacrifice bunt- with the bottom of the order coming up, no less- while his team only had 6 outs left in the season.  After a career high 51 pitches for Jansen, the game still had two outs left, while Jansen had NOTHING left.  Dave Roberts then went to Clayton Kershaw- again, naturally- who had just thrown 110 pitches on short rest just two days earlier.  The first batter up was relatively new Dodger nemesis Daniel Murphy, whose .438 batting average for the series was deceptively low.  (That is not a joke.)  Kershaw got him to pop up, then struck out the Nationals’ final position player remaining on the bench, to take the team to the NLCS, in a scene that was as exhilarating as it was exhausting.


WHAT WE’VE LEARNED SO FAR

Whatever happens from this point forward, it must be said that Andrew Friedman’s front office deserves some serious recognition for what’s already been accomplished.  They were panned for their duct tape approach to putting together a pitching staff, instead of spending money on Johnny Cueto, or re-signing Zack Greinke.  And yet, this duct tape continues to pitch deep into October, while Greinke and Cueto watch at home, or play fantasy football, or whatever keeps them occupied in the offseason.  I’m still not sold on the constant swirl of roster moves, both on the field and off the field, and I miss seeing a Post World War II running game on the bases.  But you can’t argue with results, and right now, they’re getting it done.   (Also, Dave Roberts was clearly the right manager for this team.)


WHAT NEXT?

Thanks to their next opponent’s historical reputation of unprecedented futility in American sports, the Dodgers will likely not gain many fans outside of Southern California.  But make no mistake- if there’s a real-life “Bad News Bears” in this series, it’s unquestionably the Boys in Blue, particularly with Jansen and Kershaw compromised for at least the beginning of the series.   Sure, the media will play up the “Lovable Losers” angle for the Cubs, but this Cubs team happens to have the best record in baseball.  Besides, for fans under 30, there’s really no difference between whether their team last won it all in 1908, or 1988.

 

 

 

The Dodgers Are The 2016 NL West Champions- But How?!

On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season.  That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point.  Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission.  The Dodgers would end up losing that game.  Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury.  At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader.  Instead, it became a turning point.

Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West.  But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago.  Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise.  And yet…

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The 2016 Dodgers, tipping their caps to the man whose been with the team, since before their parents were born. (Source: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense.  One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season.  (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.)  In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss.  Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after.  Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on,  while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings.  Even Andre Ethier, as unlikely a Dean of The Dodgers as there ever was, made a cameo appearance in September, after recovering from an unfortunate fluke injury that took him out for nearly the entire season.

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In a somber moment before the game, Puig pays tribute to his friend Jose Fernandez. (Story here: http://wp.me/p1UqDw-9R)

 

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.  I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again.  After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster.  It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star.  The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can.  Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!

But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling.  Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning.  Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts.  The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA.  The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT.  It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee.  It was such a mess, Rich Hill became the first Major League pitcher ever to be pulled while throwing a perfect game (!) after 7 innings, because that’s just how fragile the Dodgers’ starting pitching situation was.

And how about Dave Roberts, the man in charge who made that controversial but understandable decision?  (It wasn’t even his first one this season.)  If anything, he deserves a bonus for the arrows he took for his tough decision making, and ultimately should be rewarded by being named NL Manager of the Year.  Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster.  Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances.  Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team.  He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly.  We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.

As for the front office?  That’s a tough one.  Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball.  The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening.  But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail.  This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did.  Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all.  But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due.  So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi.  Two cheers for them each.  We’ll see what October brings.

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Does this really need a written description? (Source- Los Angeles Dodgers)

And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note.  It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of.  Absolutely unheard of.  But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season.  (Naturally.)  And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing!  (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)

Three games remain in San Diego, then another three in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…

Dodgers Opening Series Recap- I Can’t Even…

maedaI’m not a millennial, but I don’t really know what else to say.  The level of dominance shown by the Dodgers, along with the futility of their “opponents” to the south, is something that is difficult to comprehend.  Such a historically lopsided display renders any talk about the Matt Kemp trade moot for the time being, other than to say I feel kind of sorry for him.  (I’m sure he’ll get over it.)

We’re used to Adrian Gonzalez tormenting his former team.  But watching Yasiel Puig becoming Yasiel Puig again, Clayton Kershaw CONTINUING to be Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda doing this IN HIS MAJOR LEAGUE DEBUT, and pretty much everything else go right for these guys was something really special.  I’d say something facetious at this point about wishing the Dodgers could start the season against the Padres EVERY year, but that already seems to be the case, doesn’t it?  Usually, it seems to go pretty well for the Boys in Blue, if not quite THIS well.

Just to be clear, it’s still very, VERY early.  We still have spots #4 and #5 in the rotation to look at.  And roughly 90% of the remaining 159 games will NOT be played against the San Diego Padres.  Nevertheless…WOW.

As for the Padres, should anyone from that organization be reading this post, here’s a helpful tip from a few exits up the 5- find out which of the fans in attendance are from San Diego county, and offer them a discount to the next series with the Dodgers.  Or a coupon.  Or SOMETHING.  Because if you think there were too many Dodger fans at THIS series, wait ’til you see what happens if this kind of play continues…YIKES.

 

 

NLDS Game 4 Recap- Kershaw Flips The Script

After Yoenis Cespedes’s fluky, swinging bunt single to lead off the 7th inning, it really did feel like we were watching a rerun. Not only had everything played out uncannily similar to last year’s NLDS to that point, but the stage was set for that to continue beyond, with Clayton Kershaw, pitching masterfully on three days rest (again), looking like he was about to get into some unlucky trouble (again).  Even more uncanny was the fact that Lucas Duda, a power hitting lefty who normally can’t hit lefties all that well, was just 2 batters away, exactly as Matt Adams had been the year before.  But this was a different year, and the Dodgers were facing a different team.  The next batter, Travis d’Arnaud, fouled out to first base, and that alone gave a feeling that Kershaw, as well as the rest of the Dodgers, might have different luck this year.  At least for one night, that proved to be the case.

The guy on the right started the rally, the guy on the left finished it. (Source: Jake Roth, USA Today)

The guy on the right started the rally, the guy on the left finished it. (Source: Jake Roth, USA Today)

It wasn’t easy from that point forward, which made it all seem that much better when it was over.  Duda would hit the ball pretty well to centerfield, but it was tracked down by Kiké Hernandez.  Wilmer Flores, Met fans’ hero-in-waiting, crushed the ball down the line, as Justin Turner, the hero-in-action, snared it and threw to first, for an easy out.  (As if the Mets needed ANOTHER reminder on “The One That Got Away”, Turner also hit what would be the deciding blow, a two run double, in the third inning.)  And even Don Mattingly, the manager who can do no right, even when he does, would be able to live for another day or two, as all his pitching moves worked out perfectly.

But this night wasn’t about Don Mattingly or Justin Turner.  It was about Clayton Kershaw, saving the Dodgers season and quieting the critics, if not silencing them completely.  The fact of the matter is, as Ron Darling pointed out on the TBS broadcast, much of Kershaw’s postseason “implosions” were due to bad luck.  Even in game 1 this year, when he walked 3 batters in the fateful 7th inning, most of the pitches were pretty close.  Baseball, more than any other sport, has a random quality to it that can almost be cruel at times.  While Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams delivered the knockout blows squarely on Kershaw last year, everything up until both of those points were ground balls and soft line drives.  It still amazes me that of those five singles prior to Carpenter’s epic (and for Dodger fans, TRAGIC) at bat, not ONE of them could find a fielder’s glove.  This time, fate would be a little bit more kind to Kershaw, in no small part because Kershaw himself was incredible.

Now, For The Other Ace

The difference between Game 4 being “a nice little story” versus “one for the ages” for Kershaw, now lies with Zack Greinke.  Facing Jacob DeGrom, a man who the Dodgers have done absolutely NOTHING AGAINST EVER, Greinke will probably have to be every bit as good as Kershaw was on Tuesday night, and perhaps a little bit better.  Chris Hatcher and Kenley Jansen will probably be relied upon again, at least if everything goes according to plan.  There are eight guys in the lineup, so there’s no point in singling any one of them out for a breakout performance.  And while I hope this next sentence serves as a jinx, don’t expect Corey Seager to suddenly stop looking like a rookie, against one of the best pitchers in the game.  But no matter what happens, at least we know that this season will not end like 2014.  Hopefully for the Dodgers at this time next week, it will not have ended at all.

Don Mattingly Should Be Held Accountable For A Lot, But Not For Clayton Kershaw’s Performance

Watching Clayton Kershaw shout down Don Mattingly must have been the thrill of a lifetime for the many Dodger fans that double as Mattingly detractors.  (It got so nasty at times this year, it felt more like Mattingly detractors were doubling as Dodger fans!)  For anyone that doesn’t remember, it was a hot day, Kershaw wasn’t pitching all that well- at least by his standards- and the Dodgers were very close to wrapping up the division.  Taking Clayton Kershaw out of the game at that point seemed like one of the more defendable, if controversial, strategic moves that Don Mattingly has made.  Ironically, the main reason that Mattingly would later give for removing Kershaw DIDN’T seem justifiable, claiming that the Dodgers needed offense.  The pinch hitter they decided on, Austin Barnes, is barely a better hitter than Kershaw.  Regardless, the Dodgers ended up winning the game, and Kershaw pitched a complete game shutout against the Giants, to clinch the NL West, in his very next start.  All-in-all, everything worked out fine.

Sept. 24, 2015 - Los Angeles, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - Pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) and manager (8) Don Mattingly talk to each other during the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodgers Stadium on Thursday 24 September 2015. Los Angeles Dodgers won the game 6-3.ARMANDO ARORIZO (Credit Image: © Armando Arorizo/Prensa Internacional via ZUMA Wire)

Sept. 24, 2015  – Clayton Kershaw REALLY wanted to stay in this game.  Imagine how he’d feel about being given an early hook in the playoffs!  (Credit Image: © Armando Arorizo/Prensa Internacional via ZUMA Wire)

But getting back to the dugout argument, Kershaw’s contentious attitude towards Mattingly- along with his curt postgame answers AFTER A WIN– should give pause to any Dodger fan still seething about Kershaw being left in games 1 and 4 of last year’s NLDS, each time with a 2 run lead that would ultimately be coughed up.  Up until each respective knockout blow was delivered, all the hits that Kershaw gave up were singles, many that were barely more than seeing-eye groundballs.  Try to imagine Kershaw’s reaction to being taken out of THOSE games, along with the image of him watching in the dugout, as JP Howell coughs up his lead.  You think fan reaction was furious with Kershaw left IN?  I really think that Don Mattingly might have needed police protection under those circumstances.  If anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, I was at game 2, when JP Howell DID cough up Zack Greinke’s masterpiece.  The whole stadium was irate, but several fans in particular openly wished harm on Mattingly, along with JP Howell. It was a small number, and even amongst them, they probably wouldn’t have acted on it, if given the chance.  But the fact that such sentiments could even be openly expressed in public without being questioned, shows just how toxic the situation can get.  And if anyone thinks that fans would have gone easier had it been KERSHAW, there’s really no point in reading further, because they can’t be reasoned with, anyway.

But for anyone that can think beyond their own negative biases about Don Mattingly as a manager, Clayton Kershaw’s posturing during and after that Diamondbacks game shows just how determined he is to stay in ballgames.  If he is going to get THAT animated during a fairly insignificant game in September, just imagine how determined he will be to stay in a postseason ballgame.  This is a common attitude for an ace to have.  During a managerial visit to the mound in the AL Wildcard game, we saw Dallas Keuchel TURN HIS BACK on his manager.  How do you think it would have been received if Keuchel, the likely Cy Young award winner, would have been taken out at that point?  Anyone with that pedigree earns the right to pitch out of their own jams, with very rare exceptions.  (Got that, Grady Little?)

As for what we’ve seen from Kershaw in his postseason career so far, we’re getting very close to the point where we can’t chalk it up to small sample size anymore.  He’s had a few outings where he’s looked like Kershaw, but all too many where hasn’t.  So what gives?  We can’t call his heart or determination into question.  Is there anything we CAN call into question?

The One Issue With Kershaw

The dugout confrontation against Mattingly got a lot of coverage, for obvious reasons.  But something else happened in the game that got NO coverage, which might be even more noteworthy.  In the bottom of the third inning with two outs and the Dodgers down by 2, Kershaw was on second base.  Justin Turner hit a line drive, which had a chance to drop in, but not a very good one.  Ultimately, the centerfielder made a nice but unspectacular running catch to end the inning.  Over at third base, Clayton Kershaw was charging for home, like his life depended on it.  The Dodgers’ third base coach had to jump in front of Kershaw to get him to stop.  While such hustle is normally appreciated, this was a very hot day, it was early in the game, and Kershaw was about to take the mound again.  As amazing as Clayton Kershaw is, he is a human being, with all the same restrictions as the rest of us mortals.  It would be hard to argue that this sprint didn’t take at least a LITTLE bit out of him, and even harder to argue after the very first batter Kershaw faced afterwards, hit a home run.

Friday is going to be another hot day.  Among the many things that Kershaw is justifiably praised for, he always gets high marks for being a complete ballplayer, as opposed to just a pitcher.  Zack Greinke is a complete ballplayer, too, yet always seems to know when it’s wise to ease up a bit.  Any little bit of an edge that might be gained by busting out of the batter’s box every time, could easily be lost (and then some) by the edge opposing hitters will gain, once that same pitcher doesn’t quite have it in him to, say, get out of the seventh inning on a hot day.  Perhaps it would be best for Kershaw to not even put the ball in play again Jacob deGrom, so long as the other eight guys do.

And with that, we transition to something that Don Mattingly IS responsible for.

The Lineup Card

What Don Mattingly has on his hands is a nice problem to have, but it is a problem, nonetheless.  With no clear cut superstars besides of his two aces on the mound, Mattingly has a deep and talented roster, but no one who is really head-and-shoulders above the rest.  So at least for the NLDS, with the Mets’ righty-heavy starting rotation, the Dodgers will focus on getting as many lefties in there as possible.  The only problem with that is…well, keep reading.

Don't let the bubblegum fool you. This kid is as serious a threat as anyone else in the Dodger lineup. (source- Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t let the bubblegum fool you. This kid is as serious a threat as anyone else in the Dodger lineup. (source- Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Since it goes without saying by now that Corey Seager needs to be in there, the only question is whether he starts at shortstop, or third base.  Shortstop seems the most likely, since that appears to be his most comfortable position.  The other reason is that Justin Turner is a superior hitter to Jimmy Rollins right now.  It also appears likely that Howie Kendrick will start of Chase Utley, simply because Kendrick is at the end of his prime, while Utley is well passed his.  This is how the Dodgers might put a starting lineup together against the Mets, without two legendary Met killers penned in.

Equally controversial is centerfield.  Joc Pederson was a fan favorite, complete with all kinds of fawning press for months, even well after cooling down considerably.  Meanwhile, Kiké Hernandez quietly proved to be the more professional, polished ballplayer, with better baserunning skills, more consistent at-bats, and defense that was actually pretty close to Joc’s.  So, in spite of a righty-heavy starting rotation, Hernandez should be the one to start.

The final controversy should not be a controversy at all.  From May to July, Yasmani Grandal was incredible, proving us detractors wrong about him.  However, he ended up getting injured in early August.  Whether the injury lingered or he just developed bad habits, Grandal was historically bad the final two months of the season, while AJ Ellis looked revived.  We really don’t need to discuss any further than that.  Quite simply, AJ Ellis should start every game, and that should be that.  For the few that still believe in Grandal, screaming “pitch framing!” at the top of their lungs- Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Kenley Jansen should not need help with pitch framing.

All this amounts a lineup that looks like this:

  1. Howie Kendrick 2B
  2. Carl Crawford  LF
  3. Adrian Gonzalez 1B
  4. Justin Turner 3B
  5. Corey Seager SS
  6. Andre Ethier RF
  7. AJ Ellis C
  8. Enrique Hernandez CF
  9. Clayton Kershaw P

That sums it up.  Let’s just hope that this NLDS ends up better than the last one.

Deadline Post-Mortem: Low risk, Medium Reward For the Dodgers

“You see what you expect to see.” –Professor Dumbledore to Snape

It’s hard not to give in to personal biases.  Ruben Amaro can sign a veteran to a ridiculous contract, and the fans will call him out.  Theo Epstein might do the same thing, and MLB message boards across the nation will light up, trying to interpret its “true meaning”.  But as lauded as the perceived curse-breaking GM in Chicago might be, outside of the man in Oakland, there’s probably not a front office in baseball that operates more like a Rorschach Test than the one in Dodger Stadium.

Though often too clever by half, Andrew Friedman's front office crew did some nice work this week. (source: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Though often too clever by half, Andrew Friedman’s front office crew did some nice work this week. (source: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  After enthusiastically greeting the hiring of the long-on-brains, even-longer-on-money front office last October, I quickly soured on them.  Two massive trades, involving some of the most popular, exciting players on the team, followed by expensive free agent signings of two ex-Oakland starting pitchers that seemed to scream, “You just don’t GET it!” was enough for me to wonder if I could continue rooting for this organization.  Fortunately, the moves turned out to be much better than I thought- though still not nearly as good as OTHERS thought, but I digress- and my enthusiasm ultimately overpowered my cynicism.  But that doesn’t mean I bought in to Andrew Friedman’s program.  Now that the 2015 trade deadline has come and gone, I may at least start to reconsider.

I know that many Dodgers fans had their hearts set on a Hamels, a Price, or a Cueto.  To some extent, so did I.  But the price of those guys, in terms of player personnel, may have been higher than Friedman and Fahran Zaidi were comfortable paying.  (Ironically enough, it looks like Scott Kazmir may have been the one to go after early on, but hindsight is 50/50.)  Instead of going for one great starter that would have potentially made the Dodgers thinner in the future, they opted for two good starters in Mat Latos and Alex Wood, at cost that should have zero impact on the team going forward.  (The budget, of course, is another matter, but this is nothing new these days.)  Also not to be overlooked, the team solidified the bullpen with Jim Johnson and Luis Avilan, and brought over a prospect, Jose Peraza, that may end up being the Dodgers’ second baseman next year, and hopefully beyond.  Personally, I continue to be regretful about the guy who should STILL be the Dodgers’ second baseman- and I say that, fully aware that Howie Kendrick and Enrique Hernandez are having nice seasons- but that’s over now.  What Friedman and company did was the next best thing to make up for it.

Perhaps the most underrated part of this trade is what it says about the front office’s faith in Justin Turner.  In the offseason, the Dodgers paid an enormous amount of money to sign Cuban defector Hector Olivera, an infielder that they didn’t need.  Olivera did well in the minors, but Turner performed even better in the MAJORS.  Even so, for a while it appeared that the Dodgers were determined to put Olivera into the lineup, regardless of what Turner was doing.  The biggest indication seemed to be SNLA announcers referring to him as “the Dodgers’ third baseman of the future”.  (Outside of Vin Scully, it’s pretty clear by now that the rest of the announcers, great as they are, operate within the company lines.)  We often hear about players doing “what’s best for the team.”  By trading away Olivera and giving the nod to Turner, the Dodgers’ President of Baseball Operations did just that, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Though the Dodgers are probably a better team today than they were yesterday, it’s not all rainbows and lollipops.  The amount of money to make this happen was absurd, even though the Dodgers can clearly afford it.  And as usual for Friedman and his crew, the media went overboard in their praise, referring to them (and specifically him) as “brilliant” a few too many times, failing to mention that these moves were needed, in part, because some of their previous ones did not go as planned.  (Full disclosure- Regrettably, I used this term once myself yesterday, mainly out of excitement that the Dodgers received so many potentially contributing Major Leaguers, without giving a single current one back.  But it was as much out of relief than anything else.)  Particularly funny was a local writer, who praised Friedman for getting rid of the “bad debt” of Dee Gordon (among others), then later quoted him on the Dodgers adding Peraza, saying how the team was in need of “foot speed”.  (You don’t say!)  But make no mistake- the Dodgers addressed ALL of their current problems, without creating new ones.  That doesn’t mean it will all work out, as AJ Preller can tell you.  But the reasoning is sound, and while fans may still have to hold their collective breathe on days that Kershaw and Greinke aren’t pitching, at least they may be able to exhale a little bit more quickly.

Get well soon, guys.

Get well soon, guys.

As for the team itself, they are holding onto first place- barely- though not without some serious concerns.  Justin Turner has been placed on the DL for an infection, which will hopefully clear up within the next few days, for his sake and his team’s.  Less threatening in the physical realm but more so on the field, Clayton Kershaw is dealing with a sore hip, but he claims that pitching Saturday afternoon will not be a problem for him.  (Let’s hope that’s true, along with the idea he will be able to say the same thing AFTER the game.)  Dodger fans not enamored with Dee Gordon should at least take interest in the man assigned with the tall task of facing off against Kershaw today, Andrew Heaney, who was flipped for Howie Kendrick hours after being traded for Gordon.  Should be fun!