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.

 

 

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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!