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.

Though Chase Utley May Help The Dodgers, He Never Should Have Had To

For a group that seemingly shrugged off the “small sample size” of Matt Kemp’s red-hot 2014 ending, the Dodger front office sure have put a fair amount of stock into 31 at-bats from Chase Utley.  To be fair, it’s been a GREAT 31 at-bats since the longtime Phillie icon came back from his latest stint on the disabled list.  Plus, there are thousands and thousands of previous Utley at-bats coming into this season, which will unquestionably put him on a Hall of Fame ballot one day, if not the Hall of Fame itself.  However, it’s those at-bats in between the first 6,000+ and the last 31 at-bats- more specifically, the 218 of them where he was batting .179 prior to going on the DL- that could be troubling.

Name recognition aside, the potential for this move to make an earth-shattering difference either way doesn’t seem to be all that likely.  Regardless of how Chase Utley plays for the duration of 2015- or even IF he plays for the duration of 2015- his success is not critical to the Dodgers’ success.  Of course, it would be NICE if he can play somewhat like his old-self instead of like an old man, but if not, Kiké Hernández has shown that he is more than capable of holding down the fort in Howie Kendrick’s absence.  In fact, Kiké’s performance has been so solid, it makes this move rather curious to begin with, though not as curious as the deafening silence from the media, old and new, about the initial trade last December, which ultimately led to this latest move being made.

There’s no need to rehash the whole Dee Gordon saga again, at least not right now.  But it would be negligent to not at least MENTION that the former Dodger and current All-Star starter has emerged as the player many of Dee Gordon’s fans always suspected he could become.  By contrast, the Dodgers have now added a SECOND second base veteran to the mix, before the first season without Gordon has even been completed.  And they’re doing so at a considerable cost, both on the field and in the payroll.  (Did we mention that the Dodgers are also still paying Dee Gordon, as well?!)  All of this seems to have gone unnoticed by most, outside of the few Dodger fans not currently fuming at Don Mattingly for causing global warming.  Bloggers, print writers, and those that generally spend a lot of time thinking about the Dodgers seem to have overlooked how unnecessary this would all be, had Friedman’s crew not been so busy calculating how quickly Gordon would “regress to the mean”.  So whether this Utley trade works out or not, the reaction to it is already quite different than the kind that Ned Colletti would get for a similar move, even moves that, in hindsight, seem more understandable than the one that sent Dee Gordon to Miami.

“One day, we shall meet again.” And they have. Pat Burrell patiently waits by the phone.

Attempting to get past the water under the bridge- which is hopefully sturdier than the one to Kenley Jansen– there could still be some upside to this deal.  The fact that Utley HAS shown some life in his bat very recently could be a well-timed bandage for these wounded Dodgers.  Plus, there’s potential for a nice storyline to come out of this, as well.  If there is one guy where “clubhouse presence” isn’t a myth, it would be this guy.  Winning over a notoriously surly fanbase with his blue collar appeal, Utley now gets to wear the blue color of the team he rooted for as a kid.  Dodger fans have forgiven Jimmy Rollins rather easily for his past “sins”.  Should Utley even RESEMBLE his former self, as he has done over the past two weeks, Rollins’ former-former double play partner should also be easily embraced by a fanbase that he once belonged to as a kid, growing up in Southern California.  (Utley was even drafted by the Dodgers in high school, prior to attending UCLA.)

The latest chapter of this grand experiment begins in Houston, where the Dodgers take on a team roughly equal in talent, if not payroll.  With a mere month and a half to go in the regular season, it’s unlikely there will be yet ANOTHER chapter added by this all-too-active front office, but if so, let’s just hope it’s one that deals with the bullpen.

Kiké Hernandez Breakout Performance Surprises Everyone- Except Kiké Hernandez

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before- a versatile, energetic but unspectacular infielder is discarded by his lowly team.  In a move that barely registers on the radar, the Dodgers acquire the player in question, rewarding him with a salary that doesn’t constitute 1% of the team’s gaudy overall payroll.  Early in the season, the young player struggles with the limited playing time he’s given.  This doesn’t bother the fans much, though, seeing how most of them don’t even know who the guy is!  Then, injuries to starters change his fate. Quietly at first and then with increasing fanfare, the player flourishes.  The player goes from expendable utility player, to super-utility player, to potential star player.

It’s pretty incredible that a team with so many well-known (and well-paid!) players can find such great fortune with someone so low-cost, whom hardly anyone ever heard of.  Even more amazing is the fact that it happened two years in a row.  With Hector Olivera’s departure to Atlanta,  Justin Turner had finally been assured his rightful place in the Dodgers’ everyday lineup- in the MIDDLE of it, in fact!  Being exactly one year behind Turner, Kiké Hernandez might have to wait a little bit longer.  But if he keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself completing that final transition to everyday player, as well.

Don't feel, bad Kiké. Last year, Justin Turner couldn't afford an invisible camera, either.

Don’t feel bad, Kiké.  Last year, Justin Turner couldn’t afford an invisible camera, either.

Hernandez’s evolution this season has been fun to watch. Starting out as a quirky fan favorite- kind of a modern-day Mickey Hatcher- Hernandez gradually became a force to be reckoned with.  Probably the least heralded player of the seven involved in what was essentially a 3-way trade between the Dodgers, Marlins, and Angels, Hernandez has probably been the most productive zsince the All-Star break.  This has to be a relief for Andrew Friedman and company.  It was always an extreme risk to trade Dee Gordon, a budding star, for one year of Howie Kendrick. (Giving up Dan Haren without a dollar of compensation didn’t help, either.)  No matter how good Howie was going to be this season- and to be fair, he has been quite good- it was all going to be about whether he could get the Dodgers to, if not THROUGH, the World Series.  (Those aren’t terms that I came up with- that’s how the trade was set up from the day it was made.  We’ll leave Chris Hatcher and Austin Barnes out of the equation, until given reason to do otherwise.)  When Howie went down with a somewhat serious looking hamstring injury last week, it looked like the short-term nature of the trade might have gotten that much shorter.

Enter Kiké Hernandez.  After spending the first few days of Kendrick’s injury looking at newly acquired prospect Jose Peraza, the Dodgers made Hernandez the everyday second baseman. (Peraza was sent back to Oklahoma, to make room for Turner’s return from the disabled list.)  Hernandez continued to do what he had been doing for some time, both in the field and at the plate.  The only difference is that now, he gets to play the same position on an everyday basis.  While it’s only been a few days at the time of this post, the results have been head-turning, especially his 435 foot homerun into the left-field pavilion on Saturday.  Of course, a few games isn’t enough to make ANY kind of meaningful judgment on what someone can do at the big league level.  But at the time of this posting, Hernandez has 147 at-bats this season, or roughly the amount that Justin Turner had last year, before people started taking him seriously. Unlikely as it may seem, for the second year in a row, we are starting to see the same thing happen again.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that Kiké Hernandez is for real, is the fact that HE says he is for real.  When asked about his super-utility player status, the young man who has gained a reputation as a goofball becomes as serious as a military commander.  (During high school, Hernandez attended the American Military Academy in Puerto Rico.)  To whomever asks him the question, Hernandez responds- without a hint of sarcasm- that he is NOT a utility player, has never been one, and does not intend to be one now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)  He is also quick to point out that he is only 23 years old, and while respectful of the fact that Howie Kendrick is the team’s second baseman if healthy, being someone else’s understudy is not part of his long-term career plan.

This is all very impressive stuff, let alone from a 23 year old, playing in his first (almost) full Major League season, with a brand new organization. In spite of all this, it is too early to know if he’s for real. But with such a unique combination of poise, perspective, and confidence without arrogance, it should give Dodger fans, along with ALL fans of baseball*, reason to hope that he is.

*Okay, maybe not Giants fans.