<
>

Rivera speaks softly, carries big stick

Juan Rivera watches as his eighth-inning, three-run homer leaves the ballpartk in a 5-2 win over the Angels. AP Photo/Reed Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- The voice is soft, so much so that if there are more than two or three reporters standing in front of him, you better be one of those first two or three if you're going to make out what he is saying. But really, how often are there going to be more than two or three people waiting to interview Juan Rivera, on a team that has Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and Clayton Kershaw?

One of those rare occasions came after Tuesday night's game, the Los Angeles Dodgers rallying for a 5-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels before a sellout crowd of 55,270 at Dodger Stadium on an evening in which Rivera's bat was anything but soft-spoken.

Barely a week removed from an almost month-long stint on the disabled list because of a left-hamstring strain, Rivera drove in a season-high four runs for the Dodgers, the final three of them on a no-doubt, first-pitch homer that broke a 2-2 tie with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning against a tiring Jerome Williams.

That gave the Dodgers all the offense they needed against the team with which Rivera spent six seasons before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays and, a half-season later, to the Dodgers at last year's All-Star break.

Since that trade, the Dodgers are 81-51.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how, or even if, Rivera's sudden presence has directly contributed to that figure. In his time with the Dodgers, Rivera's offensive numbers aren't exactly the stuff that makes your eyes pop out of your head. He is hitting .265, with eight homers and 65 RBIs in 95 games and 325 at-bats. Over a full 162 games, that prorates out to a pedestrian 14 homers and a stellar 110 RBIs, but on a team where two or three starts get the vast majority of the attention, Rivera's performance has gone mostly unnoticed, which seems to fit perfectly with his reserved personality.

But what Rivera did when he arrived last year was give the Dodgers an additional power threat in the middle of the order. And sometimes, in some ways, a power threat can be as valuable as power itself, because it can change how an opposing team goes about trying to beat you. That is essentially what Rivera did for the Dodgers last season, all while hitting .274 with five homers and 46 RBIs. He forced other teams to pitch to Kemp and Ethier, at least more than they did before.

This year, it was much the same for Rivera, or at least it was before he got hurt. His DL stint began before the first of Kemp's two DL stints, so when he returned on June 4, it marked the first time this season that Rivera was active at a time Kemp wasn't. That meant that the Dodgers would rely on Rivera in a way they never had before, and Rivera responded by going 4-for-20 with no extra-base hits and two RBIs in his first seven games.

"We knew at the start of the season we were going to kind of count on Juan to be a guy to drive in some runs for us," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

If the Dodgers were counting on Rivera to fill the void left by Kemp, though, that probably isn't going to happen very often. But that isn't to say it's never going to happen, because it happened against the Angels. Rivera went 2-for-4, and it could have been better. In his other two at-bats, he ended innings, each time stranding a runner in scoring position -- although in fairness, he hit a rope in the sixth that would have gotten through to center field if Williams hadn't stuck his glove in front of it.

To summarize, then, Rivera's value is in his presence -- even if the Dodgers don't always feel it. You may not hear his voice coming through that scrum of reporters standing in front of his locker, but you know he is in there, somewhere. And you may not always hear the loud smack of a ball being rocketed into the stratosphere by a bat when he is standing at home plate, but you know he is capable of doing, and so does the other team.

And so, all things considered, maybe that is a big reason why the Dodgers -- who still own baseball's best record at 40-23 and still lead the National League West by 4 1/2 games over the San Francisco Giants -- have been so good since the day Rivera arrived.