Monday, August 5, 2013
Grading the week
By Mark Saxon
The thing about a major-league season is it just keeps going.
That nearly inexhaustible stretch of games was good news when the Los Angeles Dodgers were languishing in last place, limping along with injuries and underachievement. It gave them time to straighten themselves out and scramble back into the race.
It’s not as good now that they’ve built a relatively comfy lead atop the NL West and are dealing with their biggest challenge since they dramatically changed course June 22.
They’re hurt again. When the Dodgers left Chicago, Hanley Ramirez’s right arm was in a sling, Matt Kemp was in a walking boot and Yasiel Puig still was dealing with a sore left wrist. That’s a lot of potential firepower nursing an assortment of injuries, large and small.
The Dodgers were able to get out of Wrigley Field with a four-game sweep despite an offense that wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders by the end. The Dodgers won Sunday despite managing two hits. That’s hard to do.
Overall, the Dodgers went 5-1 and extended their franchise-record road winning streak to 14 games; they’re 31-7 in their last 38 games and tacked three games onto their division lead. How bad can things be?
It wasn’t an awful week for the Dodgers’ offense, more like slightly sub-mediocre, but it could have been worse if Puig hadn’t returned to his June form. He was the only Dodgers batter creating significant noise. He even did it in novel ways, introducing the base on balls to his game.
Puig batted .412 with a home run, a couple of doubles and four walks to carry the lion’s share of the run production. Overall, the Dodgers scored 19 runs in six games while running into a fairly ordinary slate of opposing pitchers.
In May, this would have been the norm. The way the Dodgers had been scalding the ball in July, though, it felt like a letdown.
They probably won’t be able to get by at 60 percent scoring capacity in St. Louis, their next destination. The Cardinals can hit. Then again, the Dodgers can pitch and the Cardinals will have to get past their best arms.
If Puig and Ramirez aren’t on the field, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers scoring enough to take the series. Then again, you could go broke betting against them lately.
In a way, every time a team is tested, it’s an opportunity for somebody. The Dodgers learned something valuable during this week of close games. They found out their young closer might be ready for the trials of September and October, provided they don’t blow out his arm before then.
Kenley Jansen was dominant this week, prompting Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to compare the action on Jansen’s pitches -- and his ability to dominate without bothering to use secondary pitches -- to Mariano Rivera.
Jansen breezed, retiring all 12 batters he faced, 10 of them by strikeout. It’s not as if Jansen is the hardest-throwing reliever in baseball. He was blowing away Cubs batters with 91- and 92-mph fastballs. His fastball has a natural cutting action that makes it difficult for hitters to track, so it plays up.
Overall, it was the week the Dodgers’ pitching asserted its primacy. Dodgers pitchers allowed an average of 1.8 runs per game. The Cubs were simply overmatched. Clayton Kershaw, once again, was dominant, but somehow he started the only game the Dodgers lost. That’s kind of his season, so far, in a nutshell.
The Brian Wilson signing is risky in exactly the way the Dodgers can afford to be risky. They out-bid other teams to land Wilson, the former San Francisco Giants closer who had Tommy John surgery 16 months ago, by agreeing to pay him $1 million for a couple of months.
If it doesn’t work out, the only thing it will cost them is dollars. The Dodgers decided to lay off an overheated market for relievers, preserving the few high-level prospects they still have in their system.
The only trade the Dodgers made was for light-hitting catcher Drew Butera. Hard to get too worked up about a guy who was immediately optioned to Triple-A, but you never know. Maybe he’ll come in handy in September and he’ll give Tim Federowicz a little competition for the backup spot.
It seemed like a lot of Dodgers fans wanted to see more fire out of manager Don Mattingly earlier this season. This week, at the height of the Dodgers’ season, they finally saw it. Mattingly was ejected from games Wednesday and Friday for arguing with umpires.
Otherwise, there wasn’t a lot to scrutinize about his moves. Because of all the save situations, he relied heavily on Jansen. You just hope that doesn’t lead to repercussions down the road. Jansen pitched in four of the six games.
When the Dodgers got to Chicago, they seemed to almost kick their game into neutral and it didn’t matter. They didn’t play particularly well, but they still managed to sweep.
That might be the best sign yet of how far they’ve come. They’re playing so well now that they can stand back while teams like the Cubs beat themselves. The New York Yankees used to pile up regular-season wins that way, rolling through the soft spots in their schedule.
You also wonder if the Dodgers are beginning to intimidate other teams. Teams know how hot they’ve been and they’re having a hard time finishing games. It’s probably fair to put aside questions about the Dodgers’ grit and fight by now.
STATE OF CONTENTION
You can’t take anything for granted. Pennant races can turn on a dime.
But things are certainly setting up well for the Dodgers, who have watched the rest of their division fall apart just as they’ve hit their stride. Soon, their schedule will lighten up. They built their lead from 2 1/2 games to 5 1/2 games over the Arizona Diamondbacks and the rest of the teams in the NL West look like non-factors.
Other goals -– like homefield advantage throughout the playoffs –- are starting to come into focus. And, even if Arizona gets red hot somehow, the Dodgers are now in the middle of the wild-card picture, too.
There are a lot of things to like about where this team has put itself.