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Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Role playing working well for Dodgers

By Arash Markazi

ST. LOUIS -- As Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly sat down before Wednesday's game to write up his lineup before a 13-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, he didn't need to pause before making a few tweaks.

Usually the manager of a first-place team with the highest payroll in baseball has to massage a few egos if he wants to change the lineup from time to time. Mattingly, though, hasn't had to do that this season partly because injuries have dictated many of his choices. Additionally, he has a veteran-laden bench that understands roles, and starters who don't mind seeing those veterans get playing time.

Skip Schumaker
Skip Schumaker, who serves as one of the Dodgers' top players when it comes to chemistry, had four RBIs against his former team Wednesday.
"They know their roles," Mattingly said after the game. "It makes it a lot easier for me."

During the Dodgers' 15-game road winning streak -- which ended Tuesday -- and their 33-8 record over the past 41 games, the team has become a tight-knit group. Winning certainly helps the bonding experience, but it has been the Dodgers' bench that has helped shape what could have been a fragmented collection of stars into one harmonious clubhouse.

Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto were teammates in St. Louis in 2011 when the Cardinals won the World Series, and have been friends since. Both are utility players for the Dodgers and have made their mark even when not in the lineup.

On a team with a $220 million payroll, Schumaker and Punto are on the lower end of the pay scale. They make a combined $3 million this season, but their impact in the clubhouse has been priceless, especially when the team sunk to a season-worst 12 games below .500 on June 21.

Schumaker and Punto can often be heard playfully going back and forth at each other and engaging their teammates in daily ribbings and roasts that have made for some classic clubhouse moments this season.

After Schumaker tied his career-high with four RBIs Wednesday night, he stood in front of his locker and did interviews with his shirt off, which quickly gained the attention of everyone in the clubhouse.

Clayton Kershaw, quickly took off his shirt and asked if anyone wanted to interview him. Punto soon came over from the dining room and did the same. Chris Capuano, who was already dressed and on his way out of the clubhouse, came back just to capture the scene on his phone.

"Joke mode," Schumaker said. "Joke mode."

When Punto was being interviewed on the MLB Network two months ago, he was asked who his first kiss was. He paused and said he couldn't answer because it was Schumaker's wife. Before Tuesday's game when Schumaker was on the network and was asked the same question, he laughed, and said he couldn't answer because his was with Punto's sister, Julie.

As Schumaker was being interviewed, the entire Dodgers' clubhouse was transfixed on the television, laughing at every answer.

"Wow," Matt Kemp said. "He went bloodline. It's a war."

"He's a liar," Punto said, trying to hold back his laughter.

When Schumaker returned to the clubhouse, he looked at Punto and laughed. Punto simply smiled as he took grief from all directions and got ready for batting practice.

No player is safe in the Dodgers' clubhouse. Before a recent game, Juan Uribe was blasting Rihanna's greatest hits and asking Kemp if she wrote the songs about him. Uribe hopelessly tried to sing along while intermittently including "Matt" into the lyrics.

"The Dodgers sort of resemble what happened to the 2011 Cardinals, where we're going through the season and had a lot of injuries and it took time and the team jelled together and look what happened, we won a World Series," said Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire, who was the Cardinals' hitting coach the previous three seasons. "That's sort of the feeling that's happening here in L.A. It's a great feeling. We're still dealing with injuries. We've only played one game this season with the team we were supposed to have out of spring training.

"It's a very talented team that's coming together at the right time."

One of the players McGwire wanted to bring to Los Angeles with him was Schumaker, whom the Dodgers were able to trade for in December. Schumaker and Punto were two of his favorite "glue guys" on the Cardinals in 2011, and he was happy both of them would be on the Dodgers in his first season with the team.

"The thing the Cardinals always talked about Skip is the way he gets guys going and motivates guys. It's the same thing over here in L.A.," McGwire said. "Him and Nick Punto have really taken over the clubhouse and made it fun. It's a great atmosphere. It's a winning atmosphere. It's a trait that you're given, and a lot of guys don't have that."

Nick Punto
Nick Punto says to be a good clubhouse guy, a player has to do all the little things right, and that's a trait his manager appreciates.
When the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox completed their nine-player blockbuster trade last year, Punto was viewed by many as a throw-in. Punto, however, made his presence felt quickly, not only on the field but after games as he lived up to his "Shredder" nickname. After walk-off wins, Punto sprints out of the dugout, makes a beeline for whomever has the winning hit and proceeds to tear the player's jersey to shreds while the rest of his teammates jump into the fray.

"To be a good clubhouse guy you have to do all the little things right," Punto said. "Be on time, be prepared, and when you're doing everything right on the field it's easier to be a leader in the clubhouse."

Schumaker, Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. all played in Wednesday's win with Schumaker going 3-for-6 with four RBIs and one run, and Hairston going 1-for-6 with two RBIs and one run. Punto also added a walk and a run in two plate appearances. Schumaker and Hairston, along with backup catcher Tim Federowicz, factored prominently in the Dodgers' six-run second inning that essentially put the game away.

"With Nick, Skip and Jerry, they give you three guys that have played all over the place," Mattingly said. "They are experienced and they're not going to give me trouble when they don't play. Nick knows he's better off playing two days a week, and Jerry knows he's better off playing two days a week, and Skip is playing a tick more than that. They're fitting into their roles. When we brought guys in, we brought them in because we wanted them to be role players, not thinking they'd be pushing a guy for a job."

Hairston, who won a World Series with the New York Yankees in 2009, is simply happy to be contributing to a contending team again after playing for nine teams during his 16-year career.

"I'm 37 years old, and gone are the days when I'm going to play every single day," Hairston said. "The bottom line is we have guys who have won here. We know our roles and we know what we're capable of doing, and we have fun with it. We have guys that love to be a part of winning teams and know how to win. The little guys like Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker keep things light in the clubhouse."

Schumaker has played on two World Series championship teams in St. Louis but says this Dodgers team could be the best one he has been on yet.

"From a talent standpoint, I'm not sure I've been on a team like this," Schumaker said. "I can't think of a guy with more tools than [Yasiel] Puig. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. I'm not sure I've been on a team with this much talent in one room. ... It doesn't always translate into a World Series, but we'll see what happens."

Schumaker has appeared in games this season at second base, all three outfield spots and designated hitter, and has even made two pitching appearances, tossing scoreless innings in each outing. He also holds the second-longest hitting streak by a Dodger this season. But it's the impact he has made in the clubhouse and to the team's chemistry that is probably his biggest contribution this season.

"A very important part of what [the Cardinals have done] is because they have chemistry," Schumaker said. "They can go through tough stretches and get out of them quick because of who they are and they can trust each other. I think we have that now. I'm not so sure that was the case in the beginning. Guys didn't know each other. Now everybody can trust each other and get on somebody without anyone taking offense. That's a really good feeling."