Monday, August 19, 2013
Grading the week
By Mark Saxon
The funny thing about Wednesday’s thrilling comeback -- in which Andre Ethier tied it in the ninth with a pinch-hit, two-run home run and Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez won it in the 12th with a couple of doubles -- is how far-from-extraordinary it felt.
You can tell that the Dodgers now expect to win every game, no matter how improbable the circumstances. When the stadium is nearly full that late in a game, you know the fans have caught on.
And beating Matt Harvey and Cliff Lee in one week qualifies as improbable all by itself.
But there was a twist this week. The Dodgers stayed hot, winning five of the six games they played, but they didn’t gain any ground. The Arizona Diamondbacks showed some signs of trying to make this thing a race after all.
Hanley Ramirez was just easing his way back into competition after missing more than a week with a jammed shoulder, Puig (.200, .472 OPS) had a rough week and Gonzalez and Carl Crawford had one extra-base between them.
So, what happens? Which unlikely hero will emerge to somehow take up the slack. The names change, but the story seems to stay the same.
This time, it was Juan Uribe, who batted .500 and had a 1.352 OPS for the week. Ethier, of course, did more than his share just with that strange home run (pinch-hit home runs are rare and he never goes to the opposite field).
Oh yeah, and Nick Punto, had some nice moments early, though his playing time figures to shrink dramatically with Ramirez back and manager Don Mattingly likely to ride his everyday players for most of the pennant race.
The heart of this team became apparent in the past week if it wasn’t before. It’s about pitching, particularly the Dodgers’ top three starters and their suddenly dominant bullpen. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu pitched 22 innings between them and allowed just 11 hits and one run.
At times, the Dodgers are surviving -- rather than thriving with -- the back of the rotation, with Chris Capuano a bit wobbly -- but Ricky Nolasco has generally held his own.
The dominance of the Dodgers’ big three has eased the load on the bullpen, which is a key development, but when the relievers pitch, they continue to get the job done. L.A. relievers pitched 16 innings and only allowed one run.
Even reclamation project Carlos Marmol (two scoreless innings) and youngster Chris Withrow (ditto) have chipped in, which could make the activation of veteran Brian Wilson a somewhat difficult roster move.
Earlier this season, there seemed to be at least a tiny bit of friction pitting manager Don Mattingly and Hanley Ramirez on one side and the team’s medical staff on the other. In Pittsburgh, Mattingly put his foot down and decided Ramirez was just going to play every day though the trainers recommended he spot him a day off here and there. After all, the shortstop had been begging to get back on the field for a few days.
The Dodgers’ lineup flows better when Ramirez is batting cleanup and Puig is in the No. 2 hole, with rare left-right balance that can make it challenging to manage against the Dodgers.
It was otherwise a quiet week for Mattingly, who -- when everyone’s healthy -- can just sit back and watch the engine purr. There will be some challenges in the next couple of weeks with Wilson coming back and Matt Kemp not too far behind.
At long last, we may get to see how the Dodgers manage the four-outfielder conundrum.
We’ve decided to retire the “Grit-Meter.” It just doesn’t seem as relevant now that the Dodgers’ talent has fully blossomed. They’ll need to summon it when they get tested -- and it’s hard to believe they won’t between now and the playoffs -- but right now it doesn’t seem like a central theme.
If you ask most players about teams that function well, they’ll tell you they have fun together in the clubhouse. When it’s quiet and uptight before games, it seems to carry over into the games.
The Dodgers are having fun, with Uribe and Punto, for some reason, the most frequent target of pranks and punch lines.
Brandon Belt was right, of course. You can’t buy team chemistry. But if you wait long enough, sometimes it falls in your lap free of charge.
STATE OF CONTENTION
At this point, any week that goes by without the Dodgers losing ground is a huge gain. It’s the Diamondbacks who need to force the action, but that’s hard to do when the team ahead of you loses only one game.
The troubling part for Arizona is that 10 of the Dodgers’ next 13 games are against the Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. Arizona has to get through four games with the better-than-solid Cincinnati Reds this week before they hit divisional play.
Of course, there are other races for lesser prizes. The Dodgers trail the Atlanta Braves by 3 1/2 games for home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. Atlanta’s not showing any signs of giving it up, but if the Dodgers keep playing like this, they might just track them down anyway.