Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Grading the week: Still lots to like
By Mark Saxon
In most seasons, for most teams, a 4-3 record in a week that started 2,400 miles from home and concluded against one of the best teams in baseball would be considered successful. For the 2013 Dodgers, you’d have to consider it a mild disappointment.
After doing what you would have expected them to do in Miami, they came home and lost a series to the Boston Red Sox. Before that, they hadn’t lost a series since mid-June.
They ran into very tough Boston starting pitching and the offense in the past week or so has shown some signs of tapering off.
Not that it was a bad week if you’re a Dodger fans. Vin Scully announced he’s returning next season for his 65th year in the broadcast booth. Scully said the excitement of the team’s dramatic season was one of the reasons he decided to come back.
For a while, one of the most impressive aspects of the Dodgers’ surge was their ability to beat quality, sometimes even dominant, starting pitchers. Cliff Lee. Matt Harvey. Shelby Miller. It didn’t matter. The Dodgers somehow got the better of some difficult matchups.
Last week, they settled into a more-pedestrian pattern. They scored off the pitchers you would expect them to score on and looked human against the others. Jose Fernandez, Jake Peavy and Jon Lester all essentially shut them down.
The Dodgers averaged three runs per game, which is closer to their April and May pace than what they’ve shown since. Still, given the pitchers they were facing, it’s all entirely forgivable.
It’s appropriate that Boston was in town on the one-year anniversary of the big trade. Two of the key cogs from that trade have been, once again, keeping the Dodgers offense moving forward. Carl Crawford batted .333 with three walks and a couple of stolen bases. Adrian Gonzalez hit .296 , homered and drove in four runs.
Otherwise, it was a ho-hum week, with phenom Yasiel Puig (.167) struggling as badly as anyone.
The Dodgers are seeing exactly the kind of dynamic in their pitching staff that can make a team difficult to handle in October. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke are becoming the best 1-2 combination of starters in the National League.
But it’s not just about them. Ricky Nolasco missed facing his former team when the Dodgers were in Miami, but he made sure the Boston series wasn’t a total loss by giving up just two hits, striking out six, in Friday’s 2-0 win.
The bullpen wasn’t quite as stout as it had been in previous weeks, with J.P. Howell, Brandon League and Chris Withrow all getting hit at times, but in the key spots, it generally held firm. Kenley Jansen has taken all the drama out of the last inning. He had three saves and allowed just one runner to reach base. Carlos Marmol pitched well, cementing his place in the bullpen.
If you were going to comb through this Dodgers team for a flaw, you would say occasionally sloppy defense could be their downfall. They have made 90 errors this season, worse than all but three teams in the NL. Then again, this trend -- like so many others -- seems to be going in a positive direction.
After making a couple of punishing errors in a loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Hanley Ramirez played a clean week of defense. He might be the Dodgers’ most-improved fielder.
There’s another trade deadline on the way. The non-waiver period has already passed, but if teams acquire a player before Saturday, that player would be eligible for the post-season roster.
But, even if general manager Ned Colletti found a team willing to move a major piece, what area does he really need to improve? Brian Wilson and Marmol look like they might be the veteran relievers the Dodgers were looking for before the July 31 deadline.
They could try to land another starting pitcher, but considering they’ll only need four once the playoffs begin, even that would be surprising, especially with Nolasco pitching well.
The Dodgers also will get a little help on the fringes when rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Was Don Mattingly too lenient on Yasiel Puig when he benched him for only part of one game in Miami, a game in which Puig hit the decisive home run after entering as a defensive replacement? Was he too harsh fining him after Puig got stuck in traffic and showed up late?
Those questions will be debated as the Puig saga unfolds, but it seems Mattingly at least started to take a stand. That should be viewed favorably within the clubhouse.
We saw the first in-house signs of backlash toward Puig last week, with Mattingly fining him and veteran players beginning to express some disappointment with Puig repeating his on-field mistakes. For now, it seems containable, more a headache for Mattingly than a crisis.
The Dodgers’ clubhouse was already trending toward goofy before Wilson arrived. Now, guys seem to be having even more fun before games. Wilson and Uribe have revived their tradition from the San Francisco Giants days of playing dominos before games, with Uribe’s voice often filling the clubhouse with calls of “Wil-son!”
They’re still winning. What's not to like?
STATE OF CONTENTION
If Dodgers fans are prone to worry, they might think of a team like the 2011 Atlanta Braves, who, on Aug. 23, were in prime position for a deep playoff run, 10 ½ games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card standings.
From there, Atlanta went 11-21 and failed to make the playoffs, with the Cardinals making one of the most improbable World Series runs in the sport’s history.
Then again, those types of collapses become famous, because they’re so rare. The Dodgers began the week with a 7 ½-game lead and they ended it with a 9 1/2-game lead, so how bad can things be?