Monday, September 23, 2013
Grading the week: Tuning up for playoffs
By Mark Saxon
The game that sent the Los Angeles Dodgers to the playoffs wasn’t particularly reflective of the kind of season that got them there.
It wasn’t very well-pitched, with Ricky Nolasco melting down and allowing six runs in the third inning. Its biggest hit came from a player in a deep slump, catcher A.J. Ellis, who swatted the go-ahead home run.
And in the days following the win, much of the attention went to how the Dodgers celebrated -- with a romp in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ pool -- rather than on the accomplishment itself.
But the one shining moment from an otherwise blasť week for the Dodgers was that afternoon game in Arizona. It guaranteed that the rest of the week -- in which the Dodgers went a pedestrian 3-3 -- really didn’t matter all that much.
The minute Kenley Jansen got that final out, the rest of the Dodgers’ season became about preparing for the playoffs. They were the first team in the major leagues to clinch their division. So, yeah, it was a good week.
It was fairly evident before last week, but it became even clearer in the past seven days. The Dodgers are really good when their star players are on the field and average when they are not. If you were to fret about one thing going into the playoffs and next season it would be the lack of depth, a problem created by a mediocre Triple-A team.
Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier all missed time due to injuries, most of them the nagging kind.
The day after the Dodgers clinched, they started a lineup entirely of Triple-A-caliber players and bench guys and they looked incapable of scoring a run while losing 2-0. The next day, the Dodgers started most of their guys with Clayton Kershaw on the mound and hit a pair of home runs to get Kershaw some rare run support in a 4-0 win.
Which lineup do you think is more likely to be on the field on Oct. 3, when the Dodgers begin the post-season? If they’re fortunate and if manager Don Mattingly manages to keep everybody healthy, it figures to be the latter.
In other words, the Dodgers are still a dangerous lineup even if they haven’t always looked the part lately.
Until his last two starts, Nolasco might have been a candidate to pitch Game 3 of the Dodgers’ first playoff series, perhaps nudging ahead of Hyun-Jin Ryu if the Dodgers faced a team adept at hitting lefties (eg., the Pittsburgh Pirates).
Now, it looks like Ryu is the right choice no matter who the Dodgers face. Nolasco allowed 11 earned runs on 16 hits in his last 6 1/3 innings and that raises red flags at this time of year, particularly because Nolasco has never pitched in the post-season.
On the other hand, the rest of the Dodgers’ starting pitchers stayed true to form and the bullpen at times was dominant. Kenley Jansen, entering his first post-season, and Brian Wilson, a closer on a World Series team, could be a solid combination at the end of games. Together, Jansen and Wilson struck out eight batters in six innings, simply shutting down the final innings.
Another area of worry, of course, is fielding, which has been slightly below mediocre all season. There will be times in the playoffs, when Hanley Ramirez and Michael Young are in the game at the same time, when the Dodgers have a highly permeable left side of the infield.
And, while Dee Gordon is tempting to keep on the roster because of his value as a pinch runner, it might be tough to carry him because he looks like such a defensive liability.
Mattingly has had some embarrassing moments lately. Two weeks ago, he gave the umpire the name of the wrong left-handed pitcher, meaning Paco Rodriguez had to leave the mound without ever throwing a pitch. Last week, he tried to remove a pitcher shortly after Rick Honeycutt had already visited the mound and was sent back to the dugout.
In neither case did it cost the Dodgers, but Mattingly and his staff aren’t going to want to be in those kinds of situations in October.
The front office is on a tear, with Wilson and Young both looking like excellent acquisitions and Carlos Marmol and Edinson Volquez even chipping in here and there.
Some people have been upset at Mattingly for resting his regulars so much, but it’s hard to knock him if you’re not sitting in on his meetings with the medical staff. And given the evidence about homefield advantage in the playoffs – it’s a 50-50 proposition in both the division series and championship series – it seems like the right course of action.
The day after the Dodgers clinched, a group of players was lounging around the clubhouse in San Diego as TV commentators were discussing – what else – pool-gate. When the network showed Brian Wilson’s Twitter response to Sen. John McCain’s pointed criticism, the room erupted in laughter.
The Dodgers really don’t care what other people think about their celebration.
Their animosity with the Diamondbacks ran deep even before that incident, so it will be worth monitoring when the two teams face each other in spring training.
The Dodgers have become accustomed to deflecting criticism as a group this season. They’ve dealt with it after a series of brawls, when it was coming at rookie Yasiel Puig hot and heavy and, now, this. It doesn’t seem to have dented their sense of camaraderie. In fact, just the opposite.
STATE OF CONTENTION
If the Dodgers don’t start playing with a bit more urgency, they figure to open the playoffs on the road. And this is a problem, because…?
It’s not as if Kershaw and Zack Greinke aren’t perfectly capable of keeping a stadium quiet long enough to let the Dodgers offense come to life. Meanwhile, Ryu has a 2.23 ERA at Dodger Stadium, so he could be poised to finish an opponent off.
It’s far more important who the Dodgers play than where they play them, but since they have limited control over that, they’re better off getting their players as physically sound than worrying about home field.