Dodgers Report: Nick Punto

Dodgers at moment of truth with TV deal

March, 29, 2014
Mar 29
9:09
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Magic Johnson said a lot of things at the press conference in May of 2012 when he and his partners with Guggenheim Baseball Management were introduced as the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The one thing anyone remembers is that he lowered the cost of parking from $15 to $10.

Mark Walter and Magic Johnson
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe promise of a new Dodgers regional sports network was always part of the owners' plans.
It was a symbolic gesture to the fans who’d felt taken advantage of and used by previous owner Frank McCourt. An immediate, here’s some money back in your pocket for all the ugliness of the previous few years that the new owners had nothing to do with, but still needed to start cleaning up.

A little olive branch to get fans back in Dodger Stadium, so the work of regaining their trust and loyalty could begin immediately.

Then came the trade and quarter-billion dollars of additional salary for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto, the $147 million deal for Zack Greinke and the $215 million contract for Clayton Kershaw. Along the way they dropped $150 million to improve Dodger Stadium, too. All told, another billion invested in the team on top of the $2.15 billion they paid to buy the team.

So everyone knew the reckoning was coming at some point, right? The new owners were going to have to make their money back somehow.

The promise of a new regional sports network was always part of the setup. The Dodgers new owners never tried to hide that.

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Winter wish list: Bench

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
12:07
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The biggest beneficiaries of the Dodgers’ carousel of injuries last season, it turns out, were veteran bench guys Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker.

Punto played well at multiple positions, including shortstop, and for a time was one of the Dodgers’ more productive offensive players, which tells you something about their litany of injuries. Punto, who had languished in Boston, re-established his value and, even at 36, was able to double his salary, signing a one-year, $3 million deal with the Oakland A’s.

Schumaker, 33, had a rough National League Division Series (.231) filling in for Andre Ethier, but was solid enough over the course of the season, with a .332 on-base percentage while playing five positions (including pitcher) that he was able to sign a two-year, $5 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds.

Neither player fit the Dodgers’ mandate to get younger, so it’s understandable the team didn’t make much effort to retain them. But where does that leave the Dodgers’ bench? They won’t just be replacing two players. Jerry Hairston Jr. and Michael Young, both 37, are unlikely to return even if they choose to try to keep playing. Elian Herrera got claimed off waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers and the Dodgers traded Alex Castellanos to the Boston Red Sox.

The mass exodus of reserves is good news for Scott Van Slyke and Dee Gordon, who both would appear to have easy paths to 2014 playing time and it could also benefit outfielder Nick Buss, who played in eight September games. Of course, barring a trade, the Dodgers have four everyday options in the outfield, but it seems unlikely they’ll carry Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig all season if they remain healthy.

The Dodgers clearly are trying to force more versatility out of Gordon. A natural shortstop, he has played second base in the minor leagues and is playing center field in the Dominican winter league. Van Slyke currently is the only backup at first base to Adrian Gonzalez. The Dodgers signed infielder Brendan Harris to a minor-league deal recently, so he’ll be vying for a role this spring.

But with so much turnover, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers have the in-house alternatives to provide adequate depth for 2014, so general manager Ned Colletti figures to wade into an expensive free agent pool for bench players. Brendan Ryan, a slick fielder but a .237 lifetime hitter, signed a $2 million contract with the New York Yankees. Of course, Punto and Schumaker both were acquired via trades, so that might be a likelier avenue for the Dodgers to land the bench players they want.

The most pressing need is a reliable glove to play up-the-middle defense, particularly since shortstop Hanley Ramirez is a below-average defender and, according to scouting reports, Alexander Guerrero has limited range and questionable hands at second base.

The Dodgers could scoop up Ramon Santiago, a .243 hitter but a solid defender. Munenori Kawasaki, who played 96 games for the Toronto Blue Jays last year, is a free agent, as are Cesar Izturis, Willie Bloomquist, Robert Andino and Alex Gonzalez. It may not get as much scrutiny, but remaking the bench will be fairly high on Colletti’s to-do list this winter and, if last season was any guide, he might want to select carefully.

Brewers claim Elian Herrera

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
12:30
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The Milwaukee Brewers claimed Dodgers utility man Elian Herrera off waivers Monday.

Herrera, 28, played 67 games for the Dodgers in 2012, batting .251 and playing six different positions. He spent virtually the entire 2013 season at Triple-A Albuquerque, going 2-for-8 in his at-bats with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers now have 32 players on their 40-man roster. Ten of their players filed for free agency last week and they declined options on second baseman Mark Ellis and pitcher Chris Capuano.

They likely will be in the market for some bench players this winter, as Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker were among the players filing for free agency.

Dodgers-Cardinals rivalry intensifies

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
7:42
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LOS ANGELES -- Adrian Gonzalez is quiet. His mannerisms on the field are almost as reserved as his demeanor in the clubhouse.

He goes about his business with a soft-spoken nature that has resulted in him being painted as everything from professional to aloof, depending on his locale and production, over the course of his career.

The playoffs, however, have a way of changing the perception of players and teams.

During the course of the National League Championship Series, Gonzalez has gone from a wallflower to a lightning rod of criticism as the St. Louis Cardinals have grown increasingly tired of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ theatrics on the field.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran, A.J. Ellis
AP Photo/Chris Carlson"There's no time to try to be concerned with unwritten rules or the way guys are acting on the field," said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis.
It began in Game 3 when Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said Gonzalez was heckling him from third base. “Mickey Mouse stuff,” Wainwright said.

“I did what I always do,” said Gonzalez, who insists he never heckled Wainwright. “We are in LA, so Mickey Mouse stuff does go. So if that's, you know, Mickey Mouse is only an hour away. So, you know, it fits us. I did what I always do.”

On Wednesday, Gonzalez’s “Mickey Mouse” act continued after his 450-foot home run into the right field pavilion in the third inning gave the Dodgers a 3-2 lead. He flipped his bat and after he touched home plate he gestured Mickey Mouse ears with both of his hands on his head as he neared the dugout.

“The Mickey Mouse ears, I was just having fun with the comment that was made earlier,” Gonzalez said. “Nothing against them or anything; it was just to have fun.”

The Cardinals certainly didn’t think it was funny after the game, but didn’t want to continue their war of words in the media heading into Game 6 in St. Louis on Friday.

“They have the right to do whatever they want to,” Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said. “We’re here to win a game and they can do whatever they want to do.”

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Dodgers' party bus taps the brakes

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
10:18
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LOS ANGELES -- The way the Los Angeles Dodgers looked in the first two games of this series (and the way the Arizona Diamondbacks looked), they figured to be popping the corks off champagne bottles at the nearest possible date.

Make no mistake, it's still coming, but the question now is whether it will flow in Los Angeles or somewhere else. The Dodgers lost to the Diamondbacks 4-1 Wednesday night, keeping their magic number stuck at six. The earliest they can celebrate their first division title in four years is now Sunday, the final home game before a 10-game trip.

Yasiel Puig's highlights -- and one diving stop by Nick Punto -- were the only things worth reliving for Dodgers fans. Puig made a diving catch to take a hit away from Chris Owings in the sixth inning and hit a towering home run in the seventh inning, his 16th.

Puig also discarded the bat in an entertaining fashion, as he often does. He flung it aside with his left hand, dropping it dismissively as if it were too hot to hold.

The Dodgers fell in an early hole behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, pitching for the first time this month. He missed his previous start because of back tightness, and his command wasn't sharp. Arizona bunched three straight singles leading off the game and got off to a 2-0 lead. They tacked on a run in the second and, when he wasn't giving up runs, Ryu was working hard to avoid them.

Ryu gave up 10 hits, the second-highest total of his season, and struck out only one batter. To his credit, he did the best with what he had, somehow getting through six innings.

Ryu's night could have been worse, but Punto dove and stopped an Owings grounder from leaking into right field, saving a run -- at the time -- and minimizing the damage in the second inning.

The Dodgers were facing Arizona's best starting pitcher in 2012. This time Patrick Corbin (14-6) fared better than he had earlier in the year. The Dodgers scored four runs in five innings off Corbin back in June, but Corbin's slider and command were a bit too much for a lineup missing four regulars.

Manager Don Mattingly took advantage of his team's big lead -- as he had done last week in Colorado -- to rest Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier versus the lefty.

As October beckons, Dodgers sift through clues

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
9:59
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DENVER -- If you didn’t know Ricky Nolasco was this good, you’re not alone. He pitched a lot of good innings and won a lot of games with the Miami Marlins for eight years without people ever really making much of a fuss over him.

“I’ve been hiding in Miami, but I’m not going to complain,” Nolasco said. “I like flying under the radar.”

Soon, everyone’s radar will be too keenly attuned to fly under. It’s hard to be invisible in the playoffs. With a postseason berth getting closer and closer by the day, the Los Angeles Dodgers have turned this stretch of their season into an evaluation period, a chance to sift through their roster to determine roles, some of them crucial, for October.

[+] EnlargeRicky Nolasco
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRicky Nolasco is 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA in his 11 starts since coming to the Dodgers.
The Dodgers are lucky enough to have a solid month to ferret out answers. The league announced the playoff schedule Tuesday, and the Dodgers wouldn’t begin postseason play until Oct. 3.

Plenty of time to field the roster best suited for marching through the rigors of the playoffs.

After Tuesday’s 7-4 win over the Colorado Rockies and another loss by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers now have a 13½-game lead in the NL West. Their magic number is 12. The earliest they could clinch would be Tuesday, but it’s more likely they’ll be celebrating with the San Francisco Giants in town -– how much would Dodgers fans love that? -– in one of the games between Sept. 12 and 15.

In the meantime, some questions have emerged.

Could Nolasco, who has been largely dominant his past three starts, overtake Hyun-Jin Ryu for the No. 3 spot in the Dodgers’ rotation, a crucial distinction in a best-of-five first-round playoff series?

Which of the young relievers, and which of the reclaimed veterans, will merit that final bullpen spot? Could Michael Young or Jerry Hairston Jr., two battle-tested veterans, be in danger of not securing one of the bench spots on a 25-man roster?

They refuse to admit they’re thinking that far ahead. Nolasco has never pitched in the playoffs, and it’s impossible to believe he hasn’t started thinking about it -– particularly that he’s now on his hometown team –- but that’s what he says.

[+] EnlargeMichael Young
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiMichael Young had his first hit as a Dodger on Tuesday, but he might have arrived too late to make the postseason roster.
“Once we finish the season, we’ll start thinking about that,” he said.

Young made his Dodgers debut Tuesday, and it wasn’t particularly scintillating, though he had a single to fuel a key ninth-inning rally. Young hit into a rally-killing double play in the first inning and struck out twice to go 1-for-5.

These are important times for the new guys –- and other Dodgers on the bubble -- to cement themselves in the team’s October plans.

The Dodgers will get a look at another recent acquisition, reclamation project Edinson Volquez, who is starting Wednesday’s game in an audition for a possible postseason role. All of general manager Ned Colletti’s pickups have been solid or better. Carlos Marmol hasn’t allowed a run since July.

But Colletti’s biggest score, by far, has been Nolasco. Acquired from the Marlins on July 6 for three minor league pitchers, Nolasco is 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA for the Dodgers.

Tuesday’s wasn’t his most artful start, but it was more than adequate. Nolasco has looked better than what the Dodgers bargained for, a solid No. 4 starter.

He cruised through the first four innings, allowing just two base runners, but the Rockies got a better handle on him the third through the lineup. Charlie Blackmon hooked a double into the right-field corner and the pitcher, Jhoulys Chacin, shot a single to right to drive in one run.

Nolasco’s previous outings were both eight-inning shutouts.

Manager Don Mattingly conceded before the game that, aware of the Dodgers’ massive lead, he is beginning to rest the team’s regulars. Hanley Ramirez, Juan Uribe and A.J. Ellis were all off; he said Yasiel Puig, bothered by a nagging calf injury, would have tried to play if Tuesday were a playoff game.

But the watered-down lineup proved scrappy. That's how it has been lately. It doesn't matter who they throw out there. Nick Punto went 4-for-5, Skip Schumaker scored a run, Tim Federowicz went 2-for-3 with an RBI. The biggest hit was Carl Crawford’s two-out, two-run single into the left-field corner.

The Dodgers lately have been able to beat the inferior teams even when fielding their least-competitive lineups.

So, yeah, a lot of the next few weeks will be spent watching games, finding clues to how players will perform under October pressure. But let’s not forget, the bulk of the evaluation has taken place over the past five months.

“If we don’t know them by now, then it’s our fault,” Mattingly said.

Mattingly: Young provides added depth

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
12:56
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LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers reliever Brian Wilson entered the clubhouse Sunday morning, looking like he just left a Grateful Dead concert. He wore a purple knit cap atop his jet-black hair, with a few loosely fastened dreadlocks flowing out the sides.

Juan Uribe and Hanley Ramirez burst out in laughter as Wilson strutted across the room, dropping a few barbs along the way. Wilson didn’t let those remarks sink in long before shooting back at Uribe, reminding him of the purple slacks he wore to Saturday’s game.

The Los Angeles Dodgers seem to sport a new look on a daily basis, and lately, that’s included a few new faces. Wilson made his Dodgers debut last week, giving the bullpen another veteran arm with World Series experience, as well as some personality to an already quirky locker room.

On Saturday night it was Michael Young who joined the fold. The veteran infielder was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for a minor league pitcher, giving the Dodgers another player with World Series experience, a batting title, a Gold Glove and seven All-Star appearances -- one of which led to the MVP award in the 2006 game.

There were a few furrowed brows when Young’s trade was announced, however.

After all, the Dodgers went 23-6 in August and have been satisfied with the play of Uribe at third base, the position Young has mainly played the past few seasons. The same can be said for second base, where Mark Ellis has been solid when healthy. Nick Punto has also done a stellar job occupying a utility role among the infielders.

The person responsible for integrating another new player into the mix, manager Don Mattingly, didn’t seem too concerned with that task prior to Sunday’s series finale against the visiting San Diego Padres.

“We’re not trying to bring Michael in here to knock Adrian [Gonzalez] off first base,” Mattingly said. “Michael’s here to add to our club, to give us added depth, give us a guy that can do a lot of things.”

Mattingly said he spoke with Young after the trade and “just wanted to make sure this wasn’t something that turned him upside down.”

“We’re not getting a young kid in the prime of his career, and I say that with all due respect,” Mattingly said. “This guy has had a career that he has done a lot of things, but he’s at a point also in his career where you understand where you’re at. We’re going to treat him with respect, make sure I’m honest with him about everything and just see where it goes.”

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Dodgers take care of business vs. Cubs

August, 26, 2013
8/26/13
10:42
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LOS ANGELES -- It might be awhile before the Los Angeles Dodgers get to test themselves against a playoff-bound team to see if they can fare a bit better than this past weekend, when the Boston Red Sox snapped them back to reality by outscoring, outhitting and outpitching them in their three-game series.

But man have the Dodgers learned how to take care of business against the dregs of the National League.

Zack Greinke coasted to his 13th win of the season and fifth in a row in a dominant 6-2 win over the woeful Chicago Cubs Monday night.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
Harry How/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig went 3-for-5 Monday against the Cubs, including a 439-foot home run in the eighth inning.
Greinke struck out nine and gave up just five hits in 8 2/3 innings of work. He didn’t allow a runner past first base until the eighth inning, when he walked Donnie Murphy and Wellington Castillo in back-to-back at bats. That precipitated a visit from pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and Greinke got ground balls from Darwin Barney and pinch hitter Dioner Navarro to get out of the inning.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly gave Greinke every opportunity to close out what would’ve been his second shutout of the season, allowing him to hit for himself in the bottom of the inning and pitch to both Nate Schierholtz and Brian Bogusevic after giving up a two-out double to Anthony Rizzo. The crowd of 40,965 booed Mattingly’s first visit to the mound, after Grienke gave up the double to Rizzo, but with a pitch count climbing into the 120s, and hitting Schierholtz and giving up a two-run double to Bogusevic, it was time to pull him. Greinke left to a standing ovation from the crowd and Brian Wilson struck out Murphy to close out the win.

The Dodgers (77-54) are now 18-4 in Greinke’s 22 starts.

Greinke also drew first blood with his bat, singling in catcher A.J. Ellis in the fourth inning after L.A. had left four runners on base in the first three innings. Greinke continues to lead all National League pitchers with a .340 batting average after going 1-for-2 with a walk and an RBI Monday night.

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Mattingly's option should be picked up now

August, 24, 2013
8/24/13
5:43
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LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers will not make any decision on Don Mattingly's future until after this season.

Team president Stan Kasten and owner Mark Walter have made that abundantly clear every time they have been asked.

Mattingly is working in the final year of his contract with a team option in 2014 looming this fall. His request to get the option picked up before the season was declined, and the team has chosen to wait until the season is over to decide his future with the team.

It's a decision that will continuously and needlessly loom over the Dodgers until they make a choice that should be crystal clear to them by now.

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly
Louis Lopez/CSM/AP ImagesDon Mattingly has turned the Dodgers around from having one of the worst records in baseball to one of the best, but the team's front office isn't likely to make a decision on his future until after the season.
Mattingly should be the manager of the Dodgers next season and deserves to have his option picked up now, not two months from now.

Before Friday's game, the Dodgers announced Vin Scully would be returning to the broadcast booth next season. When Scully was asked why he decided to make the announcement now rather than after the season, he said it wasn't his idea.

"The Dodgers were the ones who felt it was the right time," Scully said. "They didn't want to wait until the last two weeks where we're facing the playoffs and all that stuff. I appreciated getting it out of the way."

The decision to announce Scully's return and Mattingly's potential return might seem like an apples-and-oranges comparison, but the motivation behind making the announcement on Scully now still applies.

Why wait on a making a no-brainer decision that would be in the best interest of the team and in the process avoid any potential distractions later?

Mattingly has avoided talking about his contract. It's one of the few questions the normally affable Mattingly hates discussing, preferring to keep the focus on the team and on the field. The problem is the longer this drags on, and the longer the Dodgers potentially play into the postseason, the bigger this story becomes when it could easily be nipped in the bud today with one meeting and one handshake.

"I'm not worried about any of that right now," Mattingly said. "I'm just worried about winning games. That's not even an issue."

It's not an issue for the Dodgers right now as they power through their schedule this summer, winning 46 of 57 games even after Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox, but it will certainly become an issue. Anytime the future of a manager is in limbo, it's an issue regardless of what anyone says.

The Dodgers' unwillingness to simply pick up the option on Mattingly's contract and commit to him for next season is almost laughable when you consider the amount of money the ownership group has thrown around since buying the team for a record $2 billion. Just last year, they made a blockbuster trade that returned them more than a quarter of a billion dollars in salary over the next five years.

Picking up Mattingly's option is the right thing to do. It's not a long-term commitment, but a good faith gesture for manager who has guided the Dodgers from the fourth-worst record in baseball on June 22 to a game out of the best record in baseball two months later.

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'New' Dodgers worried about wins, not past

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
11:48
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LOS ANGELES -- Adrian Gonzalez didn't look like a player who had just defeated his former team as he sat in front of his locker Friday night.

His demeanor had little to do with his 0-for-3 performance at the plate during the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox and everything to do with not wanting to rehash a time in his life he had moved on from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Gonzalez, right, celebrates Friday's win with Kenley Jansen. Gonzalez, a former Red Sox player, was in no mood after the game to talk about his past in Boston.
"As long as we talk about the game," Gonzalez said as he got dressed when asked whether he was ready to talk. It was not a surprising request given the number of Boston media in town to cover the game and break down the aftermath of one of the biggest trades in baseball history.

About a year ago, the Dodgers and Red Sox completed a nine-player trade in which the Dodgers took on more than a quarter of a billion dollars in salary and that completely changed the face of both teams. The deal brought Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to Los Angeles, making the Dodgers instant contenders, and gave Boston the financial flexibility to move forward and put together one of the best teams in baseball again.

The deal can be viewed as a win-win for both teams one year later, but for most of the players who left Boston and came to Los Angeles, there will always be a bitter taste in their mouths for the way things ended. Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett were vilified as overpaid crybabies and busts on their way out the door.

"It [ticked] me off so much, the things I had said about me," Crawford said before the series with the Red Sox. "I have the type of spirit that, if you say something to me, I'm going to say something back."

Crawford went 2-for-3 on Friday with one run and two stolen bases but didn't address reporters before or after the game. He did admit during an on-field television interview after the game that he'd be lying if he said the three-game series against Boston didn't mean more, while adding, "That was a great win; now we want to get the other two."

Gonzalez was slightly more reserved in his comments after the game about his former team.

"It's just another game," Gonzalez said. "We prepare the same way we did against everyone else. It's just like when I faced the Padres when I got traded from there. It's just another game."

Of course, it wasn't just another game, just as the blockbuster trade wasn't just another trade. This game meant something more, and it certainly felt like something more.

"Any time you see guys that get traded from one team to another, they always want to play well," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "That's just naturally there. There was a big trade. There's been a lot made of it. I think it's been good for both teams and I think it's a big game that they want to play well in."

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Dodgers get the jump on Red Sox

August, 23, 2013
8/23/13
9:29
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LOS ANGELES -- During the Los Angeles Dodgers' historic summer run, they haven't cared much about the opponent they have faced.

Whether it's in the division or out of the division, interleague or not, the Dodgers have simply steamrolled the competition, going 46-10 since June 22, racking up 12 more wins than any other team in the majors during that span.

Friday night's 2-0 win against the Boston Red Sox to give the Dodgers a 10 1/2-game lead atop the National League West seemed different.

That's because, about a year ago, the Dodgers pulled off a blockbuster trade that brought Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto to the team. Every player coming to Los Angeles in that deal was painted as an overpriced mistake and reviled in Boston.

The trade was the best thing to happen to them both personally and professionally but doesn't take away the bad memories of their time in Boston.

The Dodgers might not say it publicly, but Friday's win (as well as all this weekend's games against Boston) was for Gonzalez, Crawford, Punto and Beckett, even though Beckett is currently sidelined.

Crawford went 2-for-3 against his former team, including a run and two stolen bases. Hanley Ramirez, a former Red Sox player himself, hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning, which was all the scoring the Dodgers needed. Ricky Nolasco pitched eight innings of two-hit ball with six strikeouts, and Kenley Jansen came in and successfully converted his 15th consecutive save opportunity.

"That was a great win," Crawford said in an on-field television interview after the game. "Now we want to get the other two."

Kershaw and the pursuit of perfection

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
4:05
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MIAMI -- Only Clayton Kershaw could come away from a game in which he shut out the Miami Marlins for eight innings, allowed just five hits and struck out six, and pronounce his performance "terrible."

Only Clayton Kershaw would say that because there’s really only one Clayton Kershaw.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyDespite lowering his ERA to a league-leading 1.72, Clayton Kershaw wasn't too pleased with his performance against the Marlins on Thursday.
The Dodgers' ace has been so consistently good this season, a couple of rough innings to start off a game qualify for a postgame self-critique.

Mind you, he still got out of said rough innings without giving up a run. But by Kershaw standards, we can apply the term “rough” to the first couple innings when the Marlins actually threatened to score and it took a couple of slick fielding plays from second baseman Skip Schumaker and shortstop Nick Punto to get out of the jams.

"It was terrible the first couple innings. I didn't have command, I couldn’t throw strikes," Kershaw said. "I didn’t necessarily find it. I didn’t have great stuff today. I was a little fortunate to get those double-play balls and I was able to throw enough strikes when I needed to.

"The game could’ve been out of hand pretty quickly in the first couple innings. It’s definitely something that I look at and try to improve on for the next start."

Remember, after reading that quote, that Kershaw is now 13-7 with a minuscule 1.72 ERA and leads the majors with 12 games of at least eight innings pitched.

Remember too, though, that his attention to detail, perfectionism and competitiveness are kind of how he’s gotten to where he is in just his fifth season in the big leagues.

Only Kershaw knows where his ceiling is. Heck, even he might not know. But wherever it is, he’s going to push himself relentlessly to get there.

Before Thursday’s game, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly used a term historically reserved for Albert Pujols to describe Kershaw’s approach and results.

"He’s a machine," Mattingly said. "What I enjoy with Clayton is that it’s every pitch, every batter, no matter what the score is, he attacks, he’s focused, he’s not wanting to make one bad pitch, not wanting to let any runners on. He just wants to execute, execute, execute. That’s tough to do over a long season."

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Grading the week

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
9:53
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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.

GradeSCORING

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.

Grade: B-

GradeDEFENSE

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.

Grade: A

GradeDECISION-MAKING

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.

Grade: A-

GradeCHEMISTRY QUIZ

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.

Grade: A-

GradeSTATE 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.

Grade: A-

Powerful lineup could get even better

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
2:43
PM PT
LOS ANGELES – “It has to be destiny,” Skip Schumaker said. “There’s no other way to explain it.”

You would think the Los Angeles Dodgers’ utility man would have blurted that out after one of the Dodgers’ startling comebacks this past week. The improbable became routine for the Dodgers this past week, prompting Vin Scully to rename the team’s stadium “The Magic Castle.”

In fact, Schumaker made that comment to ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark a few minutes after his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, won the 2011 World Series.

The three Dodgers who were a part of that Cardinals run -- Schumaker, Nick Punto and hitting coach Mark McGwire -- talk about it these days. They’re getting an eerily similar feeling with their current team.

Two teams with high expectations were battered by injuries and in the process of running themselves into the ground when suddenly they lurched back to life and became unstoppable forces.

As we know, the Dodgers looked out of the race in June, 9 games out of first place and 12 games under .500. Two years ago, the Cardinals became the first team to win a World Series after being 10 games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25 or later.

“We were in disarray for most of the year, we had major injuries for most of the year, we made a trade and, all of a sudden, things blended in, that clubhouse came together,” McGwire said. “Everybody’s roles were defined and it just sort of took off.

“It’s more than a feeling. You see it happening.”

On the Dodgers, McGwire thinks, it took three months for players to feel comfortable in their roles, to be at home with each other in the clubhouse. He includes himself. His popularity among Dodgers fans was low and sinking when the Dodgers were one of the most anemic teams in baseball three months ago.

“I had anxiety,” McGwire said. “You want everyone to get off to a great start, but it was like we were playing with the deck that wasn’t dealt to us, with a bunch of injuries and then guys coming back from injuries who were trying to find it.”

Like manager Don Mattingly, McGwire has looked a lot smarter since June 22, with the Dodgers playing .833 baseball since that time.

The most tangible explanation for the instant change of direction was generated around the batter’s box and on the bases. Their offensive improvement has followed a steady path.

In April, they scored the second-fewest runs in the National League. In May, they moved up to ninth. By June, they slipped into eighth. July, they were third. This month, they’re second.

While going 23-3 since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have had the most potent offense in the NL, having scored 130 runs in 26 games. That’s without Hanley Ramirez for nine games and without Matt Kemp for all but one game.

“When we get those two back, we definitely feel like the sky’s the limit for us,” Carl Crawford said. “Those are impact players.”

When you lose a guy like Ramirez -- who returned to the lineup Wednesday -- and a guy nicknamed “The Little Pony” (Punto) fills in seamlessly, you know you’re going good. With Ramirez out, Punto batted .450 with six RBIs.

When you lose a guy like Kemp and can replace him with a player like Yasiel Puig, you might just be better than people thought.

The Dodgers are so confident these days, they feel these historic accomplishments they’ve been rattling off lately -- becoming the first team in 71 years to win 40 of 48 games -- could be only the warm-up act.

“We haven’t even played with the team we were supposed to be and that’s what’s really the exciting thing,” McGwire said. “Matt’s going to be fresh, Andre [Ethier] is getting rest, Hanley’s been getting rest. We’ve been winning because the guys know their roles. It’s a comfort factor.”

The word “roles” may not adequately capture what many of the Dodgers were searching for back in April, May and June. Identity might be more like it. Puig must have wondered what the organization thought about him after it sent him to Double-A Chattanooga after he’d hit .517 in spring training. Punto probably had some self-doubts after a dreadful season in Boston. Crawford was coming off a serious injury and also had a lot to prove after a miserable stay with the Red Sox.

Kemp and Ethier seemed to feel the pressure of living up to big contracts and being the holdover hitting stars from the previous regime.

Once Puig and Ramirez got the offense moving in the right direction, everyone else seemed to relax into their places. McGwire said that’s exactly what happened in St. Louis after the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus for pitchers Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

The Dodgers settled in two months earlier than the Cardinals, which either leaves more time to gain steam or opens them up to peaking too soon.

“At first, everybody’s trying to feel each other out,” McGwire said. “That clubhouse now is united.”

And a united and powerful front is difficult to beat.

Dodgers sailing through chemistry class

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
11:02
PM PT
LOS ANGELES -- Somebody asked Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly after Tuesday night's 4-2 win over the New York Mets how tough it will be to take Nick Punto out of his lineup Wednesday.

"It's pretty easy, honestly," Mattingly said.

[+] EnlargeNick Punto
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillNick Punto continued his torrid stretch filling in for injured Hanley Ramirez. On Tuesday, his two-run single was key in the Dodgers' seventh straight win.
Punto might be batting .458 in his last nine games -- including his big two-run double off Matt Harvey on Tuesday -- but he was just keeping the spot warm for Hanley Ramirez, who might have been the most dangerous hitter alive for about a month before he jammed his shoulder chasing a foul popup.

Those words, spoken about a different player, at a different time, could have furrowed some brows, maybe even stirred a bit of tension between the manager and a player. Punto's not that guy, and this is not that moment.

And Punto's used to the grief. A few days ago, he had to hear about teammate Skip Schumaker comparing him to actor Danny DeVito because of his squat build. Then, the Dodgers took it to another level when they arranged for an on-field meeting between DeVito and Punto before Monday's game.

After Punto's home run, the video board showed DeVito, who turned around and pointed to his No. 7 Punto jersey.

Punto and fellow veteran Juan Uribe seem to come in for the most grief around these guys. The Dodgers have been letting Uribe have it ever since Evan Longoria got him with the hidden-ball trick Saturday. Somebody with the Dodgers talked the kid who ran onto the field with Uribe before Tuesday's game into tagging him with his autographed ball.

"There are a lot of characters in this clubhouse," Punto said. "There's a lot of ribbing that goes on, all day long."

If the Dodgers were still losing the way they were back in April, May and June, "characters" might not have been the first word on the tip of everybody's tongues. Goofballs? Screw-ups? It's a lot easier to get away with all this slapstick stuff when you play .830 baseball for nearly two months.

No Dodgers team has ever stayed on a roll quite this long. The last team in baseball to be this hot for as long as 47 games was the 1951 New York Giants. Those Giants probably had a good time, too, even without the joys of Twitter.

(Read full post)

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.308 12 52 53
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 15
RBIA. Gonzalez 65
RD. Gordon 54
OPSY. Puig .916
WZ. Greinke 11
ERAC. Kershaw 1.92
SOC. Kershaw 134