Dodgers Report: Skip Schumaker

Winter wish list: Bench

November, 22, 2013
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
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.

Predicting the future of Dodgers free agents

October, 24, 2013
For a team with 11 impending free agents, the Los Angeles Dodgers have relatively easy decisions to make regarding each of them. None of their free agents will demand endless hours of the front office's time as the sides negotiate some mega-contract to keep a homegrown superstar from bolting.

Each of the Dodgers' free agents are, as they say, role players. The only two everyday players are Mark Ellis and Juan Uribe. Ellis has already been replaced by Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero, who signed earlier this week. The only core pitchers are a No. 4 starter, Ricky Nolasco, and an eighth-inning setup man, Brian Wilson, important but not irreplaceable players.

The Dodgers already have set the narrative for the remainder of their offseason. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly (who looks as if he no longer will become a free agent) said it concisely. The Dodgers want to get younger and, as a result, more athletic and less injury-prone.

That should be the lens through which we see each of the following free-agent decisions. We'll rank the free agents in reverse order of relevance and predict whether they will be with the team next spring:

Jerry Hairston Jr.

He's one of the most likeable guys the Dodgers had last year and a good clubhouse guy, because he can roll with a joke and moves easily between various cultures. His versatility also proved important to the Dodgers at times in his two seasons in L.A. They could put him at any position besides pitcher and catcher and he could hold his own. There aren't many guys like that.

He'll be 38 next May, he has been bothered by serious injuries each of the past two seasons. He'll make a great broadcaster some day and he'll have to decide whether he's ready to embark on a new career now or try to latch on with a team on a minor league deal.

Prediction: walks

Edinson Volquez

This was a nice zero-risk move by the front office, scooping him up from the San Diego Padres after they released him. He gave them five starts -- some awful, some decent, some pretty good -- allowing the Dodgers to rest their main starting pitchers for the playoffs.

A few years ago, the Dodgers might have taken a flyer on Volquez to help fill out their No. 4 and 5 rotation spots. Not under these owners. They have far grander designs. If they acquire a pitcher, it probably will be a star-caliber one, not a guy who's questionable to even make the rotation. If he comes back, it would have to be on a minor league deal with the agreement that he will pitch in Triple-A until the Dodgers need him.

Prediction: walks

Chris Capuano

He handled it with class when the Dodgers left him off their NLCS roster even though he had given them three scoreless innings in the previous round. But like some of the other pitchers on this list, he just doesn't seem to fit the Dodgers' current mandate: to win at whatever cost. He might turn out to be a nice bottom-of-the-market signing for a team on a budget looking for a left-hander who can either start or be a reliever. Hard to see that team being the Dodgers.

Prediction: walks

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Dodgers counting on Schumaker

October, 2, 2013
ATLANTA – The Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Skip Schumaker largely because of his postseason track record, but it didn’t look like he was going to have much opportunity to add to it.

The Dodgers outfield was supposed to be overmanned, with four star-caliber players for three spots. So, Schumaker would get, what, a pinch-hit appearance here or there, maybe?

Then, on Sept. 13, Andre Ethier doubled and limped his way to second with a sore left shin. He hasn’t played the outfield since and he probably won’t until at least Game 3 of the Dodgers’ NLDS with the Atlanta Braves. Two weeks later, Matt Kemp woke up one Sunday morning feeling extra soreness in his left ankle. The team ordered an MRI and the test found enough damage in Kemp’s ankle that he was shut down for the entire postseason.

So, depending on your perspective, the Dodgers are either stuck with Schumaker or they’re lucky to have him. There is a good chance he will play every inning of the Dodgers’ first playoff series in four seasons as the team's center fielder.

“For the most part, Schu’s our guy,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Schumaker doesn’t have the power of Kemp or the gap-to-gap doubles ability of Ethier, but he’s been a better postseason hitter than either of them, in a far larger sample size. And sometimes in October, it only takes one moment.

Schumaker had his when he drove in Rafael Furcal with the only run of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. Schumaker won two World Series rings with the Cardinals.

Hitting coach Mark McGwire, who had just gone from the Cardinals to the Dodgers, liked him so much, he gave a ringing endorsement when general manager Ned Colletti called to say he had an opportunity to trade for Schumaker in January.

“Actually, I thought he was our best outfielder in St. Louis. He definitely has the strong arm. He’s very, very accurate and he battles out his at-bats,” McGwire said. “He does his homework, he does his studying. I’ve just got to keep him relaxed.”

At 5-foot-10, Schumaker is one of the least-intimidating Dodgers players to look at, but he’s one of the edgiest when it comes to playing the game. Teammates have learned that he doesn’t like a lot of small talk before games. He thinks his intensity has helped him make the transition to postseason games, where the stakes are higher and the atmosphere more tense. As he puts it, the game "speeds up."

“Tony LaRussa taught me that, when you get mad, it builds adrenaline. I feel you can do more things when you have more adrenaline,” Schumaker said. “I only know how to play when I’m kind of upset. If I play kind of low-key and happy like Hanley [Ramirez], I don’t know how he does it, I don’t think I’d be very good at it.

“I just feel like I’m going into the final game of the World Series and that’s how I play in the regular season. So, I don’t feel like the postseason sneaks up on me.”


Dodgers can survive without Matt Kemp

September, 30, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp wasn’t there the day Yasiel Puig arrived from Chattanooga, Tenn. In fact, had Kemp not gotten hurt, Puig might have spent the season in the minor leagues, or at least had his rocket ship of a rookie season stalled on the launching pad for a while.

Kemp was in the lineup for only 11 of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 42 wins from June 22 to Aug. 7, when their pace was the best 50-game snippet the National League had seen in almost 70 years.

He got there in time to celebrate in the pool and clubhouse during the Dodgers’ NL West-clinching party in Arizona, but just barely. It was his fourth game back after missing two months.

[+] EnlargeKemp-Puig
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTheir sensational summer without Matt Kemp, left, entails that Yasiel Puig, right, and the Dodgers can play deep into October minus Kemp.
So, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is perfectly correct to say the Dodgers can not only win without Kemp, they have won without Kemp.

But the timing isn't ideal.

News that Kemp is lost for the postseason came at an awkward moment. The Dodgers were on the field whipping up fan frenzy for their first playoff appearance in four seasons Sunday at the exact moment Kemp, inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, was informing reporters he’d been shut down for the rest of the season.

Not exactly some happy news to go sailing with into October.

But the real reason Sunday’s news left such a mark was that Andre Ethier’s availability for the first round of the playoffs hangs by a thread. Ethier might not have been an impact offensive player this season, but he was a solid contributor to the offense and a reliable glove in center field. As long as other hitters were providing the power around him, Ethier kept the Dodgers’ lineup humming along.

Ethier hasn’t run since the Dodgers shut down his running program last week in San Francisco. If he makes the roster for the Dodgers’ series in Atlanta, it figures to be as a pinch hitter.

So, yeah, Kemp’s injury might have just reduced the Dodgers’ chances of advancing to the National League Championship Series by a few percentage points or so, depending on how healthy some of the other nicked-up Dodgers are.

“It’s not going to be easy. He does big things, but, at the same time, we just have to play as a team,” Hanley Ramirez said. “Everybody knows that Matt Kemp is a great player.”

In 2013, Kemp wasn’t a great player, actually. He was an average player, maybe slightly below average for an outfielder. In Kemp’s most recent stint on the disabled list, for the ankle, the Dodgers went 36-17 without him.

But his threat gave the Dodgers’ offense more length. Pitchers have reason to fear Kemp and, to some extent, Ethier.

Now, they’ll see either Skip Schumaker, who is virtually devoid of power, or someone such as Scott Van Slyke, whom they probably have never heard of. Plus, the Dodgers’ bench gets a little worse whenever Schumaker is inserted in the starting lineup.

The Dodgers, however, are far from doomed. If Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw pitch to their capabilities, you and I could probably take up a couple lineup spots and the Dodgers could survive.

Schumaker started in center field in Games 5, 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series, and it didn’t seem to hurt the St. Louis Cardinals much. They were world champions. If the Dodgers can get by Atlanta, Ethier should be healthy enough to play in the next round.

At times, Kemp showed glimpses of his MVP-caliber 2011 and April of 2012, when he was, arguably, the best all-around player in the game. He batted .314 with three doubles and a home run in his last 11 games, but there were also troubling signs, even in the good times. In those 11 games, Kemp struck out seven times, three more times than he walked.

He would have been particularly useful against the Braves, who could use two left-handed starting pitchers against the Dodgers in Mike Minor and Paul Maholm. The other team the Dodgers could have played, the St. Louis Cardinals, have no left-handed starters.

Before Sunday’s game, Mattingly -- a onetime batting champion and longtime hitting coach -- talked about what he saw in Kemp’s swing over the past two weeks.

“It still looks, to me, like a spring training, because you’ll see bad days then good days, good days then bad days,” Mattingly said. “To me, that’s what the early season is. You see guys who one day look like they’re getting there and the next day are out of sorts again. We haven’t seen that locked-in look like what Matt had at the end of ’11 and beginning of ’12.

“But he definitely looked more like the beginning of ’12 than the beginning of this season.”

So, the Dodgers might have seen Kemp’s comeback forestalled. And, who knows, had his ankle held up, he might have been the one leading them to World Series glory. It just seems a tad ill-informed to suggest he was the only one capable of doing it.

This is what Clayton Kershaw struggling looks like

August, 27, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw had one of those games in which everything looked difficult, and the Dodgers never quite recovered in a 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night.

The 52,326 fans who showed up -- tipping the Los Angeles Dodgers over the three-million mark with 14 home games remaining -- still got some late-game excitement. An eighth-inning rally stalled and Yasiel Puig popped up, swinging at the first pitch, to end the game with the tying run at first.

Kershaw trudged through the first inning and never seemed entirely comfortable after that. The Cubs made him throw 29 pitches in the inning, and he needed to go to some of his nastiest breaking pitches early in the game to get strikeouts of Donnie Murphy and Junior Lake in order to keep it scoreless.

The Cubs didn’t break through to score off Kershaw until the third, on Dioner Navarro’s RBI single. Because one of the runners in the inning had gotten on via catcher’s interference, the run was unearned. In fact, despite one of his shakiest starts of the season, Kershaw’s ERA remained at 1.72, so Tuesday likely will have minimal impact on his Cy Young candidacy.

It might even help a little. Kershaw struck out nine Cubs batters and has 197 for the season. He’s about to become the third Dodgers pitcher to have 200 strikeouts in four consecutive seasons. The other two are named Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

And Tuesday could have been worse. Way worse. Cody Ransom lined a ball off Kershaw's right leg for a single in the sixth inning, but Kershaw initially tried waving off manager Don Mattingly and a trainer. When they kept coming any way, he stayed in the game after a couple of warm-up tosses.

The Dodgers haven't done Kershaw any favors offensively when he struggles, even just a little. In his eight losses, the team has scored a total of 12 runs.

The Dodgers made scant headway against Cubs left-hander Travis Wood, who is having a highly respectable season on a bad team. The Dodgers didn’t score until Juan Uribe’s two-out RBI single in the sixth inning.

Once they got Wood out of the game, the Dodgers looked like they would stage one of the late-inning comebacks that have been commonplace at Dodger Stadium the past two months. Andre Ethier drove in a run with a sharp single up the middle off Pedro Strop, but pinch hitter Skip Schumaker hit into an inning-ending double play.

Kershaw and the pursuit of perfection

August, 22, 2013
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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Clayton Kershaw's dominance continues

August, 22, 2013

MIAMI -- It's a sign of the baseball times here in Miami -- and the early start to Thursday’s game didn't help -- that it took so much promotion to draw such a sparse crowd to the park to watch Clayton Kershaw’s latest gem.

But for $5 and whatever it costs to park nearby, you could see the National League’s leader in just about every pitching category do what he’s been doing all year. He shut out the Marlins over eight strong innings to lead the Dodgers to a breezy 6-0 win in the final game of this four-game series.

The Marlins managed just five hits off the Dodgers' ace as he pitched into the eighth inning for the 12th time this season and lowered his ERA to a major league-best 1.72. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four pitchers since 1980 have posted an ERA as low as Kershaw’s at least 25 starts into the season (Dwight Gooden, 1985; Greg Maddux, 1994, 1995, 1998; Roger Clemens, 1997, 2005; and Pedro Martinez, 1997, 2000).

“He kind of gets himself into routines and he’s just marching onward all the time. One start’s over and he’s on to the next one. That one’s over and it’s time to start the next process,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Kershaw.

“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. He’s a machine.”

Kershaw also helped his cause at the plate, driving in the first run of the game in the fourth inning with a two-out, bases-loaded single to left to score Yasiel Puig, who doubled to lead off the inning. The next batter, Carl Crawford, drove in two runs to stake Kershaw to an early 3-0 lead. The Dodgers tacked on two more runs with two outs in the fifth on an RBI double by A.J. Ellis and an RBI single by Skip Schumaker.

Puig was back in the lineup Thursday and batting cleanup after experiencing dehydration and cramping in his legs Wednesday night. Mattingly said Puig received IV fluids after the game Wednesday.

Kershaw was so dominant, it finally gave Mattingly a comfortable spot to bring on former Giants closer Brian Wilson for his Dodgers debut with a six-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. Wilson struck out the first batter he faced, Giancarlo Stanton, got Logan Morrison to ground out to second base, gave up a double to pinch hitter Greg Dobbs, and struck out Justin Ruggiano to end the game.

The Dodgers return home to open a three-game set with the Boston Red Sox beginning Friday. L.A. has gone a major league-best 28-5 since the All-Star break and has won 22 of its past 25 road games.

Powerful lineup could get even better

August, 15, 2013
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’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
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.

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Grading the week

August, 12, 2013
Who needs Hanley Ramirez when you have Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, right?

OK, so consider that a rhetorical question.

Yet the fact the Dodgers managed to go 6-1 last week with the man who carried them for large stretches of July out with a shoulder injury, tells us something. It tells us the Dodgers are on the kind of roll that can only be produced collectively. It’s not about Yasiel Puig. Or Ramirez. Or Clayton Kershaw.

It’s about everybody.

Punto and Schumaker combined to bat .533 with eight RBIs last week. In other words, they gave them the production they would have expected from a player like Ramirez, who has the Dodgers’ third-highest WAR (3.7) despite missing 59 games with injuries this season.

The Dodgers won’t say this publicly, of course, but the fact they’re showing so much patience getting Ramirez back on the field probably has something to do with the fact they’re increasingly confident of making the playoffs. They’re more likely to play deep into October if Ramirez is playing at 95 percent health than at 70 percent.


Don Mattingly has only seen Kershaw frustrated by his low run support (third-worst in the majors) one time this year. He couldn’t recall the exact game, but it was some time in April or May.

“He didn’t say anything and he might say it really wasn’t, but it just seemed like he was having a bad day,” Mattingly said.

It happens to a pitcher on somebody’s staff every year. Mattingly remembers that Ron Guidry was always the guy who got low run support when he pitched for the New York Yankees. The fact it’s Kershaw isn’t sitting well with the Dodgers.

“We need to change it, that’s for sure,” Mattingly said.

And, just like that, the Dodgers did -- or, at least, started to. They jumped on the Tampa Bay Rays for eight runs in Sunday’s sweep-capping victory, allowing Kershaw -- for just the second time this year -- to coast.

The Dodgers are more about pitching than hitting, but unless Kershaw is on the mound, they do a more-than-adequate job of supporting their pitchers. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke have both gotten plenty of support.

The Dodgers scored 42 runs in seven games, though 13 of those were in one game in St. Louis, after Carl Crawford lined a ball off Shelby Miller’s right elbow, knocking him out of the game after two pitches.

Adrian Gonzalez had a solid week, but nobody had more moments than Punto and Schumaker, who commute to Dodger Stadium from Orange County on a daily basis.

Grade: B-


Dodgers starters lead the major leagues in ERA. No surprise there, considering they have two Cy Young winners and their No. 5 starter, Chris Capuano, is good enough to have pitched nine seasons in the major leagues.

But what has allowed Dodgers pitching to take off has been one of the hottest bullpens in the majors. Paco Rodriguez and Kenley Jansen have been impossible to score against and the other Dodgers relievers are handling their roles.

The improvement in relief could be key for the Dodgers’ chances in October. The bullpen all season has stood out as the area of most serious concern.

From the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game in St. Louis, the Dodgers’ bullpen pitched nothing but shutout innings. Going into Sunday, opponents were batting .100 off the relievers in that span.

From July 23 to Thursday, Jensen retired 27 straight batters. Were he a starter -- and had he done it in one night -- he would have had a perfect game. Rodriguez got a rare two-inning save in St. Louis. J.P. Howell got some big outs. Even Brandon League looks like he’s rebuilding his delivery. Carlos Marmol isn't a lost cause.

The Dodgers will be considered October threats because of their starting pitching, but their relievers could make them the complete package.

The Dodgers played awful defense early in Friday’s game and somehow came back to win it, rallying for seven runs in the final three innings. Dee Gordon continues to be a work in progress (putting it kindly) when he plays shortstop. If you're a fretful type and root for the Dodgers, fielding will be your only major worry these days.

Grade: A-


One of the more puzzling Don Mattingly decisions was to use Ramirez as a pinch hitter Friday night with the Dodgers trailing 6-1 and with Schumaker on second. Ramirez looked bad striking out to end the inning, but more important, it set back his clock should the Dodgers elect to put him on the disabled list.

Now, any move would be retroactive only to Friday.

You have to also give Mattingly some of the credit for how well the bullpen performed. He put them in the right spots to succeed. In fact, it seems Mattingly’s feel for his bullpen and its roles is one of the more positive evolving story lines.

Brian Wilson made the Dodgers’ decision to sign him look smart, at least so far. In all three of his minor-league rehab outings, he has pitched perfect innings.

Grade: B+


Punto and Schumaker were prominent, so the grit-meter was a bit higher than usual. Those guys must argue about who's more scrappy on their 45-mile commute. But let’s face it, when you’re this hot, grit's kind of a secondary concern. They'd rather have them hit.


While not completely falling out of things, the Diamondbacks haven’t kept pace, allowing the Dodgers to add two more games of distance between themselves and the second-place team. It also doesn’t help that outfielder Cody Ross, one of Arizona’s hottest hitters, had to be carted off the field and taken to a hospital after dislocating his hip in Sunday’s game.

The rest of the division has faded into a blob of irrelevance.

Barring a strange change of direction, the Dodgers soon will be jockeying for home-field advantage in the playoffs, rather than scrambling to get there. And, we're teetering on giving them an 'A,' but ...

Grade: A-

It's hard to convince this team it's going to lose

August, 9, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- In May, when the Los Angeles Dodgers fell behind by a run or two in the fourth inning, it felt as if their path was being blocked by a sleepy Brachiosaurus. They weren't going anywhere.

Now, when they fall behind 6-0 in the seventh inning, against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball and one of the best teams, with the fatigue seeping deep into their bones, it feels as if a ladybug has settled on the path in front of them.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Gonzalez scores the winning run in the ninth to complete the Dodgers' dramatic comeback from a 6-0 deficit on Friday night.
They either step on it or it gets out of the way.

The Dodgers did the nearly impossible Friday -- according to one of those probability programs, their chances to win were less than 1 percent in the eighth inning -- but it never felt all that improbable. They rallied for all seven of their runs in the final three innings for a 7-6 defeat of the Tampa Bay Rays, scoring four times off closer Fernando Rodney.

When the Dodgers were at their low point, losing in lifeless, low-scoring games early in the season, manager Don Mattingly said he wanted to be the kind of team that never considered itself out of a game. By now, we can probably safely say they've become that team.

Even when they're operating on a few hours of sleep after spending the previous week in the Central time zone, and then flying half the night. Even when their fielding in the early innings feels as if it needs a laugh track.

The Dodgers sleepwalked until they realized they might actually lose Friday night. When you see a team start to take on that kind of identity, able to will itself to wins, you can see the makings of a special season.

"Everybody knows we got in late. We know we got in late and came off a road trip, but even with that, these guys still came out to play," Mattingly said. "We feel like we can win every day."

And they're proving it, day after day, week after week, soon to be month after month.

The Dodgers are 18-3 since the All-Star break, 35-8 since June 21, and pretty much immune to their opponent. They looked sleepy and uninterested while sweeping four games from the hapless Chicago Cubs. They kept right on going, winning four of the next five against powerhouse teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Rays.

You always wonder when a team's fortunes will change. They invariably do in baseball, at some point, right?

But the end wouldn't appear to be imminent. The Dodgers have Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw pitching in these next two games. After that, they welcome a lousy New York Mets team to Dodger Stadium.

Even if none of that were true, the Dodgers would still go into each of those games feeling as if they would win. They'll keep thinking that way until the evidence suggests otherwise.

Role playing working well for Dodgers

August, 7, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeSkip Schumaker
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsSkip 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.

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Schumaker powers victory over Cardinals

August, 7, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- After the Los Angeles Dodgers' 15-game road winning streak came to an end on Tuesday, Clayton Kershaw stood in the visitor's clubhouse at Busch Stadium and simply shrugged his shoulders when asked what the end of the streak meant.

"It just means we need to start a new one tomorrow," he said.

The Dodgers did just that Wednesday night, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 13-4, powered by a six-run second inning. The onslaught came on the heels of Cardinals pitcher Shelby Miller getting knocked out of the game after he was struck by Carl Crawford's liner on his right elbow after throwing his second pitch of the game.

Jerry Hairston Jr. got things rolling with a bases-loaded single to left that scored Tim Federowicz and Dee Gordon. Skip Schumaker closed out the inning with a single to left that scored Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez.

Schumaker singled to center again in the seventh inning to score Andre Ethier and would score later in the inning on a Gordon single to right. He put the finishing touches on the blowout with an RBI single to left to score Ethier. Schumaker finished the night going 3-for-6 with four RBIs and one run.

The series against the Cardinals has been a homecoming of sorts for Schumaker, who is still a fan favorite in St. Louis after being on the Cardinals' World Series championship teams in 2006 and 2011 before being traded to the Dodgers last December.

He was given a loud ovation before his first at-bat and was constantly shaking hands with employees and fans around Busch Stadium before the game.

"I'm happy that someone else wanted me and [Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak] gave me an opportunity to go somewhere they needed me," Schumaker said. "It was a good situation for me. I've had more playing time here than most likely I would have gotten over there just because their lineup is so heavy and deep."

Schumaker came to the Dodgers shortly after Mark McGwire was hired as the hitting coach. McGwire was the Cardinals' hitting coach the previous three seasons and highly recommended him to the Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.

"We looked at him as a little bit of a platoon guy at second base with Mark Ellis," Mattingly said. "He hits .300 lifetime against righties and we also thought he could play center field. That's his natural position. So if something happened to Matt [Kemp], I don't think we all agreed that Andre could play center, so we had Skip who could play any of the outfield spots and was able to platoon at second base a bit."

In addition to second base and center field, Schumaker has also appeared at left field, right field and designated hitter for the Dodgers and has even pitched a couple innings.
Schumaker won't steal many headlines this season, but he's exactly the kind of player Mattingly had in mind when he was envisioning this season's roster.

"You want guys that are good teammates and are fitting into their roles," Mattingly said. "You don't want to have 24 guys who all think they should be starters. It puts you in a tough spot. It's good to have great players sitting on the bench, but if they're not playing and not happy and they're disgruntled, your team gets messed up."

Ryu's talent translating well so far

July, 27, 2013

LOS ANGELES -- Saturday's game at Dodger Stadium was far from meaningless -- two good teams with something to play for easing into pennant races -- but hardly the crux of these teams' seasons. Those days will come in August and September, inside their divisions.

It was, however, a colossal sporting event for South Korea.

It was the first time Hyun-Jin Ryu ever faced Shin-Soo Choo.

[+] EnlargeHyun-Jin Ryu
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsHyun-Jin Ryu admitted to more nerves than usual Saturday night as he faced countryman Shin-Soo Choo for the first time.
And, make no mistake: Ryu felt it.

"I was definitely more nervous than before a normal start," Ryu said after dominating Choo and the Cincinnati Reds in a 4-1 win for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ryu was the Randy Johnson of the Korean major leagues before signing a six-year, $36 million deal to join the Dodgers in December. Choo was signed out of a Korean high school by the Seattle Mariners 13 years ago and established himself as a borderline star in Cleveland before being traded to the Reds last December.

The two men were friends and former teammates on the Korean World Baseball Classic team and they had dinner Thursday night. Who paid?

"The owner of the restaurant actually paid," Ryu said through an interpreter.

Not surprising given their star power back home. The Korean TV station MBC sent commentators for the first time since Ryu's U.S. debut and beamed the game live back home, where first pitch was at about 10 a.m. Sunday. The Dodgers credentialed 90 members of the Korean media and sold about 8,000 tickets just in Korean group sales.

And, yes, Psy was in the building.

"This is really big. Historical," said Jongwan Kwak, who works for the Daily Sports Chosun, a Korean sports newspaper. "Chan Ho Park faced Choo in the past, but both those players were not in their heyday at the time. This is two Korean players in their primes and it's viewed with a lot of patriotism."

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Yasiel Puig
.298 15 66 82
HRA. Gonzalez 23
RBIA. Gonzalez 106
RD. Gordon 89
OPSY. Puig .869
WC. Kershaw 20
ERAC. Kershaw 1.80
SOC. Kershaw 228