Sunday, May 22, 2011
Dodgers looking for reason to believe
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
CHICAGO -- It seems a bit silly, maybe even irrational, to be asking this question in the middle of May. There is so much baseball still ahead, so many games within what appears to be a wide-open, winnable division, so many chances to make up for all the missteps and misfortune that have befallen the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first eight weeks of this star-crossed season.
Still, in the wake of Sunday's hideous, 8-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox before 25,081 at U.S. Cellular Field, it must be considered: Are the Dodgers done for 2011?
Andre Ethier hurting himself trying to run down a fly ball was just the latest epidode in the Dodgers' seemingly endless cycle of bad news.
It is a question I have heard from fans for weeks. But while I certainly hope this doesn't come across as arrogant, condescending or dismissive, that is a natural, emotional response from fans, the frustration borne of watching their team stumble for an extended period. For those of us whose job it is to observe impartially and report dispassionately, such ponderances don't come as quickly or as easily.
Which is why it is so stunning that it seems to be coming now.
On May 22. At a point when the Dodgers still have 114 games left on their schedule, a schedule that will become plodding and monotonous if this team starts to believe it has nothing much to play for.
It would seem that these Dodgers have been hit squarely in the face by a perfect storm of adversity. Manager Don Mattingly and just about everybody else in the clubhouse have insisted all season that they aren't affected by the financial and personal issues of owner Frank McCourt, the uncertainty about his ability to make payroll and the fact nobody really knows who their boss is going to be come June 1. But even if that's true, the Dodgers may have enough problems on the field to undermine the season even without all that McCourt-related stuff.
It all begins, of course, and maybe ends too, with what has been a revolving door leading to the disabled list. The Dodgers finally got the guy who is supposed to be their offensive catalyst, shortstop Rafael Furcal, back on Sunday after a six-week stint with a broken left thumb. The fact he went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts and made a key error in his return wasn't nearly as deflating as the fact that just as he came back, infielder Juan Uribe left, going on the DL with a strained hip flexor.
Then came the game, and more injuries, right fielder Andre Ethier somehow hurting his back, elbow and toe on the same play and catcher Rod Barajas injuring his right wrist. They are listed as day-to-day and don't appear headed to the DL. That's good because it's already too crowded with Uribe, third baseman Casey Blake, relievers Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Blake Hawksworth, outfielder Marcus Thames and, if anyone cares, catcher Hector Gimenez.
But it isn't all about injuries. Some of it is just about ineptitude, primarily on the offensive side, which is at least partly a by-product of all the injuries. When you are routinely fielding a lineup that includes a handful of minor leaguers who aren't ready for the majors, you probably aren't going to score many runs. The Dodgers are hitting just .249 as a team, and they began the day 15th in the National League in runs scored.
The optimist will point out that the only team in the N.L. that has scored fewer runs is the San Francisco Giants, defending World Series champions and current NL West leaders. Count Mattingly among those Giants-pointing optimists.
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"We saw what San Francisco did last year," he said. "Until they picked up some guys late and put some things together late, offensively, they weren't really scoring a lot of runs. They were fighting and scratching too. To me, each guy individually just has to go out and do what he can do."
One big difference with the Giants, both last year and this year, is that they have a Freak-ishly good pitching staff, and that is another area where the Dodgers have broken down. They began the day with a 4.11 ERA, beginning the day 13th in the NL in that category.
Through the first few weeks of the season, that was mostly the fault of the Dodgers bullpen, which was plagued not so much by injuries as by the repeated failures of the once-dependable likes of Broxton and Kuo to get the job done. Lately, though, it is the starters who have let down, a sign they could be breaking under the pressure of pitching for a team that is so weak offensively that they basically can't give up so much as a run if they hope to have any chance of picking up a win.
"I hope not, but it's hard not to maybe think that way," Barajas said. "When you go out there thinking if you give up two runs in six or seven innings and the offense doesn't put up any, it can put a little of that pressure on you. You want to help the team win, and so you try to put up zeroes.
"As a position player, it's frustrating that we're not doing more, because we don't want [the pitchers] to have to have that expectation."
This past turn through the rotation, following Hiroki Kuroda's implosion on Sunday against the White Sox, the Dodgers' five starters were a combined 0-3 with a 6.92 ERA. That includes 40 hits allowed in 27 1/3 innings. Before this turn, Dodgers starters had a combined ERA of 3.46, a figure that now stands at 3.78 for the season.
So the thing you have to wonder is, is there a reason to hope? Is there a reason to believe that the run of injuries finally will end, and even if it does, it there a reason to believe it will even matter? Furcal's performance in his long-awaited return was hardly worth the wait, as the offense seemed as lifeless as ever until a too-little, too-late rally in the late innings that ultimately fizzled.
From a standings/schedule standpoint, we have seen the Dodgers rebound from far worse circumstances far later in the season and end up in the playoffs. Remember that 1-13 start to the second half in 2006? It was followed, immediately, by a 17-1 run, and the Dodgers finished the season tied for the division lead. Remember that horribly timed, eight-game losing streak in August/September 2008? It was followed, again immediately, by an eight-game winning streak, sparking the Dodgers to a division title and eventually an N.L. Championship Series berth.
Is this team any different from those teams? Well, yes. All of these on-field issues have come at a time when there is such a dark cloud hanging over the franchise, not only because of the McCourt issues but also because of the well-documented beating of Bryan Stow in the parking lot back on Opening Day. It almost creates a sense that whenever the Dodgers go into a city, they are riding in a beat-up old hatchback with rust on the outside and the windows rolled down because the air conditioning doesn't work.
Right now, the Dodgers aren't very good. Unless something changes dramatically, and quickly, they won't be very good anytime soon. So is there reason to believe, with four-plus months to go before the final curtain, that this team can still make at least an interesting season out of 2011? We don't know the answer to that question. And that, I suppose, is as good a reason as any to keep paying attention for now.
After all, who can drive past a train wreck without at least slowing down to look?
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.