|Brown fails to lift Dodgers|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Wednesday, Sept. 11
Status: The Giants have a one-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL wild-card race. The Angels climb to within two games of the A's in the American League West and extend their lead in the AL wild-card race to five games over Seattle.
Kevin Brown started last night for Los Angeles. He wasn't supposed to. He probably shouldn't have. It was his first start since May 26 ... and his first since back surgery in early June. He's made some short relief appearances recently, but he was pressed into service as a starter last night when Andy Ashby developed a blister and infection on his middle finger and couldn't go.
When Brown is right, he's just about unhittable. Catapult mechanics and a reckless follow-through. Stuff that dips, dives, slides and snaps like a cool carrot -- clean and sharp.
But he wasn't right last night. I don't know if his back felt tender, or if some small element of his delivery was out of whack. I don't know if he found it hard to completely trust his comeback-trail body, to give it over without reservation the way you have to in order to perform freely and effectively. I'm not sure he knew.
He threw about 60 pitches in the first two innings and gave up four runs. Balls that should have cracked down were rolling and hanging. Peek-a-boo pitches were showing their faces or just running away and hiding. He got some guys out as the game went along (he went five innings, gave up six hits and five earned runs), because he's smart and strong, but he didn't look like himself out there.
It was tough to watch, not because he was terrible -- he wasn't -- but because he wasn't Kevin Brown. He was game, but the tools were missing from his bag, or they didn't work the way he thought they should. One pitch would do what it ought to, then two or three in a row would misbehave. His trademark ferocity, the swagger and scowl that have defined him for so long, seemed missing, too. He looked anxious and worried, maybe even a little afraid.
Watching him, I wondered, did he feel betrayed by his stuff? Was he angry or confused? Was he philosophical about things, did he realize that it would just take time to get things back where he wanted them, or did he worry that maybe they weren't coming back? At times, as he trudged back up the hill for the next pitch, or took a deep breath as he came set, I thought I could see him thinking, telling himself to hang in there, rummaging around in his head for the perfect mix of memory and forgetfulness that would let him get back to the untouchable stuff.
The Dodgers needed and wanted him to be out there. Kaz Ishii was hurt badly by a ball to the face the other day and is likely done for the year, Ashby's finger is ugly, and the team has lost five of six at a crucial time. They hoped Brown would break the recent trend, they hoped for an emotional lift and a win.
Want and hope. That's what I saw out there last night. Brown wanted to work, wanted to be the stalwart stopper, wanted to feel the juice flowing freely through his arm. Manager Jim Tracy and the rest of the squad wanted to feed off him, wanted a harbinger performance signaling better things ahead, wanted their ace back in the hole. Tracy leaned on the dugout railing and stared eagerly out at the mound, like he was trying to will the magic into his guy's arm. Brown stared in at catcher Paul Lo Duca and seemed to linger just a half-beat longer between pitches, as if he were hoping this pitch, or the next one, would feel just right.
Pitching, especially nasty-stuff pitching like Brown's, is a mysterious thing. It's a letting go. You are more or less in control, of your body and the ball, and then you aren't. Once you release it, it's its own entity, cutting through the air, following a path that's only ever a rough approximation of the one you imagined.
At some level, every pitch is about want and hope. There are nights, when things seem to go so right, that the balance of control tips in favor of the pitcher -- he is the puppet master working the strings as he pleases, everything he imagines comes to pass. Brown has had many of those nights, nights when his manager and his teammates can simply trust in him the way they trust in the sun coming up in the morning.
There are other nights though, and last night was one of them, when the balance is in the ball, or in the fates or the gods of injury and rehabilitation, not the man. On those nights, the man isn't nearly so connected to the arc and dip of the ball, and he has to wonder about his command of his own arm, back, legs and feet.
On nights like that, there's a kind of anguish about the game. Guys are holding their breath, wanting and hoping, doubting and wondering. That was the Dodgers last night, looking uneasy, knowing they aren't out of it, but unsure how they are going to stay in it.
Previous entries: September 9-10
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.