2016 Dodgers Recap- A Different Formula Produces A Similar Result

In recent months, we’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to 1988, and they’ve been apt- the Dodger team from this year, like the team from that year, seemed to be powering ahead, against all odds.  In some ways, they seemed an even MORE unlikely winner.  They were also the greatest bullpen-by-committee playoff team in Major League Baseball history, because they were the ONLY bullpen-by-committee playoff team in playoff history.  It is amazing that they got this far, and even more amazing to consider that a few bounced balls here, a blown call there, and it really MIGHT have looked more like 1988, instead of 2008, or 2009, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015.  But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

But getting back to the similarities between this squad and the one from 1988, in some ways, that is the most concerning thing here- part of the REASON for the Dodgers futility after that season was because the team was not built on a strong foundation.  The very thing that made them so endearing is the same thing that made them so fleeting- they just weren’t built to last.  This team has a little bit more hope for its future, with Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, perhaps Andrew Toles, and a few others.  But will it be enough?  A lot of the guys who have been so good for the past few years are in their mid-30’s.  This team was built by the front office with strong duct tape, but how much longer can that duct tape hold?

Most troubling of all is the starting rotation.  In fact, who is the starting rotation?  The bullpen was incredible for a long stretch of time, but even in today’s era, having to regularly depend on them before the 7th inning is a really bad sign for the long term.  If the 2017 Dodgers have to heavily rely on Adam Liberatore and Joe Blanton again, they are in deep trouble.

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source: LA Times

And I’m sorry, but we have to talk about Clayton Kershaw.  He’s the greatest regular season pitcher in baseball, but how many more years are the majority of Dodger fans going to point their ire in other directions when he comes up short?  It’s the manager.  It’s the lack of offense behind him.  It’s Andrew Toles’ error.  STOP.  A large section of the fanbase never forgave Chad Billingsley, after one ineffective, weak start against the Phillies.  And here we are, after four straight years where Kershaw did not dominate from beginning to end, and most fans want to look everywhere but towards Kershaw himself.  This isn’t to say that Kershaw needs to be roasted like so many before him- not just Billingsley, but Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Brandon League, etc.- but it’s time to mix in some criticism with the endless praise.  He is the most heralded pitcher in baseball, as well as one of the highest paid.  He needs to pitch like it from beginning to end.

As for what next year and beyond hold?  It’s difficult to say, but as of now, it feels like if the Dodgers recipe for success in 2016 is not sustainable.  The Cubs have a young, strong core that should be together for some time, especially by the standards of today’s wheeling-and-dealing environment.  Unlike the Dodgers, the Cubs wouldn’t have had to do much more in the offseason, had they not advanced.  Looking within the NL West, even the Giants, with their awful bullpen, seem to have a pretty good core themselves.  Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi deserve a bit of a mulligan, with the job they did under some trying circumstances, and Dave Roberts looks like he’s here to stay, which is a good thing.  But the front office can’t expect to transact their way to a World Series- their short-term moves worked about as well as anyone could have imagined for the second half of the season, and they STILL came up short.  We’ll see how their plan is for building sustainable success for the future.  And for crying out loud, Guggenheim, get the team on television already!

’til next year…

Recap of NLCS at Dodger Stadium – 1 out of 3 Ain’t Good (…plus, In Defense Of Steve Bartman)

Well, a three game sweep by either team seemed pretty unlikely from the start.  However, with the Dodgers in full control for Game 3 and Adrian Gonzalez coming across the plate for what almost certainly looked like the first run of Game 4, Dodger fans couldn’t help but to wonder.  But alas, their hopes, much like Adrian Gonzalez’s would-be run, were not to be.  That probably-blown call, followed by some poor Dodger defense, combined with a few lucky hits for the Cubs against Julio Urias, seemed to be a turning point in the series so far.  Rather than actually run on Jon Lester, the Dodgers opted merely to try distracting him.  (It didn’t work.)  Joe Blanton could only be the “good” Joe Blanton for so long, particularly given how many times the Dodgers have called upon him this season.  He really looks like he has nothing left in the tank now.  The rest of the middle relief, so incredibly effective for the greatest two-and-a-half month stretch in the history of a bullpen-by-committee, has also fallen apart this series.  At the moment, things are looking sort of bleak.

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Caption not required. (source: trippingbaseballs.mlblogs.com)

Far from being over, though, there is plenty of reason to think the Dodgers have a reasonable chance of winning two games straight, even going into what is certain to be a rabid scene in the Windy City.  Having a fully rested Clayton Kershaw is a scenario that any team would want, regardless of where they were in the series.  While it’s understandable from an emotional standpoint why fans would be upset that he didn’t pitch in Game 5, this would have been a mistake on several levels.  For one thing, although the box score says otherwise, an already overused Kershaw had nothing left in the 7th inning of Game 2.  Only good fortune saved Dave Roberts from a Mattingly-esque fate, for leaving him in the game, for a batter (or two) too long.  For another, having him on short rest AGAIN would have gotten him into the sixth inning, maybe the seventh.  Then what?  Put Kenley Jansen in for another multi-out save?  And, even if THAT plan works, what happens in Game 6 and 7?

Oh, and by the way, though it’s been a while since Dodger fans experienced it (maybe not as long as Cubs fans, but still), there is a whole other round of playoffs after this.  What happens then, have Kershaw pitch in three games, and hope his arm stays intact?!  The 28 year old Ace-of-Spades has already been used more frequently than Orel Hershiser was in 1988, and while Dodger fans old enough to have fond memories of that October, Hershiser’s career was never the same after that.  (He did manage one more great year in ’89, but his arm gave out after that.)  We haven’t even mentioned that Kershaw missed about two months because of a bad back, and for those not close enough to 30 to understand this, those never go away.  (Kershaw himself will be 29 at the beginning of next season.)  The Dodgers will need pitchers besides Clayton Kershaw to contribute if they are going to win it all, and the massive usage that some are suggesting- to go along with the massive usage he’s already taken on- will not be worth it, if the team “only” goes on to win the National League pennant.

bill_murrayAs for the rest of the team, much like Game One against Jon Lester, the offense looked better than the Game 5 box score suggested.  This time, it wasn’t so much against Lester himself, but against the relievers, Pedro Strop and Aroldis Chapman.   Hopefully for the Dodgers, that’s a sign of things to come, as opposed to two bored relievers in a blowout.  Game 6 on the way Saturday night.  Bill Murray and much of the rest of the country will be watching.

As For Bartman…

bartmanWith the Cubs up 3 games to 2 and headed back to Chicago, the Steve Bartman references were inevitable- and let’s face it, it would be silly not to at least mention him in passing.  However, after 13 years of retrospect, as well as an excellent 30-for-30, with an in-depth look at the vicious scapegoating that he endured (with some stuff about Bill Buckner thrown in for good measure), it would seem that it was well passed time to put the incident in perspective.   Unfortunately, that’s just not how things are done around here, particularly in the media.  It’s a lazy, ready-for-made TV narrative- of COURSE it had to be a poor, clueless schlep, sitting in the front row of “The Friendly Confines” Wrigley Field , extending this “curse”.  Like Ken Bone in recent times (albeit different circumstances), the media were all too willing to make this anonymous man into a household name.

The problem is that it wasn’t true- well, for the most part.  Yes, Bartman reached over and deflected the ball from Moises Alou, but he didn’t do anything different than most of the fans surrounding him, as announcer Steve Lyons pointed out during the broadcast in the very next game.  (As a sidenote, why do fans still do this?!  If there’s one thing the “Bartman incident” should have taught ALL of us, it’s that fans in the first row of foul territory should make a conscious decision, BEFORE the game, to allow their team’s fielders every chance possible to catch a ball.  But I digress.)  Even more damning, the Cubs still had a comfortable three run lead and just two outs to go in the inning, but completely fell apart on their own.  Most notably, Alex Gonzalez’s error- undoubtedly enough to get the runner at second, and possibly even an inning-ending double play- would almost certainly been enough to stop the bleeding.  No one would have remembered Bartman, any more than they remember Yasmani Grandal missing an easy popup in Game 2 of this NLCS.

But none of the surrounding circumstances stopped some very public officials, fanning the flames against the unsuspecting lifelong Cubs fan, although karma would deal some pretty hefty blows to some of most high profile ones.  Then-Governor Rod Blagojevich said that he’d never pardon Steve Bartman, if ever given the chance- a statement that turned out as ironic as it was cruel, in light of where he ended up.  Then-Manager Dusty Baker had no problem assigning much of the blame to Bartman, when prompted to do so by the media.  The journeyman manager has not won a deciding game since.  (Most recently, his ordering of a sacrifice bunt, with the bottom of the order coming up, is about as much of a reason as any why he’s not getting another shot at a pennant at Wrigley, albeit this time in the visiting dugout.  He should take responsibilities for OWN decisions, before assigning blame to fans for his team’s woes.  But again, I digress.)  Even Jeb Bush got into the trolling act a bit, offering Bartman “sanctuary” in the state of Florida.  And, while we’re on the subject of trolling and Jeb Bush…..well, never mind.  This is the wrong site for that sort of thing.

Most of all, though, the media couldn’t wait to run with the story, and the game tonight gives them all the opportunity to rehash the narrative all over again.  It seems to provide them with some sort of weird nostalgia, to think back to one of the most undeserving character assassinations in recent American history.  MLB Network reran a clever-but-cruel (and okay, pretty funny) Bob Costas-narrated mockumentary, reimagining Steve Bartman as the hero, culminating in a *spoiler alert* victory over Barack Obama for a seat in the United States Senate.  I wouldn’t feel so guilty about laughing, or so compelled to be a Debbie Downer about it, if the man didn’t literally have to go into hiding for his “sin”.  (On the flip side, enjoying Will Ferrell’s fictional rendition of the late Harey Carey calling the play can be done guilt-free.)  Bottom line- whatever bit of responsibility Steve Bartman holds for the 2003 Chicago Cubs, pales in comparison to the responsibility held by the 2003 Cubs, as well as all the blame that he took for it.

Ending this post on a more positive note, particularly since I have almost NEVER said anything nice about Bud Selig, he deserves credit for being one of the few public figures to defend Steve Bartman, essentially telling Cub fans to stick to blaming goats, not fans, for their misfortune.  Even more noteworthy, former Cub great (and drafted Dodger) Rick Sutcliffe considered bringing Bartman out for the opening pitch of the 2003 World Series.  It turned out to be a moot point, of course.  The 2016 Dodgers are hoping, seemingly against all odds, that will continue to be the case.

NLCS Game 2 Recap- Kershaw and Jansen Pass Their In-Game Physicals, Dave Roberts Finds His Rabbit’s Foot

The Dodgers needed that.  The fans needed that.  The ANNOUNCERS needed that.  After playing so many ~4:00 hour games that it started to feel like standard practice, the Dodgers played a relatively tidy but nevertheless drama-filled 1 run game- that’s “1 run game,” as in 1 TOTAL run for the entire game.  Adrian Gonzalez’s home run provided the Dodgers with the only one they’d need, against starting pitcher Kyle Kendricks.

The reason why this paltry offense was adequate for the entire game was largely due to the pitching heroics of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen.  In Game One’s recap, this blog said the following

It’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.”

kershawAsk, and ye shall receive.  Far from being decent, Kershaw and Jansen were downright dominant, hitting their spots, and for the most part, keeping the Cubs off balance.  To be sure, there were a few good swings against Kershaw in the later innings, but in some respects, it seemed part of his game plan- he’d been used so much recently, he needed to keep his pitch count down, meaning that he had to pitch to contact more than usual.  Trusting his defense, combined with a little bit of luck- and a LOT of luck, on that final warning track shot from Javy Baez- Kershaw was masterful, and gave the Dodgers a much needed win, with a huge assist from Kenley Jansen.

And how about that Jansen?  Not even three full days after he’d thrown the last of a career high 51 pitches to the Washington Nationals in Game Five of the NLDS, Jansen looked as dominant as he had all year for TWO full innings of work, and had done so against one of the best offenses in all of Major League Baseball.  Even more incredibly, he was getting ready to throw in the seventh inning, before Kershaw talked Dave Roberts out of taking him out of the game- which brings us to where the rabbit’s foot comes into play.

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                Why so serious?!

Jerry Hairston Jr. mentioned on Twitter how Kershaw would always “win” arguments with Don Mattingly to remain in the game.  It’s completely understandable why the best pitcher in baseball would have the right to stay in, if he felt he could get the job done.  And of course he always believes that he can, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be the best pitcher in baseball.  On the other hand, it puts the manager in a really difficult position.  If the job gets done, we sing Kershaw’s praises.  If it does not, it’s the manager’s fault for not doing his job, in seeing how “obvious” it was (after the fact) that Kershaw had nothing left in the tank.  Game 2 of the NLCS initially looked no different than a few other recent postseason shockers, only this time, Javy Baez’s rocket launch towards the outfield did not land in the gap, or over the wall, but safely in Joc Pederson’s glove.  The baseball gods were in Dave Roberts’ favor, and with the maniacal laugh that he let out at the end of the inning, it was clear that he knew it.

Back to LA

To the extent that there is such a thing as a “must win” Game Two in a Best-of Seven series, this was it for the Dodgers.  The Dodgers going back to L.A. down 2-0, knowing that Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t be pitching for at least two games (even with short rest), would have been a next-to-impossible task, with a starting rotation that has not been particularly effective so far.  But now that the series is tied and they’re going back to their home turf, there is a real chance this turns into an all-time classic, poised to eventually head back to Chicago.  But at Dodger Stadium, the Boys in Blue better get more out of their starting pitching, as it’s unlikely they can win more than one bullpen-by-committee game against the team with the most wins in Major League Baseball.  They’ll also need some middle relief to step, as Kenley Jansen will not be able to go for six out saves every night.  Then again, with all the improbable outcomes we’ve seen over the past few months since Kershaw initially went down, it’s foolish to dismiss anything at this point.  I’m half-expecting Mickey Hatcher to circle the bases at some point.

’til Tuesday…

 

Dodgers vs Cubs, Game 1 NLCS Recap- What Kind of Manager Is Dave Roberts, Anyway?

Looking at the rosters for the two teams on Opening Night of the National League Championship series, one might wonder how the Dodgers could possibly win Game One, particularly with postseason legend and potential Cy Young award winner Jon Lester going for the 103 game winning “Lovable Losers”.  For those who ended up watching the game, one might wonder how the Dodgers ended up losing.  The team hit into an astonishing six line drive outs, which actually accounted for seven outs total, given that the one which ended the game was a double play off the bat of an unlucky Chase Utley.  That doesn’t even account for the line drive single from starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, ultimately resulting in the fateful out of Adrian Gonzalez at home plate.  But for a short time late in the game, the team who had been beating the odds since Clayton Kershaw’s season altering injury- that is, altering in a good way, somehow- seemed poised to do it again.

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He did this TWICE!

Even with all the bad luck- and great defense, particularly from Dexter Fowler- the Dodgers  appeared to be copying the script from the fateful NLDS Game Five against the Nationals, knocking a potential Cy Young award winner out of a game, scrapping to comeback.  With the Cubs leading by two, but facing a bases loaded and no one out situation in the top of the 8th, Cubs manager Joe Maddon went to closer Aroldis Chapman an inning earlier than usual. (Wait- he’s with the Cubs now? I can’t keep up anymore.  Anyway…)  Chapman made fairly easy work against a sadly struggling Corey Seager, and a sadly declining Yasiel Puig.  Up stepped Adrian Gonzalex, who hit…you guessed it…a line drive.  This one was not caught, and suddenly, we had a tied game and a quieted Wrigley Field.

But unlike the deciding game against the Nationals, this time, the shocking late inning comeback only resulted in a tie, instead of a lead.  In other words, it more closely resembled the setup for NLDS Game Four, when the Nationals tied the game after a Clayton Kershaw exit at Dodger Stadium, only to have Chase Utley put the home team ahead for good.  But this time, the Dodgers were the road team, ending up on the wrong end of the emotional roller coaster ride.  Like the Nationals at Dodger Stadium, they almost escaped the bottom half of the innings unscathed.  Almost.  But a couple of intentional walks would ultimately seal the Dodgers’ fate.  If the Cubs end up in their first World Series appearance since the end of the previous (and hopefully last ever) World War, this series of moves will be discussed for a very, very long time.  But why wait ’til later to try figuring it all out?

Deconstructing Dave

daveWe here at DodgersFYI have made it perfectly clear that the entire staff are fans of Dave Roberts- all one of us!  Of the many, many, MANY roster moves that the front office has made over the past year, signing him has been the best one.  He is at least as good of a “player’s manager” as Don Mattingly was, and certainly superior to him from a tactical standpoint.  The Fox Sports broadcast showed an incredible stat during the course of the game- prior to 2016, of the five teams that had the most single season pitching changes in baseball history,  the MOST wins one of those teams had was 73.  Dave Roberts’ squad had more pitching changes than any of them, and somehow managed to win 91.  This is a man who knows what he’s doing, and if there’s any justice, he will be voted in as National League Manager of the year.

With all that in mind, baseball is more dependent on luck than any other major American sport, and prior to Saturday night, Dave Roberts’ short postseason record has been as charmed as Mattingly’s was snakebitten.  Riding a string of understandable but controversial decisions that worked in his favor over the previous week, the Dodger skipper doubled down in the 8th inning, with a runner already on second base- actually, tripled down, opting to turn one Cub baserunner into three, via intentional walks from Joe Blanton.  The first walk was to Jason Heyward, a guy who crushed a triple against the right-handed Maeda, finally looking like a $20 million man after a subpar season.  Seeing how Heyward was a .207 hitter against lefties in 2016, it’s unlikely that Maddon would have let him hit against the capable southpaw Dodger reliever, Grant Dayton, one of the unsung heroes that’s helped make Dave Roberts look good.  So walking Heyward and sticking with Blanton for the next batter appeared to be the right move at that time.  But then, Roberts ordered another intentional walk, this time to pinch hitter Chris Coghlan, whose batting average on the season was .188.  (To put that in perspective, Madison Bumgarner’s was .186.)  So not only were the Dodgers adding an extra baserunner, but they were advancing the two that were there already!  All this was to get to Chapman’s spot, to force Maddon’s hand, to see if he’d take Chapman out for a pinch hitter.  (Reading all this, can you believe some people want to add the DH to the National League?)

From one perspective and only one perspective, this series of moves is understandable- Chapman is probably the best closer in the game, two blown playoff saves notwithstanding.  Facing anyone else in the 9th inning would be desirable- desirable in a vacuum, as they used to say in Physics class.  However, this situation was the opposite of a vacuum- this was a bases-loaded-in-the-playoffs situation, with an overworked pitcher, now throwing for the fifth time in nine days.  In addition, for all his improvements this year, Blanton still gives up the long ball from time to time.   Seeing that the batter was Miguel Montero, a guy who had an off year but also hits the long ball from time to time, it seemed as likely a time as any for Dave Roberts postseason luck to finally betray him- and betray him it did.  Montero hit an 0-2 pitch way into the right field seats, in what could be the most critical home run in Cubs’ postseason history.  (We’ll know for sure in about a week.)

Considering how instantly visceral fan reaction can get in the age of social media, the hostility towards Dave Roberts was comparatively mild.  To be sure, there was lots of criticism in his direction, but he had a fair share of defenders, and the most heated rage was aimed in Blanton’s direction, for throwing such a lousy 0-2 pitch.  (I can only imagine what Vin Scully, who LOATHED hitable 0-2 pitches, would be saying!)   And really, it would be nice to live in a world where everyone didn’t want to fire the manager after a single move backfires, no matter how critical that move is.  But given how much Roberts has dealt with this season, and how well he’s handled it, no rational person can POSSIBLY consider him a lost cause after this.

At the same time, now that we’ve FINALLY seen something backfire on him, it seems like a good time to scrutinize the Dodgers’ first year manager a little bit.  After listening to the platitudes about how “he does what it takes to win”, it’s worth considering what “it” actually is.  Based on everything we’ve seen so far, it seems that he’s a fan of Russian Roulette, where the payoff is huge and percentage for success is huge, but the consequences of a loss are catastrophic.  In this case, facing a pitcher besides Chapman in the 9th gives his team a far better chance of winning, but in order to setup that scenario to begin with, Roberts has to voluntarily give the other team a shot at scoring four runs with one swing.  This is a calculated risk, but it is a risk all the same.  Roberts was willing to take it, and he paid a heavy price for it.  (Ironically, he was somewhat justified in his thinking, by the fact that the Cubs pitcher in the 9th was far easier for the Dodgers to handle than Chapman.  But with such a large deficit, the point was moot.)

Going forward, the scrutiny of Roberts’ gambles will come into more focus.  Consider how pundits and fans alike have profusely praised his use of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen as “gutsy”.  Without reliving the entire previous two postseasons, at least recall the 7th inning of the 2014 NLDS in St. Louis, an inning that cemented many (if not most) Dodger fans’ hearts and minds about Don Mattingly’s ineptitude.  With a 2-0 lead, Clayton Kershaw gave up two relatively cheap back-to-back singles to the St. Louis Cardinals.  With Matt Adams at the plate, Kershaw threw the worst curveball of his career to a left handed hitter, and it ended up going over the wall.  But most of the blame went to Mattingly, for supposedly overusing the Dodger ace.  That “overusage” of that NLDS was NOTHING compared to what we’ve seen in 2016, with Kershaw throwing pitches into triple digits on short rest, then coming back two days later to close out the series.

As for Jansen, he threw 51 pitches in that same game, by far a career high.  You have to go back to Joe Torre, leaving Jonathan Broxton to wilt against the Yankees on 48 pitches in 2010, to recall such heavy usage of a closer.  Broxton then got several days off, but the 2016 Dodgers don’t have that luxury- not when they’re already down 1-0.  Luckily, he’s already had two days off, so perhaps he will be ready for game 2.  He’d better be, because while “anything can happen” is one of the most cited mantras of Major League Baseball, it’s impossible- not nearly impossible, but completely impossible- to imagine the Dodgers advancing, without at least decent performances from Kershaw and Jansen, throughout the rest of the series.  To put it another way, the chance of everyone forgetting about the bases loaded gamble, is tied directly to how the (over?)usage of the Dodgers’ two best pitchers effects them, going forward.

In The Bigger Picture

The Dodgers offense was far better than the box score indicates, and the fact that they didn’t give up, even in the 9th, is very encouraging.  But Dodger fans can be forgiven for feeling a little bit concerned, if not downright morose.  For nearly a decade now, in spite of all the roster changes, front office changes, even ownership changes, the Dodger postseason always seems to follow a pattern.  Since 2008, each postseason the Dodgers participate in contains at least one dramatic, “I WAS THERE!” triumph, and at least one gut wrenching, heartbreaking defeat.  Given how this franchise hasn’t won it all since 1988, the heartbreaker always comes last.  It remains to be seen for 2016’s Boys in Blue, whether the heartbreaker that was NLCS Game 1, will also end up being a back breaker.

Some Random Observations

dont_call_me_vedder

Isn’t He From Seattle?

The Cubs, for some reason, came out to the “Rocky” theme, which is normally used for Philadelphia teams.  Maybe they’ll come out to “I Love LA” for Game Two…Javy Baez is getting praised for his baseball IQ, yet he still didn’t run right out of the box, on what ended up as a bloop double.  His electric steal of home, which actually started as a baserunning miscue, somehow seems like a microcosm of everything he’s involved in…Cub fans in the first row of foul territory started to go for a popup, then pulled back in horror, realizing they almost “Bartmanned” Anthony Rizzo.  Seriously, how does everyone in the front row not think at the BEGINNING of a game, “If the Cubs are on the field, DO NOT REACH OUT”?!…Seeing Eddie Vedder, Bill Murray, John Cusack (and Chris Chelios) in the crowd was kind of funny, for some reason…Andre Ethier’s home run, which unfortunately no one will remember now, was off of a left handed pitcher.  So all he needed was a few months off to figure out how to do that…

What A Relief…Pitcher! Kershaw (and Jansen) Carry The Dodgers Across The Finish Line

Oh, where to begin. What can be said about the longest 9 inning game in postseason history, a game with a box score that looked like something out of spring training, where the closer recorded almost as many outs as the starter, yet STILL managed to not even close the game himself?!  Actually, I think that last sentence says plenty- and they don’t pay me enough to recap everything that went into THAT game- whomever “they” may be, and however much “they” may be paying me…which is to say, absolutely nothing.

Forgive the bizarre opening paragraph, but it just seems appropriate for such a bizarre game.  The starting pitcher- who I think was Rich Hill, it’s hard to remember- didn’t last passed the 3rd inning.  And let’s face it, if anyone had told you that the road team’s starter had been knocked out in the 3rd inning of a winner-take-all game, while the home team had the likely Cy Young award winner pitching a shutout into the 7th inning, you’d be reasonably sure how the game would end up…unless, of course, the road team was the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, but this team’s success has been every bit as improbable as the 1988 squad to this point, perhaps even more so.  That team at least had a solid starting staff.  This team’s starting rotation was basically Clayton Kershaw and about a dozen question marks.  (Literally a dozen- look it up!  And who is Nick Tepesh?!)  Granted, a few of those “questions marks” were talented- most notably Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias- but none could be relied upon to go deep into games, that is when they were even healthy enough to pitch at all.  And yet, it was when Kershaw went down that the team really got rolling, mounting an incredible second half comeback, riding a bullpen-by-committee into a division title.  Now, they have ridden a bullpen-by-committee into the NLCS.

It wasn’t without some help from the other side, though.  Taking some misguided advice from his third base coach, Jayson Werth ran into an easy out at home in the 6th, killing his team’s momentum, not to mention the inning.  Joc Pederson wasted no time claiming that same momentum on the very next pitch in the very next inning, thereby ending the shutout, the tie, and Max Scherzer’s night.

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Onward! (source- Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

As it turned out, though, the Dodgers were just getting started.  A seemingly endless stream of Washington pitching changes couldn’t stop the Dodgers’ momentum- nor could three straight failed sacrifice bunt attempts, courtesy of Charlie Culberson- with pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz ultimately giving the Dodgers the lead, and Justin Turner adding to it.  This game was far from over at that point, however.  After ex-Dodger Chris Heisey’s two run homer put the game within reach for the Nationals, Dave Roberts went to Kenley Jansen- in the SEVENTH INNING with no outs yet recorded.  Without reliving the mayhem all over again, the most notable play on the Nationals’ side was Dusty Baker, a manager good enough to consistently get hired but not good enough to stop needing to look for work, ordering a sacrifice bunt- with the bottom of the order coming up, no less- while his team only had 6 outs left in the season.  After a career high 51 pitches for Jansen, the game still had two outs left, while Jansen had NOTHING left.  Dave Roberts then went to Clayton Kershaw- again, naturally- who had just thrown 110 pitches on short rest just two days earlier.  The first batter up was relatively new Dodger nemesis Daniel Murphy, whose .438 batting average for the series was deceptively low.  (That is not a joke.)  Kershaw got him to pop up, then struck out the Nationals’ final position player remaining on the bench, to take the team to the NLCS, in a scene that was as exhilarating as it was exhausting.


WHAT WE’VE LEARNED SO FAR

Whatever happens from this point forward, it must be said that Andrew Friedman’s front office deserves some serious recognition for what’s already been accomplished.  They were panned for their duct tape approach to putting together a pitching staff, instead of spending money on Johnny Cueto, or re-signing Zack Greinke.  And yet, this duct tape continues to pitch deep into October, while Greinke and Cueto watch at home, or play fantasy football, or whatever keeps them occupied in the offseason.  I’m still not sold on the constant swirl of roster moves, both on the field and off the field, and I miss seeing a Post World War II running game on the bases.  But you can’t argue with results, and right now, they’re getting it done.   (Also, Dave Roberts was clearly the right manager for this team.)


WHAT NEXT?

Thanks to their next opponent’s historical reputation of unprecedented futility in American sports, the Dodgers will likely not gain many fans outside of Southern California.  But make no mistake- if there’s a real-life “Bad News Bears” in this series, it’s unquestionably the Boys in Blue, particularly with Jansen and Kershaw compromised for at least the beginning of the series.   Sure, the media will play up the “Lovable Losers” angle for the Cubs, but this Cubs team happens to have the best record in baseball.  Besides, for fans under 30, there’s really no difference between whether their team last won it all in 1908, or 1988.

 

 

 

The Dodgers Are The 2016 NL West Champions- But How?!

On June 26th in Pittsburgh, Clayton Kershaw had his worst game of the season.  That isn’t saying too much, given that he only had one bad inning- LITERALLY ONE BAD INNING– the entire season, up until that point.  Not only was he arguably having the greatest season for a starting pitcher ever, but outside of Corey Seager, was just about the only Dodger on the field worth the price of admission.  The Dodgers would end up losing that game.  Far more horrifically, they would lose Kershaw himself, to a back injury.  At 8 games back, it appeared to be an early nail in the coffin for the 2016 Dodgers, who looked absolutely hapless for the 4 out 5 games that the 3 time Cy Young award winner was reduced to dugout cheerleader.  Instead, it became a turning point.

Many baseball journalists had foolishly written the Dodgers off in 2014, after just witnessing a massive midseason turnaround in 2013 that saw the team running away with the NL West.  But in Dodger years, with so much turnover both on the field and off the field, 2014 felt like a lifetime ago.  Anyone who’d written the team off after Kershaw got hurt this season, after seeing such a lackluster performance from anyone BESIDES him and Corey Seager, couldn’t reasonably be expected to conclude otherwise.  And yet…

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The 2016 Dodgers, tipping their caps to the man whose been with the team, since before their parents were born. (Source: Los Angeles Dodgers)

Here we are, in the same spot we’ve found ourselves since 2013- with the Dodgers celebrating a first place finish, by a surprisingly comfortable margin. Coincidence or not, the team really seemed to wake up with Kerhsaw’s injury, particularly the offense.  One of the main contributors, Justin Turner, had also anchored the 2014 comeback, when he came out of nowhere to become the Dodgers best hitter in the second half of that season.  (He didn’t quite reach those heights this season, but he wasn’t far off.)  In hindsight, ironically enough, that game in Pittsburgh seemed to be something of a turning point for his season, personally, providing the only offense in that loss.  Joc Pederson, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal also came to life shortly after.  Promising outfield rookie Andrew Toles picked up where Trayce Thompson left off early on,  while Chase Utley and Howie Kendrick turned out to be smart veteran re-signings.  Even Andre Ethier, as unlikely a Dean of The Dodgers as there ever was, made a cameo appearance in September, after recovering from an unfortunate fluke injury that took him out for nearly the entire season.

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In a somber moment before the game, Puig pays tribute to his friend Jose Fernandez. (Story here: http://wp.me/p1UqDw-9R)

 

And then there’s Yasiel Puig.  I don’t think the writers at Friends brought out the, “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline for Ross and Rachel, as many times as we’ve seen Puig go from Hero-To-Zero and back again.  After a fantastic first few games this season, Puig spent the next few months largely in oblivion, losing not only his starting spot, but his spot on the Major League roster.  It’s a true shame, not just for the Dodgers, but for Major League Baseball, a sport that NEEDS Puig to be relevant, if not a star.  The good news is that after spending some time in purgatory (aka Oklahoma), Puig seems closer to being a hero again, helping the Dodgers with their final push towards the finish line by unhinging Madison Bumgarner, in a way that only Puig can.  Well…maybe not ONLY Puig can, but no one does it better!

But while the Dodgers offense coming to life somewhat explains their life after Kershaw, the pitching is much more baffling.  Kenta Maeda was good, but rarely got past the 6th inning.  Nobody else achieved a double digit number of quality starts.  The only one who came close- Scott Kazmir with nine- had a 4.56 ERA.  The bullpen, outside of Kenley Jansen, was made up of retreads and no names, yet they got the job done consistently, particularly Joe Blanton- and they were relied upon A LOT.  It sounds inconceivable, but the Dodgers second half steamroll came in an environment where more than half the games were bullpen by committee.  It was such a mess, Rich Hill became the first Major League pitcher ever to be pulled while throwing a perfect game (!) after 7 innings, because that’s just how fragile the Dodgers’ starting pitching situation was.

And how about Dave Roberts, the man in charge who made that controversial but understandable decision?  (It wasn’t even his first one this season.)  If anything, he deserves a bonus for the arrows he took for his tough decision making, and ultimately should be rewarded by being named NL Manager of the Year.  Everyone knows how great Joe Maddon is, but he had a far superior roster.  Giving the award to the Cubs skipper would simply be a recognition for the guy who helms the team with the best record, without any regard to the circumstances.  Dave Roberts managed to deal with one of the most injury-plagued teams in franchise history, and he did so in his first year with the team.  He had to make CONSTANT adjustments, and he met the challenge brilliantly.  We have a few extra weeks before the ink dries overall, but the fact that he even got the team THIS far is already something that he should be proud of.

As for the front office?  That’s a tough one.  Their methods are controversial and often maddening to those of us who appreciate a more traditional, simple approach to baseball.  The smug attitude of some of their defenders can be even MORE maddening.  But it can’t be denied that after two years of constant roster moves, their formula has been successful more than not, even when many of us were convinced that it would fail.  This season, in particular, has been a real triumph for them, not shelling out 9 digit contracts to Zack Greinke- or Johnny Cueto, for that matter- yet finishing with far better records than those teams who did.  Of course, that’s not to count out the Giants for the postseason- it IS an even year, after all.  But in a 162 game schedule, half of which was played without Kershaw, credit needs to be given where credit is due.  So well done, Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi.  Two cheers for them each.  We’ll see what October brings.

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Does this really need a written description? (Source- Los Angeles Dodgers)

And finally, saving the best for last, we have the man who gets to leave Dodger Stadium on a high note.  It is impressive for anyone to be working full-time at 67 years, but to be working full-time for 67 years is unheard of.  Absolutely unheard of.  But for Vin Scully, the voice of the Dodgers since they played on the other side of the country, whose career has spanned well over half of the ENTIRE HISTORY of “modern” Major League Baseball (counting from about 1901 or so), it was truly a wonderful tribute to have him call one more final walk-off that will go down in Dodger history- courtesy of Charlie Culberson, a man who hadn’t hit a home run all season.  (Naturally.)  And, to top it all off, Mr. Scully managed to share with the world one last talent that he possesses- he can sing!  (There is far more to say, but this post is long enough, and Keith Olbermann can say it much better than I can, anyway.)

Three games remain in San Diego, then another three in San Francisco, in a series far more crucial to the Giants than the Dodgers, before the REAL fun begins…

As MLB Mourns, Don Mattingly Delivers Touching Words on Jose Fernandez

In the world of Major League Baseball, beyond the usual late-season drama, September 25th, 2016 was supposed to be all about one man- Vin Scully.  The broadcast icon and legendary Dodger play-by-play man since 1950 was announcing his last game at Dodger Stadium, to much well-deserved fanfare.  A whole season of celebration, culminating in ceremonies and tributes over this final regular season weekend, emphasized the “sweet” part of Mr. Scully’s bittersweet departure.

Unfortunately, a tragic event has overshadowed all of that, as September 25th, 2016 will be remembered for the day Major League Baseball lost one of its best pitchers, as well as one of the most exciting players to watch.  There have been plenty of people in the public who have passed this year- many of them seemingly before their time- but none nearly as young as Fernandez, nor with as many good years seemingly ahead.  Death is tragic, and it’s as true as it is cliche that we spend more grief on famous people than the many, many more who we never even know exist.  But that doesn’t make it a bad thing to reflect on athletes or entertainers that we admire for their talent, nor does it make the pain any less real, particularly when those people manage to give us some measure of joy in our own lives, even if THEY have no idea that most of US exist.

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Talking about Jose Fernandez, Don Mattingly can’t keep it together.  (Source: Robert Meyer, USA Today)

This brings us to Don Mattingly, whose pain is VERY real, as he speaks of Fernandez, mere hours after learning of his death- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeNDmkBYAX8. I’ve often been skeptical of those aforementioned famous people, seemingly spending as much (if not more) time on crafting their “good guy (or girl)” images, as they do on whatever it is that made them famous in the first place.  Mattingly, in a similar way to Mr. Scully, has always seemed to transcend all of that, coming across as a genuine, kind-hearted person, in a way that’s rare among other humans, let alone superstars.  This video seems to be another example of that.  It also reflects on how much Jose Fernandez meant to him.

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Yasiel Puig pins a Jose Fernandez jersey to the Dodger dugout. (Source: ESPN)

Mattingly is far from the only one affected so profoundly by this tragedy.  As reported by Dan Arritt via ESPN, ” Yasiel Puig crumpled into his clubhouse chair and put both hands over his face after speaking with reporters about (their) close relationship.”  Puig had been close friends with his fellow Cuban defector since their rookie season in 2013, when Fernandez beat him out for NL Rookie Of The Year.  All over baseball, players such as David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez have expressed their grief over this shocking loss.  It’s inevitable on the day someone dies, we’ll hear all kinds of great things about that person, from those that knew them the best.  But for someone like Jose Fernandez, whose talent and passion was something evident even to those that didn’t know him, all those tributes become that much easier to accept as sincere.

Tying it all together, Vin Scully gave a very haunting anecdote about Fernandez, talking about how Fernandez once eerily wondered on Twitter that if someone gave the story of your life, whether or not to read the end.  No one, least of all a young guy like Fernandez himself, could ever imagine that his story would end so soon, even before Vin Scully’s career did.  In very different ways, the end of Mr. Scully’s incredibly long career, coinciding  with the tragic end of Jose Fernandez’s short life, remind us how important it is to cherish the people and things that we value, while we have them.

I’ll end this blog entry with an attempt at a lighter note- a humorous GIF that’s made its way around the Internet, courtesy of SBNation- Jose Fernandez catching a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, coupled with Tulo’s sitcom-quality reaction of disbelief.  Fernandez was as entertaining to watch as he was talented.  He will be missed.