The Sept-Oct Dodgers… Oh Agony!
The loss in St. Louis is too painful to think about, so all I’ll say is it was a horrible way for what seemed like a brilliantly magical season to end. The season was two parts carried out in three acts – the horrible beginning, the unreal middle, the clunky and often horrible end. What a roller coaster. Fun, but upon reflection that can only happen as we lick our wounds and really take in the totality of it, not entirely satisfying and certainly leaving us with the feeling that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
On the good side, this was always a transitional team. While a ton of money was thrown at the 2013 Dodgers, it was always meant to be a bridge, a way to get to a solid foundation that meant a ground-up restoration of the debris Frank McCourt left behind. The fact that this transitional group did so well, and some of the younger players pushed the envelope, confused Dodgers fans and made us believe that now was our time. In fact, it may have been. Certainly there was enough talent assembled to win in 2013.
It doesn’t take too much sideways glancing to feel that had Matt Kemp been healthy, had Hanley Ramirez not been plunked (likely with some intention) in the rib cage in game one of the NLCS, if Andre Ethier didn’t have some sort of hairline break in his leg, things very well may have been dramatically different.
Most teams might face playing without one big gun, but three? While the Cardinals earned their trip to the Fall Classic by destroying the Dodgers Friday night, it’s not sour grapes to say it likely wouldn’t have happened, or certainly been less ridiculous, if any one or two of those three stars had been healthy.
Anyways… 2013 was quite a ride and I’m happy to say the team seems to be on the right track. But there still is a lot of work to do, as I noted. In future editions I will get into what that work might be, and we can kick around ideas and discuss names, but I’d like to point out areas I harped on all season that were either never addressed, or were later in the year. Things that seem obvious to me.
The first things I’ll point out are the bench and the bullpen. As I said very early and very often, a team won’t win with a poor or mediocre bullpen. The Dodgers took a long time to get it right, due to stubbornness and perhaps belief the group they had such high hopes for would actually gel and come through. While many point to the arrival of Yasiel Puig as the main reason the Dodgers season turned around, or even the health of Hanley, I think the revamping of a pen that cost the team a lot of games before mid-June, was as important a reason as any the blue’s fortunes changed.
Once Stan Kasten decided Brandon League’s constant blowing of games, and some of the other stinkers in the pen blowing up was unacceptable, anointing Kenley Jansen the closer and promoting good young arms to fortify the fruitless gang that cost the team something like 17 games before the epic winning streak began, the fire was out. Without the flames whipping up, then with the addition of a pulse in Puig, then Hanley’s return and eventually Ethier contributing in center, Zack Greinke getting healthy, Juan Uribe finally getting at bats, the team could focus on winning.
I won’t go into detail now, but I’d like to see Brian Wilson return to the Dodgers next year. Kenley is young enough that I think he could be pushed back to set-up to accommodate Wilson as closer, or, if willing (doubt it), Wilson can be re-signed at closer’s money to set Kenley up. Either way, I think the bearded wild man needs to come back. Think about it – if Wilson leaves to close in Detroit, New York, or some other town, the Dodgers will need a reliable set-up man anyway. Where will this person come from? The Dodgers already have a relationship with Wilson, just keep him. As an LA guy, and sniffing the euphoria of the post season, he probably would like to be part of what looks like a blue renaissance.
I’d like to switch gears and address the 800 pound gorilla in the room which is Don Mattingly. Donnie is a nice guy, was a solid player, had a cool mustache, but now is an inexperienced, non-aggressive game caller who is too often in the news for blunders he’s made. A manager should be mostly invisible, yet Donnie is a person mentioned on most any night. His lack of post-season experience as a player was in the spotlight as he safely managed the Dodgers in October. He lacked the “necessities” Al Campanis probably meant – i.e. chops, experience, and guts – to know how to manage a quality baseball team.
Day after day fans would point out Donnie’s gaffs. It took until the post season for he – or Kasten – to figure out how to make out a lineup card, and when injuries came about, even then they were bad. Donnie’s reluctance to be flexible, to understand his personnel, to use imagination frequently caused problems for the blue, and many times, losses.
When Hanley was hit in game one vs. the Cardinals, Donnie literally handed the red birds the second game on a platter. His lineup was uninspired, as he rested both Hanley and Ethier and played twin pop guns Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto, both who had been ice cold, with matching .250-ish batting averages on the season. Donnie’s love of “proven guys” meant Scott Van Slyke, who had a nice bounce back season and who had 7 homers in just over a 100 at-bats (do the math what that might be if he played a full season) was never a consideration and rotted the entire NLCS as the Dodgers not only struggled to score, but even connect on deep fly balls when needed late in games.
Donnie also did not retaliate when Hanley was hit, nor offer brush back pitches at all. He went so far as to calm down Puig when the kid was nearly hit in the face for the second time in 2013. Donnie stifled fire, contained energy and allowed the Cards to bend the Dodgers over like a nightmarish scene in an episode of “Oz”.
The Dodgers are a collection of wealthy guys who often contain their emotions. To have a manager who bottles that up even more is deadly. A brush back pitch, a bean ball to Carlos Beltran or Matt Holliday, a bench clearing brawl like the one the team had with the Diamondbacks, may have transformed the series. The Dodgers played by rote, uninspired baseball, with no imagination being offered by their leader. There were no aggressive plays on the base paths, unless you count Punto’s daydreaming and being caught off second base as such. No fire, no passion, no chance.
To top it off, the Cards and their fans talked shit in the press and in social media about the “cocky Dodgers”. Cocky? When? I missed that apparently. The media pointed out the blue’s large payroll and how “small market” St. Louis was going to show the LA spendaholics something about class. Not one step of this journey did Donnie change the tide and do something that might actually be construed as “cocky”. No, he told Puig to settle down from the dugout, and threw a wet blanket over any possible spark that might be ignited.
Well, none of this matters as apparently Donnie will be back for 2014. I assume Kasten and company realize some of what I just wrote and something will change. I don’t know what will, or how, but I have to think the brain trust knows at least as much about the Dodgers as some guy writing in his blog.
I will be back with additional entries as time permits. I just wanted to put something down to keep the fans’ thinking and talking and potentially enlighten some that were oblivious. I love the Dodgers, as no doubt do you. I am hoping for an active and fun Hot Stove season. I’d like to see areas improved, weaknesses strengthened and hope restored. Long-suffering Dodgers fans, going back to after that 1981 end of an era championship – and the miracle that was 1988 – have waited a very, very, very long time for greatness. In point of fact, the Cardinals fans and the media’s portrayal of the Dodgers as some greedy bunch who try to buy championships is a very unfair characterization. All of us who have suffered through the end of the O’Malley era, Fox, the McCourts, bankruptcy, court hearings, etc. know as much. It’s time for a new golden age of Dodgers baseball. We deserve it.
Dodgers fans agony…