Monday, May 7, 2012

Dodgers change owners, but real change is on the field

The Dodgers passed into a transition during the last weekend of April as Frank McCourt made his last calls in the clubhouse and fans packed Dodger Stadium for three exciting games against another division leader, the Washington Nationals.

Even before the team's sale was finalized, the change already was being felt at Dodger Stadium (public domain image).

Big Leagues in LA

The Dodgers passed into a transition on the weekend April 27-29 as outgoing owner Frank McCourt made his final calls in the clubhouse. Fans, now giddy over the ball club's winning ways, just couldn't wait for the evil one to be gone and crashed the gates in numbers last seen years ago as the Washington Nationals visited Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, off to their best start in 31 years, just kept grinding out narrow wins.

Among the suits, the transition didn't go smoothly. Earlier in the month, Major League Baseball (MLB) attorneys tied up the bankruptcy court for two hours, complaining to the judge that Guggenheim Baseball, the prospective Dodgers ownership group, wasn't coming clean about its arrangements with McCourt to share the Dodger Stadium parking lot. McCourt needed to have the $2.15 billion sale closed on April 30 so he could pay the $131 million he owes his ex-wife. The sale closed on May 1. As to how being a day late would affect matters between McCourt and his ex, who cares?

All of that seemed far away from Dodger Stadium. With three tight, exciting victories against the Nationals, the Dodgers again became the LA Dodgers, the city team pursuing a pennant before packed houses. The Dodgers and their fans were back without waiting for McCourt to be all the way gone.

No one looked at the schedule in March expecting a three-game visit from the Nationals to bring up so much energy. But the Nationals arrived on April 27 leading the NL East, the Dodgers led the NL West, and we witnessed a weekend of big games played by big stars in front of big crowds.

The Dodgers sweep sent 147,802 fans home with a sense that they will be back. The gate was the best at Dodger Stadium for a three-game weekend series in three years, since the Angels drew 164,476 for a Freeway Series played May 22-24, 2009. The Dodgers were contenders then, as they are now.

The series began with a Friday night game featuring Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' Cy Young Award winner, against a weak Washington lineup. The Nationals came to town second only to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a good-pitch, no-hit operation. They had five starting pitchers with WHIPs of less than 1.0, but their best hitter, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, was out with injury, prompting the Nats to call up 19-year-old Bryce Harper. But Harper wasn't arriving until the next day. So, the Nats tried their luck with an order that included three hitters -- Mark DeRosa, Danny Espinosa and Xavier Nady -- batting less than .200.

Ease of victory appeared certain for the Dodgers in the first inning, when Andre Ethier followed a Matt Kemp single by hitting a 1-0 slider from Ross Detwiler over the right field fence. The Dodgers added a run in the fourth, when Juan Uribe batted a 2-2 slider from Detwiler into the hole at short, driving in Kemp from third.

With the game's best pitcher tossing, a 3-0 lead for the Dodgers appeared safe. But that appearance evaporated in the top of the sixth.

In the first inning, Kershaw hit a 2-2 count to Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, then tossed him a letter-high, 85 MPH slider (we'll call it that, whatever it was) with no movement. Apparently not believing Kershaw would throw such a pitch, LaRoche watched it go by. Strike three.

LaRoche singled against Kershaw's fastball in the fourth inning, then faced Kershaw again in the sixth. This time, Kershaw had just walked Jason Werth, missing the plate with three of five fastballs. But Kershaw blew two fastballs past LaRoche here to reach an 0-2 count. Then, inexplicably, Kershaw went back to that lifeless, 85 MPH slider across the letters that made a fool of LaRoche in the first inning. This time, LaRoche was sitting on it, and he blasted it into the right field seats. Suddenly, the Dodgers were in a game, leading only 3-2.

Washington could not mount another threat, either against Kershaw or reliever Kenley Janson. The Dodgers escaped with a 3-2 win, huge because they had just lost two of three at home against Atlanta and they stood to be in for hard times the next two games against Washington pitchers Steven Strasburg and Gio Gonzales.

The middle game of this series truly brought the Dodgers home with brilliant individual performances following various adversities for a 4-3 win in ten innings. The largest adversity consisted in batting against Strasburg, who lives on a 98 MPH four-seam fastball and a big, hard curve that almost always finds the strike zone. The Dodgers barely touched him.

In particular, Kemp barely touched him. Kemp might have deservedly been the unanimous pick for NL Player of the Month in April, but on this night, Strasburg owned him. Kemp faced Strasburg three times and made four outs -- two strikeouts and a double play. Strasburg threw Kemp ten fastballs and three curves. Kemp hit one pitch from Strasburg fair -- a 1-2 fastball to trigger a double play around the horn to end the first inning. The grounder erased Tony Gwynn, who had just ripped Strasburg's fastball into right field for a single.

Strasburg whiffed Kemp in four pitches to end the third inning, finishing the job with a 1-2 fastball the Dodgers star watched for called strike three. In the sixth, Strasburg brought his most impressive wares against Kemp. After Kemp fouled off a fastball and a curve for a 1-2 count, the Nats right hander dialed up a 98.2 MPH four-seamer with so much backspin that it apparently defied gravity by the Magnus effect. The pitch was still going up when Kemp swung under it for strike three.

Thus, Strasburg shut down Kemp in a performance that should be noted as a measure of the young pitcher's dominance. It's not as if Kemp was in for a bad night.

Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley stayed with Strasburg, matching zeroes for six innings. The Nats finally put up a run in the top of the seventh on LaRoche's homer to right against Billingsley, taking a 1-0 lead. But the Dodgers were back with a run in their half of the inning, the most heartening run of the season so far, mostly a testament to the way Jerry Hairston, a third generation major leaguer, goes about playing this game.

It began with Strasburg hitting Hairston in the hands with a 98 MPH fastball. The left wrist took the brunt of it. The sound was rather disturbing. Hairston winced hard for a while. The trainer and the manager came out to check on him. Hairston stayed in the game, taking first base. Next, James Loney hit a bouncer towards the right of second base. As Hairston ran hard to second base, Washington second baseman Daniel Espinosa charged in towards the ball, but lost track and mishandled it. Hairston slid into the bag, holding his left hand as he popped up. Loney was safe at first on the error.

So, what do you know? The Dodgers didn't hit Strasburg all night. Strasburg completely overmatched the best hitter in the game right now. But by the gifts of a hit batsman and an error, they had runners at first and second with no outs. Now, though, the bottom of the order approached. So, the Dodgers finally had a runner in scoring position, but against this pitcher, he was a long way from home.

Strasburg apparently righted himself by striking out Juan Uribe, giving him nine Ks for the game. Not only had Strasburg not walked anyone, but he hadn't even run to a three-ball count. He still owned this game with a 1-0 lead and A.J. Ellis coming up.

Ellis is a 31-year-old catcher who began the season with 87 games in the major leagues. He did not rise quickly, nor with his bat. However, he has one outstanding quality as a hitter -- his sense of the strike zone. During his 543-game minor league career, Ellis walked 336 times and struck out 283 times. At this moment, he was 14 and 14 in 2012.

Now, with a chance to score a precious run at hand, Ellis and his eye put the flame-throwing phenom to the test. Strasburg started with a curve outside for ball one. Next came a smoking fastball right near the down-low corner, but Ellis thought it missed and home plate umpire Mark Carlson agreed. Ball two. Now Strasburg was in a fight. He followed with a high fastball through the zone and Ellis saw it coming, but he swung and missed. Next, another fastball. Ellis took a good rip, a tiny bit late, and fouled it hard into the first base seats. Next, Strasburg tried to put Ellis away with another high fastball, but Ellis watched it go high, running the count full and putting Strasburg in a three-ball count for the first time all night.

For his next pitch, Strasburg selected his curve ball. Before A.J. Ellis batted in the seventh, Strasburg had thrown 26 curves. Of the 13 that hitters did not swing at, seven were called strikes and six were balls. Of the 13 that hitters swung at, they missed three of them completely, fouled off five and put three in play for outs. Another curve to Loney earlier in this very inning resulted in the error at second base by Espinosa. Strasburg had allowed only one hit all night with his curve ball -- a fifth-inning ground ball single to right by A.J. Ellis.

So the odds more or less favored Strasburg getting out of this with his curve. But not against this hitter, this time. As Strasburg's curve broke down sharply, Ellis hit the top half of the ball hard and it bounced on two hops through the hole between third and short, skipping straight toward the charging left fielder Harper, who had been playing deep. Hairston, running on contact, went hard to third and was waved home by third base coach Tim Wallach. Harper scooped up the ball coming towards the plate and threw a bullet, right on time and mark, to Washington catcher Wilson Ramos. Hairston was out by three feet.

He was. Out by three feet. But not yet. Heading to a collision at the plate, Hairston, with his left hand, which had to be throbbing and sore as could be, swatted at the ball, the catcher's glove that held the ball, the catcher's arm -- whatever he could get. And it worked. He separated Ramos from the ball, sliding past the plate, then, reaching back across his body, slapped the plate with his right hand. The game was tied.

Hairston left the game in the ninth inning with an injured left hand. The club took precautionary X-rays, which were negative. Hairston sat out the next day's game against Washington, but returned to the field as a substitute in a series opener at Colorado a day later. 

The game tied, 1-1, Strasburg and Billingsley both left after the seventh inning. In the eighth, set-up men Josh Lindblom for Los Angeles and Tyler Clippard for Washington both pitched successfully, taking it 1-1 to the ninth inning, when closers Javy Guerra for the Dodgers and Henry Rodriguez for the Nationals both pitched unsuccessfully.

Guerra might claim extenuating circumstances, but he shouldn't. He entered for Scott Elbert with one out and Rick Ankiel at first base. He still had the edge. They still had to cross three bases before he could get two of them out. Unfortunately, the Nats immediately moved Ankiel up two bases to third with a single by Espinosa. Harper, who had doubled for his first big league hit in the seventh, hit a sacrifice fly to left, bringing in Ankiel. Next, Ramos singled to right field, driving in Espinosa from second and giving the Nationals a 3-1 lead.

The Nationals, then, were about to celebrate a huge win for their early-season contender. They went on the road against another division leader, their ace shut down the opposition and their phenom enjoyed a nice debut. All that remained were three more outs.

But their closer, Rodriguez, could not get them in time. The inning unraveled for Rodriguez from the start, when Mark Ellis led off with a single to right. Rodriguez responded with his first of two wild pitches in the inning, moving Ellis to second base. Next, Loney singled to right, moving Ellis to third, and the Dodgers had Rodriguez on the ropes with no one out.

Rodriguez slowed himself down a bit and threw two sliders to Uribe. The first time, Uribe swung and missed. The second time, Uribe pounced for a ground rule double down the left field line. Ellis scored, Loney moved to third, and now the Dodgers were within an eyelash of winning this one. But those hopes fizzled quickly.

Rodriguez threw too much fastball for A.J. Ellis, who fouled off one and missed two others completely for a strikeout. Then, Adam Kennedy, pinch hitting for Guerra, hit a ground ball to LaRoche at first. LaRoche fired home for Loney, who ran on contact. Out at the plate. Uribe moved up to third, but with two out and light-hitting Dee Gordon coming up, the Dodgers were a long shot to even tie the game.

The at-bat went seven pitches before reaching 3-2 on a changeup in the dirt. Working off the change, though, Rodriguez had to know Gordon would never catch up to his best fastball. So, Rodriguez threw it. 101 MPH. Gordon swung and missed. Strike three. Game over.

Except that Ramos, behind the plate, couldn't hang onto this wild ball, which skipped to the backstop. And one thing Gordon can do is run. He was still alive and on his way to first. Meanwhile, Uribe barreled in from third base and beat the throw home. The game was, once again, tied, now at 3-3. After Gordon took second base without a throw (for whatever reason, the winning run taking second base was scored as defensive indifference), Gwynn lined out to LaRoche, ending the inning.

After Jamie Wright pitched a one-two-three tenth for the Dodgers, Kemp led off the bottom of the inning against a new Washington pitcher, lefty Tom Gorzellany. Like his at-bats against Strasburg, this one began inauspiciously for Kemp. First, he took a fastball for a strike. Next, Kemp swung and missed at a change, plunging himself into a 0-2 hole. Kemp watched the next pitch, a change, go wide for ball one. And then, Gorzellany dialed up his best fastball, 92 MPH, and Kemp naturally viewed a 92 MPH fastball as a welcomed sight. Kemp drilled the pitch high over the center field wall.

Great as Kemp has been in the clutch this season, no one could believe it. This game was over and the Dodgers were celebrating. The crowd went wild as Kemp rounded third and leaped into a scrum of teammates at the plate. The fans hung around for Kemp's TV interview, broadcast in the stadium. In the end, the night belonged to Matt Kemp. But it certainly didn't begin that way. He got his chance in the tenth, and we can point to a number of reasons, but nothing stood out like the run in the seventh, when Hairston's game approach and a patient at-bat for A.J. Ellis made it possible for the star to later take his turn.

The Dodgers went to the Sunday game seeking a sweep behind their new lefthander, Chris Capuano. Washington countered with its new lefthander, Gio Gonzalez. The two battled to a 0-0 tie through five innings.

But there was something a little strange about how Gonzalez got there. The Dodgers appeared to be helping him. Gonzalez made it through five innings throwing only 59 pitches. And he was fairly wild, throwing 34 balls and 25 strikes. Gonzalez began the game wild, walking Tony Gwynn, then moving the runner up on a wild pitch. But Gonzalez rallied with strikeouts against Kemp and Ethier to stop the inning.

The next four innings found the Dodgers making two outs on 1-0 pitches, two outs on 2-0 pitches, two outs on 2-1 pitches and three outs on first pitches. In the sixth, though, the Dodgers got wise to Gonzalez and stopped swinging at him.

As a result, Kemp, Ethier and Uribe all walked on a total of 13 pitches, loading the bases with one out. Gonzalez needed a double play or a strikeout. But after going up 1-2 on Loney, the Dodgers first baseman flaired a curveball the other way. The ball fell between the shortstop and the center fielder. Two runs scored.

Entering the game, Gonzalez had retired 48 straight hitters after reaching two-strike counts. For the first five innings of this one, he added six more. But in the sixth inning, facing a hitter who has to be  considered a weak link in the Dodgers lineup, Gonzalez lost his streak, and the game, to a flair.

It was that kind of a weekend for the Dodgers. The Nationals didn't make a serious threat for the remainder of the game. The Dodgers prevailed in a 2-0 win, sweeping this early meeting of division leaders.

Monday night, the new Dodgers ownership group will introduce itself to the fans as the Dodgers bring the San Francisco Giants to their stadium. No doubt, the crowd will cheer Magic Johnson as he introduces members of Jackie Robinson's family in a pre-game ceremony. A glorious past and a compelling future will come together in one moment.

But baseball is every bit as much about the present, which is no good unless the ball club is. And the Dodgers showed a week earlier that they have something of what it takes. The fans responded. They just couldn't wait. And, now, they no longer have to.

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