First Place!

Ho-hum, just another shutout – the third of June already – and the sixth one-run win in nine June games. That’s how you finally get back to first place in the NL West.

But it’s not just first place, is it? The win, coupled with San Diego’s loss to the Mets, gives the Dodgers the best record in the National League at 35-24, which is good for the third best in baseball behind Tampa Bay and the Yankees, who play in their own space league anyway.

Tonight’s heroes were many. Hiroki Kuroda rebounded from a string of subpar starts to go seven scoreless innings, walking just one while striking out six. Hong-Chih Kuo and Jonathan Broxton continued their utter domination, as Kuo hasn’t allowed an earned run since his first game of the season on April 22 and Broxton stared down the heart of the St. Louis lineup – Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Ryan Ludwick. Andre Ethier broke out of his post-DL slump to double twice among his three hits, and Manny Ramirez – despite somehow seeing just nine pitches in four at-bats – doubled in the only run the team would need in the 8th inning.

First place may not last long, since Adam Wainwright‘s no easy task tomorrow (though of course, neither is Clayton Kershaw). But it was only five weeks ago that the club was in last place – in the league, not just the division – and we were pondering just how bad it could get as the starting rotation disintegrated around us. So for tonight, all that matters is first place.

It’s a nice feeling.

Nothing Is F***ed Here, Dude

The Dodgers have won 16 out of their last 21. They’d won 6 series in a row before dropping 2 of 3 to San Francisco this weekend, and it could have very easy been 7 series in a row with just one well-placed groundball on Sunday.

So why’s everyone acting like the sky is falling? Just look at the headlines.

“Dodgers make pennant race interesting at the end”, Los Angeles Times.

“Dodgers lose game and precious ground”, Los Angeles Times.

“Dodgers’ NL West lead continues to shrink”, Los Angeles Daily News

“Any Dodgers pressing?”, Riverside Press-Enterprise

Yes, the Diamondbacks have played better lately. I get it, they’re not going to just completely give up and die. But let’s not act as though the Dodgers have reverted to the Little League outfit they became during that 8-game losing streak just yet, shall we? The odds are still squarely in the Dodgers favor – 94.7% to 5.3%, in fact, according to the latest Playoff Odds Report on Baseball Prospectus.

* Being as it’s an off-day, I’d like to continue what would be an epic jinxing by updating the playoff roster predictions I made earlier in the month. At the time, I included Brad Penny, Rafael Furcal, and Jeff Kent. We’ve got the latest news on the three, also from Baseball Prospectus and Will Carroll’s invaluable “Under the Knife” report:

The Dodgers seem ready to slide into the playoffs, but there’s as much work to be done by Stan Conte and his staff as there is for Joe Torre and his field staff. The Dodgers are waiting to see if they’ll have Kent and Furcal back, but putting either on the playoff roster would be a real gamble. Kent still can’t run, but can hit, giving LA scribes an easy comparison to Kirk Gibson. Torre, for his part, won’t commit to having Kent on the roster for the Division Series, with most indications being that Kent would be left off while continuing to rehab. The news isn’t as good with Furcal, who still has back problems, including pain shooting into his leg, after his back surgery. His addition to the lineup looks extremely unlikely, though he too will continue to rehab. A Kent/Furcal keystone combo is certainly better than what they had out there on Sunday (Blake DeWitt and Angel Berroa). The news is clearer on Penny—he’s done for the season after another cortisone injection in his pitching shoulder, and will be shut down.

The loss of Penny, combined with the news that Torre will in fact use 4 starters, means that I’m going to replace him with Greg Maddux, who I’d initially left off. I’m also going to say that either Furcal or Kent makes the roster, but not both, so as horrified as I am to entertain this possibility… you might actually see Pablo Ozuna out there. I know, I know. I just can’t see them going with Chin-Lung Hu over him, or ever allowing Delwyn Young to play second base again.

* Speaking of looking ahead, Cubs fans are already discussing who they might face in the playoffs. It’s starting to look almost certain that it won’t be the Dodgers, unless the Brewers turn it around and overtake the Mets for the wild card. The Chicago Tribune ranks the Dodgers #2 in terms of preferred opponents, harder than Arizona yet more preferable than New York or Philadelphia, saying:

Reasons to believe: Los Angeles was a sub-.500 team as recently as Sept. 2. For the season, the Dodgers rank 13th in the NL in runs and home runs. The injury to closer Takashi Saito unsettled the bullpen. Saito has returned, leaving Joe Torre to choose between Saito and Jonathan Broxton in save situations.

Causes for concern: No NL team has been hotter than the Dodgers, who have gone 16-4 since Aug. 30 as Manny Ramirez (above) and Andre Ethier have turned around a stagnant lineup. Derek Lowe is the hottest starter in the NL, going 5-1 over seven starts with a 1.14 ERA since Aug. 15. Torre’s teams have gone 16-9 in postseason series, winning four World Series.

Frankly, I’d rather play the Mets and their disaster-a-second bullpen than the Cubs, anyway. Cubs blog Wrigleyville23 looks at it another way

All of the teams have bats, but pitching wise:

1. The Brewers are what they are, which is CC and a bunch of nothing if Sheets is hurt.

2. The Mets are Santana, Pelfrey and … absolutely no bullpen?

3. The Phillies are Hamels, Myers, Lidge and a bunch of crap.

4. And the Dodgers are way out there on the West Coast. Long way to fly.

I’m not sure whether to be pleased that other people think the Dodgers offense is suddenly on par with bashers like the Phillies and Brewers… or insulted that “pitching wise”, the biggest strength of the team that’s still leading the National League in ERA is flight time.

* This isn’t Dodger-related, but I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read it, regarding the Mets signing up with Buffalo to be their new AAA affiliate:

“Of all the organizations, I don’t know of one that is more baseball-oriented than the Mets,” Bisons president and owner Bob Rich Jr. said.

Because while the Mets focus on baseball, the Dodgers spend 20% of their time on their indoor volleyball team? The Cubs worry about their used-car dealership?

No game tonight. Let’s go Cardinals! Especially because I really like the picture I found for what would be magic number 4.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

By Acknowledging This Is a Jinx, It’s a Reverse Jinx

As promised on Monday, today’s an off-day and the Dodgers are still in first place – by three and a half games! So let’s take a completely presumptuous look at what a possible playoff roster could look like. Teams are allowed to take 25 players, and it’s almost always a hitter/pitcher split of either 14/11 or 13/12.

Stone Cold Locks (hitters)
1. Russell Martin C
2. Danny Ardoin C
3. James Loney 1B
4. Casey Blake 3B
5. Manny Ramirez LF
6. Matt Kemp CF
7. Andre Ethier RF
8. Juan Pierre OF

You may have noticed there’s no middle infield listed yet, but that’s going to be a nightmare of epic proportions, what with all the bodies that have cycled through, so we’ll get back to that in a moment.

Stone Cold Locks (pitchers)
9.  Chad Billingsley SP
10. Derek Lowe SP
11. Hiroki Kuroda SP
12. Jonathan Broxton RP/CL
13. Hong-Chih Kuo RP
14. Chan Ho Park RP
15. Joe Beimel RP
16. Cory Wade RP

Remember, in a best-of-five (as the first round is) you don’t really need to go more than 3 starters deep if you don’t want to. There’s no question that Billingsley, Lowe, and Kuroda are going to be the guys, right? For Game 4, you can either bring back your #1 starter on short rest, or choose one of your bullpen arms with starting experience (Kershaw, Park, Penny, Kuo, etc.) to go. This will be important to remember later, and you can always reset the roster if you make it into the 7 game NLCS.

Okay. We’ve filled 16 spots, and so far it’s split evenly at 8 position players and 8 pitchers. That leaves 9 more spots, and some pretty big holes to fill. Let’s dig in to the biggest hole, the middle infield. Who’s going to be the shortstop? All signs point to Rafael Furcal being almost fully recovered from back surgery, and he’s likely to get at least a week or two of time before the season ends. If he shows just about anything, I can’t imagine that the Dodgers bypass the spark he could bring to a lineup. So let’s carefully assume he’ll be healthy on October 1st, and give him a spot:

17. Rafael Furcal SS

I think the odds are a little further that Jeff Kent is healed and ready to play, but he does have one big thing in his favor: he’s a Hall of Fame veteran who almost certainly is going to retire after this season. There is absolutely no way that Torre allows him to go out on the sidelines. If he can walk, he’ll be on the roster, if only to fill the Kirk Gibson Memorial Gritty Injured Veteran Playoff Pinch Hitting role.

18. Jeff Kent 2B

Now we’re up to 10 position players and 8 pitchers, with 7 more spots to go. Clearly, you’re going to need a backup at middle infield, and with the questionable health of both of them, you’re likely going to need more than one.

19. Nomar Garciaparra SS/3B/1B

Come on, don’t look surprised. Hell, I really should have put him in the “locks” category, because if he doesn’t hurt himself between now and the end of the season, there’s no way they’ll leave him off. In his favor, he can serve as a backup at three infield positions. Of course, he’s never really played second base, you need more than a “backup” for Kent with his gimpy knee, and in fact you might very well need a starting second baseman. Which means that the 20th player on our list is going to have to be….

20. Blake DeWitt 2B/3B

Okay. Now we’re at 20 players – 12 hitters and 8 pitchers. Let’s add two pitchers who are just coming off the DL, and who will certainly make it if healthy. The only reason I didn’t add them to the “locks” list is simply because we haven’t seen them prove it consistently in game conditions yet.

21. Brad Penny SP/RP
22. Takashi Saito RP/CL

3 spots to go, with 12 hitters and 10 pitchers. Now I know what you’re saying, Joe Torre said that Andruw Jones had a good chance of making it. And even though I’m trying to predict what they’re going to do, and not what I would do, I still don’t believe it. Torre will barely play him at all right now, and when he finally did get a start the other night he was 0-4 and showed no proof that he’s going to contribute. With the roster crunch we’re looking at, he can’t possibly make it. So no way. Let’s pick one more hitter and one more pitcher, coming to the accepted minimums for both, before seeing what to do with the last spot.

The candidates, as I see it, for the 13th pitcher are Clayton Kershaw, Greg Maddux, Scott Proctor, Scott Elbert, Ramon Troncoso, Eric Stults, and Jason Johnson. Here’s where it gets really, really tough. Process of elimination here, I suppose. I’m going to cross Johnson, Stults, and Troncoso off the list simply because they’re the least talented. Having a mediocre longman is great during the long season, but in a short playoff series, it’s definitely less important – especially when the pen will already have guys who can go multiple innings in Penny, Kuo, and Park. Next to go is Elbert, because even though he’s been pretty effective, if I’m going to have a rookie lefty out of the pen, I’m going with Kershaw over him. (Assuming that Kershaw isn’t totally abused in the next few weeks, the few innings he’ll get out of the pen or starting a Game 4 in the first round shouldn’t really be a concern.) Proctor’s the next to go, although that’s tough to assume because we all know Torre loves him. But frankly, he’s been bad and hurt most of the season, and the competition level on this staff is so high he just can’t compare. That’s a good thing.

Which brings us to Kershaw vs. Maddux. I mean, how do you choose? The best young pitching prospect in the game vs. one of the best pitchers to ever walk the face of the earth? You might as well flip a coin… and my coin lands on Kershaw. Neither one of these guys is guaranteed to get a start in the first round, and I think I’d rather see Kershaw come out of the pen to dominate an inning or two than Maddux, who hasn’t really been that great since coming to LA anyway.

23. Clayton Kershaw SP/RP

On to the candidates for position player number 13: Angel Berroa, Chin-Lung Hu, Mark Sweeney, and Delwyn Young. This is pretty tough, too. You’ve got Torre’s endless manlove for Mark Sweeney vs. the need for another guy who can play shortstop besides Furcal and Nomar vs. a switch-hitting 5th outfielder who’s probably the best hitter of the four. And NO, I will not consider Andruw Jones here. Much as it pains me to do it, Young is the first to go. You all know I love the guy, but he hasn’t shown all that much this year, and if you happen to need a fifth outfielder, Casey Blake has experience at both corners, with Nomar or DeWitt playing third. I have to think Hu goes next, because as valuable as I think a slick-fielding infielder would be in the late innings of a playoff game (Loney/Hu/Furcal/DeWitt would be such a good defensive infield), space is limited and Torre doesn’t seem to like Hu. Which leaves Berroa vs. Sweeney… look, you know how I feel about Sweeney. He’s completely useless, especially because he offers no value in the field. We’ll come back to him for the 25th man, but for right now I think Berroa wins a spot. I don’t feel comfortable leaving shortstop to just Furcal and Nomar, and Berroa’s basically been the starter the last two weeks, in which he’s admittedly not been completely terrible.

24. Angel Berroa SS

We’re now down to the last spot. So far, there’s 13 position players (2 catchers, 7 infielders, & 4 outfielders, plus Blake can play outfield too) and 11 pitchers. The question is, do you want a 14th hitter, or a 12th pitcher? The Dodgers have chosen to have the extra pitcher for most of the season, but in such a short series I don’t think that’s nearly as important. If it were up to me? My 25th man is Delwyn Young, because a switch-hitter is pretty valuable off the bench, and having him as a fifth outfielder means you never have to worry about putting Casey Blake out there, although a case could be made for Greg Maddux too. But come on, who are we kidding? We all know who they’re going to take.

25. Mark Sweeney PH

Yeah, I know – I’m horrified too. But since he somhow made it this far, nothing would surprise me about him being chosen for the roster. If they’re wise enough to tell Sweeney to take a hike, I think Maddux or Proctor are probably the next on their list. So my best guess right now, is that the roster will shape up like so:

Hitters (14)
Martin C
Ardoin C
Loney 1B
Kent 2B
Furcal SS
Blake 3B
DeWitt 2B/3B
Berroa SS
Nomar SS/3B/1B
Manny LF
Kemp CF
Ethier RF
Pierre OF
Sweeney PH

Pitchers (11)
Billingsley SP
Lowe SP
Kuroda SP
Kershaw SP/RP
Penny SP/RP
Kuo RP
Beimel RP
Park RP
Wade RP
Broxton RP/CL
Saito RP/CL

Outside looking in:
Delwyn Young, Chin-Lung Hu, Andruw Jones, Scott Elbert, Greg Maddux, Scott Proctor, Eric Stults, Ramon Troncoso, Jason Johnson

This is of course subject to change, because I imagine at least one of the guys I’ve predicted to be healthy (Kent/Furcal/Saito/Penny/Nomar) won’t be. But man, how incredible does that bullpen look? That’s just not even fair. Let’s see how close I am when they pick the real roster. Actually, let’s first hope they get to the point where they even get to pick a roster.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg

Holy Crap, First Place?!

So, for the first time since early April…
Vin has written an article!
O.K., that was a joke… really.  Because April 4th the last time the Dodgers spent their lone day in first place!  It’s a little hard to believe, considering how many chances they have had over the past two months to leapfrog over Arizona, only to lose and fall back to 2nd.  But they did it and after winning 5 in a row and losing 8 in a row, our little bipolar Dodgers are now on a 7 game winning streak.  I call it: the Hiroki Kuroda Way To Winning.
While a 7 game winning streak is always impressive, this one has been especially impressive for a few reasons.  For starters, 4 of the 7 victories have come against rival Arizona.  But here’s the really great thing about it: the two pitchers who have received the losses in those games?  Brandon Webb and Dan Haren and it’s especially a rare thing when it’s against Brandon Webb.  Credit my partner in crime for calling this yesterday, but just to show you how rare it is: back in April, I had briefly outlined how the Dodgers had done against the better pitchers of the NL West and Webb has just had total ownage of the Dodgers.  I mean, if Brandon Webb and the Dodgers were in prison, the Dodgers would totally be his bitches.  Before these last two series, Webb hadn’t received a loss courtesy the Dodgers since 2004.
Now we’ve come out and beat him twice to the tune of a career high 8 ER last week and 7 ER yesterday.  Impressive.
But you know another thing that’s impressive?  Watching Chad Billingsley pitch.  Yesterday after going 6.1 IP, giving up 0 ER, 1 BB and 9 K’s, he continues to show why he is one of the very best pitchers in MLB.  As MSTI said, stop with the “he’s going to be an ace” talk.  He IS an ace and already one of the better pitchers in the game.  He’s beaten both Webb and Haren in his last two starts and has continued to get better and better.  Let’s just put this in perspective a little bit.  Throughout the second half, Billingsley has an ERA of 2.88, but look at his season numbers: yes, he is 14-10, but you already know MSTI’s positions on wins.  Look at the other numbers… he has an ERA of 3.02, a 1.29 WHIP, or take a gander at his 147 ERA+.  These are great numbers for anyone, but he’s only 24 years old.  Just total domination and deserves to be in the talk with all the other great aces in the game.  In fact, FireNedCollettiNow.com had an interesting piece of some of the lack of attention he’s been getting, especially after his last game.  Check it out.
Oh yeah, how about that Manny guy?  As if he didn’t own Arizona enough, he went 2-4 with a HR, and 5 RBI’s.  So, I guess it really wasn’t the hair.
Look at his numbers against Arizona since he’s been in L.A.  It’s really absurd:
Going into today, Manny is 18-34 against Arizona, which translates into a line of .590/.590/.1000, with 4 HR’s.
On the Andre Ethier news front: he went 0-2 yesterday with 3 BB’s.  What a bum.
Right now, this team is playing its best baseball of the year.  It seems they’ve finally figured out that you need to pitch well and hit well at the same time and right now they are doing that quite effectively.  Both the offense and pitching deserve credit for all the success over the past week, because they are kicking some serious ass and even if they lose today’s game, to take 2 out of 3 and 4 out of the last 6 from your divisional rival is damn good.  But you can’t take your foot of the pedal, now.  Arizona is obviously struggling and now is the time for the Dodgers to capitalize and start to create some room in the division.  But I’ll take what I’ve been watching: not only have the Dodgers been scoring a ton of runs against Arizona, they’ve just been shutting them down.  If not for the some of the suckiness of our pen in the 9th, we almost had them shut out two games in a row.
But yeah… guess the Dodgers don’t have the pitching to compete with Arizona, right?

- Vin vinscully-face.jpg