Last Update: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
|The Confidence Game|
|Written by Mike Terry|
|Thursday, 03 April 2014 05:03|
The Dodgers And Angels Believe They Can Have Successful Seasons And Make The Playoffs
Major League Baseball got its season underway this week for all of its teams this week. And baseball on the West Coast, from San Diego to Oakland, figures to be highly competitive and have a definitive say in who wins the championship in October.
Here in Southern California, both the Dodgers and Angels can describe themselves as contenders and say it with a straight face. Each team has young and veteran stars, each team has depth. Each team has the offensive capability in the starting lineups to produce runs and summerlong excitement.
The Dodgers have the more proven pitching, while the Angels are rolling the dice on some young arms that must prove their worth more in August and September than May and June. What’s more important: both teams believe and have reasons to believe they are contenders and factors in 2014.
It should make for a highly watchable baseball season for the locals — assuming the Dodgers and Time Warner do manage to work out something with the other cable outlets to have their games available for most to watch, rather than a few.
Dodgers Look Ready for A Blue October
Hitting Coach Mark McGwire was standing on the visitor dugout steps of Angels Stadium, watching the Dodgers stretching and warming up, when he was asked about his dominant Oakland A’s teams of the mid-1980s that went to three straight World Series and won a championship in 1989.
“We knew we were good — we knew it,” he said. “We had talent and a lot of guys who didn’t want to lose.” When asked if the 2014 Dodgers could be on the verge of such a breakout, McGwire just smiled.
That is the attitude the Dodgers are taking into the season. They know they’re good, and want to prove it. They have gone from a franchise teetering on the brink of insolvency and irrelevancy in 2011 to one that won the National League West Division in 2013, and fell two games shy of reaching the World Series.
The Dodgers have a talent blend that stretches from proven veterans like Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp to phenoms like Yasiel Puig and Hyun- Jin Ryu; role players like Chone Figgins happy in their roles; a strong starting rotation and deep bullpen; stability in management on and off the field; and the cash to spend if low productivity and/or injury threaten to derail the season.
In short, everything (seemingly) in place.
No wonder there is a strong sense of self in the clubhouse.
“I think the confidence level is really high right now,” said Crawford, as the team was wrapping up the weekend Freeway Series with the Angels. “The team is blending so good right now; that [winning year] last year made us know each other better, what makes us tick. Just the fact we came up short last year, we felt we had a better team.
“With that in mind we came back this year to be better, more crisp, and take care of business.”
Adds Ethier, “I think we’re definitely playing off what we did last year. We didn’t quite end up where we wanted to be, which would have been the World Series, but it was still a big step from the year before…I think a lot of guys are playing off that momentum and feeling that confidence.”
Even though reigning Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was placed on the 15-day disabled list on March 29 (for the first time in his seven-year career) because of a swollen muscle in his upper back, the lefthanded ace of the rotation is unafraid of embracing big ambitions.
“I think health is the most important thing. We are healthy for the most part,” Kershaw said. “The injuries we have for the most part are minor, not as big or as important as the ones to [Chad] Billingsley (Tommy John surgery) last year and [Zack] Greinke (fractured left clavicle) or somebody like that. I think, with the team healthy, we like the talent and we like our chances.”
Manager Don Mattingly, who was (finally) rewarded with a two-year contract extension during the offseason, remembered those 1980s Oakland A’s teams he played against while a member of the New York Yankees, and felt that was a good model to emulate.
“I don’t want to put us in that Oakland category because those guys were good for a long time, and won a world championship,” Mattingly said. "But playing against that club? We knew how good they were. They came in confident and exuded it. And it made you uncomfortable. They were like ‘we are better than you and we know it. But we play hard every day.’ They came after you.”
Here’s why Los Angeles should feel good about itself starting out.
The Dodgers won 92 regular games last season, including going 62-28 after June 22. That stretch is highlighted, of course, by a 42-8 record from June 23 through Aug. 18, the second most wins by a Major League team since 1900.
Their team .264 batting average was third in the National League, they were seventh in runs scored (649). On the mound, their team earned run average of 3.28 was topped only by Atlanta — whom the Dodgers beat in the divisional playoffs.
They did all that despite a flurry of injuries that kept Kemp (hamstring/shoulder/ankle), Ramirez (hamstring/thumb surgery) and 15 other Dodgers on the disabled list for moderate to long stretches.
Kemp may miss a week or two of the start of the year, then be back to fill out the squad. Kershaw's return will take longer, perhaps including a minor league start before being cleared.
It’s unlikely the Dodgers will have to endure the same amount of lost time on the DL this season. Still, there are other things besides health that need to happen.
Puig (.319, 19 home runs, 42 RBIs) was electrifying and polarizing following his June call-up. This will be his first full Major League season, and he’s part of the quartet of outfielders filling three starting spots. He is still a freakishly gifted athlete; but now Puig must prove he’ll stop repeating fundamental (and mental) mistakes, and further adjust to Major League pitching, which has adjusted somewhat to him.
Second base remains a question mark. Los Angeles signed Cuban free agent talent Alex Guerrero in the offseason, but he was a shortstop and is still learning the new position in the minors. Dee Gordon (another converted shortstop) has the job for now; Gordon’s so-so bat has kept him from securing a fulltime slot with the Dodgers; this may be his last chance.
Kershaw (16-9, 1.83), Greinke (15-4, 2.63) and Ryu (14- 8, 3.00) are as good a 1-2-3 rotation order as there is in the majors. It’s whether Dan Heren (10-14, 4.67 with Washington) and Paul Maholm (10-11, 4.41 with (Atlanta) can keep from being a significant drop off. It will get more interesting if Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley are healthy enough to compete. The bullpen is anchored by Jansen (4-3, 1.88, 28 saves) as the closer. But there are plenty of other arms — Brian Wilson J.P. Howell, Paco Rodriguez — that can throw gas rather than pour it on leads.
“The blend is good,” Mattingly said. “We have a lot of guys who are doing well. And I think we have enough guys competing for jobs. When Matt [Kemp] comes back we’ll have four outfielders, so there’s competition for playing time. If you’re not playing well, it’s hard to say you belong in the lineup. So I think having the competition is good as long as it’s healthy.
“I feel good about our club.” They feel good about each other.
They could feel great come October.
Angels Can Swing and May at Last Have The Wings
Water isn’t the only drought that has been felt around Southern California. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim haven’t been a part of the Major League Baseball postseason since 2009. Add to that to a disappointing 2013 season — 78-84 overall and third place in the American League West, an odious 18 games behind first place Oakland.
So while teams normally use spring training as the time to work on pick off plays and pitch counts, the Angels played their 2014 spring schedule as if the stakes were a little bigger. Noted one team insider,” It looked like [the games] mattered more this time.”
Again, no one should read much into exhibition results. It should be noted, though, the Halos lost 20 spring games in 2013, the most since 2003. This year they won 19 games, the most since winning 24 in 2009 when — all together now — “they last made the playoffs.”
But it’s not the number of exhibition wins that has caught the eye of Manager Mike Scioscia; it’s the way the Angels played the games.
“We had a a bad spring training last year for a number of reasons,” Scioscia said. “We had a bad spring training on the mound. The fact we’re winning [spring] games this time is not the bottom line; it’s how we’re winning games.
“We’ve pitched great baseball in those 30-something spring games. I think our bullpen has established some depth. And the young arms in our rotation, while not the finished products, have shown their stuff matches anybody’s in the major leagues We’re excited about how we’ve won games, how we’ve held leads; and that gives us confidence moving forward.”
Scioscia and his coaching staff hope they are right about the pitching. That aspect of the game has let the Angels down severely the past few years, and has been as big a reason as any for not reaching the playoffs the last four years.
The 2013 season was particularly barren. The pitching staff swung between debilitating injuries — Jeff Weaver (elbow) — to depressingly ineffective — Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04). The most effective starter was C.J. Wilson (17-7, 3.39). Their next effective starter, Jason Vargas (14-11, 3.85) missed seven weeks because of surgery to remove a blood clot in his left arm pit, and has gone to Kansas City via free agency.
Collectively, Angels pitchers had the fifth highest ERA in the American League (4.23); gave up the third most hits (1,475); and tied Toronto for the fourth most earned runs given up (685). No wonder General Manager Jerry Dipoto was willing to trade the offense of Mark Trumbo (34 homers, 100 RBIs) to Arizona, and the speed and centerfield defense of Peter Bourjos to St. Louis for some fresh arms: left-hander Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to join Weaver, Wilson and an improving Garrett Richards.
The bullpen does have closer Ernesto Frieri (2-4, 3.80, 37 saves) who gave up a shocking 11 home runs last year and one-time closer Fernando Salas, who came over from St. Louis along with third baseman David Freese in Bourjos trade. But does it have what it takes to give the Angels offense a chance?
Because that offense can be good; in fact the lineup 1-7 can be scary if it gets hot.
Start with Mike Trout (.323, 27 homers, 97 RBI) who might be a two-time MVP at age 22 if it wasn’t for Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, and who has six more years and a $144.5 million contract extension to somehow get even better. Both Albert Pujols (.258, 17 homers, 64 RBI) and Josh Hamilton (.250, 21 homers, 79 RBI) can’t be as banged up again as they were last year.
Kole Calhoun is not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but handled the role nicely in the spring. Freese should be eager to show he’s not declining at 30. Designated hitter Raul Ibaanez may still have something left at 41. And Howie Kendrick is capable of 70 RBIs hitting in the lower half of the lineup.
The potential feeds the imagination with delicious possibilities — IF the team can stay healthy and IF the players are close to the maximum potential.
It’s not just the Angels standing in their own way, however. The American League has plenty of playoff candidates: Baltimore, defending champion Boston, New York and Tampa Bay from the East; Cleveland, Detroit, and Kansas City from the Central; and Oakland and Texas from their own division.
This is not a time to risk starting slowly, like the Halos did last April (9-17). They were above .500 only once — 1-0 after Opening Day.
But after having so many things go wrong in 2013, Los Angeles has to believe more things will go right this year.
Which would go a long way toward ending this drought.
“I don’t think there’s a manager in the game whose confidence isn’t affected by how their starting rotation is doing, how their bullpen is in holding leads. That’s a given,” Scioscia said.
“I think our guys are pitching great. Our bullpen is doing well and is exactly where it needs to be to start the season. I coming out [to the start of the season] with a high level of confidence of where our team is.”
|Last Updated on Thursday, 03 April 2014 17:53|