There is a sense of inevitability about the Dodgers' recent slide — which reached eight losses in 12 games through Monday — and even they acknowledge the tough, Matt Kemp-less spot in which they find themselves with two-thirds of the season still staring them in the face.
"It's nice to know we put money in the bank for that rainy day, but right now, we're having to spend some of our savings, you know?" said manager Don Mattingly.
If there's anything that has become money in the bank about these Dodgers is how Mattingly's managerial stock has risen along with his team's place atop the National League. Oh, there still is the inevitable second-guessing of some of his in-game decisions. But when it comes to the big-picture concept of leading and creating the right atmosphere, Mattingly has emerged from Joe Torre's large managerial shadow as another great-player/manager success story.
Mattingly is 51, a long way from his "Donnie Baseball" salad days of the mid-to-late-1980s, and he still likes to maintain that down-home-Indiana-boy persona. But his 30-year gamut of big-league experiences and calm-yet-intense way bear believing in as much as his clubhouse does.
You see, this success story actually started late last season, when everyone's attention was diverted by the ownership-level circus around Dodger Stadium. That's when Mattingly & Co. fought out of a below-.500 hole, and finished the season on a 34-20 run to climb to 82-79, setting a tone that has carried over into 2012.
In fact, add that 34-20 finish to the Dodgers' 34-21 start in 2012, and you get a 109-game stretch of .624 baseball — and that's without MVP candidate Kemp for 19 games and counting this season. What we have here is a sum-is-greater-than-its-parts story that almost always is rooted in a solid clubhouse atmosphere and players being put in positions where they best can succeed.
Even with Kemp, we saw an everyday lineup with a handful of apparent weaknesses — mostly mid-level prospects and journeymen. But the results still suggest otherwise. Through Monday, among NL teams, the Dodgers' offense stood:
Throw in a string of unexpected hero moments from the likes of Scott Van Slyke and Elian Herrera — the kind of stuff that prompted Vin Scully to drop a "Wonder Kids" tag on the club — and surprising back-of-the-rotation brilliance from Chris Capuano and now-disabled Ted Lilly, who combined to win 12 of their first 13 decisions, and the Dodgers peaked at 30-13 on May 22nd, when their NL West lead was seven games.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
True, the schedule-maker was kind. The Dodgers played 30 of their first 50 games at home, went east of Phoenix for only 12 games, and had the uncanny knack of facing, and beating, teams off to sub-.500 starts, including San Diego (7-1), Houston (4-2) and Pittsburgh (3-0).
They weathered the first Kemp disabled-list stint nicely, going 9-5 in his absence. But the second one undoubtedly has created consternation — especially when the schedule has turned, and doesn't look as friendly anymore.
The trouble actually began at home last week, when the Dodgers — then 21-5 at Dodger Stadium — were swept in a four-game series by the Milwaukee Brewers. Not the way to go out on the season's most-grueling road trip in terms of travel — three in Colorado, four in Philadelphia, three in Seattle — before returning home for a series against the Angels.
"We know there are going to be periods of time when things aren't going to go our way," Mattingly said. "We've talked about it. We have to keep believing in what we do. It's nice to know that when it happened, we weren't five back. Then, next thing you know, you're 8-10 games back."
As the Dodgers' NL West lead has shrunk to three games, and as their roster has been weakened by injuries to Kemp, Lilly, Mark Ellis, Matt Guerrier, Juan Rivera and Javy Guerra, Mattingly searches for the right combinations.
For the sake of defensive continuity in the middle of the diamond, Mattingly has settled on versatile veteran Jerry Hairston Jr. at second base for Ellis — about whom he said, "I knew he was going to be tough to replace. He's one of those guys you don't talk about, but he sits in the two-hole (in the batting order) and makes all the plays at second base. You don't realize what you're missing until he goes out (of the lineup)."
Rivera returned on Monday, and will move between first base (especially against left-handed pitching) and left field to give 38-year-old Abreu days off.
Herrera is a 27-year-old infielder who spent nine seasons in the organization before getting his first big-league opportunity, and he has appeared at second, third and center field, the latter where he made an excellent ninth-inning diving grab to help preserve a 4-3 win in Philadelphia on Monday after driving in the go-ahead run.
"As close to a grizzled veteran as you can get, coming up from the minors," Mattingly said. "Nine years … that's a lot of polish, learning how to play the game."
And after dropping Dee Gordon from leadoff to eighth for a couple of weeks, Mattingly decided on Sunday to reinstall Flash's kid in the top spot, saying, "We're definitely better offensively if he's at the top and getting on base. It's time to give him another shot to see what he can do."
What Gordon can do is fly around the bases as quickly as almost anybody in the game — 'electrifying' in the words of Dodgers first base coach/base-running guru Davey Lopes. Gordon hit .304 with a .325 on-base percentage and stole 24 bases in 56 games down the stretch last season, but couldn't sustain that pace once this season began despite a strong spring. And so his adjustment period comes complete with this ongoing lesson from Lopes.
"He has to be a Juan Pierre-type hitter — bunt, slap the ball, and use his legs," Lopes said. "That's how he'll get out of this. He has a strong desire to (steal bases), and he's fearless. But he has to get on (base) enough, first."
And, Mattingly has been telling Andre Ethier, the lone remaining All-Star-level offensive performer, not to try to do too much in Kemp's absence. Ethier has more than done his part with a league-leading 46 RBI, and they've come consistently, without one huge week.
"He's been that guy for us every day, getting that hit when we need it," Mattingly said. "I tell him to just take his hits. Using the whole field has been key. (Opposing pitchers) are going after him a little differently (in Kemp's absence). He can hit anything they throw. When he uses the whole field, he's such a good hitter."
There will be no Kemp for up to a month, and Ellis won't be back until around the All-Star break. There's a solid chance of an outside reinforcement, with new ownership in place. But that's not where the focus of this Dodgers' clubhouse lies right now.
"You get to point where you either stay in rut you're in, or you turn it around, wake up and say, 'Let's get going,' and get back to having fun doing this," Ethier said. "We have to figure out how to get back to where we were. It would be a lot different if we were on the bottom (of the standings). You know you have a lead, don't panic, it's a long year, a lot of things can happen. Don tells us all the time, ' Just take care of your own stuff.' "
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