By Jon Weisman
Not even in the deepest throes of their early season struggles did the Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves with such a lineup.
On Sunday, just a few blinks away from becoming Major League Baseball's first team to clinch a 2013 division title, the Dodgers took the field without their starting shortstop, and without any of their top five outfielders. And anyone who was meant to be within three area codes of their pitcher's mound. Their starting pitcher had been released 22 days earlier by the San Diego Padres, who were in fourth place and 18 games behind at the time.
With all that, the game was down to the final batter. Bases loaded, two out, down by a run to the San Francisco Giants, and out from the dugout, in an unmistakable echo of Kirk Gibson, came sore-hipped Yasiel Puig, who, like Gibson in 1988, had been ruled out of action before the game.
Gibson homered off Dennis Eckersley. Puig grounded to short off Sergio Romo. The Dodgers, who had lost only eight games out of 50 from June 22 through Aug. 18, suddenly had lost eight of their past 11.
Savvier observers reacted to the run of Dodger misfortune with more annoyance than apoplexy. Though they'd be tempting fate to say so out loud, the clinching of the National League West remained imminent, thanks to a 10 1/2-game lead with 13 remaining heading into Monday's contest against second-place Arizona. None of the injuries to the position players who drove the Dodgers' last-to-first surge -- Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig -- were expected to linger past the regular season or even to its end.
Meanwhile, Matt Kemp was nearing a return from the disabled list, which would position him to do in October what he hadn't been able to for most of April through September - contribute -- while Scott Van Slyke figured to put his ribcage issues behind him and offer the power that had slugged .491 in 114 at-bats. And barring further calamities, Edinson Volquez didn't figure to come anywhere near the Dodgers' postseason starting rotation, not with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ricky Nolasco to choose from.
The potential for home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs might have been slipping away, but given that Los Angeles had the best road record in the NL, maybe that wasn't something to lose sleep over, either. In fact, there's a temptation to write off much of the Dodgers' woes of the past two weeks as the same kind of anomaly that dropped a likely division champ into last place for most of May and June. Yet there are valid reasons for concern.
First of all, just because this current set of injuries will heal doesn't mean a new set isn't likely to come. It's safe to call the 2013 Dodgers injury-prone, given that Adrian Gonzalez and Ethier will be the only ones to play more than 140 games this season. Utility players Schumaker and Nick Punto, each with a sub-.700 OPS, rank fifth and sixth on the team in games played. A few days off for Ramirez, Crawford and Ethier is relatively harmless during the regular season, but it could become catastrophic if it happens during a playoff series.
In particular, the Dodgers figure to need Puig and Ramirez to be healthy in order to go on a long postseason run, given that they are the only Dodgers with an OPS over .800 and at least 150 plate appearances. Ramirez has played in 79 games this season, while Puig has drawn comparisons to the most hallowed name in Dodgers injury history, Pete Reiser, for his ability to beat himself up with his hard-edged, media-frenzying play.
In a broader sense, baseball is a game of adjustments -- not to mention regressions to the mean -- and with their extended run of glory, the Dodgers were due for a counterattack from opponents and the fates alike. That doesn't necessitate a complete collapse. For example, Puig, with 24 walks in his past 47 starts, has become a more disciplined hitter than he was when pitchers seemed to have his number. But it does mean that the slim margins that greased the Dodgers' historic run -- like the 12 consecutive one-run victories from mid-June through mid-August -- likely will evaporate.
This extends to a pitching staff that had a 2.26 ERA across July and August. In the latter month, the seven Dodger relievers most likely to see postseason action (Kenley Jansen, Paco Rodriguez, Ronald Belisario, Brian Wilson, J.P Howell, Chris Withrow and Carlos Marmol) yielded just 10 runs over 65 1/3 innings (1.38 ERA), allowing 58 baserunners while striking out 81. It was phenomenal, which is great news, until you realize that anything less than phenomenal makes Los Angeles merely mortal again. Throw in the current Best Pitcher in Baseball, Kershaw, sporting an ERA nearly two runs higher than before over his past four starts (3.65, egads!), with 39 baserunners allowed in 24 2/3 innings, and you realize that no one is immune to the ebb and flow of the season.
One more thing. I'm the first person to dismiss momentum in baseball as a product of hindsight, rather than a commodity that has any tangible effect on future performance. After all, if momentum were all it took, if the stones that rolled never stopped rolling, then we'd have no ebb and flow, right? The Dodgers had more momentum in late August than any team in more than half a century, and here they are, raising questions, raising doubt.
You can see in this table how recent champions have finished their seasons. Not only did nine of the past 10 play better than .500 ball after September 1, eight of them played better than .600 ball.
September-October Regular Season Records of Last 10 World Series Champions
Those speculating that the Dodgers might have peaked too soon can ponder these two facts: (1) The peak is over. (2) There's still time for them to peak again. The only Dodger team ever to win three playoff series, the 1981 squad, finished its regular season with 15 losses in its final 24 games. That this year's injured stars have been forced to rest, that the struggling stars have been forced to confront their vulnerabilities, that the bench has had to stay vital -- these could be the best things that could have happened to Los Angeles, ahead of the playoffs. There is little reason to think that whatever hunger or zeal that prevented them from giving up on the season in June, when they were 12 games below .500 and 9 1/2 out of first place, has vanished.
There's only doubt. And chance. And being human, once again, after 2 1/2 months of being superhuman.
On Monday, the Dodgers found themselves in a situation almost identical to the day before. Down by a run, tying man on third base, go-ahead run on second, and an injured star -- Kemp, this time -- entering the game after much doubt over whether he would play. It was Kemp's first at-bat since July 21, when his best stretch of the season (.978 OPS in his previous 12 games) ended with an ill-fated, ankle-turning slide at home.
Kemp struck out, making it nine losses in 12 games for the Dodgers, and a 1-5 record in their last six one-run games. Ryu, who allowed three baserunners - only one after the first inning - took a complete-game defeat. No, it's not easy recapturing the magic of Gibson, Orel Hershiser and 1988. The good news for Dodger fans is that the magic of Ramirez, Kershaw and 2013 is still very much in play, if they can just get the timing right.
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