First they were overachievers. Then, they did exactly as expected. Now, they are underachievers. And so sums up the Los Angeles Dodgers 2012 season up to this point.
When the Dodgers entered Father’s Day weekend with the most wins in baseball, the stories were all about the magic of new team owner Magic Johnson and how the team was exceeding most pre-season prognostications of a third place finish. Then a stretch where the Dodgers lost 15 of 20 had many wondering if this team had simply decided to play to that third place level. Flash forward to July 31st and a couple of subsequent “superstar” acquisitions (Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford) and the inheritance of about a quarter billion dollars in salary and, suddenly, this team was not supposed to lose. Well, as the Yankees have seen of late, money isn’t everything.
The Dodgers were a game behind the division leading Giants and a half-game out of the wild card slot before all the trading fireworks exploded. But they ended up playing .500 in August and have struggled to a 3-2 record in September. The word struggle may apply because two of their wins were come-from- behind-at-the-last-moment types. In spite of all the improvements(?), the Dodgers are 4.5 games out of the division lead and 1.5 games out of the wild card. And now the Dodgers embark on what is arguably their most critical nine game stretch of the season. They go to San Francisco for three; then to Arizona for two followed by a four game home stand versus the Cardinals, a team they currently are chasing for a wild card slot. So what has to happen for this team to right the ship?
It all begins with Matt Kemp. Kemp is 3 for his last 25 and has hit only three home runs since the beginning of August.
Kemp’s current slump is mirroring the resurgence, of sorts, by Andre Ethier. Ethier appeared to forget that the acquisition of power hitting Adrian Gonzalez was supposed to complement his power, not replace it. Ethier had hit just three home runs from June through August. But so far, Ethier has three home runs in September and does relatively well up in San Francisco (.294 BA this season at AT&T Park). He must continue this run of solid productivity if the Dodgers want to make it to the postseason.
The starting pitching presents the biggest challenge. The loss of Chad Billingsley for the season and, quite possibly, for 2013 as well, has left the staff in disarray. Starter Chris Capuano is 1-5 in his last eight starts and certainly did not take advantage of being named the number 2 starter at the All-Star break. It is going to be up to Josh Beckett, who opens the three game set with the Giants, to duplicate his previous start against the Diamondbacks when he struck out nine and gave up just one in 6.2 innings. It was easily his best performance in a month – he had given up 21 runs in his four prior starts dating back to August 8th.
The bullpen’s ups-and-downs this year might be summarized in the performance of reliever Brandon League (1-6, 3.62 ERA). League, acquired from the Mariners at the end of July, did not exactly win over Dodgers fans as he gave up six runs in his first seven appearances wearing Dodgers blue. But he has seemingly found a groove having given up just three hits and no earned runs in his last nine appearances. With closer Kenley Jansen on the DL, League may be the catalyst for a bullpen that is in one of those closer-by-committee modes right now.
And finally, if I had told you back in April the Dodgers fortunes might hinge on the bat of a utility infielder who had played in only 56 games over an 11 year baseball career, I’m sure you would have thought me crazier than our broken health care system. Well, infielder Luis Cruz, who has been toiling around the minor leagues for five different organizations since 2001, has a chance to become the biggest hero of 2012. He is batting .306 with 4 home runs and 30 RBI in 56 games this season. Cruz has hit safely in his last seven games, including a four hit performance on Labor Day. The man never hit better than .235 in his brief time in the majors prior to 2012. Cruz has single-handedly sent this season’s overpaid “load,” Juan Uribe, to a milk carton.