Dodger Report

Series preview: D-backs at Dodgers

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
The Los Angeles Dodgers went through a week in which one of their best players, Yasiel Puig, got dragged into controversy about his wild escape from Cuba, they lost a series at their rival's stadium and nearly saw their best player, Hanley Ramirez, put on the disabled list by an errant fastball.

They're not going to be in a merciful mood when the struggling Arizona Diamondbacks come to town for three games this weekend.

"I know they've been scuffling, but hopefully we can keep them down for a few more games," manager Don Mattingly said.

To describe the Diamondbacks as "scuffling" is generous. Their starting pitchers have a 7.63 ERA and manager Kirk Gibson, who is beginning to slide into hot-seat territory himself, has been increasingly critical of his team's overall play. Hard to blame him. The Diamondbacks are 4-14 and already seven games behind the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West.

Oddly, this will be the third series meeting already between the teams, who feuded relentlessly in 2013. The Dodgers swept the D-backs in Australia and Arizona and will look to finish off the triangle at Dodger Stadium.

There's more bad news for Arizona. Ramirez, who was hit by a Ryan Vogelsong fastball and had to leave Wednesday's game, has vowed to play Friday night. Zack Greinke, the Dodgers' de facto ace with Clayton Kershaw down, starts the series off Friday night. The Diamondbacks have announced only one starter for the series and it's lefty Wade Miley, who has a 5.04 ERA.

From the Dodgers' perspective, this is no time for pity.

The Puig Show returns to the field

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
SAN FRANCISCO -- Yasiel Puig looked happy.

As a pack of reporters waited to talk with him after the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, he playfully bantered with teammate Juan Uribe and slowly slipped on a gold watch and his gold chain with gold crucifix.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuAs the Dodgers have been saying, Yasiel Puig hasn't changed, but the public's understanding of him has only deepened.
He spritzed a heavy dose of cologne on his head and turned around, grinning, gesturing for reporters to bring it on.

Eventually, he even touched on how the stories that surfaced this week about his wild 2012 escape from Cuba -- complete with death threats from Mexican gangsters and usury by a Miami criminal who arranged his defection -- are weighing on him. They're not, he said.

"I feel normal," Puig said in Spanish. "I'm focusing on baseball and I'm giving my best for my team so things go well on the field with the preparation I've done. So, those things that are happening don't torment me."

Any other questions about Puig's flight to America were quickly shut down by a team employee serving as Puig's interpreter, who ended the interview session saying, "Enough, enough," in Spanish.

But there's a key element to keep in mind as we all begin to soak up and contextualize Puig's harrowing journey. The stories may have surfaced this week, but Puig has been living it for years, well before he ever pulled on a No. 66 Dodgers uniform and simultaneously electrified and polarized a fan base.

As the Dodgers have been saying all along, he hasn't changed. Our understanding of him has only deepened.

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Dodgers 2, Giants 1

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Dodgers evaded the dreaded sweep in San Francisco with a 2-1 win over the Giants on Thursday afternoon by getting another strong start from Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is vying with Zack Greinke to be the Dodgers’ fill-in ace while Clayton Kershaw is out.

The Dodgers weathered another stormy ninth inning by closer Kenley Jansen, who had a key wild pitch, gave up a run and allowed the tying run to reach second before getting pinch hitter Brandon Crawford to fly out to end it.

The Dodgers chased San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning by driving up his pitch count.

How it happened: That April 4 start -- the shortest of Ryu’s career -- is becoming more mysterious by the day because he has yet to give up a run in any of his other four starts. He had the Giants off balance all game, inducing weak contact and cruising through seven scoreless innings without swing-and-miss stuff. The Dodgers offense stayed quiet but scratched out a couple of runs to prevail. It was a low-scoring, tense series that made for good drama.

Hits: One way you survive key injuries is by getting contributions from the players who fill in. That was the case Thursday. Tim Federowicz, thrust into the primary catcher role by A.J. Ellis’ knee injury, singled home the Dodgers’ first run in the second. Justin Turner, playing shortstop in place of Hanley Ramirez, led off the fifth with a double and scored to pad the lead.

Misses: For the second game in a row, a Dodger outfielder simply missed an easy fly ball. It was Matt Kemp on Wednesday, Yasiel Puig on Thursday. In Puig’s case, he was doing his usual taunting basket catch when he took his eye off it. He made a spectacular recovery and chucked the ball to second to get a force out anyway. He also made a brilliant over-the-left shoulder grab after getting fooled on Gregor Blanco’s knuckling liner over his head and came out of nowhere to steal a bloop hit in the eighth. Overall, Puig had a major positive impact on defense.

Stat of the game: Adrian Gonzalez extended his hitting streak to 12 games by sneaking a single into right field to drive in Turner and give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.

Up next: The Dodgers have a chance to keep the Arizona Diamondbacks miserable this weekend. They’ve already beaten them in all five meetings this season, and the Diamondbacks are 4-14 overall. Friday, Greinke (3-0, 2.76 ERA) opposes Arizona lefty Wade Miley (2-2, 5.04 ERA).

Hanley Ramirez says he'll play Friday

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
SAN FRANCISCO – Hanley Ramirez was not in Thursday’s lineup. The swelling in his left hand where he was hit by a Ryan Vogelsong fastball had subsided after frequent icing, but not sufficiently for Ramirez to grip a bat pain-free.

That doesn’t mean Ramirez will miss this weekend’s series with the Arizona Diamondbacks, however.

“I’m not going to try. I’m going to be in there,” Ramirez said Thursday morning. “I’m going to be in there tomorrow.”

The issue of protecting Ramirez arose in Don Mattingly’s pregame discussion with reporters. Ramirez was hit in the ribs by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly in the first inning of Game 1 of the National League Championship last season, rendering him largely ineffective the rest of the series.

At the time, Ramirez said he did not think Kelly was throwing at him on purpose. He also didn’t think Vogelsong was intentionally targeting him.

“I get protection. Everyone in here has got my back,” Ramirez said. “Everyone knows it wasn’t on purpose.”

Mattingly wouldn’t elaborate on the team’s feelings about Vogelsong’s pitch much other than to say, “We’ll protect our guys. It’s the same thing with us. If we need to pitch a guy inside and it happens to hit a guy, that’s just part of the game. We’ll be trying to pitch inside like they would do.”

Dodgers come within an X-ray of disaster

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
SAN FRANCISCO -- Hanley Ramirez was not a happy man.

Since a Joe Kelly pitch collided with one of his ribs and rendered him a decoy in the playoffs last season, Ramirez has had one overarching goal: stay on the field and lead the Dodgers to the World Series. For about 15 minutes Wednesday night, it was all going up in flames.

[+] EnlargeHanley Ramirez
Lance Iversen/USA TODAY SportsHanley Ramirez was mad after getting hit in the hand Wednesday, but luckily for him his X-rays were negative.
A Ryan Vogelsong sinker didn't sink. It tailed violently in and up, slamming off Ramirez's left hand. Within seconds, the powerful shortstop grabbed his pine tar-smeared batting helmet and slammed it into the turf. There were 42,773 people at AT&T Park and nobody could take their eyes off the big man having a temper tantrum. Few of them knew the reason.

"Everyone knows what I went through last year," Ramirez said after the Los Angeles Dodgers' 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants. "To get hit in the hand ... the hand is a spot where it's easy to get any damage. I was wondering."

Thanks to the wonders of in-stadium X-ray machines, he didn't have to wonder long. The X-rays proved negative, no further tests are planned and, the next time Ramirez can swing a bat without too much pain, he'll be back in the lineup. It probably won't be Thursday, but could be Friday or Saturday, maybe Sunday or Monday.

However long he's out, it appears it will be a survivable amount of games. From all angles Wednesday night, it was looking as if the Dodgers had sidestepped the one injury that could send their season spinning downward.

In case you haven't noticed, they've managed to buck up pretty well without the best pitcher on the planet, Clayton Kershaw, who made one start for them in Australia before heading to the disabled list because of strained muscles in his upper back. The Dodgers are two games above .500 without Kershaw.

With Ramirez, they're one of the most dangerous teams in baseball. Without him, they've been feeble. Since the start of 2013, the Dodgers are 60-32 when Ramirez plays and 39-46 when he doesn't. Granted, his longest stay on the disabled list coincided with Zack Greinke's, but still ...

Even that doesn't communicate his importance properly. The Dodgers had better shortstop depth last season than they do this season. Had Ramirez gone down for a long while, the Dodgers would have been pondering the pros and cons of a Justin Turner vs. Dee Gordon vs. Carlos Triunfel shortstop situation. Yeah, that thin.

Ramirez actually argued fairly passionately with trainer Stan Conte to stay in the game, but Conte's a little more assertive than most trainers and there was no way the Dodgers were going to leave Ramirez in the game in the seventh inning.

"At that point, he's mad and he's going to want to try to stay in there and steal a base or something," manager Don Mattingly said. "We just can't do that."

Mattingly saw it. Everybody credited Yasiel Puig for turning around the team's fortunes last season, but Ramirez's production was even more crucial in that stretch. So, now, Mattingly can show up Thursday morning and harbor at least a glimmer of hope his best hitter can try to help the team avoid a three-game sweep here. But even if he learns it's going to be a week or more before Ramirez plays, he'll know it could have been a whole lot worse.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 2, Dodgers 1

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers lost another maddening, one-run game at AT&T Park on Wednesday night, but it was nothing like the pain they could be feeling if their best hitter is out for an extended period of time once again.

Hanley Ramirez was hit in the left hand by a 90-mph Ryan Vogelsong pitch and appeared to be in considerable pain before he was removed from the game. Initial X-rays proved negative, though Ramirez probably will undergo further tests.

The Dodgers' fortunes rose and fell on Ramirez's health last season, with the team riding his hot bat to its historic 42-8 June-to-August run that thrust them back in the playoff picture after a dismal start.

How it happened: It was another tight, hard-fought game between the two rivals until Vogelsong's pitch tailed in hard on Ramirez, who was diving in and unable to get out of the way. Ramirez slammed his batting helmet to the ground and left the field with trainer Stan Conte.

Not long after that, San Francisco scored the go-ahead run on Pablo Sandoval's two-out RBI single in the seventh.

Hits: Paul Maholm had been put in a difficult spot since the first day of spring training.

He wasn't sure if he'd be starting or relieving and, once the season began, got sporadic work. But paired with Josh Beckett's work the night before, he gave the Dodgers a little more reason to feel OK about the back of the rotation. Maholm pitched six strong innings, holding the Giants to one run and five hits.

Misses: Matt Kemp's game has been erratic since he came off the disabled list. He has had some big games, but he also has had some embarrassing moments. He had a couple in about a 15-minute span in the first two innings. Kemp called off Carl Crawford and caught Hunter Pence's drive to left-center, but then he dropped it for a two-base error. The next inning, Kemp was picked off first base, a call upheld after a video review.

Stat of the game: The Dodgers came into the game leading the majors with 20 stolen bases and had been caught only four times, but they botched a hit-and-run in the third inning and Juan Uribe was out by five feet, denting their early running success.

Up next: Two of the best left-handed pitchers in the National League take the mound for a 12:45 p.m. game at AT&T Park, the series finale. Hyun-Jin Ryu (2-1, 2.57 ERA) has been outstanding in three of his four starts and Madison Bumgarner (2-0, 3.31 ERA) is San Francisco’s clear-cut ace

Extra Bases: Jansen's fastball is back

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Los Angeles Dodgers added a lot of well-paid, veteran relievers to their bullpen over the winter, but the most impactful addition might have shown up all by itself without any contract demands.

Kenley Jansen's fastball came back.

[+] Enlarge Kenley Jansen
Andrew Fielding/USA TODAY SportsKenley Jansen has had a bit of a rough start to the season, but the velocity of his fastball has seemed to increase.
The closer's velocity has ticked up from the 92-to-95 mph range it inhabited last season when he was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball to 95-to-100 mph territory, a place few other pitchers inhabit.

"It used to be there, man," Jansen said. "In the minor leagues in 2010, it was there for me -- 98, hitting 102. It just left for the last two years."

Fangraphs credits Jansen with a 3-mph boost to his fastball. Why has it returned? And is it a good thing?

Jansen says he thinks a normal off-season -- entering 2013 he was still recovering from a cardiac ablation to fix an abnormal heartbeat -- had something to do with it. He continues his running over the winter and felt stronger in spring training. He also attributes throwing a two-seam fastball -- or sinker -- for an uptick in velocity. Jansen's two different fastball looks tend to get lumped together because he throws them at similar velocities.

The numbers have been fairly consistent park to park and radar gun to radar gun. He used a 98-mph fastball to help strike out Miguel Cabrera at Dodger Stadium. He used a 100-mph fastball to help strike out Mark Trumbo at Chase Field.

Jansen admits he doesn't get as much lateral movement on his cutter -- which has been compared to that of Mariano Rivera -- at the increased velocity, but he'll take all the extra mph he can get. The results have been only so-so as Jansen has blown two of his last three save chances, including Tuesday night in San Francisco. His ERA is at 4.50 and he has already given up two home runs. He gave up six all last year and six the year before that.

"It makes it a little straighter, but I feel like the velocity makes it move a little later and that's better," Jansen said. "I don't have the big cut, but I have late cut. It feels like a weapon."

Depth hasn't yet paid off in bullpen

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Dodgers got The Beard back before Tuesday's game, but Brian Wilson was the only reliever who didn't pitch. He warmed up a couple of times and would have pitched at the end if the Dodgers could have gotten a lead in extra innings.

The Dodgers are so loaded with well-paid veterans in their bullpen that they were practically forced to option one of their most reliable relievers the past two seasons, Paco Rodriguez, to Triple-A Albuquerque to get Wilson on the roster.

[+] EnlargeChris Perez
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezChris Perez has yet to give up a run in eight games with the Dodgers.
That shed an even brighter light on what happened hours later.

Brandon League, who regressed steadily from closer to setup man to mop-up man throughout last season, was the losing pitcher in Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

Instead of optioning Rodriguez, the Dodgers could have designated League for assignment. It probably would have made more sense strictly from a pitching perspective, but that would have meant swallowing $15 million or so in salary, as it's doubtful he would have cleared waivers and accepted a minor league assignment.

It was a tad early for such a drastic move, but manager Don Mattingly didn't exactly give League a ringing vote of confidence after the game.

"He's one of our guys, so we try to keep helping him, and that's the way it is," Mattingly said. "He's one of our guys."

That's true. League is, at least for now, one of the Dodgers' guys. And he's not the only pitcher with a good arm who's not performing well at the moment. Closer Kenley Jansen has blown two of his past four save chances. The Dodgers are the best-paid bullpen in the National League, but they rank sixth in ERA and batting average against.

Jansen could only shrug his shoulders at some bad breaks in the ninth inning. Angel Pagan reached on a single that bounced off Jansen's foot. Brandon Belt, a left-handed hitter, slapped a double just inside third base. That's hard to do.

"He got lucky on that. What could I do?" Jansen said.

There are glimpses of the promise this bullpen holds. Chris Perez has his nasty slider back. He worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings and has yet to give up a run in eight games with the Dodgers. Chris Withrow and J.P. Howell continue to pitch well.

If Wilson can stay healthy and Jansen can harness his rejuvenated velocity more productively, this could wind up being the best bullpen in the majors. But for now, it's just an expensive bullpen that's slightly underperforming.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 3, Dodgers 2 (12)

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16

SAN FRANCISCO -- A few years ago, a Josh Beckett-Tim Lincecum game would have made for a great pitching matchup. Now, it makes for a long game.

Both starting pitchers, working with diminished tools, managed to wobble their way through five innings, then the bullpens took over, which is usually a good thing for the Dodgers.

Not so much Tuesday night at AT&T Park. The Giants scratched out all their runs off Dodgers relievers, including rallying to tie it in the ninth inning off closer Kenley Jansen and winning it 3-2 in the 12th off Brandon League.

After a wild pitch, Hector Sanchez singled home the winning run off Justin Turner's glove.

For a while, things were getting wacky.

The Dodgers survived a wild bottom of the 10th that included two infield hits to the pitcher, an overturned call at first base and a five-man infield (Andre Ethier manning first base). San Francisco was within one ball of winning the game, but Jamey Wright escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam by inducing a pair of shallow popups.

An inning later, the Dodgers threw out a baserunner 5-6-3 after a ball deflected off Juan Uribe right to Hanley Ramirez, who threw to first.

How it happened: Beckett was able to hold on, though at times he seemed hesitant to throw strikes. But the Dodgers' offense wasted opportunities, and the bullpen couldn't handle the heavy workload.

Hits: The Dodgers re-signed Uribe because they desperately needed his reliable glove in an otherwise suspect infield. That was really about all there was to it. His production with the bat has been a nice little surprise. Uribe leads the Dodgers in hits (22), and he provided the two hits that ignited an otherwise stagnant offense with a second-inning home run off Lincecum and a leadoff double in the seventh.

Misses: The Dodgers continue to give away outs behind their pitchers. Ramirez tried to make an off-balance throw to second base rather than take an easy out at first in the sixth inning. He bounced it and Dee Gordon couldn't come up with it, eventually handing the Giants an unearned run. The error was exacerbated by a Chris Withrow wild pitch. Tim Federowicz's throw beat Hunter Pence to third, but Uribe couldn't apply the tag off a low toss.

Stat of the game: Beckett walked five batters in five innings. It was his highest walk total since a May 29, 2011, start for the Boston Red Sox.

Up next: Lefty Paul Maholm (0-1, 8.10 ERA), who has been keeping Clayton Kershaw's spot in the rotation warm for him, makes his second start as a Dodger. The Giants counter with Ryan Vogelsong (0-0, 8.00 ERA), who was hit fairly hard at Dodger Stadium two weekends ago. The game is at 7:10 p.m. PT at AT&T Park.

Series preview: Dodgers at Giants

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
The schedule maker loaded up rivalry games in the early part of the Dodgers’ schedule, with 11 of their first 16 games coming against the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Dodgers have handled Arizona relatively easily, going 5-0, but their only lost series of the season came to the Giants at Dodger Stadium on opening weekend. They make their first visit to AT&T Park this week looking to carry the momentum from a three-game sweep in Arizona.

It’s not going to be easy, with the sketchy back end of the Dodgers’ pitching rotation thrust in the spotlight. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly could have skipped a fifth starter -- take your pick between Josh Beckett and Paul Maholm -- and used Zack Greinke on normal rest in the series, but he elected to give both Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu an extra day of rest.

Mattingly, no doubt, was mindful of the Dodgers’ lack of open dates in the coming weeks.

Both Beckett (9.00 ERA) and Maholm (8.10 ERA) were hit hard in their first starts. Maholm has been used as a swing man, making three relief appearances, and Beckett is still building up arm strength after injuring his thumb in spring training.

Lucky for the Dodgers, their offense is hot -- especially Adrian Gonzalez, who has homered in four straight games and is slugging .931 in the past seven. They also run into Tim Lincecum coming off an awful start against Arizona, in which he allowed seven runs in four innings. Lincecum traditionally has been tough on the Dodgers, going 9-6 with a 2.94 ERA.

The Dodgers quite likely will get reliever Brian Wilson back Tuesday or Wednesday, but that could set up an awkward roster decision. If they stay at 12 pitchers, they’ll have to option one of their best relievers, Chris Withrow or Paco Rodriguez, or designate Brandon League for assignment. The Dodgers owe League, who has a 5.79 ERA, $14 million between now and 2015.

The Dodgers might wait to see how Beckett does Tuesday before activating Wilson, perhaps returning Beckett to the disabled list if he remains ineffective.

In something of a surprise, the Giants have matched the Dodgers’ firepower thus far this season. The teams enter the series with an identical .751 OPS. Only four National League teams have had more productive lineups.

Stock watch: A-Gon heating up

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14


[+] EnlargeAdrian Gonzalez
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAdrian Gonzalez has homered in four straight games.
Adrian's power: Adrian Gonzalez is the most consistent hitter in baseball. He has the same season over and over ... with one exception. His power hasn't been the same since shoulder surgery four years ago, and pitchers haven't been as careful with him, so his on-base percentage has dipped in tandem. Nonetheless, he hits in the clutch and drives in runs, so nobody has complained much. Gonzalez has looked the past year or so like he might be regaining that nice, smooth power stroke to left-center. In the past seven games, he has slugged .931 and he has hit home runs in four straight games, one shy of the franchise record. He's off to a dangerous start.

Dee Gordon: A team could run itself into the ground making player-personnel decisions based on early April results, but the second-base situation isn't working out as badly as some feared. That's because Gordon committed himself in the offseason to the position switch and came into camp physically and mentally ready to win the job. So far, he has even hit lefties a bit (2-for-6), which means he could take over the position full time. He's been a catalyst atop the order, disruptive on the bases and is playing capable -- and sometimes outstanding -- second base.

Dan Haren: This guy gets craftier every year. It's almost as if he spent his entire offseason watching tapes of Greg Maddux. His fastball doesn't top 89 mph, but he throws it where he wants it and he gets late movement with his cutter. His splitter isn't as effective as it once was because he doesn't throw the four-seamer as hard -- and thus doesn't have as much separation -- but it's good enough to keep hitters off balance. Every young Dodger pitcher should watch this guy work. He's been a huge addition so far, especially with Clayton Kershaw down.


[+] EnlargeDodgers Celebrate
Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesKenley Jansen has converted on four of his five save opportunities this season.
Kenley Jansen: It's too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but the early returns on the closer's reinvigorated fastball -- he has gained a few mph since last year -- are mixed. Jansen was dominant, touching 100 mph Sunday. He also blew a save in a game the Dodgers won Tuesday and was the losing pitcher after giving up a Victor Martinez home run Wednesday. Jansen's greatest asset -- what made him such a swing-and-miss machine last season -- is the late movement on his cutter. You wonder whether the increased velocity has affected that.

Headfirst slides: Both Southern California teams got hit hard by baseball's dumbest play: the headfirst slide into first base. Josh Hamilton severely injured his thumb doing it for the Angels and is out 6-8 weeks. Yasiel Puig got away with a minor thumb injury doing the same thing in a game against the Giants. In Puig's case, he wasn't even avoiding a tag, making it utterly baffling. The early comparisons of Puig to Bo Jackson look better by the day. He often looks like a great athlete learning how to play the game as he goes. Let's hope he picked up this lesson quicker than he learned to hit cutoff men. Making this mistake won't just cost his team a game, it could cost him a career.

Catching and throwing: We thought it was going to be a problem and it is a problem, so far. The Dodgers have made 12 errors in 13 games. They are 26th in baseball in fielding percentage. With Gordon adjusting to a new position, Hanley Ramirez highly erratic at shortstop and Matt Kemp playing on a recovering ankle in center, this could be a problem for a while. Teams should be able to make a good living hitting the ball up the middle, which is easier to do anyway. There is not a real immediate solution to this problem, so Dodgers pitchers might just have to work around it.

The list: 10 things that caught my eye

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
1. The biggest story of the first two weeks has to be the Milwaukee Brewers, winners of nine in a row and at 10-2, two wins better than any other team in the early going. The big surprise is the Brewers have allowed just 29 runs, fewest in the majors. They swept Pittsburgh over the weekend by out-Pirating the Pirates, winning 4-2, 3-2 and 4-1.

Kyle Lohse was dominant in Sunday’s win, falling one out short of a complete game when manager Ron Roenicke removed him after Andrew McCutchen singled with two outs (Roenicke was greeted with a smattering of boos from the home crowd but was vindicated when Will Smith fanned Pedro Alvarez on three pitches to end it).

The Brewers are a difficult team to analyze. They’ve drawn just 25 walks, fourth fewest in the majors, so they love to swing the bats and you wonder if this aggressive approach will be exploited as the season rolls on. They have a 1.80 ERA and it hasn’t been just smoke and mirrors -- they’re fourth in the majors in strikeout percentage and tied for sixth in lowest walk percentage. The unknown at this point is whether the staff is really shaping up as one of the best in the majors. A year ago it ranked 27th in strikeout percentage and 11th in walk percentage.

Anyway, without overanalyzing two weeks of results, what I wanted to know about Milwaukee is this: Does a long winning streak mean good things are ahead for the Brewers? There are a lot of nine-game winning streaks in a season, so searching for any nine-game winning streak might not tell us much. I thought I’d check nine-game streaks in April to see if that correlates to season-long success. For example, last season the Braves and A’s both had nine-game winning streaks in April and went on to division titles.

But you know who else had a nine-game winning streak in April? The Milwaukee Brewers. Of course, they had started 2-8 before reeling off nine a row from April 14 through April 23, so that put them at 11-8. They were 14-11 through April 30 but then went 6-22 in May and the season was over.

Another way to look at the Brewers’ hot start is to look at teams that began 10-2 or better to start the season. Here are the teams since 1996 to do that:

2013 Braves: 11-1 (96-66, division title)
2012 Rangers: 10-2 (93-69, wild card)
2011 Rockies: 10-2 (73-89, missed playoffs)
2009 Marlins: 11-1 (87-75, missed playoffs)
2006 Mets: 10-2 (97-65, division title)
2005 Dodgers: 10-2 (71-91, missed playoffs)
2003 Giants: 11-1 (100-61, division title)
2003 Royals: 11-1 (83-79, missed playoffs)
2003 Yankees: 10-2 (101-61, division title)
2002 Indians: 11-1 (74-88, missed playoffs)
1999 Indians: 10-2 (97-65, division champ)
1998 Indians: 10-2 (89-73, division champ)
1998 Padres: 10-2 (98-64, division champ)
1998 Orioles: 10-2 (79-83, missed playoffs)
1996 Orioles: 10-2 (88-74, wild card)

The tally: The 15 teams went an average of 88-74 with nine of them making the playoffs. So a hot start isn’t a guarantee of reaching the postseason. The 2005 Dodgers started 10-2 and went 15-8 in April, but that proved to be their only winning month. Still, a 10-2 stretch is a sign of something. In the tough NL Central, it means we could be seeing a four-team race this year.

2. We’ll have more Braves coverage Monday to preview the Braves-Phillies game on ESPN, so just a couple of quick thoughts on the Braves’ impressive weekend sweep of the Nationals. Justin Upton, who is 11-for-14 over his past four games with four home runs, two doubles and 8 RBIs, is in one of his patented hot streaks. But we've seen this before, most notably last April. I still don’t expect Upton to suddenly morph into anything different from what he was last year, but it's fun to watch when he gets in a groove.

The Nationals are 6-0 against the Mets and Marlins, 1-5 against the Braves ... which sounds a lot like 2013, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 80-63 against everyone else. Until they prove they can beat the Braves, I’m going to withdraw my preseason evaluation of the Nationals as one of the three best teams in baseball.

Finally, Freddie Freeman: No hitter has looked more impressive through two weeks than Freeman, who is hitting .442/.519/.814. He hit his fourth home run Sunday -- a towering fly ball to right field (about as high as you’ll see any home run hit). Most impressive to me is he’s struck out just four times in 52 plate appearances -- a 7.7 percent strikeout rate compared to 19.2 percent in 2013. If this K-rate is a sign of a new and improved Freeman, he’s going to win the batting title.

3. Mark Buehrle is one of those players you don’t properly appreciate until you take the time to properly appreciate him. The fastest pitch he’s thrown this season is 86.0 mph and after a sterling seven-inning effort in Toronto’s 11-3 pounding of the Orioles he’s 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

He has as many swings and misses in his three starts (24) as Felix Hernandez got on Opening Day, but he pounds that outside corner to right-handed batters and they often pounded it into the ground. When they say velocity doesn't matter, what they really mean, "Well, no, not if you can paint the corners like Mark Buehrle." Since Buehrle debuted in 2000, the only pitchers with more than his 189 wins are CC Sabathia (206), Tim Hudson (196) and Roy Halladay (194).

4. In that game, Ubaldo Jimenez had his third shaky outing, giving up 10 hits and five runs, including two home runs. He’s 0-3 and has allowed 13 runs in 16 innings, with a 13-10 strikeout-walk ratio and four home runs. Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie tagged him Sunday, Rasmus on a 3-2, 92 mph low fastball over the middle of the plate and Lawrie on a 2-1 splitter that was pretty much down the middle. Obviously, both were pitches in bad locations.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDon't worry about Chris Davis -- he'll still hit a bunch of home runs this year.
Compared to last year, Jimenez’s velocity on his fastball is down a bit (91.7 to 90.0) and while his overall percentage of strikes is about the same, he’s throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone (50 percent to 46 percent) and inducing about 4 percent fewer swings and misses. We don’t want to consign this to the bad signings bin after three outings, but so far Jimenez hasn’t resembled the pitcher who had a 1.82 ERA over his final 13 starts last season for Cleveland.

5. More Orioles: Chris Davis, last year’s 53-homer monster, finally hit his first of 2014, a 433-foot bash to straightaway center. The good news here is that Davis hasn’t actually been "slumping" like he's prone to do; he’s still hitting .279/.353/.419, so at least he has been contributing even without the home runs. I'm not worried about the slow power output so far and still see him as a 38-to-40 homer guy. I thought I’d check to see which players who hit 50-plus home runs had the biggest decrease the following season. Here are those who fell by 25 or more home runs:

Hack Wilson, 1930-31: -43 (56 to 13)
Mark McGwire, 1999-2000: -33 (65 to 32)
Brady Anderson, 1996-97: -32 (50 to 18)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001-02: -29 (57 to 28)
Roger Maris, 1961-62: -28 (61 to 33)
Barry Bonds, 2001-02: -27 (73 to 46)
Hank Greenberg, 1938-39: -25 (58 to 33)

Of the 42 previous players to hit 50, they dropped on average from 55.7 home runs to 43.6 the following season, which puts Davis right around 40.

6. After tearing apart the Angels in their opening series, the Mariners' offense is starting to look a lot like ... the Mariners' offense. In four of their five losses since that 3-0 start they’ve allowed three runs or fewer, so the pitching staff has done its job even with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list.

The A’s beat the Mariners 3-1 Saturday and shut them out 3-0 Sunday behind Scott Kazmir (looking good early on) and some late runs. Suddenly, the Mariners are hitting .225 and rank 27th in the majors in batting average and on-base percentage. Robinson Cano is hitting .333 but hasn’t homered and some disturbing numbers have come from Kyle Seager (.121), Brad Miller (17 strikeouts, one walk), Mike Zunino (12 strikeouts, no walks) and Corey Hart (nine strikeouts, one walk).

7. Here’s a double play you rarely see: 6-2-4-3-2 as the Rays recorded two outs at home plate. It didn't matter in the end as the Reds won 12-4, but the Rays still won the series after winning 2-1 and 1-0 in the first two games behind David Price and Alex Cobb. Cesar Ramos started Sunday in place of the injured Matt Moore in what was essentially a bullpen game -- Tampa Bay used six pitchers, none for more than two innings. For all the attention given to Billy Hamilton’s slow start, shortstop Zack Cozart is hitting even worse (.114/.162/.171). The more you look at this Reds lineup, the more you wonder where the runs are going to come from.

8. Continuing on our struggling offenses theme, we bring you the Kansas City Royals, who have one home run in 11 games. They suffered a three-game sweep in Minnesota, getting outscored 21-5. Sunday’s 4-3 loss was especially dispiriting as the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the eighth to take a 3-2 lead on a 42-degree day in Minneapolis. But Aaron Crow walked the first two batters of the eighth, bringing on Wade Davis, who struck out Joe Mauer but then loaded the bases with another walk.

He induced a tapper back to the mound for what could have been a 1-2-3 inning-ending double play but instead threw wildly to catcher Salvador Perez. One major reason for the Royals’ 86-76 record last year was beating up on the hapless Twins -- they went 15-4 with a plus-47 scoring margin (exactly their scoring margin for the season). We give the two-week caveat, but this game showcased my concern with the Royals heading into the season: a lack of power and a bullpen that probably wasn’t going to repeat last year’s AL-leading 2.55 ERA.

9. Two general takeaways from the first weeks: There is a lot of parity in the American League this season. It wouldn’t surprise me to see two or even three playoff teams from the AL win fewer than 90 games. The only AL playoff teams in the past decade to win fewer than 90 were the 2012 Tigers (88), 2009 Twins (87) and 2008 White Sox (89).

Second, offense is puttering along at about the same pace as last year, when batters hit .253/.318/.396, the lowest major league average of the DH era (since 1973). This year, we’re off to a .247/.316/.393 start heading into the Sunday night Red Sox-Yankees game. And, no, offense doesn’t always pick up when the weather heats up.

Last year, the OPS per month ranged from .706 (July and September) to .722 (May). In 2012, hitters were "cold" in April with .711 OPS and increased that to .730 and .731 in May, June and July. In 2011, the OPS ranged from .708 (June) to .740 (August).

10. Adrian Gonzalez homered Sunday for the fourth straight game and Giancarlo Stanton hit another mammoth bomb Saturday, a 469-foot blast that now gives him the first- and third-longest home runs of 2014. But the biggest home run news of the week came Wednesday when David Ortiz took 32.91 seconds to round the bases after his home run -- the slowest trot yet recorded on Larry Granillo’s Tater Trot leaderboard.

Series preview: Dodgers at D-backs

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
The Los Angeles Dodgers return to the scene of the crime -- or at least some people seemed to view it as a crime when they playfully took a dip in the Chase Field swimming pool while celebrating their NL West title last September.

Several Arizona Diamondbacks players ripped the Dodgers to reporters or through their Twitter accounts, and Arizona Sen. John McCain joined in, via Twitter, calling the Dodgers “overpaid, immature, arrogant spoiled brats.”

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire, Matt Williams
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsThe Dodgers and Diamondbacks haven't exactly gotten along recently.
And now?

You get the impression neither team is particularly concerned with any lingering hostility from last year, whether it’s left from their June brawl or the late-season swim. Both teams have been hit fairly hard by injuries already -- perhaps in part because of their long, season-opening trip to Australia -- and the Diamondbacks are dealing with a messy pitching situation and a 4-8 record after their 10-inning win Thursday night against the San Francisco Giants.

The first question the Dodgers need to answer is which Hyun-Jin Ryu will show up? Will it be the guy who dazzled in his first two starts, pitching 12 scoreless innings, or the guy who got hit around by the Giants in the home opener, working his shortest start in the major leagues? Ryu had to wait two extra days to get that one out of his system as the Dodgers played only four games since that April 4 day game. They played a two-game series with the Detroit Tigers surrounded by off days.

Arizona will use Brandon McCarthy to oppose Ryu on Friday. McCarthy has shown revived stuff in his early starts, but has been hurt by blow-up innings.

The Dodgers have their best healthy pitcher, Zack Greinke, going in the second game of the series against Wade Miley, whom the Dodgers faced on Opening Day in Australia. Miley was a last-minute replacement for Arizona’s young lefty ace, Patrick Corbin, who underwent Tommy John surgery.

It’s likely Yasiel Puig will return at some point in the series, probably Friday, after missing three games because of an injured left thumb from sliding headfirst into first base on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers will have to try to cool off slugger Mark Trumbo, who went deep off closer Kenley Jansen in Australia and has five home runs and 13 RBIs through the first 12 games.

Dodgers in better shape to withstand injuries

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
There are some eerie similarities. The Dodgers began the 2013 season winning six of their first 10 games, precisely as they have done this year.

In the ninth game of 2013, Zack Greinke broke his collarbone in a fight with Carlos Quentin in San Diego. The injuries kept piling up and, by the latter days of June, the Dodgers had dug themselves a deep hole, going 24-38 after Greinke went down.

Greinke’s injury came in his second start. The Dodgers’ other Cy Young winner, Clayton Kershaw, was injured making his first start of this season. Days later, Brian Wilson, the No. 2 reliever, went on the disabled list with nerve irritation in his twice-repaired right elbow. A week later, starting catcher A.J. Ellis took an awkward step trying to score from second and tore the meniscus in his knee. He had surgery and will be out for at least a month.

Chad Billingsley had a setback in his first rehab start, feeling something in his surgically repaired right elbow.

Again, the blows have been coming with steady regularity in the early weeks, but the Dodgers feel they’re much better equipped to handle injuries -- presuming they don’t proliferate too much -- than they were a year ago. General manager Ned Colletti learned his lesson after suffering through the first half of 2013. The winter that followed was all about disaster control.

“A lot of teams have things going on,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters this week. “It’s really what Ned and his guys prepared for during the winter when you’re trying to build a team, build depth.”

Nobody could have predicted Kershaw would get hurt. He had never been on the disabled list before. He had pitched through hip and foot injuries. But it was a pretty good bet that other pitchers would go down. All you had to do was look at the first few weeks of 2013, when the Dodgers had to use eight starting pitchers in the first 20 games.

So, Colletti took as few chances as he could. He signed veteran Dan Haren to a one-year, $10 million deal then added Paul Maholm as insurance – for $1.5 million to $6.5 million depending on incentives -- though he was pretty sure he’d have Josh Beckett and Billingsley back before too long. That’s seven starting pitchers, plus Zach Lee off to a good start at Triple-A. It will be hard for the Dodgers to thrive without Kershaw -- his presence every five days is a major boost to the team’s confidence -- but they’re at least equipped to survive while he’s out.

They’re deeper still in the bullpen. Even without Wilson, they have five relievers on guaranteed contracts. One who is not, Chris Withrow, has replaced Wilson with electrifying stuff. In his first five outings, Withrow, 24, has allowed two base runners in six innings while striking out nine. Sunday, he struck out the side against the San Francisco Giants on just 10 pitches.

Jansen has struggled somewhat lately, but the Dodgers’ biggest issue might be finding a roster spot for Wilson when he returns rather than replacing his quality innings.

The loss of Ellis will be harder to gauge, because of his No. 1 strength, putting the Dodgers’ game plan into action by calling pitches. His 3.06 catcher’s ERA led the majors last season. Tim Federowicz had a 3.61 catcher’s ERA in 45 games and Drew Butera is considered a plus defensive catcher, so it’s possible the Dodgers could survive this blow as well.

Once again, the Dodgers are forced into hold-the-line mode in April, but it feels like a much more doable task this time.

Gordon hoping to fulfill his promise

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
LOS ANGELES -- Dee Gordon was the main character in tales of hope and amazement in this city of stars before he even had his named inked onto a major league lineup card.

Before games at Dodger Stadium, coaches and scouts would dish stories of his speed and how he could put the stadium in awe by turning walks into triples. He was also a shortstop, a glamour position that hadn't been occupied by anyone glamorous here in years.

[+] EnlargeDee Gordon
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDee Gordon is showing more maturity in his approach for the Dodgers, and that could lead to more staying power for him on the roster.
Yeah, Dee Gordon was going to be flashy, maybe even taking over the nickname his father Tom "Flash" Gordon made popular among seamheads as a reliever for more than 20 seasons.

And finally, after two seasons of disappointment, all of those expectations may be coming to fruition as the younger Gordon is putting his tools to use, including slapping a tying single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to send Wednesday’s game into extra innings -- a game the Los Angeles Dodgers eventually lost 7-6 to the Detroit Tigers.

It wasn't always this sweet for Gordon, though.

After showing real promise in 233 plate appearances in 2011, Gordon made his first Opening Day roster in 2012, but his shine quickly dulled when it became evident he couldn't defend his position well and was too flawed mechanically and physically to put up satisfactory offensive numbers.

Since then Gordon has struggled to stick on the 25-man roster despite hitting .311/.377/.773 with 81 steals over parts of three seasons at Triple-A Alburquerque (778 plate appearances). The classic Four-A player: good enough to leave the final level of the minors but not good enough for the big leagues.

But this season is shaping up differently. Gordon put on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, moved over to second base and made his second Opening Day roster. And now he is hitting like he can be a real weapon in an already loaded Dodgers lineup, collecting three hits Wednesday to punch his average up to .394 (13-for-33) with a .977 OPS, five RBIs and five stolen bases in nine games.

"I'm feeling pretty good. I've been working my butt off," Gordon said. "It feels good to get some results, but I'm still going to trust the process. It's a long season."

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