Manny who? Dodgers' bench shines
Big defensive plays are game-savers for L.A. and raise a tough question for Torre
DENVER -- When a game is decided by a run, everything is magnified. The losing team looks back on defensive plays that should have been made and weren't. The winning team looks back on defensive plays that shouldn't have been made but were.
Such was the case with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the rubber game of a series with the Colorado Rockies with a 4-3 victory Sunday at Coors Field. In the victory, which salvaged a break-even trip, the Dodgers made four stellar defensive plays, each of which could be classified as game-saving. And three of the four were made by players who normally spend most of the game watching from the dugout.
Which raises the question: Are the Dodgers, who entered the day tied for the second-worst fielding percentage of any team in the majors, a better overall defensive team when manager Joe Torre empties his bench?
Torre, who often plays his reserves in day games after night games, was asked that question after Sunday's win. He gave a general answer about his club's great bench. But even if Torre wasn't willing to publicly agree with the suggestion, he certainly wasn't going to shoot it down.
This much is clear: The running catch Reed Johnson made in left field, taking extra bases and possibly an RBI away from Ryan Spilborghs in the fifth inning, came on a ball Manny Ramirez never could have gotten close to -- something Ramirez almost acknowledged in a good-natured exchange with Johnson at the end of that inning.
"Manny looked at me and said he would have made that catch easily because he would have been positioned correctly," Johnson said. "He is always giving me a hard time. It's kind of a new thing where we like to get on each other a little bit."
After Johnson robbed Spilborghs and Jason Giambi popped up, Clayton Kershaw issued consecutive walks to Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe, loading the bases with the score tied, 2-2. That brought up light-hitting backup catcher Chris Iannetta and set the table for the Dodgers' defensive play of the afternoon.
Iannetta lined an 0-1 pitch from Kershaw on a low arc toward the gap in right-center. But Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, the reigning National League Gold Glove winner at the position, raced into right-center, went into a full-on dive and snatched the ball out of the air just before it hit the grass. Coming as it did with two outs and all three runners moving at the crack of the bat, Kemp's catch certainly saved three runs.
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"He hit the ball hard," Kemp said. "Right off the bat, you have to go at it hard. Any hesitation, and it's going to get in between [you and the right fielder]. But if you dive and miss it, it's going to go to the wall." The choice to dive "is a calculated risk, and sometimes, you feel like you have a really good chance to catch the ball. In this case, I was pretty sure I had it.''
That play seemed to suck the life out of a raucous, sellout crowd of 48,682, and the Dodgers responded by scoring twice in the top of the sixth to take the lead for good.
In the bottom of the seventh, with Kershaw out and the game now in the hands of the Dodgers' sizzling bullpen, Rockies center fielder and star-in-the-making Carlos Gonzalez launched a low line drive toward the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. Xavier Paul, who has gotten most of the starts in right field during Andre Ethier's absence -- and who got much of the blame for the Dodgers' one-run defeat at Chicago on Thursday because of a pair of botched plays in the eighth inning -- took a handful of steps backward, reached for the ball at the last second and hauled it in, just before he turned to see where he was and immediately crashed into the wall.
"That is probably the toughest play to make, a line drive like that," Paul said. "In a lot of ballparks, that ball probably dies off. But here, it just kept going. I couldn't really turn my head off it because it didn't have much air under it. So I didn't really know where the wall was until after I caught the ball and ran into it."
From there, the Dodgers continued to sail along with that 4-2 lead until the ninth, when closer Jonathan Broxton jogged in from the bullpen and veteran utility man Jamey Carroll replaced the inexperienced Blake DeWitt at second base.
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That was when things got interesting.
The inning began with a double by Ian Stewart, and after the suddenly aging Todd Helton took a called third strike, Seth Smith hit a routine grounder under the glove and through the legs of third baseman Casey Blake, putting runners on the corners with one out.
"I would take Casey Blake at third base with two outs in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series," Torre said. "That ball hit the lip of the grass and just stayed down. It was one of those. It was an error, but it was one of those non-bounces."
Gonzalez followed with a one-hopper up the middle that appeared destined for center field. Carroll, who is known more for his sure-handedness than his range, dived to his right and gloved it. Although Carroll struggled to get it out of his glove, sprawled on the ground, he managed to dish it to Rafael Furcal for the force as Stewart crossed the plate, making it 4-3.
Had the ball gotten through, Broxton would have been looking at least at a first-and-second, one-out situation, probably first and third.
"I don't know if it was a game-saving play," Carroll said. "It was just a play that we needed. I was just hoping I could get it there in time."
Carroll then made one more play, on a routine grounder by Spilborghs, to end it.
It is possible that Ethier, who is expected to return from the disabled list and to the lineup on Monday night against Arizona, would have made the catch Paul made in right field. It is even possible that DeWitt, who is still getting used to playing second base on a daily basis, would have gotten to the ball Gonzalez hit. But there isn't a chance Ramirez, who doesn't run that well even on his best days, would have gotten close to the ball Johnson ran down in left-center.
The Dodgers committed two errors (including Blake's) and would have had a third if not for a change of heart by the official scorer after the game was over. Through their first 50 games, they have committed 42 of them overall, including five in six games by Furcal since he returned from the disabled list on Tuesday. But they are getting better, as evidenced by the fact they recently went eight consecutive games (May 14-22) without one.
Now, if only the regulars could be as good with the glove as the backups.
I really try not to think about it. It's kind of a decision that is out of my control. You know he is coming back, and he is going to play every day in right field. Whatever they decide, I have to take it in stride and keep playing hard.” -- Xavier Paul, on the return of Andre Ethier and Paul's likely reassignment to Albuquerque
Quote of the day
"I really try not to think about it. It's kind of a decision that is out of my control. You know he is coming back, and he is going to play every day in right field. Whatever they decide, I have to take it in stride and keep playing hard." -- Paul, whose heroics (he also singled to drive in a run and came around to score another one in the decisive sixth inning) came on what probably was his final day before being sent back to Albuquerque to clear a roster spot for Ethier.
Red-hot right-hander Chad Billingsley (6-2, 3.63 ERA) will take the mound for the Dodgers, who open a 13-game, 14-day home stand against the slumping Arizona Diamondbacks. Veteran right-hander Rodrigo Lopez (2-3, 4.57), who is 0-1 in two starts against the Dodgers this season, allowing eight earned runs on 18 hits over 12 innings, will start for the Diamondbacks in a game that begins an hour earlier (6:10 p.m.) than usual because of the holiday.Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.