- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Bobby Cox, the uber-accomplished manager of the Atlanta Braves who allegedly plans to retire after the season, followed baseball's proverbial "book" to the letter in the seventh inning Friday night. It's just too bad for Cox the "book" doesn't account for certain human elements.
Like the fact Manny Ramirez isn't exactly the kind of hitter you want to intentionally walk in a key situation anymore. Like the fact bringing in a left-hander to pitch to James Loney is far from a sure thing.
With the Braves having clawed all the way back from an early, four-run deficit and the Los Angeles Dodgers desperate to jumpstart their struggling offense, Cox responded to a one-out double by Andre Ethier in that fateful seventh inning by ordering pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to intentionally walk the slumping Ramirez. Cox then came to get Kawakami, who had basically had his way with the Dodgers since the third inning, and brought in left-handed reliever Eric O'Flaherty to pitch to the left-handed-hitting Loney.
Loney then lined O'Flaherty's first pitch to right-center, dropping it in for a base hit that easily scored Ethier and ultimately gave the Dodgers a 5-4 victory over the Braves before 42,459 at Dodger Stadium, ending Atlanta's nine-game winning streak and moving the Dodgers to within half a game of the lead in the National League West.
"A lot of times, it's just strategy," Loney said. "They brought a lefty in, they were trying to get the double play, and it's Manny Ramirez. There were a bunch of factors. But you don't draw any extra motivation from that. If you don't go up there motivated every time, no matter what the situation, something is wrong."
Cox could hardly be blamed for his decision. It made all the sense in the world. Although he was mired in a 6-for-42 slump even after pulling a clean single through the left side in his previous at-bat, Ramirez remains an intimidating presence for opposing clubs. And Loney did come into that at-bat hitting only .250 for the season against left-handers, as opposed to .299 against righties -- a gaping discrepancy, to be sure.
"[But] I don't mind them bringing in a left-hander against him," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "When he is struggling with the bat, it actually seems like left-handers sort of help him. He is less comfortable, so he just sort of throws himself into the at-bat. I think he goes more into the ball, so he doesn't have the same tendency to pull off the ball.
"He was looking for a pitch to hit, and he got it."
Numbers-wise, Loney doesn't appear to have been struggling, at least not as Torre suggested. He now has a four-game hitting streak, during which he is 5 for 17. But it is a quiet 5 for 17, with a couple of infield hits and four strikeouts mixed in and, until now, nary a single RBI. And before the hitting streak, he went through a 15-game stretch in which he was 9 for 49 with four walks in 55 plate appearances.
And, of course, the last act Loney committed during that mini-slump was getting himself caught in a rundown in the ninth inning with the score tied Monday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks after he got to second base with nobody out, a mistake that would have been huge if Casey Blake hadn't forced a walk-off balk later in the inning. Loney later called it "the dumbest thing I have ever seen or done in life, not just in baseball."
Since then, though, Loney appears to be getting himself back into some semblance of a groove, and apparently, even Cox had started to notice that. After all, Loney himself drew an intentional walk from the Braves after he had worked Kawakami for a 3-and-0 count in the first inning with two outs and Ronnie Belliard on deck.
That one didn't work so well for Cox, either. Belliard answered with an RBI double, giving the Dodgers (32-23) a 2-0 lead that would have been 3-0 if Loney hadn't been forced to return to third base when the ball bounced over the wall.
Cox has won 15 division titles in his managerial career, as well as five pennants and a World Series title. When he does finally retire, he will be a lock for the Hall of Fame. But with each of the first two games in this early-season, four-game showdown between the two hottest teams in the NL having been decided by one run, those two strategic moves involving Loney wound up looming large for Cox and the Braves, as well as for the opportunistic Dodgers.
By the numbers
5 -- strikeouts in five at-bats for Braves right-field phenom and NL Rookie of the Year favorite Jason Heyward, the first four of which came against Clayton Kershaw and the last of which came against Jonathan Broxton to end the game. Heyward, who still has a .402 on-base percentage and entered this game having walked almost as many times (33) as he had struck out (37), had only two previous games in which he had struck out as many as three times.
"Honestly, when it's lefty-lefty, I have a lot of confidence," Kershaw said. "I should be able to get lefties out. I fell behind in pretty much every one of his at-bats, but I was able to get a breaking ball over for a strike. After that, he was chasing fastballs up. It was just one of those nights. ... He is a good player. You can see the talent he has. If he wasn't playing against us, he would be fun to watch."
The result of the MRI exam on Dodgers third baseman Blake's lower back showed nothing more than irritation. Blake probably won't return to the lineup until at least Sunday.
"The next 24 to 48 hours should tell us a lot more," Torre said.
Quote of the day
"John has been a very special person to me, and he continues to be a special person. When I met him for the first time, I was managing the Yankees, and he came into my office in Anaheim. It sort of caught me off-guard. He was a very pleasant man, a man who commanded all sorts of respect. When he opened his mouth, you wanted to listen. His philosophy, I used many times to try to get points across and make decisions. Knowing he was a big baseball fan was something I didn't know initially until I did some research. I was very fortunate in January to have the opportunity to have brunch with him and spend four or five hours with him." -- Torre, talking about legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden about two hours before Wooden died Friday evening at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Chad Billingsley (6-2, 3.74) takes the mound for the Dodgers on Saturday night, fresh off his longest outing (eight innings) since last July 5 and most pitches thrown (120) since last May 14 in a no-decision against the Diamondbacks on Monday night in which the Dodgers eventually won on a walkoff balk in the ninth. Righty Tommy Hanson (5-3, 3.78) will start for the Braves. He has won each of his past two starts, giving up three runs and seven hits over 12 2/3 innings, since being torched for eight runs in just 1 2/3 on May 20 against Cincinnati.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.