Commentary

Dodgers didn't settle for Ted Lilly

Thursday's shutout of Colorado proves L.A. made a smart move to acquire him

Updated: August 20, 2010, 10:53 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- As the front office of the Los Angeles Dodgers formulated a wish list of available starting pitchers in the weeks leading up to baseball's annual trading deadline, Ted Lilly of the Chicago Cubs was on that list, but he wasn't very high on it. So, when the Dodgers finalized a five-player deal with the Cubs just hours before the deadline to bring Lilly back to the organization that drafted him all those years ago, there was an unmistakable feeling that they were settling for something less than what they really wanted.

If there were any remnants of that feeling left before Thursday night, they were long gone by the end of the game, a 2-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies before 45,104 at Dodger Stadium in which Lilly not only won for the fourth time in his four starts with the Dodgers but also twirled his first shutout in almost six years.

Lilly dominated the overmatched Rockies, allowing just two hits, striking out 11 and retiring 19 consecutive batters from the first inning through the seventh.

In his four starts with the Dodgers, Lilly has a 1.29 ERA, almost 2½ runs better than the perfectly acceptable 3.69 he had posted with the Cubs this season. And that post-trade performance has come despite the fact Lilly hasn't really had much more run support with the Dodgers than he had in Chicago, where despite his ERA, he went 3-8 before the trade.

[+] EnlargeTed Lilly
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonTed Lilly got his first shutout in almost six years Thursday, giving up two hits and striking out 11.

In Lilly's four wins, the Dodgers scored two runs in three of them.

All of which raises the question of whether Lilly has actually pitched better since coming to the Dodgers or he has simply gotten better results.

"I guess it's a little bit of both," he said. "I'm throwing the ball a little bit better, and the defense has made some huge plays at critical times."

Lilly gave up a freakish double to Dexter Fowler with one out in the first inning -- Fowler lined a ball so hard toward third base that Casey Blake could only react to it before it ticked off his glove, started up the left-field line but then caromed off the rolled-up and rarely used tarpaulin. After that, nary another Rockies batter reached base until Troy Tulowitzki drove a single up the middle with two outs in the seventh.

Given how shaky the Dodgers' bullpen has been lately, there was no question as to whether Lilly (7-8) would go back out for the ninth. And although he started that inning by walking Eric Young, Fowler grounded into a double play on the next pitch. Ryan Spilborghs then struck out on three pitches to end it, leaving the fourth-place Dodgers (62-60) just a game behind the third-place Rockies in the National League West, 12 behind the division-leading San Diego Padres and a still-breathing seven behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the wild-card standings.

None of which is really where Lilly thought the Dodgers would be when he came over from the non-contending Cubs.

"I have really enjoyed the guys on this team," Lilly said. "Unfortunately, we're more games out in the standings than we were when I got here. I think the ultimate goal is to catch San Diego. I don't think it makes any sense to focus on individual performance when we've got [12] games to try to catch with a month and a half left or whatever it is.

"That is where our motivation lies, and I would love to have an opportunity to pitch in the postseason again."

For now, that is about as far into the future as Lilly is willing to look. The 12-year veteran is in the final season of a four-year, $40 million contract. With fellow starters Vicente Padilla and Hiroki Kuroda also potential free agents, the Dodgers are almost certain to make a run at keeping Lilly, and if he keeps pitching like this, there will be some level of public pressure for them to do so.

For his part, Lilly is thinking about any of that.

"I'm not going there," he said. "I have a lot of work to do first."

Lilly did admit to reporters Aug. 1, the day he joined the Dodgers, that he was heartbroken when the team traded him to the Montreal Expos in a seven-player deal in 1998, when Lilly was still a highly touted minor league pitcher. And he seems perfectly comfortable to be back, not only on the mound but in the clubhouse.

"He loves it here," one person in the organization said after the game.

Surely, then, he must have some interest in re-signing with the Dodgers, right?

"It's a great place to play," Lilly said. "It would be fun to come back here and win."

By the Numbers

14 -- months, to the day, between home runs for the Dodgers' Reed Johnson, who drove in the only runs of the game with his two-run shot off Rockies lefty Jorge De La Rosa in the second inning. Johnson hadn't homered since hitting one for the Cubs off Cliff Lee, then with the Cleveland Indians, on June 19, 2009. The drought spanned 71 games in which Johnson had an official at-bat.

Johnson, normally a backup outfielder, was in the lineup in right field only because Andre Ethier was 1-for-11 with five strikeouts in his career against De La Rosa.

"I think it was either a hanging changeup or a splitter," said Johnson, who drove whatever it was into the front row in left-center, just to the right of the 375-foot marker. "It kind of stayed up. He had thrown me two or three already in that at-bat. I just got good wood on it."

Scene and Heard

Slumping center fielder Matt Kemp took about a half-hour of early batting practice on the field just before the rest of the team came out for pregame stretching. The only coach on hand to watch Kemp was the one who was pitching to him, hitting coach Don Mattingly, who offered occasional batting tips between pitches.

"For the most part, we were just working to get his posture back," Mattingly said. "His butt was jutting out, so he was reaching for a lot of balls. I was trying to get him to keep his butt underneath him, in layman's terms, to give him more of a direct path to the ball."

And, in theory, prevent him from chasing so many low, outside breaking balls, a habit that had contributed greatly to Kemp's recent struggles. He entered the day hitting .218 for August, with 16 strikeouts in 61 plate appearances, and he had struck out 128 times in 510 plate appearances (once every four trips to the plate) for the season.

After his one-on-one session with Mattingly, Kemp went 0-for-4 in the game. But that wasn't as important as the fact that he didn't strike out, and two of his three outs (he reached on an error in the eighth) came on balls that were squared up.

"He was a lot better," Mattingly said. "I was really happy with him tonight. Hopefully, he felt better. He didn't get any results, and that [stinks], but his swing was much better."

Injury Update

A bone scan on Rafael Furcal's lower back came back negative, meaning the Dodgers shortstop is free to resume his rehabilitation program as soon as he feels up to it. Furcal has been sidedlined for more than two weeks with a low-back strain. Although he suffered a setback earlier this week when his back tightened up on him, partly as a result of the long flight back from Atlanta but mostly because of the battery of tests he put himself through on the field during last weekend's four-game series with the Braves, Stan Conte, the Dodgers' director of medical services, said Furcal reported feeling a little better Thursday. There still is no target date for Furcal to begin a minor league rehab assignment.

Minor Matter

The Dodgers' Manny Ramirez played five innings in left field in his second rehabilitation game with high Class-A Inland Empire against Lake Elsinore. Ramirez came to the plate three times, striking out swinging in the first inning, taking a called third strike in the second and drawing a walk in the fourth. He caught a line drive and a fly ball and also ran down a double. He is expected to play at least one more game with the 66ers before being activated from the 15-day disabled list, where he has been since July 20 with a right-calf strain.

Quote of the Day

"That probably was the easiest nine innings I have ever caught at the major league level or at any level. There really wasn't much involved for me. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He hit his spots. It was more draining going over the hitters before the game, really. It was almost like a day off. He was outstanding. He has been outstanding since he got here, but I think this was by far his best performance." -- Dodgers catcher Brad Ausmus, a 17-year major league veteran and three-time Gold Glove winner, on being behind the plate for Lilly's two-hit masterpiece.

Looking Ahead

The Dodgers begin a three-game series with the Cincinnati Reds, who haven't won a game at Dodger Stadium since taking the final two of a four-game series in July 2005. Since then, the Reds are 0-12 at Chavez Ravine. Dodgers rookie right-hander Carlos Monasterios (3-3, 3.72) will take the mound for the opener, filling in for the injured Padilla, who is expected to be placed on the 15-day disabled list before the game. Reds right-hander Homer Bailey (2-2, 4.92) pitched six shutout innings Sunday against the Florida Marlins, his first start since returning from a 2½-month stint on the disabled list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com..

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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