Casey Blake says to just relax
Veteran infielder wants teammates to stop overthinking and play with confidence
LOS ANGELES -- Casey Blake wasn't suggesting his Los Angeles Dodgers throw in the towel. Far from it, actually. All the veteran third baseman was saying, really, is that it's time for them to stop clutching the towel so tightly.
"We shouldn't be doing math," Blake said after Sunday's game, a 5-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds before 44,788 at Dodger Stadium. "We shouldn't be worrying about anybody ahead of us, even though it's tough not to look at the standings. Basically, we just have to try to win games."
And just maybe the way to do that is, well, to not try quite so hard to win games.
"There shouldn't be any pressure on us at all," Blake said. "It's time to basically start having fun and playing relaxed. It's too late to play tense or to feel like there is any kind of pressure whatsoever."
One of the reasons Blake doesn't think the Dodgers should be doing math is that the eventual answer to the equation seems to suggest this club is done -- the fourth-place Dodgers (63-62) now trail the division-leading San Diego Padres by 12 games in the National League West and the Philadelphia Phillies by eight in the wild-card race, and the Dodgers have only 37 games left -- but suggesting and confirming are two very different things.
The fact is, the Dodgers are still a long way from being officially eliminated from the playoffs. Not even the ghastly Pittsburgh Pirates, owners of baseball's worst record, are officially eliminated yet.
Blake's point, though, was the Dodgers are far enough out of contention they no longer have anything to lose. Playing tight and tense might not be the only reason the Dodgers have now scored two runs or fewer in 22 of their 37 games since the All-Star break, but it clearly has been a major contributing factor. And if the Dodgers can find a way to decompress, the thinking goes they might also find a way to win more games. And if they can win enough games, well, crazy things have been known to happen in baseball.
And even if there is no crazy comeback in the Dodgers' immediate future, they might learn something about themselves in the six weeks that are left before the end of the season -- the kind of lessons that can't really be learned when a team is fighting for a division title the way the Dodgers were at this time each of the past two seasons, and the kind of lesson that could prove quite valuable in 2011.
"I think some guys just kind of expected we were going to get back [to the playoffs] and that it was just going to happen," Blake said. "Maybe the position we're in will wake some guys up a little bit and make them appreciate what we had the last two years and how special getting to the postseason is.
"Hopefully, it will strike up a hunger there."
Blake wasn't simply pointing fingers around the room. No one had to tell him that his .227 average and 14 RBIs since the All-Star break made him as culpable as anyone else. But in a clubhouse that all too often this season has seemed to lack veteran leadership, Blake was at least attempting to provide a bit of it.
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Before being traded to the Dodgers days apart in July 2008, Blake and Manny Ramirez were on opposite sides in the 2007 American League Championship Series, Blake with the Cleveland Indians and Ramirez with the Boston Red Sox. Blake harkened back to that series, specifically to some eyebrow-raising comments by Ramirez after the Red Sox lost Game 4 to fall behind three games to one to Blake and the Indians.
Among those comments by Ramirez was this:
"If it doesn't happen, so who cares? There is always next year. It's not like the end of the world or something. Why should we panic?"
In baseball-crazy Boston, such comments were akin to sacrilege. But as Blake looked back on them Sunday, he could see the wisdom in them -- especially since the Red Sox came back to win the next three games and move on to the World Series, where they swept the Colorado Rockies.
"People just thought that was off the wall," Blake said. "But if you really dissect it, it was a pretty good mindset to have. It's not the end of the world if you don't win, but it takes a little bit of the edge off. They were able to play a little bit more relaxed, and they came back and beat us three games in a row."
But given the disappointment of the season so far and the fact it will take a comeback for the ages for the Dodgers to reach the playoffs, are they capable of relaxing? Are they capable of wringing a little enjoyment out of what is left of the season?
"I hope so," Blake said. "But it seems like human nature is to feel like there is a little more pressure there."
As expected, the Dodgers optioned catcher A.J. Ellis to Triple-A Albuquerque after the game, a move Ellis knew was coming before the game because the team acquired veteran catcher Rod Barajas from the New York Mets on a waiver claim. Barajas will be the Dodgers' primary catcher for the rest of the season with Russell Martin on the disabled list.
Ellis made the most of what will be his final major league game for at least 10 days, even if it isn't his final one of the year -- the Dodgers plan to recall him for the September roster expansion -- by going 3-for-3 with three singles, his first career three-hit game. In fact, Ellis had just one previous two-hit game, on April 17 against the San Francisco Giants.
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In two major league stints this season, Ellis is hitting .208. He had been working extensively of late with hitting coach Don Mattingly and instructor Jeff Pentland in an effort to improve on that.
"We had really good sessions the last couple of days," Ellis said. "We're almost, I don't want to say re-working it, but we're almost starting from scratch just to get a foundation going from that. I'm trying to start with my lower half and then get my upper half in at the end. I felt really good at the plate today."
Barajas is expected to join the team in time for Tuesday night's game at Milwaukee.
Reliever Travis Schlichting, who was put on the 15-day disabled list before the game, said he has been dealing with mild shoulder discomfort all year.
"I just thought it was tendinitis," he said. "I never had a problem with it during a game until [Saturday] night. Usually, once I get loose, I don't feel anything. But last night, once I got loose, I was still feeling pain in my shoulder."
Schlichting said he will undergo an MRI exam Monday to determine the cause.
The Dodgers begin a six-game trip with the opener of a three-game series at Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Left-hander Ted Lilly (7-8, 3.23), who was acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the July 31 trading deadline, will be attempting to become the first pitcher to win his first five starts for the Dodgers since Kazuhisa Ishii won his first six as a rookie in 2002. Right-hander Dave Bush (6-10, 4.63) will go for the Brewers in the opener.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.