Dodgers are off and running
New first-base coach Davey Lopes has already instilled a new confidence on basepaths
LOS ANGELES -- The baseball part of the day began early, one of the advantages of waking up in California being that day games from the East Coast are on by mid-morning. It was during the ninth inning of ESPN's Houston Astros-Philadelphia Phillies broadcast -- following what could have been, but ultimately wasn't, a critical baserunning blunder by Ryan Howard -- that analyst Aaron Boone speculated that the Phillies are likely to really miss their departed first-base coach of the past four seasons, a man named Davey Lopes.
As a player, Boone was always thoughtful and introspective during media interviews, never given to hyperbole. So it was rather attention-grabbing when he described Lopes, with a discernible degree of certainty, as the best baserunning coach in the business.
It was about eight hours later -- in the most pivotal moment of the Los Angeles Dodgers' 4-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in front of 44,834 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium -- that another strong boost would be given to Boone's claim.
Two days into the new season -- but more to the point, a little more than six weeks after Lopes began imparting his wisdom to a Dodgers team that simply wasn't very good on the bases last year -- his fingerprints are all over this team, arguably even more than those of new manager Don Mattingly.
That pivotal moment came in the bottom of the sixth inning, when the Dodgers trailed 3-1. Matt Kemp, the gifted outfielder whose speed has always exceeded his instincts on the basepaths, was on first base, and Marcus Thames was at the plate against Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez. As Sanchez began his delivery, Kemp broke for second, which would prove fortuitous when Thames hit what otherwise would have been a tailor-made double-play grounder to third.
Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval scooped it and took the only play he could, firing to first. Kemp rounded second and slowed up ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, for the half-second it took Sandoval to get rid of the ball -- "I didn't want him pump-faking me," Kemp said -- and then kept on running, sliding into third just ahead of the return throw from first baseman Brandon Belt.
There was no home run, no RBI, not even a hit. But all at once, the old yard began to rock in a way it really didn't at any time last year. There was a collective sense not only that Kemp was a different player, but that the Dodgers were a different team, an exciting team, an electrifying team an interesting team.
A good team? We won't know that for a little while yet. But it looks as if it's going to be fun to find out.
Almost inevitably, Kemp's opportunism led to a run, James Loney following it up with a gimme sacrifice fly that wouldn't have been possible with Kemp still on second. Then, with the bases now empty and two outs, the Dodgers put together another rally, building it around two Giants errors that were exactly the sort of miscues that aggressive -- some would say daring -- baserunning is designed to force.
There was Sandoval throwing one up the right-field line trying to get the hard-running Aaron Miles at first. There was Sanchez, frantically rushing to corral a nubber just off the mound by Hector Gimenez and consequently booting it as the tying run crossed the plate. And then, after the Dodgers had scored three runs to re-take the lead and chase Sanchez from the game, there was Lopes, wearing the uniform he has always seemed best suited for, hardly noticeable as he jogged in from the first-base coaching box at the end of the inning.
The absolutely deafening ovation the Dodgers were hearing just then wasn't for Lopes. But it should have been.
"Davey did a great job, putting a lot of time into it and a lot of effort into it this spring," Mattingly said. "[The result] has been great. It's something we wanted, and we worked on it every day, and they took to it. We didn't just go around the bases and talk situations [one day] and not really talk about it again. Davey had certain groups coming through at every base almost every day."
In fairness to Kemp, his game-changing decision was purely instinctive. That specific situation wasn't something Lopes addressed in spring training. But what it spoke to was a change in this team's collective mindset when it comes to baserunning.
Two games into this suddenly promising season for the Dodgers (2-0), the Lopes influence is everywhere. It was seen repeatedly in Thursday night's opener, Kemp arguably creating both of the Dodgers' runs by drawing an errant pickoff throw at third in the sixth and stealing second ahead of Loney's double in the eighth, and Juan Uribe trying to take an extra base on a well-placed blooper in the second inning, a decision that would have resulted in a double for Uribe if he hadn't overslid the bag.
This is a team that leaves the batter's box on every single thinking double, that thinks triple on every double, that thinks first-to-third on every single, the underlying rationale being that you can always put on the brakes if the outfielder cuts off the ball quickly. It is a team that looks not only to score runs, but to create them, something that could make all the difference in one-run games like the two the Dodgers already have played this season.
"One thing we talked about in spring training is being aggressive," Kemp said. "It starts with trying to get that extra base, and that is what we have been doing, trying to get that extra base and get into scoring position."
Inevitably, there will be times when this new approach will get the Dodgers into trouble, when an overly aggressive baserunning decision will get somebody thrown out at the worst possible time and maybe even cost the Dodgers a game here or there. There also is no guarantee that this change alone will make the Dodgers any better than their fourth-place finish and 80-82 record of a year ago.
But this much you can be sure of: These Dodgers won't be boring. That is something Lopes, who by at least one account is the best baserunning coach in the game, simply will not allow.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.