Dodgers playing a hair better
Perhaps coincidentally, L.A. has been on a roll ever since Don Mattingly lost his razor
CHICAGO -- If you don't mind taking a break from this never-ending storyline about team owners drowning in debt, hostile takeovers by the league office and potential future owners circling like buzzards, I would like to talk to you for just a moment about facial hair.
Specifically, Don Mattingly's facial hair.
The rookie manager's decision to allow it to grow into goatee form was made right around the time his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, began a stretch in which they now have won six of their past eight games, the most recent a 7-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs before 32,943 on Sunday at Wrigley Field.
Mattingly's wife, Lori, who hadn't seen him for a while, traveled here from their home in nearby Evansville, Ind., for the weekend series with the Cubs and, according to her husband, laid down the law about the salt-and-pepper growth she saw creeping across his chin and upper lip. By the next time she meets up with him, when the team arrives in New York on May 5, it had better be gone.
"I have a 10-day reprieve," Mattingly said.
All of which would seem to be leading to a major battle, not necessarily one of Mattingly versus Mattingly -- because, really, haven't the Dodgers had enough of marital strife over the past couple of years? -- but one of Mrs. Mattingly versus all of the Dodgers.
"I think he definitely looks better shaved, because there is way too much white there," conceded Rod Barajas, the Dodgers' always clean-shaven catcher. "He might want to trust in that Just for Men. But you certainly can't mess with it. If you haven't shaved or cut your hair and the team is playing well, you have to go with it. I feel bad for his wife, but that's the game. You can't do anything different. This game is all about superstition, and you can't mess with success."
Before she makes any rash decrees, Lori Mattingly might want to consider that the Dodgers (12-11), for the first time this season, are routinely getting quality starting pitching, good-enough relief pitching and production from their lineup, with fully 40 percent (38 of 95) of their 2011 runs having been scored over the past five games.
"We have been playing a lot better all-around baseball," Barajas said. "We're definitely swinging the bats better and getting more runs in. Our starting pitching has been awesome. We had one hiccup [on Saturday] in the eighth inning [when the bullpen coughed up five runs], but I think all-around, this is the best baseball we have played. If we keep this up consistently and keep playing the way we have been playing, things are going to work out for us."
It isn't just that the Dodgers have taken over second place and pulled within three of the division-leading Colorado Rockies in the National League West, it's more the way they have been going about it. Their team batting average over the past eight games has jumped 11 points, from .251 to .262. Their team ERA has shrunk by more than half a run, from 5.02 to 4.50, and the starting rotation specifically, following a strong performance by Hiroki Kuroda (3-2) in the finale with the Cubs, has gone from 4.82 to 3.92.
The bullpen ERA has actually risen, from 5.40 to 5.73, but take out the two losses -- both of which included complete meltdowns by the relief corps -- and the 'pen has given up three earned runs over 11⅓ innings during the six wins.
And when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, a category in which the Dodgers were hitting a putrid .193 when Mattingly lost his razor, they have raised that mark to .235 by going 21-for-65 (.323) during the past eight games.
Oh, and right fielder Andre Ethier's career-long hitting streak -- the longest in the majors so far this season -- has gone from a fairly impressive 13 games to a phenomenal 21 games, during which he is hitting .413 (33-for-80). And center fielder Matt Kemp continues to lead the majors in hitting at .402.
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There is no denying that the Dodgers are still short of gaining national respectability. That doesn't come easy when you are just a game above .500, your owner's divorce and financial issues have essentially destroyed your franchise's once-golden reputation and the commissioner is about to appoint someone to oversee the team's expenditures.
And what comes next, beginning on Monday night in Miami, is a daunting three-game series with a strong Florida Marlins team, during which the Dodgers will face two elite-level starters in right-handers Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez. The Dodgers are likely to activate backup catcher Dioner Navarro for the first time this season before the start of that series, the switch-hitter's torn right oblique having held up well during a four-game rehabilitation stint at Double-A Chattanooga in which he went 2-for-12 at the plate.
But down in the clubhouse, where everyone at least claims to be ignoring all the turmoil upstairs, they are feeling pretty good about themselves right now.
"You have to feel good with the way our pitching is going," said Aaron Miles, who was 4-for-10 out of the leadoff spot the past two days while filling in at second base as Juan Uribe nurses a mild hip-flexor injury. "We're getting great starting pitching and it looks like the bats are starting to come around."
And unlike eight days ago, when the Dodgers were still routinely looking overmatched on an almost-nightly basis, there would seem to be an entirely different reason now for keeping certain sharp objects away from Mattingly.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.