Russell Mitchell delivers for Dodgers
His ninth-inning HR propels L.A. over Chicago, but his time in the majors could end soon
CHICAGO -- It was almost funny, but it was mostly just sad.
I speak, of course, of the lineup the Los Angeles Dodgers put on the field for their first interleague game of the season, and it was an interleague road game, no less. Even without a pitcher in the lineup, though, there wasn't anybody from the fifth spot down who was hitting better than .233, and there wasn't anybody from the seventh spot who was hitting .200, or even close to it.
And there, at the very bottom, where the pitcher usually hits, was a defensively versatile rookie named Russell Mitchell, who on this particular occasion was playing third base because Aaron Miles had a sore left rib cage, so Juan Uribe moved to second. Mitchell wasn't even hitting .100 in the three weeks since he was recalled from Triple-A Albuquerque, a move made for no other reason than veteran third baseman Casey Blake was going onto the disabled list and Mitchell, at that time, was the only infielder left on the 40-man roster who wasn't already in the majors.
Sometimes, though, when a team most desperately needs a hero, it gets a most unlikely one. And with two outs and nobody on in the top of the ninth inning of what looked for all the world like another mindnumbing, sleepwalking, offensively futile defeat, Mitchell yanked a tying, solo homer just inside the left-field foul pole off Chicago White Sox closer Sergio Santos, a Mater Dei High School alum and lifelong Dodgers fan.
The Dodgers scored three more off Santos in the 10th and -- with the help of a diving stop by Mitchell that robbed Alexei Ramirez of a hit and probably saved a run -- survived a harrowing bottom half before closing out what might have been their most stirring victory of the season, 6-4 over the White Sox before 34,248 on Friday night at U.S. Cellular Field.
The home run was Mitchell's second hit in 15 at-bats. His first had been an infield single back to the mound Thursday night against the San Francisco Giants. He is hitting .125 and probably headed right back to the minors as soon as Blake comes back in about a week, or maybe even when Rafael Furcal returns Sunday or Monday.
For the moment, though, Mitchell got to feel like a hero. Because, well, that is exactly what he was for a Dodgers offense that seemingly had been waiting an eternity for somebody, anybody, to inject a little life into it.
"It is what it is," Mitchell said of his slow start. "All I can do is stay in the cage and work, work, work."
If Mitchell has learned nothing else in his nine seasons in the organization, the former 15th-round draft pick has learned how to read the tea leaves. He knows the spot he is in, and that he might not be in it for very long. It isn't anything anyone had to tell him when he was called up, and so manager Don Mattingly didn't, as he never does with any player.
"They know," Mattingly said. "I think they know their situation a lot of times, and he has been around a little bit. You don't really tell them, because you don't really know that."
Case in point: Uribe left the game after the sixth inning because of a strained left hip flexor/lower abdomen. It wasn't immediately clear how much time he will miss -- the injury didn't appear serious -- but if Uribe is out beyond Sunday, when Furcal could return, it is possible that will buy Mitchell a few more days in the majors.
"It's a situation where I'm here, and I don't know for how long," Mitchell said. "When I get in a game, I'm just going to try to produce and try to drive in runs and help the team win. If I play well, I might set myself up to where they have to make a decision."
The harsh reality for Mitchell is he probably waited too long for that. The Dodgers (21-25) will need a roster spot soon, Mitchell has minor league options, and, well, he has yet to really even prove he is a major league-caliber hitter.
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"I think it's important that he have some success," Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "He is at an age (26) where he is kind of looking one way or the other. There is a sense of urgency to this game, and I think he feels it. I'm just trying to be there for him and sort of get him over that hump, maybe [with] some new ideas or a new approach. I'm sure he has probably had ... a lot of good hitting coaches, so I don't want to say anything against them. But he is very open [to new ideas], and he has a lot of those qualities that you can't teach, such as seeing the ball early and being on time [with his swing].
"Now we just need to make his swing a little bit better, a little shorter at the point of contact, where the ball comes off a little crisper."
That adjustment probably will have to come in the Pacific Coast League. But if the four runs the Dodgers scored in the ninth and 10th innings -- more than they had scored in six of their previous eight games -- were enough to finally jumpstart this fizzling offense, it was Mitchell's timely shot that jumpstarted that rally.
"That was a big hit for me to get my confidence going again," he said.
Hopefully for Mitchell, that confidence is something he can continue to carry with him, wherever he goes.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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