Commentary

Bold moves could be L.A.'s calling card

Updated: July 4, 2011, 1:19 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- In the best of times and the best of lights, it became their identity, the style and the substance that made Mike Scioscia's Los Angeles Angels different and daring.

"Small ball," they called it, derisively from some corners, because in an era of chemically enhanced slugging, Scioscia's brand of baseball did appear small and anachronistic. The kind of baseball a team was forced to play when the farm system or free agency didn't produce enough pop, or happened to have a stubborn former National League catcher as its manager.

[+] EnlargeDee Gordon
Rob Curtis/Icon SMISpeed like Dee Gordon's can help the Dodgers manufacture runs.

But now, as the game digs itself out of the steroid era and pitchers have wrestled control of the game back from the bombers, small ball has become avant-garde and Sciosicia has become something of a sage.

"The game has changed," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "Whether it's the strike zone, whether it's just better starting pitching, the game has changed so you gotta change with it. If you don't you're going to get left behind."

He was speaking for himself and his team. And he was speaking from personal experience, having chosen to sign with the Angels as a free agent in 2008 because they played so similarly to the Minnesota Twins.

"We started that in Minnesota," Hunter said. "We didn't have any 30 home run guys. That's why I came over here because they had the same style. This is the way I know how to play.

"I think it's the only way to play baseball. That's how they played it back when they started playing the games."

Over the last few years the Angels have changed their approach a bit. Not because small ball had failed them, but because their personnel no longer fit into it as well.

But the tenets of small ball are so deeply ingrained into Scioscia, it will never truly be out of his system.

"I don't think anyone wants to see me try and go first-to-third anymore," Scioscia joked when I asked about the way he preferred to play the game before Sunday's 3-1 Freeway Series finale win over the Dodgers.

"Even when I could run, I could never really run. … But I think [the Angels'] philosophy really is a product of what we learned coming up in the Dodger organization when we were younger.

"We were taught by guys like Maury Wills and Lou Johnson who played during a time I know influenced them -- they had [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] Drysdale, [Claude] Osteen, all those great pitchers -- so they knew if they could score two or three runs, they could win. That was their objective really: 'Let's just do what we can do offensively and let our pitching and defense take over.'

[+] EnlargeMike Scioscia
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesMike Scioscia's scrappy offensive strategy was developed during his days with the Dodgers.

"Going first-to-third or turning a single into a double are important for any team, but they're more important for a team that's been constructed along the lines we've been."

Though his job is to manage and not assemble the team, there's a pride in the way Scioscia talks about a style of play that is so clearly encoded into his DNA.

He embraces it willingly, not grudgingly, which is where his path and new Dodgers manager Don Mattingly's seem to diverge.

It's not that Mattingly dislikes or disapproves of the tenets of small ball -- the man excitedly hired baserunning guru Davey Lopes before the season and was known as an aggressive baserunner as a player -- it's that he still talks about that style of play as something he has to do out of necessity.

"It's back to personnel," Mattingly said. "If you've got a Dee Gordon, you don't want to sit there and wait for him to hit a three-run homer."

In other words, Mattingly is playing the cards he's been dealt.

"You do what you gotta do," Lopes said. "You have to play according to the type of guys you have on your team. You can't be a speed team if you don't have speed. You can't be a power team if you don't have power.

"You have to be able to adjust and [Mattingly] adjusts. That's what all good managers do."

Though adding power was a point of emphasis for the Dodgers in the offseason, the acquisitions of Juan Uribe and Marcus Thames have yet to translate into very much offense or power.

Instead, Mattingly has been left to draft a lineup out of raw but talented and speedy rookies Gordon and Jerry Sands, journeyman contact hitters Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles, disappointing veterans Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and James Loney, and budding superstars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, who simply can't do it alone.

It is a lineup without much pop that has produced very few positive circumstances. But it is a lineup that could, in the best of times or best of lights, play pretty decent small ball.

The Dodgers' on-base percentage -- a key component to effective small ball -- is a respectable .324, fifth in the National League. Their .986 fielding percentage is tied for fourth in the NL.

They have at least four quality starting pitchers, five if you count rookie Rubby De La Rosa, who can pitch deep into games and give them a chance to win every game.

What they've lacked is a consistent bullpen to protect whatever small leads the offense might muster, and reliable run producers to bring all those runners who've gotten on base in to score.

In Sunday's loss to the Angels, the Dodgers were just 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. For the season, the team is just 11th in the NL in runs (667) and 12th in RBIs (302).

"It's really what's hurt us as much as anything," Mattingly said of the team's inability to get clutch hits in RBI situations this season. "Because we've given ourselves chances."

When those runners on base don't turn into runs, you get another game like Sunday's, which left starting pitcher Chad Billingsley answering postgame questions about how he could throw a three-hit complete game and lose.

"You can't do anything about it," Billingsley lamented. "You just gotta keep going out there and pitching your game."

Still, the strain of having so little room for error has to weigh on the Dodgers' starters.

This, for better or worse, is the hand Mattingly has been dealt in his first season as manager, a team with little pop that must manufacture offense from speed and scrappy hitting.

It is a style that must be embraced to succeed, though. An approach that must become an identity, not an adjustment.

Mattingly is not closed to the idea, but he hasn't swallowed it whole yet, either.

"I think that's still being formed," he said when asked about the Dodgers' organizational style.

OK, but what style does he prefer to play?

"I want like eight Matt Kemps who can hit it out of the ballpark and steal bases," Mattingly joked. "You got any more of those?"

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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