Commentary

Starting pitching among keys for up-and-down Dodgers

Originally Published: August 24, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The Dodgers rank second in major league attendance behind the Yankees this season, but Los Angeles fans will never be described as "passionate" in the manner of the hardcore wackos in, say, Boston or New York.

Chalk it up to East Coast bias and color-coded television images. When every visiting broadcast pans out to show white headlights streaming into Dodger Stadium in the third inning and red taillights leaving the parking lot in the seventh, it reinforces the notion that baseball is a nice diversion on the way to something else.

Russell Martin
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesWhile playing nearly everyday, Russell Martin's numbers have gone down in the second half.

Pitcher Randy Wolf, a Southern California native, knows a bogus perception when he sees one. In his last start before going down with a sore shoulder in July, Wolf pitched three ineffective innings against Atlanta and received an earful from the home fans. The only thing they didn't do was pelt him with beach balls.

"My mom was like, 'Oh my God, they were booing you so hard,'" Wolf said. "I told her, 'I deserve it.' Dodger fans are die-hards. It's definitely a misconception that they're kind of blasé and aloof and don't care."

Combine a 66-63 record with a $108 million Opening Day payroll and glowing preseason predictions, and the frustration level is bound to be high whether you're sitting in the dugout, a box seat, a Barcalounger or the general manager's suite.

The Dodgers had lots of reasons to be upbeat in the spring, with their strong rotation, formidable bullpen and intriguing blend of youth and experience. Those elements fueled hopes of consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 1996.

October baseball remains a reasonable goal in Los Angeles. But it's going to take some work, a little luck and a better team than the one that sputtered its way through the first 127 games.

There's urgency in the air as Los Angeles enters a weekend series against the Mets at Shea Stadium. The Dodgers are in a stretch of 16 road games in 20 days, and they need to continue gaining ground on first-place Arizona and find a way to rise above the free-for-all known as the National League wild-card race.

So far, pretty good. The Dodgers' 15-3 win over the Phillies on Wednesday trumped Wes Parker's inclusion on the all-time Rawlings Gold Glove team as the franchise's feel-good story of the day. Things got better Thursday when they beat Philadelphia 5-2 to capture the three-game series.

General manager Ned Colletti also made a move to upgrade the pitching, signing starter David Wells in hopes that a little knowledge and muscle memory might outweigh the ravages of Father Time.

How rough has it been for the Dodgers? During one recent stretch of ineptitude, they scored 15 runs in nine games. As the team embarked on its East Coast trip Tuesday, utilityman Ramon Martinez led the way with seven RBIs in August.

If we can get hot and sustain any kind of streak, we'll be fine. A lot of things can happen.

--Dodgers manager Grady Little

The optimists in the Dodgers' clubhouse believe the storm has passed, and it's time to file that recent 4-15 swoon under the category of "stuff happens."

"If we didn't play bad for that two weeks, nobody would be talking about this team underachieving," outfielder Andre Ethier said. "People said we were good for the first half of the season. Now they're saying we're horrible after two weeks. What gives?"

Actually, the Dodgers' offensive shortcomings are more than an August phenomenon. They rank 10th in the National League in runs, 14th in slugging percentage and 15th in homers, and they showed enough early trouble signs to prompt Colletti to fire hitting coach Eddie Murray and replace him with Bill Mueller in June.

Want more? The Dodgers rank 28th in the majors in fielding percentage, and they've committed their share of baserunning gaffes. Outfielder Matt Kemp and catcher Russell Martin both put on displays of youthful overexuberance while running into outs in the Philadelphia series.

Finally, there's the pitching. The Dodgers' starting rotation looked strong in April with Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Jason Schmidt and Wolf at the top. But Schmidt is done for the season with a shoulder injury, and Wolf's rehab is dragging on longer than "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." Hence, the Wells signing.

"I think they're a .500 club," a National League scout said. "They made their run when the young guys came up, but the kids have kind of plateaued and the old guys are near the end of their careers. They'll have to get by on starting pitching, and the starting pitching isn't that good."

Do the Dodgers have a legitimate run left in them, or are they just kidding themselves? Here are four questions that will help determine the answer:

Juan Pierre

Pierre

Can the little guys lead them?

Rafael Furcal sports a .343 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot, and Juan Pierre has a .325 OBP while hitting primarily in the No. 2 hole. They're finally showing signs of heating up in sync, and that's a very good thing.

When Furcal scores at least one run, the Dodgers are 41-15. When Pierre scores at least once, they're 38-18. And when the two igniters both score a run, the Dodgers are 28-6.

Can Russell Martin hold up?

Everybody loves Martin's professional approach and all-around game. But he's started 115 of the Dodgers' first 127 games, and his numbers have taken a dip of late. Martin had an .866 OPS at the All-Star break, and it's .755 since.

"He's dragging right now," one scout said.

For what it's worth, the Dodgers have a Sunday night ESPN game at Shea Stadium and a quick turnaround Monday night, when they play Washington in Los Angeles. Manager Grady Little plans to give Martin a seat in favor of backup catcher Mike Lieberthal, who's giving new meaning to the term "rarely used."

"When I drop that one on [Martin], he's going to want to fight," Little said. "This kid is a horse."

Can they shore up the rotation?

Colletti spent this week on a scouting mission to Double-A Jacksonville, where he watched breakout prospect James McDonald. After concluding McDonald wasn't ready, the Dodgers dipped into the reclamation bin and pulled out a 250-pound Boomer.

We realize Wells is a gamer, a strike-thrower and all that, but his numbers with San Diego this season suggested it might be time for him to pack it in and take another African safari. Wells was 2-6 with a 7.99 ERA away from Petco Park, and opponents batted .371 against him.

When the rationale for signing a guy is, "He can't be worse than Brett Tomko," it's not exactly a glowing recommendation. But Wells won't pitch scared, and the Dodgers are hoping the time off might have done him some good.

Wells is the only potential savior on the horizon. Schmidt is rehabbing in Arizona and won't be back until 2008. Hong-Chih Kuo (elbow) wants to return in late September, but that's a long shot. And if Wolf is back this season, it'll be strictly as a bullpen guy.

Veterans or kids?

"It's kind of weird," outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. "If you look at our team on paper, you wonder why we're not where we're supposed to be. I've had guys from other teams ask me, 'How is this team not winning more games?'"

James Loney

Loney

In reality, the veterans are now complementary pieces. Nomar Garciaparra, on the disabled list with a calf injury, has six homers in 397 at-bats. Jeff Kent still gives you everything he has, but his range is nonexistent at second base and you can see him wincing when he pulls on his socks in the clubhouse. And while Gonzalez remains the consummate pro, he has a .557 OPS since the All-Star break.

In contrast to the Diamondbacks, who threw most of their kids into the deep end of the pool, the Dodgers signed short-term security blankets to help ease the transition for their prospects. Martin and first baseman James Loney established themselves as full-timers, and now Little is hearing more calls to play Kemp and Ethier at the expense of Gonzalez.

Little isn't ready to go that route just yet. He thinks he can keep everybody happy with good, honest communication, and believes the Dodgers will need contributions from everyone over the next five weeks.

"If we can get hot and sustain any kind of streak, we'll be fine," Little said. "A lot of things can happen."

Will those "things" be good news for the Dodgers? Wolf's mother and a few million die-hards are anxiously awaiting the answer.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer