Category Archives: Games

An opportunity lost, but another one coming right behind it

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The clubhouse was quiet, but not like it traditionally is after a loss. This time, there simply were too many people around for it to be that quiet. Too many reporters asking too many questions about what had gone so unthinkably wrong on an evening when the Dodgers seemed to have everything lined up in their favor before they took the field. They had Clayton Kershaw on the mound. In a last-minute development, they had Hanley Ramirez, in whatever condition he was in, in their lineup. And they even won a small victory before the game even started, Scott Van Slyke refusing to leave the field or break from his national-anthem stance until Cardinals pitcher Joe Kelly did so across the way, and Kelly finally blinked when an unamused plate umpire Greg Gibson told them it was time to stop this silliness because there was a game to play.

After that, though, nothing had gone according to script. Kershaw blew up. Kershaw doesn’t blow up. Ever. Kershaw is about to win his second National League Cy Young Award. He is unflappable. At times, he is unhittable. And there was no way he was ever going to blow up in the N.L. Championship Series, in a game the Dodgers had to win to extend their season. But somehow, some way, he had. And somehow, some way, the Dodgers had been shut down AGAIN by Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha, who took home the NLCS Most Valuable Player award because in two starts, he blanked the Dodgers on seven hits over 13 2/3 innings.

And somehow, some way, the Dodgers had missed the World Series for the 25th year in a row.

Dreams die hard, and this one died as if it plunged from the top of the Gateway Arch. The Dodgers had the highest payroll in baseball. They had new owners who made everybody forget all about that guy from Boston whose name nobody seems to bring up anymore. They had a rotation full of aces and a lineup full of impact hitters and a bullpen that was money. But yet, when the misery of this 9-0 humiliation to close out the season was finally complete, the Dodgers scurried to get off the field and up the clubhouse tunnel in an attempt to minimize the amount of time they had to watch the Cardinals literally dancing and singing in the rain, having just punched their fourth ticket to the World Series in the past 10 years.

The disappointment cuts deep, as much for the Dodgers’ fans as for the players themselves. And as general manager Ned Colletti pointed out after the game, there is always next year, but this year, this team, this particular group, is gone forever.

A missed opportunity. A dream that died hard.

“This is sports, and it’s supposed to be exciting,” Colletti said. “I think this group of guys was exciting in a lot of ways. I’m going to miss these guys, because it’s never the same group. Even if everybody came back, it’s still never the same guys. I’m going to miss these guys. I think that is why I’m unhappy to see the season end. This is a special group of people.”

The Dodgers have a handful of free agents, some of whom they probably will retain and some of whom they won’t. We’ll get into more detail on that in the coming days. They will make trades this winter to address some needs, and probably sign a moderately priced free agent or two, as well. When they do, when the proverbial hot stove heats up, the fans will get excited, and when spring training rolls around, that excitement will reach a crescendo all over again. And while the memory of tonight won’t go away, the bitter feeling of disappointment will be long gone, replaced by the renewed hope of another season fast approaching.

Right now, none of that is important. Right now, if you are a devoted Dodgers fan, all you are feeling is despair and maybe even a little hopelessness. After all, if THIS Dodgers team can’t get to the World Series, if what was arguably the deepest and most talented team in the franchise’s long, storied history — and certainly the most high-priced — then what hope do the Dodgers have?

Well, take heart, my friends, and consider this: the current playoff format is a complete and total crapshoot. It doesn’t reward you for being the best team in the postseason. It rewards you for getting to the postseason, showing up every day, taking each game one at a time and plodding along until you have managed to win 11 games (12 if you came in as a wild card). This year, that team isn’t the Dodgers. Next year, even in the unlikely event the Dodgers have a slight dropoff in talent from this year’s team, it very well might be.

Take these Cardinals, for example. In 2004 and 2005, they entered the postseason with great teams. Loaded teams. Stacked teams. Teams with deep, power-laden lineups and solid starting pitching. Teams that could have, and possibly should have, won the World Series. And yet, neither of them did. The 2004 squad rolled into the World Series, but then got humiliated by the Boston Red Sox. The 2005 team was headed off in the NLCS by the Houston Astros, a wildcard team from the Cardinals’ own division.

Profound disappointment. A sense of an opportunity having come and gone, without ever being realized.

And then, in 2006, a very mediocre Cardinals team barely won the N.L. Central. They won 83 regular-season games. That’s a shade above .500, but it was good enough to win a truly awful division. And then, the Cardinals played a game at a time. And pretty soon, they had vanquished the San Diego Padres, the New York Mets and the heavily favored Detroit Tigers. And the mediocre, 83-win Cardinals were world champions.

My point is, with the playoff format the way it is now, the way it has been since the switch from four divisions to six in 1994, you simply can’t go in thinking, “world championship or bust.” It doesn’t work that way anymore. Of the past three World Series champions, the 2010 Giants, the 2011 Cardinals and the 2012 Giants, all three were considered long shots when the playoffs began. Not one of them could make the argument it was the best team going in.

That said, and payroll aside, the Dodgers were vanquished in this NLCS by a superior team. The Cardinals were the best the N.L. had to offer in 2013. In 2014, this Dodgers team only figures to get better. The bulk of the rotation, Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-jin Ryu, will all be back, along with a presumably healthy and hopefully rejuvenated Josh Beckett and a surgically repaired Chad Billingsley. They may lose Juan Uribe to free agency, but the core of Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez all are under control for next season, such an embarrassment of riches that the Dodgers may trade one of them this winter just to clear a spot in the lineup.

The program cover in the photo above was wrong. That wasn’t “next year,” 1952, and so the never-ending “Wait ‘Til Next Year” battle cry of the Brooklyn Dodgers lived on, for three more years, until they finally got that elusive first World Series title in franchise history in 1955. And you know what, 2014 might not be next year for the Dodgers, either. Or it might be. Or they might come even closer than they did this year, and fall even more tantalizingly, agonizingly short than they did on Friday night at Busch Stadium.

But it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out, isn’t it? And no matter how heartbroken you may be right at this moment, come spring, you and the Dodgers are going to be ready to start on this road all over again — all the while believing that it just might be the year when this team finally gets to its intended destination.

Until then, just remember, time heals all wounds. But as much as those wounds may be hurting right now, they are an important part of why you love this team and why we all love this game.

NLCS Game 6: Cardinals 9, Dodgers 0 … and that’s a wrap

Clayton Kershaw, who probably will receive his second National League Cy Young Award in the past three seasons in a few weeks and also is likely to sign a long-term contract with a massive dollar figure attached to it sometime this winter, suffered a rare meltdown at the worst possible time, giving up seven runs on 10 hits in four-plus innings. Really, though, all of that was just a bunch of numbers, because the Dodgers were doomed from the moment Kershaw gave up the first of those runs.

Once again, the Dodgers went into the deepfreeze offensively, stymied by Cardinals rookie Michael Wacha just as they were in Game 2. In his two starts in this National League Championship Series, Wacha shut out the Dodgers on seven hits over 13 2/3 innings, striking out 13 and walking only two, one of those intentional, in the process.

Although it hasn’t yet been announced, it is difficult to envision anyone other than Wacha as the NLCS Most Valuable Player.

The Cardinals thus won this NLCS in six games and now will move on to their fourth World Series in the past 10 years, and it WILL be a rematch of one of the previous three. The Series will begin on Wednesday night in either Boston or Detroit. The Cardinals faced the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, losing in four, then defeated Detroit in five games in the 2006 World Series.

The Dodgers, meanwhile, are left to lick their wounds yet again following their 25th consecutive season without a World Series appearance. However, this also marked the first time they have survived for as long as six games into an NLCS since 1988, when they last reached the World Series and wound up winning it. It was a step forward, and the Dodgers figure to be the class of the National League West again in 2014.

NLCS Game 6: Dodgers at St. Louis

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I only booked a one-way ticket to St. Louis. This was done out of sheer practicality, not out of any superstitious attempt to ensure that the Dodgers will win both of these games and advance to the World Series, but it’s kind of a strange feeling. Logically, I know I’m going to get on an airplane at Lambert Airport in St. Louis at some point in the next two or three days and go somewhere other than here, but right now, I’m here, and I don’t have a ticket anywhere. So I feel kind of like I’m stranded. But really, if you’re going to be stranded, what better place to be stranded than at the National League Championship Series, and what a compelling NLCS this has become over the course of the first five games.

Game 6 may be the most compelling of all, at least as we sit here now, a few minutes before it starts. The Dodgers have the one pitcher they would want on the mound more than any other in a do-or-die game in Clayton Kershaw. And now, they have their most important offensive player, Hanley Ramirez, as well. He was added to the lineup about 35 minutes before first pitch, which kind of leads you to wonder if they knew all day that he was going to play and just kept it a secret. He didn’t even take batting practice.

Here is the new Dodgers lineup:

Carl Crawford LF
Mark Ellis 2B
Adrian Gonzalez 1B
Hanley Ramirez SS
Andre Ethier RF
Yasiel Puig RF
Juan Uribe 3B
A.J. Ellis C
Clayton Kershaw LH

By the way, tonight will be the first truly cold-weather game of this postseason. The afternoon high here was supposed to be around 63, which means it’s going to get plumb cold, as we used to say back home, as the evening wears on. Might be interesting to see how the warm-weather Dodgers respond to that, but really, the Cardinals haven’t played in cold weather for several months either, so it’s probably a wash.

If the Dodgers can pull this out tonight, the first six games will have been a wash, as well, and we will all gear up for a winner-take-all Game 7 tomorrow night. But the Dodgers can’t get there until they take care of business tonight. For the Dodgers, this is no longer a series. It’s a game. One game. Tonight’s game.

Play ball.

Game 6 lineups: Hanley is out, Ethier is in

Will get an update on Hanley Ramirez shortly, but suffice to say, he isn’t in the lineup, so the Dodgers will have to play a do-or-die game with Nick Punto in the lineup. Andre Ethier is in there, hitting fifth. And Cards manager Mike Matheny has repeated one adjustment he made in Game 2 against lefty Clayton Kershaw, dropping left-handed-hitting first baseman Matt Adams from cleanup to sixth and putting Yadier Molina in the four-hole (Matheny also did that in Game 3 against Hyun-jin Ryu), and added another, replacing lefty-hitting center fielder Jon Jay (a University of Miami guy) with righty-hitting bench guy Shane Robinson (a Florida State guy).

Dodgers:
Crawford LF
M Ellis 2B
Gonzalez 1B
Puig RF
Ethier CF
Uribe 3B
AJ Ellis C
Punto SS
Kershaw P

Cardinals:
Carpenter 2B
Beltran RF
Holliday LF
Molina C
Freese 3B
Adams 1B
Robinson CF
Kozma SS
Wacha P

The dream survives, and so do the Dodgers

The words were there to be functional and symbolic all at the same time, but they were impossible to miss, scrawled on the dry-erase board in the Dodgers clubhouse following Game 5 of a National League Championship Series that isn’t nearly as close to being over as the St. Louis Cardinals had hoped it was.

“Pack for your next opponent. Detroit or Boston. Bring a jacket.”

The Dodgers are still alive. Not well, per se. Not yet anyway. But alive. And kicking. And screaming, in a good way. And about to board an airplane for St. Louis, which is where they kind of got themselves into this mess in the first place by dropping the first two games of this series last weekend while scoring a grand total of two runs in 22 innings, but on this trip, they have a chance to redeem themselves. If they can steal two more games from the Cardinals. If they can get the timely hitting they got in the second inning today. If they can get just enough add-on runs like they did today, in the form of the franchise NLCS record-tying four solo homers the Dodgers hit this afternoon after hitting none — zero — in the first four games. If they can become the second team in a row, following in the footsteps of their hated rivals from San Francisco a year ago, to come back to beat the Cardinals in an NLCS after falling behind them 3-1.

The Dodgers only trail the Cardinals 3-2 now. To say they have caught their breath would be a bit of an understatement, because what the Dodgers really have done is get their second wind. This series is still very much advantage: Cardinals, who have to do no more than win one of two games on their home turf. But on what was always going to be long, difficult and darn-near impossible road back once they lost Game 4, the Dodgers already have put one-third of that road behind them.

And they have Clayton Kershaw ready to go for Game 6, not on three days’ rest or four days’ rest, but on five.

They still have an ailing Hanley Ramirez, who started all three of the games here despite the excruciating and at times debilitating pain from a hairline fracture in his left rib cage but wasn’t able to finish any of them. They still have a mildly hobbled Andre Ethier, who struggled in this series to get to a couple of balls that were especially difficult to get to but nevertheless were balls he might have gotten to if not for the lingering leg problem that is getting better but still isn’t completely gone. Oh, and the Dodgers are without Matt Kemp until the spring.

But they are getting decent production throughout the lineup now. They scored six runs today, which was one fewer than they had scored in the first four games combined. They will run up against Michael Wacha in Game 6, the same pitcher who completely handcuffed them in Game 2, and if they survive that, they will run up against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright in Game 7, when Hyun-jin Ryu is scheduled to pitch.

But the Dodgers have a heartbeat. They have a chartered plane out of town around 3 p.m. tomorrow. And they have a dream that hasn’t died yet.

They even have a dry-erase board in the clubhouse to prove it.

NLCS Game 5: Dodgers 6, Cardinals 4

Although he struggled early, Zack Greinke escaped jams in the first and third innings exactly the same way, each time getting always-dangerous Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to ground into an inning-ending double play and strand a runner on third. From there, Greinke settled in and gave the Dodgers exactly what they expected of him, seven strong innings in which he retired the final 13 batters he faced, getting the National League Championship Series back to St. Louis and getting the ball to teammate and fellow ace Clayton Kershaw for Game 6.

Adrian Gonzalez homered twice and went 3-for-4 for the Dodgers, who scored almost as many runs in this game as they had in the first four games of the NLCS combined (seven). His first shot homer, off Cardinals starter Joe Kelly in the bottom of the third, broke a 2-2 tie. The Dodgers also got solo blasts from Carl Crawford and A.J. Ellis.

Game 6 is set for Friday night at Busch Stadium at 5:37 p.m. Los Angeles time (7:37 p.m. St. Louis time). Kershaw will be opposed by Michael Wacha, who dominated the Dodgers over 6 2/3 innings of Game 2 in a 1-0 Cardinals victory.

NLCS Game 5: Dodgers vs. St. Louis

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Let’s begin with a little couch therapy.

No matter what happens today, the fate of the world isn’t resting on it. The quality of your life isn’t riding on it. Your long-term, future happiness won’t be affected by it. In a few hours, you will be 1) either incredibly relieved and looking ahead to Game 6 in St. Louis on Friday night, or 2) singing “the sun’ll come out … to-mor-row,” from the Broadway musical Annie. OK, maybe you won’t be singing, and even if you are it won’t be anything from a Broadway musical, but however this game turns out, the sun WILL come out tomorrow. Even if you wake up thinking the Dodgers are just NEVER going to win the World Series again in your lifetime.

All of that said, the Dodgers are fighting for their playoff lives today, but if they approach it with that mindset, they are in deep trouble. If they go to the plate trying to squeeze sawdust out of the bat, they have no chance. If they are afraid of making mistakes, forget about it. If they focus on the fact they have to win three games in a row against a possibly superior team in order to reach the World Series, they’re toast. The right way to play today’s game is to be loose and relaxed and have fun, and to try to win one game, TODAY’s game. This is baseball, and the Dodgers might not get a chance to play it again for a few months, right? So they may as well enjoy it. And their fans may as well enjoy it, as well. It’s a beautiful (if somewhat hot) afternoon at one of the most beautiful places on earth. The Dodgers have had a fantastic season and are standing in a place where only four major league teams can stand in any give year.

And the future of this franchise looks blindingly bright. It wasn’t that long ago that we weren’t able to say that, at least not without sounding like we were whistling past the graveyard.

So tee it up and play ball. And let’s see what happens.

Game 5 lineups: Hanley, Ethier are playing

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If you look behind the guy on the left side of this photo, you might be able to see a wooden crate shoved into the corner against the wall. I may be misreading this entire scenario, but I don’t think I am — I believe that crate contains the National League championship trophy, and I wasn’t alone in that room in thinking that. It is obviously very heavy, as it was wheeled into the interview room on a dolly in between appearances by Skip Schumaker and Don Mattingly, and then carefully shoved into the nook next to the table.

I actually asked MLB’s Katy Feeney, the behatted interview-room moderator whom you see on the right side of this photo, if the crate contains the trophy. Katy, who is famous for her hats, deadpanned, “Those are my hats.”

By the way, I’m guessing the guy standing in front of the trophy is an MLB security person. Once the crate was hauled in and put into place, he never stepped more than a foot away from it at any point.

The Dodgers will set about the business this afternoon of trying to force MLB to fly that crate halfway across the country, and they will do so with Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier in the lineup. David Freese, who was pulled from each of the past two games because of right-calf tightness, also is in the lineup for the Cardinals.

Cardinals:
Carpenter 2B
Beltran RF
Holliday LF
Adams 1B
Molina C
Jay CF
Freese 3B
Kozma SS
Kelly P

Dodgers:
Crawford LF
M Ellis 2B
Ramirez SS
Gonzalez 1B
Ethier CF
Puig RF
Uribe 3B
AJ Ellis C
Grienke P

It isn’t hopeless, but it’s a long shot

Twenty-five years to the day after Kirk Gibson dispatched him to the dugout in the ninth inning of the opening game of the World Series to tell Tommy Lasorda he was available to pinch hit, Mitch Poole, who was a bat boy then and is the Dodgers head clubhouse guy now, sprang into action once again in response to another Dodgers player who was forced out of postseason action by a debilitating injury tonight. The media scrum around Hanley Ramirez‘s locker, which is near the door, was so thick that Poole had to actually move a clubhouse couch so other players who had showered and dressed could get to the exit. This after inactive reliever Brandon League actually climbed OVER the couch to get out.

Deep inside that scrum, in the middle of what had to be about two dozen questions, many of them repetitive, Ramirez sat in a chair, wearing only a towel around his waist, and patiently answered every one of them. Even the one from a TV guy who asked if he felt like he was letting his teammates down by not being able to be on the field on such a monumental occasion.

The question wasn’t meant to sound as insensitive as it did. But it also made a point, even if it made that point rather awkwardly. Because Ramirez — much as Gibson was a quarter of a century ago — is the Dodgers’ most important offensive player at this most important time of the season, and he left tonight’s game after seven innings. And although he said he will come in tomorrow and that he will “definitely” be in the lineup for Game 5, the fact he is experiencing such excruciating pain from the hairline fracture in his left rib and the fact there is less than a 17-hour turnaround from the end of this game to the beginning of the next one would seem to suggest it might be a longer shot than Ramirez is willing to admit.

Not as long a shot, though, as the notion that the Dodgers can still win this National League Championship Series.

The Dodgers now trail the Cardinals 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. There is plenty of precedent for teams coming back from that, and the Dodgers have their dual aces, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, ready to go for Games 5 and 6, respectively, Greinke on regular rest on Kershaw with an extra day due to the schedule. If they can push it to Game 7, they will have an apparently rejuvenated Hyun-jin Ryu ready for that one.

So to answer the rhetorical question that a radio buddy asked as he passed through the media workroom after the game, yes, I AM saying there’s a chance.

There just isn’t a very good one.

Keep in mind, the Cardinals blew a 3-1 lead in this thing last year on their way to losing to the Giants. But the Cardinals didn’t have homefield advantage in that one. This time, they do. And if they fail to get it done in tomorrow’s matinee, they have the comfort of knowing that the rest of the series will be played in the comfort of their own Busch Stadium. And add to all that the fact that this is essentially the same team with the same players. They remember well what it felt like to cough up that series. So perish any thought of them suffering a letdown or a bout of overconfidence.

So the Dodgers face a tough road back, and they might face it without Ramirez. If they’re going to pull it off, they can’t think about winning three games in a row. They just have to think about winning one game. And then winning another. And then winning another. And if they can pull that off, they will be in the World Series for the first time since 1988, when Gibson’s homer kickstarted their inexorable march to a world championship.

Still, from where the Dodgers sit right now, having not only lost three of four but having scored a grand total of seven runs in those four games, a world championship seems a little farfetched in 2013. But as Ricky Nolasco — who can hardly be blamed for giving up three runs and lasting just four innings after being put in the rather unusual situation of starting Game 4 of the NLCS after not starting any other game for almost three weeks — said after the game, “Stranger things have happened.”

Yes, a lot of strange things do happen in this game. But most of the time, they don’t. That’s why they are called “strange.”

Cardinals 4, Dodgers 2

In a postseason that began with more promise than any in recent memory, the Dodgers suddenly find themselves on the brink of, and perhaps less than 24 hours from, elimination from the 2013 playoffs. They also face the prospect of trying to stay alive in tomorrow’s Game 5 matinee without Hanley Ramirez once again, as their ailing shortstop left Game 4 after six innings when it became obvious that the hairline fracture in his left rib cage was causing him so much pain that he couldn’t continue.

The decision to start struggling right-hander Ricky Nolasco instead of bringing back Zack Greinke on three days’ rest and having probable Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw available to pitch Game 5 didn’t exactly blow up in the Dodgers’ faces. But while Nolasco was adequate before leaving for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the fourth, the three runs he gave up in the third proved just enough for the Cardinals to take a 3-1 lead in this National League Championship Series.

The Dodgers came back with a pair in the fourth and had runners on first and second with one out when Schumaker, pinch hitting for Nolasco, grounded into a double play.

The Dodgers shot themselves in the foot again in the seventh when, trailing 4-2, they got a one-out double from Nick Punto. But before Cardinals reliever Carlos Martinez even threw a pitch to the next batter, Carl Crawford, he picked off Punto at second base, effectively breaking the backs of the Dodgers.

The situation isn’t entirely hopeless for the Dodgers, though. The Cardinals took a 3-1 lead in last year’s NLCS over eventual World Series champion San Francisco, only to blow that lead. But in that series, the Giants had homefield advantage. This time, in order to come back and win the series, the Dodgers have to win Game 5 at home and then go to St. Louis and win Games 6 and 7.