Monday, April 23, 2007

13-6 But Still Worried Sick

While watching the blistering pace of the Dodgers' 13-6 start, it's easy to forget the rest of the NL West. The Dodgers are the only team in the majors at 13 wins (as of this writing), and they're enjoying the largest divisional lead over a second-place team (sure, it's only a two-game lead, but still). They have won five of seven series and have lost only one series (the opener, on the road against Milwaukee).

On paper, the Dodgers seem to be beset by so many problems that it seems like a .500 record would be tough to achieve. The outfield defense from Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre has been spotty, filled with misplayed balls and limp throws to the infield (Jon Weisman's' article observed "anything past [the infield] has had opposing hitters thinking double right out of the box"). Fielding is definitely our achilles, as we are tied for the third most errors in the league with 15. Offensively, key batting averages from leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal (.163) and automatic-out Wilson Betemit (.125) don't begin to reflect how bad those two players' swings are from the plate. And big acquisition Jason Schmidt had largely ineffective pitching before winding up on the DL, where he joins rightfielder Matt Kemp, the last player to make the 25-man roster.

Yet the Dodgers are almost miraculously still finding ways to win. Their 11 home runs rank 13th in the NL and their team OPS is 8th (.722), yet they have the fourth-highest batting average at .267 and the third most runs scored with 96. Gonzalez, Pierre, and Andre Ethier all had miserable batting averages early, but have caught fire of late and are inching toward respectability (Pierre is still hitting into a ton of outs, but at least he has the right trajectory).

And the Dodgers are dramatic, too, evidenced best by Saturday's incredible game against the Pirates, which included Wilson Valdez taking second, third, and home off of errant pitches and throws, and Russell Martin (who like Jeff Kent has been the offensive glue this year) hitting a walk-off grand slam in the 10th inning for the victory. Mark Hendrickson, Brad Penny, and to some extent even Brett Tomko have turned in fine starting pitching performances one would not have expected in late 2006. And the bullpen of course has been lights out, as has the entire pitching staff (the 2.98 ERA is second-lowest in the league).

So is this a "never say die" attitude, in which the Dodgers are ready and willing to overcome any adversities to win? Or are we getting lucky breaks now which will balance out by unlucky breaks later? Do we know what it takes, or are we just taking without knowing? As of now, it's really hard to tell.

The Dodgers have been amazing and it's been very fun to watch, only three weeks into the season. As I watch each game, I can't tell if it's a house of cards ready to collapse or if we're the energizer bunny just going and going and going. Either way, it seems to me that the addition of a power bat would be helpful, and maybe Schmidt's return would make the starters impermeable. At this stage, I am at best happy but guarded.

Let's not forget who is lurking around the corner in the NL West. The Padres, picked by many to win the division, have also lost only one of seven series this year (to the Dodgers), and Marcus Giles is batting .347 with an 11-game hitting streak. Jake Peavy also has a 2.13 ERA with 20 Ks in 25.1 IP.

San Francisco has won five in a row to edge above .500, getting nice pitching performances from youngster Matt Cain and big investment Barry Zito, both of whom now have .500 W-L records. And, they've got that-jerk-that-goes-unnamed currently at six home runs, making his conquest of the home run title all but inevitable (though the press does seem less interested than prior years, for some strange reason). The Giants are only four games behind the Dodgers. I don't think the Dodgers are in the clear by any stretch.

Today is an off-day, followed by three straight series against divisional rivals SF, SD, and AZ over nine days. I'd feel a lot better if we took care of business with these three teams.

I know, I should enjoy the first place position (though as Weisman pointed out, 2005 started similarly before careening off the tracks). I'm still on guard.