Sax and Orel went to a game last week.
Sounds like the first line of a bad joke, I know (no, this isn't an "Orel Sax" joke). It was a wonderful evening in which the Dodgers clawed their way back from 4-0 and 6-1 deficits to win on a wonderfully dramatic Nomar Garciaparra home run, 7-6. And there are a number of thoughts I scribbled down on a notepad soon after returning from the game that I haven't gotten around to posting. Some of them are similar thoughts to what Jon posted here, as well as what Rob posted here.
But one of the things that made this game so awesome, besides the drama on the field of course, is the fact that Orel and I were seated in the Baseline Club section, aisle 27 (the closest aisle to home plate), so close that were talking with Dodgers (okay, more like talking at Dodgers) as they entered the dugout from the field. I am privileged to sit pretty close at Dodger games, but I can't recall getting this perspective before; it yielded a lot of insights which made the game experience a lot more fun (as well as the fact that we went with Mrs. Sax and Mrs. Orel, and all four of us ate like Andruw Joneses, thanks to access to the all-you-can-eat Baseline Club). And so, with apologies to Allan Malamud and Jerry Crowe, some thoughts from super-up-close baseline club seats:
- Manny Ramirez' addition the the lineup, coupled of course with Casey Blake, has really been game-changing. No longer do we have to suffer through a stretch of three to five consecutive batters that you know have no chance at mustering a rally or a threat. As Jon wrote, this may be exactly what Colletti was trying to assemble this off-season, hinging our hopes on the ill-fated signing of Andruw Jones (though I'm skeptical it was a thoughtful endeavor on Ned's part, given the previous signing of light-hitting Juan Pierre; the deliberate efforts to retard the growth of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney; and the continued yet inexplicable presence of Mark Sweeney); but it's nice to see a potent lineup once again. You can almost feel the pressure on opposing pitchers by seeing bat after bat after bat in the lineup. And as a spectator, you can't just get up and go get a beer during some innings anymore, confident that the Dodgers wouldn't score.
- Casey Blake is locked in when he's on the field, and that seems to be a good thing; Blake's slugging average is up relative to his season with the Indians, though his OPS+ is down, and he has grounded into more double plays as a Dodger (4) than as an Indian (3), in less than one quarter of the sample. But he has solidified the bottom end of our lineup, and if it's because he looks like he's just come out of a week's hike in the mountains and he needs food, then I'm okay with it. (Or maybe it's the beard.)
- Jeff Kent has his offensive groove back, and it doesn't make him any less cantankerous as our friend TJ Simers found, even if TJ mixes up the batting order in his own mind. Jon says it's not that Kent's slot is protected by Manny Ramirez, it's just reflective of Kent's streakiness. Or maybe it's because Kent has been the lone consistently-producing veteran on the squad, and now he's finally got someone else with a bigger bat and a brighter star with which to compete? In any event, it seems to me that the last time Kent had a big bat protecting him in the cleanup spot, he did pretty damn well. Balls are cracking sharply off his bat, unless I mistook the sound for the creaking of his knees.
- Nomar Garciaparra is just huge in the clutch. To come back off the DL and pull a walk-off HR stunt like that, bringing back memories of the 4+1 game of 2006--it's just amazing that Nomar can channel himself in these huge opportunities and rise to the challenge in a big way. Yeah, he's probably being paid too much for too little time on the field and too much time on the disabled list. But I'm not going to give Nomar any grief for his brittleness; he's been a great emotional force for the Dodgers, and a great role model for the team, and I'm glad he's on our squad.
- Throughout that four-game series sweep against Philadelphia, our bullpen kept us in the game. Penny's departure from Wednesday's game, having spotted the Phillies six big ones early on, was pretty alarming, but when Jason frickin' Johnson can come in for 2.2 innings of servicable time, augmented by more shutout goodness from Joe Beimel, Chan Ho Park, and Jonathan Broxton, it allows our offense a chance to work its way back. This of course made Sunday's Ethier-walk-off-HR victory over Milwaukee even more poignant, as the now-clicking offense picked up the bullpen in one of its rare meltdowns (though meltdowns aren't all that rare for Park, even I have to admit he's been surprisingly effective this year). Our bullpen pitching has been a nice source of strength.
- Andre Ethier had some nice at bats and a fine catch in the field on Wednesday night, presaging his amazing weekend against Milwaukee. And this, from a kid who has had to fight all year for a starting role, without grumbling once to the press when he was so frequently sat (even after "being named the starter"). I applaud Ethier's resilience and maturity. (And Mrs. Sax and Mrs. Orel both applaud his good looks.)
- Matt Kemp seems to be enjoying the game a bit more now, which I'm sure is correlated to his recent improved performance and visibly apparent poise and patience at the plate. As Joe Torre said on Dodgers.com, "the game's slowing down for him a little bit." I can't comment on whether Kemp is able to affect the time-space continuum, but it is nice to see that Torre, as well as Brewers manager Ned Yost, are both remarking about Kemp's maturity rather than his brash immaturity. (The article also mentions an early-to-stadium work ethic that was formerly singularly reserved for Juan Pierre propaganda pieces.) As for the early-season rumblings trying to characterize Kemp as the next Milton Bradley, from the look on his face as he enters the dugout and interacts with his teammates, he looks like he's really enjoying himself out there, and I'm glad. He deserves it.
- Manny Ramirez is one hilarious guy out there on the field. All the articles mentioning how he approaches the game like a 12-year-old are spot on, as he has a gleam in his eye that shows he approaches the game with wonder and joy with a dash of innocence. He's smiling with his teammates, he's waving to the crowd, he's got an electric personality. Wow, I'm glad he's a Dodger, even if only for this season; we didn't have a shot at making the playoffs without him.
- Jeff Kent, up close, is still a grump.
- Larry Bowa is going to send runners more often than not, so they'd better have those wheels churning as they round third. And yet, somehow, even when Bowa is wrong, he doesn't appear to be as indecisive as how Glenn Hoffman used to man that third-base coach post.
- The Dodger dugout camaraderie seems to be alive and gelling, further supporting the theory that winning creates chemistry and not the other way around. At one point, I even called out to Angel Berroa, who was up at the top step for most of the game, jawing with peers and waving to the crowd in between innings. Heck, if Berroa is smiling and into it, it must be a pretty good vibe.
And our current position, tied for first in the standings with the Diamondbacks, apparently gives us a slight two-percentage-point edge to win the NL West and make the playoffs. Wow. This is going to be exciting.
And down the stretch they come...