Saturday, April 18, 2009

Don't Call Them Kids Anymore

Michael Eaves: You guys are starting to show that you can go five, six innings, not be in the lead, but all of a sudden string together a big inning to get the lead and win the game in the last three innings.

Andre Ethier: I think it just comes with that experience and that maturity that we gained last year and that confidence that comes with that. We can be down in a game, or be up then lose the lead, and we know we have what it takes to come back and retake it and win the game.

—from last night's post-game show on Prime Ticket

Eleven games in and something already seems different. Although all eleven games have been against the relatively soft NL West (excepting the Padres—what's up with that?), this year's Dodgers team seems to have the perfect balance of skilled youngsters and savvy veterans.

Now that Jeff Kent has retired to his ranch, the clubhouse belongs to Manny Ramirez, with the universally liked Orlando Hudson there to provide support. But it's a core group of players 27 years and younger—don't call them kids anymore!—that has shown they've been refining their mental approach as well as their physical skills.

CHAD BILLINGSLEY. Billingsley had a tough off-season: First, critics accused him of not pitching aggressively enough (i.e., not hitting any Phillies players) during the Dodgers' NLCS loss last season. Then he broke his leg. Billingsley had every excuse to come into this season with a bad attitude, but instead stayed true to his Clark Kent demeanor while pitching like Superman. His first two starts: 10.38 K/9, 0.85 WHIP.

CLAYTON KERSHAW. Okay, you can call this one a kid. Kershaw has always appeared especially down-to-earth for his 21 years, and his quotes after his Koufax-evoking 13-strikeout game Thursday confirm it. On Koufax: "Pretty good company there," On his 13 K's: "Strikeouts are not that important to me, but seven innings is. That's the benchmark of a starting pitcher, how deep can you go. Five-and-dive is not what you need to do. That taxes the bullpen and taxes the team." On Kuo's tough outing: "If Kuo is coming in with a one-run lead, I'll trust him every time. As a setup man, I wouldn't want anybody else. It's just one of those games." Gotta love this kid!

MATT KEMP. We've already made a big deal about Kemp's new contact lenses, but better vision alone can't account for his remarkable presence both at the plate and in the field. Kemp is the only Dodger to hit in all 11 of the team's games; last night Joe Torre rewarded him by batting him cleanup after Ramirez, righty-righty be damned. And while Kemp had his share of outfield misadventures last year, they've paid off in better fielding this year (last night notwithstanding).

JAMES LONEY. Beyond the Box Score ranked Loney the 18th most productive first baseman in the majors last year—not too shabby for his first full season. (For the more traditionally minded, Loney had a .991 fielding percentage.) And SoSG PCS fans will recall Loney led the Dodgers with 90 RBIs last season. Everything so far (12-for-39, tied for second on the team with 8 RBIs, no errors) indicates Loney is in a position to improve upon that solid foundation. The only question mark is if he will put up power numbers as well.

ANDRE ETHIER. Take last night: Ethier struck out to end the first, popped out to end the third and struck out to end the fifth, stranding five men. You could tell he wanted to do a Bo Jackson and break his bat over his leg, but he resisted. And in the seventh, with the Dodgers down 3-2, Ethier doubled in Kemp to tie the game and scored the winning run on Mark Loretta's single. Like he said: experience, maturity, confidence.

RUSSELL MARTIN. New yoga, new girlfriend, new jersey...if anyone seemed ready to benefit from a newfound inner peace, it was Martin. Yet it hasn't happened for him so far (8-for-38, 0 HR, 0-for-2 CS). While Martin must be frustrated, there have been no signs he's panicking. The true measure of Martin's maturity will be his ability to remain cool while regaining his form—and working with Torre to ensure his legs last the season.

JONATHAN BROXTON. Broxton had been unfairly demonized last year, largely based on one disastrous outing against the Astros. And if you suffered through that game, certainly you had doubts about Torre bringing him in last night for a (hopefully) rare five-out save. But an assured Broxton continued his beastly ways by throwing 23 pitches' worth of smoke, saving the game (and Hong-Chih Kuo's bacon). But as Jon Weisman reminds us, Broxton will blow some games this year. And how he reacts after those games will tell us if he has real closer stuff.