PHOENIX – Three months ago, these guys were buried in last place. These guys! It made no sense at all. Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy is sitting at his locker, and he’s trying to make a point about the absurdity that is the Los Angeles Dodgers, so he says the name “Edinson Volquez” and just shakes his head. It’s a small thing. But yes, the Los Angeles Dodgers have Edinson Volquez, too.
“I realize he’s a risk,” McCarthy says. “But didn’t he start on Opening Day for the Padres?”
Volquez, in fact, did start on Opening Day for San Diego. Not long before that he was a brilliant young pitcher who was traded more or less straight up for Josh Hamilton. He’s now fighting for the last spot on the Dodgers’ postseason roster. J.P. Howell was the closer in Tampa Bay when the Devil Rays were ascending. He’s a lefty specialist here. Brian Wilson and his beard closed things out for the 2009 World Champion Giants. He did commercials. He was famous. He’s an extra arm for the Dodgers.
And so on. You look around the clubhouse and every name rings a bell. Even the backups -- Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, Jerry Hairston -- have fragments of fame. Michael Young was a hit machine for Texas; he pinch hits and fills in for Los Angeles. Carl Crawford might have been baseball’s most exciting player in Tampa Bay, and he signed a huge deal with Boston, but with the Dodgers he disappears into the background. Matt Kemp, when healthy, has played like baseball’s best player. In games he’s missed this year, the Dodgers are 55-32 -- that’s a 102-win pace over a whole season.
Repeat: That’s WITHOUT Matt Kemp.
Los Angeles is so talented, so ridiculously talented, and yet three months ago the Dodgers were 12 games under .500 and buried in last place in the National League West. Their manager, Don Mattingly, seemed on the brink of being fired. Nobody could stay healthy, everybody except Clayton Kershaw was underachieving, and nothing at all added up.
On Thursday, the Dodgers overcame a 6-3 deficit in the final four innings and became the first team in baseball to clinch a division title.
What the heck happened?
* * *
Hanley. Vin Scully has a prepared answer whenever someone asks him about coming back to broadcast the Dodgers next year. “God willing,” he will say. “It’s not up to me, it’s up to Him,” he will say. “I sure hope so, but I’m not taking anything for granted,” he will say. Vin is 85 years old, a gentleman’s gentleman. He has been the lead broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers since the first day the team came West in 1958.
He still understands the pulse of Dodgers baseball better than anyone.
“Hanley Ramirez has been the guy,” Vin is saying. “He has been hurt quite often, but he when he plays he has simply been marvelous. When he’s not in the lineup, they just are not the same.”
Vin Scully doesn’t have the numbers at his fingertips -- but the numbers show him to be entirely right.
Four years ago, Hanley Ramirez was certainly one of the five best players in baseball. In 2007, he hit 29 homers and stole 51 bases. The next year, he had a 30-homer-30-stolen-base season and led the league in runs scored. In 2009, he led the league in hitting, scored 100 runs, drove in 100 runs, slugged .543. He did all of this as a shortstop. He was awe-inspiring.
And then, everything began to change. He began to change. He was involved in a much-discussed incident where he loafed after a ball he had mistakenly kicked into the outfield. He injured his shoulder. He reinjured his shoulder. He seemed to have lost the energy and vigor that had made him such a dynamic player. The Marlins moved him to third base, and he did not like that. All the while, his numbers caved in.
Ramirez from 2006 to 2010: .313 batting average, .385 OBP, .521 slugging, averaged 40 doubles, 25 homers, 39 steals per season.
Ramierez from 2011-2012: .252 batting average, .326 OBP, .415 slugging, averaged 23 doubles, 17 homers, 21 stolen bases per season.
Somewhere during the fall, the Dodgers traded for him. Things got no better. He seemed to represent everything wrong with the Dodgers -- a one-time star casting about for something. Before this season, he tore a thumb ligament during the World Baseball Classic, causing him to miss the first 25 games. In his third game back, he messed up his hamstring and missed 28 more games. Then, another injury, he missed another week. The Dodgers went 26-35 in the 61 games he missed.
And when he returned, nobody particularly noticed or cared. By the time he returned to the lineup, the Dodgers had already called up a phenom from Cuba named Yasiel Puig, and he was hitting close to .500 his first three weeks, and so nobody seemed too interested in Ramirez, the one-time phenomenon who seemed to have lost all of his magic.
And that’s when Hanley Ramirez was reborn. On June 19, he got six hits in a doubleheader, and for the next six or so weeks, he was legendary. He hit .410. He slugged better than .700. He was successful on all his stolen base attempts. He had a stretch where he reached base in 36 of 37 games. And he was back at shortstop, playing marvelous defense, the best defense he’d played in years. He was a whirlwind.
Hanley Ramirez’s sudden brilliance helped launch this team. Look at this: From June 22 to August 17 the Dodgers went 42-8 … the best 50-game stretch of baseball in the more than 100-year history of Dodgers baseball. No, it’s even better than that: No Major League team in 70 years has won 42 of 50 games. Not the 1998 Yankees. Not the Big Red Machine. Not Earl Weaver’s Orioles. Not any of Casey Stengel’s Yankees.
And Hanley Ramirez was at the heart of it. He hit. He ran. He stole. He dived. He turned two. He smoked line drives all over the park. His body was brittle; he has battled nagging injuries all year. Lately he has been slowed with a balky back. But between all of it, he’s been sensational. “It’s been the best year in my career,” he says happily.
“When he’s in the lineup,” Vin Scully says, “it seems to me, the Dodgers resemble a great team.”
* * *
Mattingly. There is no question that, as a manager, Don Mattingly has, er, easily recognizable strengths and weaknesses. Nobody, not even his biggest fans, thinks of him as a master tactician or even a moderately decent tactician. The Dodgers bunt more than any team east of Dusty Baker. They have -- by necessity as well as by design -- used 151 different lineups in 153 games this year. And then there was the business the other day of Mattingly mistakenly calling reliever Paco Rodriguez “J.P. Howell,” who is of course an entirely different reliever. Much hilarity ensued.
But everybody knows this also to be true about Mattingly: He is as resolute a guy as you will find. As a player for mostly bad New York Yankees teams, he was (in Bill James’ famous phrase), “100% ballplayer, 0% bull----,“ and he’s still that same guy. His solidity has kept this team centered. Everyone knew he was about to be fired when the team was struggling in June -- heck, Dodgers President Stan Kasten told Mattingly that if the team did not start winning soon, they would have no choice. The Los Angeles Times has reported that Mattingly might have been 48 hours away from the guillotine around June 21.
The next day, of course, they began their historic 50-game run.
“We got healthy,” is how Mattingly explains the turn, and that’s unquestionably true -- this team is overflowing with talent when healthy -- but give him credit for staying sturdy and consistent during the low times. Nobody could possibly think this has been an easy team to manage. The Red Sox, at their lowest point in a half century, dumped high-priced stars and underachieving Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett on the Dodgers. Hanley Ramirez, as mentioned, might have been the biggest underachiever in the game. The Dodgers signed pitcher Zack Greinke, who certainly marches to his own beat.
Add in that the team has numerous 30-something veterans like Michael Young and Skip Schumaker and Juan Uribe who, perhaps, have seen better days. Managers often say that the toughest players to manage are veterans who may have seen better days.
And let’s not forget the multiple challenges of Yasiel Puig …
But Mattingly has kept everything together and moving forward. Players respect him, not so much for managerial excellence, but as a man. He shoots straight. He takes the blame. He generally tries to protect his players in the press. All in all, Mattingly pulled off a pretty amazing magic trick this year. Sometimes a team will get off to a terrible start, the manager will get fired, and things suddenly turn around. Mattingly managed to get the turnaround without the firing.
* * *
Zack. I’ve known Zack Greinke since he was 19 years old. That was the year he pitched at the Future’s Game. He threw an array of off-speed pitches on a day when every other young pitcher was trying to light up the radar gun. “Different,” his catcher that day, Joe Mauer, said of him. “Very different.”
Well, he is different. People have often wondered how Greinke would pitch in a big city with big crowds and a lot of media around. They wondered mainly because Greinke, when he was 22 years old, considered quitting baseball as he dealt with social anxiety and depression. He also has a different personality; people have wildly different opinions about Greinke. But I would always tell people: You are talking about personal issues. As a baseball pitcher, Greinke wants the biggest stage you can give him.
Greinke, you might recall, got hurt at the start of the year. He fractured his collarbone while getting tackled by San Diego’s Carlos Quentin, who had charged the mound after getting hit by a pitch. By the time Greinke made it back, the Dodgers were already in last place. And for a while Greinke struggled. He gave up five runs at Milwaukee and six at home against the crosstown Angels. He gave up another four runs to the Rockies, five in Pittsburgh, five more in a return trip to Colorado.
In early July, his ERA was above 4.00, his stuff looked ordinary, and his command -- that fragile combination of control and touch and feel that had made him a Cy Young Award winner in 2009 -- seemed gone. “I’m just not pitching well,” was the plain way Greinke explained things. He likes to get to the point. I remember once, after he had given up multiple home runs to the Chicago White Sox, someone (in an effort to make Greinke feel better) said: “Well, they do lead the league in home runs.”
To which Greinke replied: “Good for them.”
Something shifted his next start, July 8. People have noticed that Greinke started to throw more change-ups. But it was more than just that. Greinke is like a luxury car that doesn’t run on regular gasoline; he needs everything synced and integrated and cohesive. He is one of the few pitchers in he game who regularly throws five pitches: Fastball (both a two- and four-seamer), slider, cutter, curveball and change-up.
No one of those pitches can dominate hitters. It’s the balance of pitches that makes Zack Greinke. When everything is in rhythm, and the pitches are in sequence, he will leave batters bewildered. So, sure more changeups were the turnkey. More changeups made his 92-mph baseball look a bit faster. A little more hop on his fastball makes his slider more tempting. All of it sets up the curveball, which he throws around 70 mph these days. On July 8, it clicked into place for Greinke. And since then, the Dodgers have won 12 of his 14 starts, and his ERA is 1.66. He has given up more than two runs only once in that span.
This was the Zack Greinke the Dodgers hoped to be getting when they signed him to that six-year, $147 million deal before the season began. But they didn’t know. They couldn’t know for sure. Greinke had not been a great pitcher the previous three years. Truthfully, he struggled after winning the 2009 Cy Young Award. He played for three teams in three years, posted an only-OK 3.83 ERA. There were a lot of mutters about him.
But now, for the first time, he’s got a big contract and he’s playing for a big-market team with big expectations. The Dodgers guessed that he would thrive. The Dodgers, so far anyway, guessed right.
* * *
Puig. It is silly, of course, to write about what turned around the Dodgers without throwing bouquets at the amazing Clayton Kershaw. He figures to become the first pitcher since Greg Maddux to lead the league in ERA three straight seasons*.
*The only others to lead their league in ERA three straight years: Sandy Koufax (five straight), Lefty Grove (four straight), Maddux and Roger Clemens.
He could become the first pitcher since Roger Clemens in 2005 to have a sub 2.00 ERA (his is at 1.94 right now). He leads the league in strikeouts (214) and WHIP (0.928). The league -- the whole league -- is slugging .283 against him.
But Kershaw has always been there, in good times and bad. He has no competition right now as baseball’s best pitcher. The previous two years, Detroit’s Justin Verlander was there with him, maybe even a touch ahead, but Verlander has fallen off a bit this year. Kershaw keeps ascending.
Kershaw has been great all year. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been constant. “He’s been the one steady drumbeat in this lineup,” Vin Scully says. Gonzalez has become a different hitter from the days when he hit 40 home runs for San Diego. He’s more a line-drive type now, his strikeouts are down, his average is up, he’s less of an impact hitter and more of a dependable sort. But in this turbulent year, maybe dependability has been what the Dodgers needed.
Then there have been various moment of greatness from the many different stars on the team. Closer Kenley Jansen has struck out 102 in 72 innings. Center fielder Andre Ethier has held down a turbulent outfield. The other day, Matt Kemp returned to the lineup after two months on the disabled list, and he went 4-for-4 and rocketed balls all over the park … if he’s healthy, it just isn’t fair. Rookie pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu -- the Dodgers paid almost $26 million to his South Korean team just for the right to negotiate with him -- has been sturdy with a 3.03 ERA and 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Dodgers have won 18 of his 28 starts.
But, let’s face it … it’s all about Yasiel Puig, isn’t it? His story has been told again and again. He defected from Cuba in 2012, tried out in Mexico, signed with the Dodgers for a lot of money and came up at the beginning of June, when the Dodgers looked doomed. More than that, they looked lifeless.
Of course, Puig was amazing. Right away. He got two hits in his first game, three more the next day (two of them homers). His batting average stayed above .400 for the first 34 games of his career. He showed speed, power, recklessness, a jaw-dropping arm … basically, he showed everything.
And, you could argue, that his sheer will, exuberance, brilliance, unpredictability and inconsistency lit the powder keg. Every aspect of his extraordinary season has been chronicled. He’s still hitting north of .330 and still slugging .550. He has thrown out seven base runners who tried to advance on his breathtaking arm, and he has overthrown exponentially more cutoff men. He has stolen 11 bases and been thrown out eight times, he has been hit by 10 pitches and has shown a tendency to swing at just about any pitch that doesn’t hit him. He has been benched for any variety of baseball misdemeanors and he also has changed the energy and dynamism of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Dodgers are 62-33 in games that he’s played.
“A wild stallion, I call him,” Vin Scully says. “He sure makes it exciting.”
* * *
When Brandon McCarthy talked about how absurdly talented the Dodgers are, I asked him why the Dodgers were so dreadful for the first couple of months. And why have they been so good ever since? Dodgers players and Mattingly said it was about getting healthy and about getting comfortable with each other, and that’s undoubtedly part of it. But there has to be more. McCarthy is one of the shrewdest guys in the game, I figured he might have an idea.
“I don’t know,” he said, which was not exactly what I was hoping for. Then he said, “It’s like blackjack,” which was more like it.
“Why is it in blackjack you can go through 10 or 12 straight hands and lose them all?” he asked. “The odds say you should win at least one of them. But you don’t. And then, another time, you might win a whole bunch of hands in a row, and that shouldn’t really happen either.
“Sometimes you just feel like you are surrounded by this positive energy, this confidence, and everybody feels it, everybody just feels so good. It doesn’t get better than that. And then, one bad pitch or one strikeout with the bases loaded, and it pops. I don’t know. To me, it’s the least explored part of the game.”
He looks across the clubhouse pensively. The game does have its mysteries.
“I’ll tell you what though,” he says. “That team is really loaded.”