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September 24, 2008

On the Beat

Keeping Faith

by John Perrotto

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The Dodgers might not have been dead, but the coroner was on call and the death certificate was being prepared. When the Dodgers were thumped 9-3 by the division leaders in the opener of a three-game series at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix on the evening of August 29, they fell 4 games behind the Diamondbacks in the National League West race. That extended the Dodgers' losing streak to eight games and not only were the Diamondbacks pulling away but they had their co-aces, Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, lined up to pitch the final two games of the series in their home ballpark. BP's Playoffs Odds Report gave them just a 16.6 percent chance of getting to the postseason.

Yet a funny thing happened to the Dodgers on their way to oblivion: they beat Webb and then they beat Haren. That began a streak of 17 wins in 22 games. Now, the Dodgers hold a three-game lead over the Diamondbacks with five to play, making for a magic number of three for them to clinch their first division title since 2004.

"I think what we've done goes to show you just how much mental toughness means in baseball," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "The odds certainly seemed to be against us. I think just about everybody outside of our clubhouse had written us off, and it was understandable. Our guys, though, never quit. They always believed they could still win the division. They knew they hadn't played their best baseball this season, so they just kept battling and all of a sudden everything started going our way."

The Dodgers ran off eight straight wins from April 25-May 3, but beyond that had been a team of fits and starts all season, and their 82-75 record is the worst of the major leagues' six division leaders. When their record fell to 65-70 after that August 29 loss, the Dodgers certainly looked like one of the season's biggest disappointments. Yet, Torre never gave up on the belief that his team was better than its record indicated. "The thing that really stuck out to me all season is that we never played another team that I felt we were just overmatched against," Torre said. "We played some very good teams, teams I thought were just as good as we were, but I never saw that team that I thought was better than us. That's why I always held on to the idea that we were due to go on a hot streak and really show the type of club we had. Then, it finally happened."

Torre's calming influence became legendary during his 12-year run as manager of the Yankees. No franchise has an atmosphere more ripe for distractions than the Yankees', but Torre somehow always kept his clubs focused and away from controversies in the media or with owner George Steinbrenner.

The Dodgers players credit that calm for them turning their season around when it seemed on the brink of disaster. "The great thing about him is that he's the same guy every single day," first baseman James Loney said. "He's always positive, always upbeat. He always has that smile on his face and that calm, reassuring voice. It would have been easy for him to get upset at times this season when we didn't play as well as we should have but he's always stayed the same. He never yelled, never got down on anybody. He just kept encouraging us and eventually we finally started playing the way we knew we could."

The Dodgers have also been bolstered by general manager Ned Colletti's two mid-season trades, which netted them right fielder Manny Ramirez from the Red Sox and third baseman Casey Blake from the Indians. They have helped prop up a sagging offense that was brought down in large part by Colletti's biggest off-season acquisition, center fielder Andruw Jones, who posted a .170 EqA after being signed to a two-year, $36.2 million contact as a free agent.

Ramirez has an amazing .405 EqA since joining the Dodgers on July 31. That has caused some discussion about Ramirez possibly winning the NL Most Valuable Player, though it would appear to be a long shot since he will have spent only one-third of the season in the league. "I guess it depends on your interpretation of the award," said Torre, who was the NL MVP in 1971 when he was playing for the Cardinals. "Personally, I don't see Manny winning, because it really should go to the guy who has been most valuable all year. On the other hand, it's hard to think of another player who has been more valuable to his team than Manny has been for us. His numbers speak for themselves and he has added a new dimension to our lineup. When we acquired him, it was a huge lift for our entire clubhouse. I know he had problems in Boston but he's been great here. He's popular in the clubhouse. Our fans love him. He's made all the difference in the world on and off the field."

Blake, acquired immediately beforehand on July 26, has a .259 EqA as he took over for rookie Blake DeWitt, who has since moved to second base after veteran Jeff Kent had knee surgery in late August. "Everyone talks about Manny but you can't overlook what Casey has done for our club," Torre said. "He's given us another professional hitter with a great approach, and his numbers have been outstanding, too. They aren't quite what Manny has done but they have been awfully good." Blake is hitting .250/.309/.460 for the Dodgers.

With Ramirez and Blake hitting in the middle of the reconstituted batting order and the Dodgers ranking second in the major leagues with 4.0 runs allowed a game, they are beginning to shape up as a team with a legitimate chance to get to the World Series for the first time in 20 years. "The way we've played the last month, I think we've been as good as anybody in baseball," Loney said. "You don't know what's going to happen in the postseason, but the way we've been playing, I'll take our chances."

---

The Rays had never won more than 70 games in their first 10 seasons of existence, clinched their first playoff berth last weekend. They're also on the brink of nailing down the American League East title as they have a magic number of two to clinch, and they would be the first team to win the division other than the Red Sox or Yankees since the Orioles captured the 1997 title.

One player who could put it in perspective was reliever Dan Wheeler, who spent his first three major-league seasons with the then-Devil Rays from 1999-2001 as they lost 93, 92, and 100 games then returned to them last season after being acquired in a trade with the Astros. "It's a new day here," Wheeler said. "It's been a memorable year, it's unbelievable. There are no words that can describe this. I knew when I was traded here there was something special even though the record didn't show it. There was something going to happen, I wasn't sure it would be this quick."

Left-hander Scott Kazmir believed this would be the Rays' year and proclaimed in spring training that his team would be in the playoffs in October. It was a bold prediction considering the franchise's history, but it's one that has turned out to be prescient. Fittingly, Kazmir got the win in the playoff clincher last Saturday as he pitched six shutout innings against the Twins. "I think he saw the talent," Rays left-handed reliever Trever Miller said when asked what possessed Kazmir to forecast a playoff berth. "I think he saw the veteran leadership that came in, and I think he saw what he could do himself."

While manager Joe Maddon should get plenty of votes for AL Manager of the Year, the unsung hero in the Rays becoming the most unlikely post-season team since the 1969 Mets is general manager Andrew Friedman. The 31-year-old has led the effort that put together a club through scouting, player development, and a series of shrewd trades and low-level signings of free agents. "He's one of the brightest people I've ever met at any age, period," Maddon said. "People always want to evaluate him on the fact he's not 50 years old, but he is such a tremendous student of the game and he's an excellent scout. He is very strongly opinionated because it's always built on facts and knowledge. He's really well thought-out and he's in advance of most other people."

---

The Cubs had a raucous celebration when they clinched their second straight National League Central title last Saturday. However, their biggest win may have come Monday, when they beat the Mets and clinched home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs. The Cubs went 55-26 at Wrigley Field in the regular season, which is good for the best home record in the NL. The only major league team with a better home mark is the Rays, who were 57-24 at Tropicana Field, although the Rays trail the Angels by two games in the race for having the best record in the AL and home-field advantage through the ALDS and ALCS.

Cubs rookie catcher Geovany Soto believes having home-field advantage will be a huge edge for his team. "To see 40,000 here day in and day out?" Soto said. "To have our backs every day? You better believe our fans make a difference to us."

There have been great expectations on the Cubs ever since they were swept by the Diamondbacks in the NLDS last season. Many of their fans believe it is the Cubs' destiny to win the World Series since this marks the 100th anniversary of the last time the franchise won the Fall Classic.

However, Cubs manager Lou Piniella gets a little testy over the talk that his team is constructed to win it all, and the suggestion that anything less than that would be considered a failure. "What team isn't built to win the World Series?," Piniella said. "Is this the only one? I don't think so. It's not fair to put all the expectations of all the past failures and past successes on the 2008 team. For people to say this team is built for the World Series and if we don't win it we're a failure? I don't buy it."

However, the Cubs are resigned to hearing such talk, and pitcher Ryan Dempster tried to have a little fun with after the division clincher. "Well, at least we're the first Cubs team to win back-to-back division titles in 100 years," he said. "That must be worth something."

---

The Red Sox used to be a franchise considered as "cursed" as the Cubs are because of their as 86-year streak without a World Series title until 2004. However, the Red Sox are coming off their second world championship in four years, and have qualified for the postseason for the fifth time in six years after clinching at least the AL wild card on Tuesday night.

It now seems that making the postseason and winning it all has become expected by Red Sox fans on a yearly basis. That tends to worry manager Terry Francona and his players a bit. "Anytime you get to the playoffs, it's not easy," first baseman Sean Casey, veteran of a single playoff season with the Tigers in his twelve-year career, said. "We cherish the fact that we're in. We don't take it for granted."

"There are a lot of good teams out there and I don't think you can ever lose sight of that," Francona said. "Once you win, I don't think it gets any easier. It's still a real struggle and a real accomplishment just to make the playoffs. Winning the first time wasn't easy in 2004 and winning last year was no easier. It's going to be just as tough for us to win it all this year. You can't worry about those expectations, though. You just go out and play. If you're good enough, you're good enough. Time always tells if you are or you aren't."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Right-hander Mike Mussina wants to pitch at least one more year and to stay with the Yankees, but ownership is likely to order general manager Brian Cashman to begin an overhaul of the roster if he decides to return. If the Yankees don't re-sign first baseman Jason Giambi-and it appears they won't-then he would like to stay in the AL and play on the West Coast, which means he would likely sign with the Angels, Athletics, or Mariners as a free agent. The Red Sox will keep both Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield on their post-season roster, with whomever does not serve as the fourth starter working as a long reliever.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Mets GM Omar Minaya is on the verge of getting a four-year contract extension. Interim manager Dale Sveum will have to get the Brewers to the playoffs in order to have a chance at getting the job on a full-time basis in 2009. Though he may not return to the Marlins as a free agent, outfielder Luis Gonzalez would like to continue playing next season. The Rockies would like to upgrade at second base, and are likely to target the Athletics' Mark Ellis as a free agent and the Marlins' Dan Uggla as a trade possibility. The Astros want to re-sign reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

---

Scouts' views on various major league players:

  • Angels catcher Jeff Mathis: "I know Mike Napoli is the better hitter of the Angels' catching tandem, but I really like the way Mathis handles the pitching staff. He is a real calming influence when he is behind the plate. The Angels just have a great situation. There aren't many teams that have two legitimate major league starting catchers, and that's one of the real hidden advantages the Angels have."
  • Brewers center fielder Mike Cameron: "Normally, I wouldn't endorse a low on base percentage guy like Cameron to lead off, but I had no problem when Dale Sveum took over as the Brewers' interim manager and made the move. Rickie Weeks was their leadoff hitter and he doesn't get on base, either. Cameron is a high-energy player, and this team definitely needed a jolt of energy with the bad start they got off to in September."
  • Twins catcher Joe Mauer: "He is swinging the bat better than ever this year. He might not develop the power that everyone hopes that a guy his size would, but he can hit for average and he can hit the ball in the gap. Even if he doesn't hit 20 homers a year, he is still a better offensive catcher than almost anyone else in the game."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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