Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Dodgers Flip the Switch

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It's happened a million times in sports: a dominant team storms out to a gargatuan lead (in a game, the standings, etc.), then turns the motor off, or maybe just idles, under the assumption that they can "flip a switch" and start playing championship caliber ball at a moment's notice. This year is no exception.

It's currently happening in the NL East, where the Phillies watched the Marlins and Braves "win a few, lose a few" all the way to a nearly insurmountable deficit. Then, after the Cliff Lee shine came off, the Phillies' excitement seems to have waned into a bit of an apathy. This race is over, though, and not the one we're looking at today.

Put a pin in this country's meaty core, and spin 'er 180 degrees from Philly and we land at the intersection of highways 5 and 110 in the concrete monster known as Dodger Stadium, where the NL West's top dog has sputtered to a .500 record since the All Star break.

It's pretty clear what happened in LA, but we'll rehash the timeline for posterity's sake. The Dodgers opened the season by steamrolling the rest of the NL West, winning their first 13 home games before, on the same night, losing Manny Ramirez to a 50-game suspension and their home win streak to a Washington Nationals late-game comeback.

A brief 1-4 stretch brought the Dodgers together, with Juan Pierre partially winning over what had been a rather anti-Juan fanbase, and pushing the Dodgers to a respectable 50-game record, sans-ManRam. In fact, if you eliminate the last couple weeks before Manny's return, Pierre and the Dodgers exceeded expectations by a great deal. When the team sensed the return of their dreadlocked leader, they seemed to heave a sigh and lose a few games.

Manny came back, rusty and slow, but gave the team an emotional shot in the arm (and the Cincinnati Reds a nauseating pinch-hit grand slam), but the rust never came off. Call it what you will (lack of PEDs, poor timing, subpar fitness), but Manny isn't Manny, and the Dodgers have taken almost 2 months to swallow that 25-million dollar pill.

This team, made up largely of outstanding young talent, badly needed an experienced veteran to lead them into the playoffs, but this is not 2008. The onus this year is on those very youngsters, with the Dodgers going only as far as outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and starting hurlers Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw can throw them. And right now, talent or no, those young guys (along with some patchwork veterans like Orlando Hudson and Casey Blake), are roughly loose enough to play .500 baseball.

Here's where we have to make our call. From a betting standpoint, will the Dodgers wake up, and realize THEY must lead Manny into the playoffs this year? Will Joe Torre pull his veterans aside, tell them they need to prop the kids up and let them grab the reins? Can we legitimately back the Dodgers in September as they start to get less lopsided money lines and with their NL West lead trimmed to just 3.5 games?

My answer, as a long-time disappointed Dodger fan, is a surprising YES. This is a team that, thanks to some wheeling and dealing after the non-waiver deadline, has an extra starter (good thing, considering Kershaw hurt his shoulder banging into the outfield wall during BP), and when the offense is patient, can put as many runners on base as any team in the League. Maybe the most important note, we have seen FIRSTHAND how the Dodgers play when they're pushed, taking 2 of 3 in a series with the Rockies (at Coors, no less) that could have moved the two teams into a tie if Colorado had swept.

It's not perfectly clear when the Dodgers will feel adequately threatened to the point that they will once again start playing like they mean business, but bettors that can identify that point may be in line for 5 or 6 straight wins. The Diamondbacks don't figure to be the team that snaps LA out of their 60-day haze; neither were the Padres, who, for all their losses this year, always give the Dodgers fits. But after this 3-game set in Arizona, the Dodgers play 6 of 9 against the Giants. The fresh scent of AT&T Park and some toy syringes should get the job done.

I'm playing Dodgers hard in those series, perhaps skipping a game or two against Lincecum...

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