Of the questions we have received most recently, the bulk of them concern the first six games of the season, during which the Dodgers could win but two. Valued readers have offered a wide variety of cures for the suspected problems and have wondered if we agreed with them.
Let me say right here, as did Mark Twain commented when he read his untimely obituary in the paper, "The report of my death have been highly over exaggerated,"
Grab your last year's Dodgers media guide and check six games at random during the season. You can find that the 2009 Dodgers go from 6-0 in April and May to 1-5 in July and September. To judge a team from such a small sample, is like predicting a presidential election after polling 10 potential voters at random.
There is an old adage, "You win a third, your lose a third and what you do over the other third determines your success or failure." The most successful Dodgers team in history (1953) lost 49 games. The least successful team (1904) won 49 games.
The first few games of the season seem to become magnified in everyone's mind. Last year the Padres seemed like legitimate contenders before they fell from grace. That is the beauty of the game itself; is it, like they say, a marathon, not a sprint.
Spring training is spent sifting out 25 players from the 50 or 60 invited. Some of the invitations are a courtesy for having a good minor league season and those players rarely make the final cut. (Think Carlos Monasterios or Josh Lindblom). Many of the others are veterans and the time is spent hoping to determine if they have enough left to help the club. (Think Garret Anderson).
At the same time, they are working the nucleolus of the team often enough to get them gently into shape while not overextending them so much that an injury could occur. You want the "suspects" to get game time against other major league clubs so you can judge them properly. That sometimes doesn't leave enough game time for the obvious regulars so you schedule "B" games or games against your own or others minor league clubs but, while you do get your work in, it isn't as intense.
Therefore, the managers and coaching staff are still in the decision-making mode when the actual season starts. Example: Ramon Ortiz left spring training with a sparkling 0.96 earned run average and was worked over in his first appearance in Pittsburgh, allowing the winning run in the last of the 10th. In his next chance, against the Marlins, he was his old self, retiring all six batters he faces and striking out three.
Garrett Anderson eliminated Doug Mientkiewicz with a strong spring. Ronnie Belliard pushed Nick Green down into Triple-A. Charlie Haeger and Carlos Monasterios gave the Dodgers the opportunity to start James McDonald at Albuquerque to let him straighten out his command.
Soon, both Hong-Chih Kuo and Ronald Belisario, both proven quantities, will be ready to return to The Show. The Dodgers will find a place for them on the staff. Would that put Russ Ortiz under the gun? Will it force the Dodgers to either purchase, trade or return Monasterios? Could struggling Vicente Padilla be in trouble despite his $5 million price tag? Should George Sherrill take a week in Albuquerque (or with Charlie Hough at Inland Empire) to readjust his mechanics? These are the decisions that are yet to be made to a roster that is certainly not set in concrete.
And a number of readers have asked about Charlie Haeger. We feel his addition to the rotation should be extremely beneficial to the other pitchers on the starting staff. Major League batters hate knucklers because they embarrass them. Flailing away at a ball approaching the plate on a gentle arc at about 70 miles an hour give the average fan the impression that anyone could hit one, but when you have worked throughout your career to hit fastballs, it just isn't that easy. The blasted things are not only slow, they don't move like the should.
Obviously, they are also tough to catch. Bob Uecker's comments, "I just wait until they stop rolling and them pick them up," was underscored Sunday when two escaped the grasp of rookie catcher A.J. Ellis on strike three and each Marlin reached base safely. A veteran outfielder said of attempting to hit the fluttering pitch, "I just go up there and take three cuts and come back to the dugout. I don't want to mess up my swing."
As far as helping the rest of the staff, it would seem that if he was positioned before either Clayton Kershaw or Chad Billingsley, both with legitimate heaters, the difference would be tough to cope with.
But managers dislike knuckeleballers nearly as much as hitters do. If you get a chance to watch Torre in the dugout, you can see him squirm a bit when Charlie tossed up pitches that look like a slow-pitch softball game on Saturday night. Haeger told LADugout that on a good day, he could make his pitches break in nearly any direction. But he didn't add that he could guarantee they would find their way over the plate.
The Dodgers could never figure out a way to use Charlie Hough, who was converted from a "regular" pitcher to a knuckelballer. The story goes that Charlie was getting banged around in the minor leagues and manager Tom Lasorda finally approached him and asked, "Do you have any other pitches? If you do, you better start throwing them right away."
In that "A star is Born" moment, Tommy created a monster that he didn't quite know what to do with,
using him both in relief and as a starter. They finally determined he should start, but seemed much too quick to jerk him after five or so innings, giving you the impression that the longer he pitched, the easier it would be to hit him and they wanted to get him off the mound before that happened.
He pitched in 401 games for Los Angeles and started only 16. The Dodgers sold him ...SOLD HIM... to Texas where he started 313 times over 344 games. Later, at Florida and Chicago on his way to a 25-year Major League career, he started 111 times in 113 games.
Charlie won 45 games for the Dodgers and then, after being pretty much discarded, won another 169 games for the Rangers, Marlins and Senators.
He is now the pitching coach for Inland Empire and an invaluable "go-to" pitching coach for both major and minor leaguers who are having troubles with their game.
A Few Other Questions
Q—What do you hear about how Steve Johnson is doing? J.T., Moreno Valley, CA.
A—Steve Johnson, one-time Dodgers prospect who was traded along with 3B Josh Bell for reliever George Sherrill was taken in the Rule 5 draft in December by the pitching-rich Giants. Steve was not expected to make that team but it was a great experience for him He was returned to the Orioles Steve worked five scoreless innings, allowing five hits and striking out six.
Q—OK, who messed up the squeeze play in the April 10 game in Florida, Padilla or Blake? B. J., Lincoln, NE.
A—Actually none of the above. Joe Torre wanted to take the squeeze off after having initially called for it -- but that he gave the second sign too late for third-base coach Larry Bowa to see. So third base coach Larry Bowa and Blake thought the squeeze was still on – while Padilla, apparently, was oblivious to all of this. They did make great use of the squeeze in the final game of the Florida series with rookie A.J. Ellis dropping a perfect bunt in front of the plate to score Ronnie Belliard.
If you have a question, please feel free to drop me a line.