LA has time to Dodge disaster

BY Ken Rosenthal • April 23, 2013

I came to watch the Titanic sink. And then I realized, oops, it’s barely out of port.

The Dodgers indeed could wind up an epic fail. On Tuesday alone, they lost right-hander Chad Billingsley to Tommy John surgery and saw ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw do the unthinkable — issue a two-out, bases-empty walk to a reliever making his first major league plate appearance, leading to two runs.

Weird stuff. But then the Dodgers struck back with some of their own weirdness, improving to 9-10 with a monster offensive performance not from Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez or Andre Ethier, but the one and only Mark Ellis.

Never mind the iceberg; there is no iceberg, not with the season less than one-eighth complete. Indeed, the Dodgers’ 7-2 victory over the Mets marked the second straight comeback victory for this gutty little $216 million machine.

Not only did Ellis go 4-for-5 with two homers and four RBI, but he also knocked out Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, drilling a liner off the pitcher’s lower right leg in the third inning.

Niese should be fine; the Mets said that he suffered a contusion and is day-to-day. But Ellis’ smash forced the Mets to turn to their sorry bullpen early; try finding that in the formula for WAR.

Ellis, who turns 36 on June 6, is earning $5.25 million, which by Dodger standards practically qualifies him for government assistance. He’s the kind of player who might not look good on L.A. billboards, but helps win championships.

Which, of course, is supposed to be the idea.

For all anyone knows, Mets phenom Matt Harvey could shut down the Dodgers again Wednesday night; he will face lefty Ted Lilly, who is coming off shoulder surgery and will make his first start since last May 23.

Still, one game means little. Heck, three weeks mean little. As several Dodgers veterans keep saying, “We’ll be fine.”

Kemp is starting to revive after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery — he’s 8-for-18 in his last four games, and even hit an opposite-field double in his final at-bat on Tuesday night.

Shortstop Hanley Ramirez is closing in on his return from a broken right thumb. Left-hander Chris Capuano shouldn’t be out long with a strained left calf, and right-hander Zack Greinke is expected back from a broken clavicle in mid-June.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the worst was almost over for the Dodgers, even though Billingsley now is officially lost for the season and Kershaw has failed to complete six innings in consecutive starts for the first time since his first two outings in 2010.

Kershaw predictably was furious with himself for walking reliever Robert Carson, issuing two more walks in the third inning and lasting only five innings overall.

“I was pretty terrible tonight. I was awful,” Kershaw said. “Two-out walks to the frickin’ pitcher. I just beat myself. The team won in spite of me, not because of me.”

Well, you know what? That’s actually a good sign. On a night when the starting pitcher struggles, the Dodgers’ offense and bullpen should be good enough for the team to win, anyway.

Left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez look reborn. Both Mark Ellis and catcher A.J. Ellis are off to strong starts. The left side of the infield no longer will be a sinkhole once Ramirez returns and manager Don Mattingly figures out which players to use at third base.

The Dodgers entered Tuesday averaging just three runs per game, ahead of only the Marlins in the National League. Their .185 batting average with runners in scoring position ranked next-to-last in the NL, their .232 slugging percentage in those situations dead last.

Those numbers, though, were somewhat misleading; the Dodgers were third in the league in on-base percentage, an indication that their run production was bound to improve. A 7-2 loss to the Padres on April 17 summed up their early futility — the Dodgers managed 16 baserunners, but only two runs.

“We should have won three or four more games,” Mattingly lamented before Tuesday night’s game. “Even the games we won, we should have won by even more.”

Alert the small-sample police. Prepare for an ascension to the mean. We are not talking about the Marlins or the Astros, the Padres or the Cubs here. We are talking about a team that may struggle to meet expectations, but is too talented to outright collapse.

“It’s been strange,” Mark Ellis said. “We pitched really well early, had baserunners all over the place, traffic everywhere, but weren’t able to get the big hit. Now we’re starting to come around a bit, but guys are down — Billingsley, Greinke.

“It’s kind of forced us to look at ourselves a little bit, concentrate more. We realize that we’ve got to play, got to turn it up a notch. We know it’s early, but you can’t let these games get away in April. We have to play good baseball.”

It won’t necessarily be easy short-term, not with Lilly and right-hander Stephen Fife in the rotation. But you know what? The Yankees are doing just fine without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. The Dodgers should be able to manage without Ramirez, Greinke, Billingsley and Capuano.

One scout notes that the Dodgers lack youthful energy, and that criticism is not unfair. But even the best teams look flat when they’re not scoring runs. And when healthy, Kemp, Crawford and Ramirez are all electric talents.

Oh, I’m not convinced that the Dodgers will win the NL West, or even make the playoffs. But the entire sport is waiting for them to capsize, and I don’t think that is going to happen, either.

I came to see the Titanic, and instead I saw a ship starting to navigate rocky seas.

Big ocean. Long season. No iceberg yet.

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