LOS ANGELES – If a baseball season were any more fragile it’d be delivered in a velvet pouch swathed in bubble wrap sprinkled with foam peanuts in a corrugated box and presented by a skittish guy with lip sweat and a slight hand tremor.
“Here,” he’d say and practically faint from the relief.
You break it, you bought it. Except you already bought it. So, you break it, you live with it, every stinkin’ day for six months. And just for kicks you invite tens of thousands of people in to see it every day, and if it breaks then, tens of hundreds might show up not for support but to sharpen the humiliation.
The daily delivery of the product has changed so that, as New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman once said, teams are no longer judged by the baseball they play over a summer, or a month, or even a week, but over “162 one-game seasons.”
Which means stuff breaks. A lot. And then comes the expectation that it be fixed, you know, right this instant, because there’s another game, like, tomorrow.
So, May arrives. For some, the calendar page flutters by, turned by the breath of angels. Not those Angels. For others, it's heaved like blocks of sandstone by ancient Egyptian laborers. Like those Angels.
In fact, April closed none too soon for four teams whose reputations – and offseasons – promised better. Much better. Whose seasons began at fragile, like they all do, and ended the month teetering very close to, “Damn, what happened here?”
You’d have gotten reasonable odds that by now the Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals would have established themselves as possibly dominant teams. Or would at least be at or near the top of their divisions. Yet, none has so much as a winning record. The Angels and Blue Jays, in fact, already are testing the patience of their fan bases, certainly their managers, and presumably their owners. They’re also soon to be relying on the good nature of the rest of their divisions, to stick around while they get their acts together, before it all gets too fragile and there’s no hope at all to fix their pitching staffs.
First in starting pitching – number of starters used, that is – the Dodgers through Monday night had the much more quantifiable issue of having outscored only the Miami Marlins in the National League, a league for which the Marlins barely qualify. Yet, after a month in which they had so little go right, they activated Hanley Ramirez just in time to hand out his bobblehead at the door, and in his second at-bat he homered over the left-field fence.
For whatever reason, an offense with Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and a reborn Carl Crawford wasn’t enough to be capable over a month, primarily because the Dodgers hit .202 with runners in scoring position, which was only slightly better than the Chicago Cubs, who are worst in the league at it and truly understand the definition of fragile.
Ramirez damaged his thumb during the final innings of the World Baseball Classic and underwent surgery 10 days before the season began. Outfitted with a flexible splint on his right wrist and thumb, he started at shortstop Monday night. His first throw to first base – in the fourth inning – he guided rather than snapped off, but it was effective enough, and now the Dodgers’ lineup becomes slightly deeper. In the bottom of the fourth, he lashed a double into the right-field corner.
These are the events – some subtle, some not so much – that can rescue seasons before they go too soft. The Angels expect Jered Weaver, Ryan Madson and Alberto Callaspo to help soon, and on Monday had Erick Aybar back at shortstop. The Blue Jays practically had Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie pass each other on the way onto and off of the disabled list, Josh Johnson has missed a start and R.A. Dickey may, too. The Nationals haven’t had third baseman Ryan Zimmerman for two weeks, and now apparently can resume their annual fretting over Stephen Strasburg.
It’s tough out there. There’s probably no winning or losing a division in April, but you certainly could shrink the room for error into the size of a broom closet. By late September last year the Angels were freely admitting they’d lost too much ground in April, when they went out 8-15 and nine games out of first place in the AL West. At the conclusion of 19 innings Tuesday morning, they were 9-16 and seven games out.
So, the Dodgers and manager Don Mattingly, while busy browsing through their starting pitching depth chart and wondering when the offense might come, also were thankful that they’d hung close to .500 – nothing great, but nothing damaging either.
“So, we’re hanging in there at this point, kind of jostling in the pack, you know?” Mattingly said. “But, we’re in the pack.
“I mean, you’d like to get out of the gate and be 20-8 or so."
So, they survive April.
“It feels like that a little,” Mattingly said, “but still with the expectation we’re going to put up wins.”
So, they wait on a more consistent game. They wait on Zack Greinke. They wait on clutch hits, and the rhythm of a season that for a month found the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks instead, and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees instead, that left a lot of favorites behind. All but a few have problems, some bigger than others, and they wait on their problems to get manageable.
And they try not to think about how fragile it can be, and how quickly it can become so.
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