LOS ANGELES – In the late-morning sun, against a hard breeze at the top of the Dodger Stadium, a few dozen American flags stood perpendicular to their staffs. Far below, the Los Angeles Dodgers would play their 39th game, coming up on the quarter-mark on a season that in some ways hasn't yet started here. The pulley ropes on those flags shivered in the wind and the metal clasps on those ropes tap-tap-tapped impatiently against their poles, like fingers drumming on Ned Colletti's desktop, on Don Mattingly's dugout rail, on this city's breakfast tables.
When will the Dodgers, baseball's brightest, shiniest, best-compensated team, you know, show up?
"Any day," manager Don Mattingly said Sunday morning. "Any day could be the day we start getting hot and the tide kind of turns."
So they wait. They wait to make the easy plays. They wait to finish the hard moments, the hard at-bats, the hard games. They wait to become a good team, what they were last summer, when Yasiel Puig arrived and made people uncomfortable, and Hanley Ramirez lived entire months on his bat barrel, and Juan Uribe made every play, and they pitched, and the Dodgers really were something.
Six weeks into another year, starting all over again, they seem to compete only when the mood strikes them, as if the season were owed to them and no one else. It is why Mattingly held a clubhouse meeting three days ago to remind his players of, as he said, "Where we're going and how to get there." And it is why they have a 20-19 record after Sunday's 7-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants, and haven't fared well in one-run games or extra-inning games (Sunday's loss was another in 10 innings), and beyond that, with some exceptions, why they are outplayed and outworked by seemingly inferior teams.
Think of it this way: the Dodgers are 7-1 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, 13-18 against everyone else, and just lost three of four to the Giants at Dodger Stadium, where they are 7-12.
Three-quarters of the season is out there, and the talent remains from a team that was 13-21 at about this time last year and won 92 games anyway. A team that was two wins from the World Series. That was a common pick to at least reach the coming World Series and maybe win it.
The Dodgers have not played to that standard, and it goes beyond the uneven, mediocre results. Their 35 errors are the most in the National League. Hanley Ramirez has six. Dee Gordon has four. Matt Kemp has three. That's the middle of their defense. By most advanced measures, Ramirez is in the bottom quarter of big-league shortstops and Kemp, not long ago regarded as the best athlete in the game, is last among center fielders. On Sunday, with the wind gusting, Kemp made a diving catch in left-center field and an over-the-shoulder catch at the wall, so it's in there somewhere, along with the poor routes and time-delay jumps and fading make-up speed.
"I've seen the ratings," Mattingly said.
He said Kemp is playing on healthy knees and ankles.
"I'm not sure what all they're measuring," he said. "What we are sure of is he's physically OK."
So he plays center field and they hope he gets better at it, hope he has more days like Sunday.
"That's where he has to put the time in to work on his jumps and reads," Mattingly said. "It's still there."
Clayton Kershaw pitched seven hard innings Sunday, gave up a go-ahead home run on a curveball, which almost never happens, and Ramirez homered with two out in the ninth off Sergio Romo to tie the score. Half-an-hour later, after Kenley Jansen threw a disastrous third-of-an-inning in the 10th, the Dodgers were searching again. Their pitching was fine. Their offense, given it came against Tim Hudson and the Giants' bullpen, was fine. They didn't even commit an error.
And, yet, here they are. Same result. Something is missing.
Said one player: "All I know, if you want to be good at baseball, you have to love baseball."
Like maybe there are too many other things to love here. The money. The stardom. The comfort. And then, somewhere near the end of the day, the baseball.
Who knows? This stuff turns on one solid turn through the rotation, a week when the wins begin to fuel a more passionate game and so more wins. And to see Kemp in fifth gear Sunday afternoon, and Andre Ethier, who'd had two plate appearances since Wednesday, come off the end of the bench and double twice, and Ramirez and Puig homer, and the dugout enliven, and the defense stiffen, maybe that's coming.
"You hate to say it's a matter of time, because we don't have time," Kershaw said. "We have to play better, with that sense-of-urgency thing. …You can control the way you go about it. You can control the way you play the game. The last few games it's sort of gotten better."
Until then, this is who they are: a game over .500, 4½ games behind the Giants, 2½ behind the Colorado Rockies, giving up nearly as many runs as they score, and dragging themselves to the next game. At some point, the season would start and the Dodgers would not be about the $240 million they spend on payroll, but the values and skills and attitudes of their players, and the leadership abilities of their manager, and what they do with the next inning, the next pitch. So far, a quarter of the way through, they've underachieved. Sunday, in of all things a loss, they saw a game that was at least played the right way. The wins, they'll have to assume, are out there. Waiting.
"We hope so," Ethier said. "You can sit here and talk about it all you want. Baseball is a results-oriented thing. You know if you're doing it right or wrong because of the result of that game."
Meantime, they'd lost another day to that vision of themselves, which brought another loss, and meant another quiet clubhouse in which the only sound was hangers being tossed against each other in their lockers.
The sound of not much happening.
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