Strong return lacks dividend

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

SAN DIEGO – For two months, Jason Schmidt's contribution to the Los Angeles Dodgers was 11 innings, many of them not very good.

At 34 years old, he showed up without a fastball but with an obstinate determination to pitch anyway, which, when the results started coming, the Dodgers put up with for exactly three starts.

Schmidt won a game and then lost two pretty spectacularly. An MRI reflected what the radar guns suggested, that Schmidt's shoulder wasn't right, and until Tuesday night at Petco Park the Dodgers' return on $47 million over three years was Mark Hendrickson in the fifth spot and one well-attended rehab start in nearby San Bernardino.

So, after more than seven weeks of rest and shoulder work, and with team executives comforting themselves with "the way the ball left his hand" and two strikeouts of fellow rehabber Garret Anderson in that Class-A start, Schmidt took the ball again last night.

He pitched like an ace, like the guy they paid handsomely to keep up in the arms-heavy National League West.

Then, so did San Diego Padres right-hander Chris Young pitch like an ace, which was precisely the point of having signed Schmidt.

Schmidt allowed an infield hit in six innings. Young allowed three singles in seven. The game was scoreless until Marcus Giles singled home Russell Branyan with one out in the eighth, and that was that for the Dodgers and Padres.

It is how life as a Dodger restarted for Schmidt, with fastballs that touched 91 mph, then working from there with a changeup that looks different from his fastball again, dallying with a slider and a cutter, knowing there was probably enough fastball if he needed it.

"I suppose a nine-inning shutout and a no-hitter would have been better," he said with a crooked grin.

And that is how life in the NL West restarted, with the Dodgers adding Schmidt to an arms race that in one-third of a season has separated the Dodgers, Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks by a half-game.

Just as Schmidt and Young pitched into the sixth and beyond in San Diego, so did Matt Cain and Randy Johnson pitch well into the Arizona night, separated by a run. Tonight, seven-game winner Randy Wolf and four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux pitch in San Diego, while in Phoenix six-game winner Matt Morris squares off against Brandon Webb, last season's Cy Young Award winner.

"You're going to see a great arm pretty much every night," Dodgers outfielder Luis Gonzalez said, "and primarily veteran guys who know the hitters. They're not facing guys they don't know."

So it goes, particularly among the presumed top four in the NL West, the Padres, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Giants, who, respectively, rank first, third, fourth and fifth in the NL in ERA, and each in the top five in starters' ERA.

"I look every day at the starting pitchers, the probables," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Every one that comes up in our division, I go, 'Gosh, he's pretty good.' I know once [Barry] Zito and Johnson came into the division, I knew pitching was going to be much improved."

Other than the odd Juan Pierre and the occasional Barry Bonds, the top NL West teams spent their winters loading and reloading their pitching staffs. Maddux and David Wells in San Diego. Johnson and Doug Davis in Arizona. Zito in San Francisco. Schmidt and Wolf in Los Angeles.

Almost all of them thought hard about a middle-of-the-order bat, then grabbed a starting pitcher instead.

"There weren't many (power hitters) to get," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said.

Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee and even Bonds were out there. But, Soriano wouldn't come West. And Lee went to six years, too much for the Dodgers, for one, in a league where hitters have to pull their weight defensively. And Bonds, well, he was for the Giants to settle.

"We weren't really in the Soriano sweepstakes," Padres general manager Kevin Towers said. "Bonds, a little early. Carlos Lee, just a little bit. When we saw where things were going, we decided to change direction and hammer pitching."

So they stole Maddux from the seemingly indifferent Dodgers. Had the Dodgers landed Soriano or Lee, Colletti said, he would "probably not" have signed Schmidt. But, ultimately, the offseason sent him toward Schmidt, who three years ago won 18 games.

Over five months beginning in August, the Diamondbacks traded for veterans Livan Hernandez, Johnson and Davis and turned over the lineup to their younger players and prospects. The strategy was to compete with the pitching-thick West, general manager Josh Byrnes said, and defend themselves in other areas.

"At times," he said, "we were asking a little too much from our bullpen."

Late Tuesday night, when one lousy single over 86 pitches wasn't enough to win, Schmidt admitted it was good to feel like himself again, good to throw reasonably hard again.

"I was able to locate a little better, throwing more free and easy," he said. "I didn't have to put as much effort into it as I did before … I didn't feel as restricted out there."

Apparently, then, you can add Schmidt to a summer of Jake Peavy and Brad Penny, to late, hard innings with Young, Noah Lowry and Derek Lowe, to the oncoming Tim Lincecum and Micah Owings, and to September with veterans Wells, Maddux, Johnson and Morris.

It hardly ever stops.

"I think defense is critical and so is timely hitting," Black said. "You can't make mistakes, and when you do get guys on and get guys in scoring position, that's going to be big."

Eventually, somebody will get a hit to win it. But they'll have to pitch to get there.

"I do think it's a great race," Byrnes said. "As much as the three teams at the top get the attention, all five are capable."

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