13 June 2007

Turning Points

by Joshua Worley

A week ago the Dodgerama preview of the Padre series ( the one the Friars swept ) was linked to by the Padres blog Gaslamp Ball. That was the entry where I said the Padre 'pen was "sneaky bad" because of all their losses, which wasn't quite fair, and I said so in the next entry I wrote.

What's happened since I wrote my entries about the Padre 'pen and their penchant for losses? Well, of course the Dodgers were swept in that series. In fact it was the Dodger 'pen that crumbled to lose that last game, so I guess that was some sort of horrible Padre karmic justice in payment for me calling their 'pen "bad". Now, to be clear about that last horrible game, I put most of the blame for that loss on the right side of the infield, not the 'pen, though there's no doubt Broxton could have pitched better. Okay, but what's happened since that fateful game?

It seems to be in our nature to view human endeavors from the story perspective, as fully realized dramas with developed plot movements and characters with story arcs. When people talk about turning points and momentum in a baseball game or a baseball season, they are looking at it from the story perspective. When people talk about a player being clutch, they usually aren't looking at the numbers, but rather talking as if that player was a resilient character in a story. David Eckstein is clutch not because of any numbers, but because he's just like a brave little hobbit smiting orcs way more athletic than him.

From the story perspective, the Padres should have been energized by their great impossible comeback, and done well in their next stretch of games. Instead, they have lost four in a row in depressing fashion, given away nearly all the ground they gained by sweeping the Dodgers, and fallen back into a virtual three way tie for first place.

On Friday against the Mariners the Padres came back to tie the game at 5 from a 0-5 deficit, only to see Cla Meredith lose the game in the 11th. On Saturday the Padres failed to hammer Jeff Weaver to the full extent advisable and eventually the bullpen lost a 5-3 lead over three innings with Doug Brocail the loser. On Sunday Chris Young couldn't hold a 3-1 lead, and then Hoffman couldn't conserve a 3-3 tie and he got the loss. Then on Monday the Padre 'pen ( and Adrian Gonzalez's first base defense ) really kerploded, allowing 7 runs ( 1 earned ) capped off by a grand slam, with Meredith again getting the loss.

That's 4 losses in a row, 4 bullpen losses, since the Padres had their great, stirring comeback win against the Dodgers. The excellent Padre 'pen continues to pile up losses, some their fault, some the fault of a weak late inning offense. How could this happen to the Padres after their late inning offense delivered that turning point sweep against the Dodgers? What happened to that momentum?

There just ain't no such thing as momentum, not in such a strong form. There is very little intangible, story-style carryover, aside from injuries, from one game to the next, and yet most of us talk as if there is. We talk about teams playing well or not playing well, as if there was something to this momentum thing. I talk this way, and honestly I will continue to talk this way, even after acknowleging here that it's mostly bunk. It's just a hard perspective to get away from, and in some ways it's more fun to have this perspective, if only we don't take it too seriously.

One might surmise the Mets lost the first two games of their series to the Dodgers because they aren't playing well. But entering the series the Dodgers weren't playing well either. Why has it been the Mets who crumbled? Well, the Dodgers stirring comeback win over the Jays might have been a sort of turning point for them, but then they lost the next to games. Turning points can only be defined well after the fact, when a story can be built up around the known facts.

The real turning points in the Dodger season will not be games but be decisions about which players to use. And the momentum from these turning points will be felt in diluted form, spread out through the rest of the season. No one player can carry a team to a winning streak, not even a call-up. Nevertheless the promotion of Kuo to the starting rotation was a turning point for the Dodgers. The recall of Loney and Kemp were turning points. The momentum from these turning points had some effect on the Dodgers winning the first two games against the Mets, but it wasn't the entire story of those games, nor did it make those wins inevitable.

Betemit was also a part of last night's win. The man has a line of 0.212 -- 0.357 -- 0.444 with a batting average that's likely to only get better. Tony Abreu has a line of 0.262 -- 0.279 -- 0.400, with a batting average that's not likely to improve. Betemit has Abreu beat in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and he's at an age where he's more likely to hit better than Abreu at the big league level anyway. Isn't all that worth at least half of the starts at third base? Betemit at third, believe it or not, might be another small turning point in the Dodger season. The decision awaits.

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