25 May 2008

Kershaw Day

Last Tuesday I bought tickets to yesterday's Saturday Dodger game. At the time I knew the starter would be Penny, and that gave me pause, because I feared another poor start from him, but I went ahead with it anyway, since the game time worked well for the rest of the persons coming along. There was a time when I would have targeted a Penny start to attend a game, of course. The last two years he has been the ace, or near enough, except for some late season troubles. But now? He appears to be another once good Dodger pitcher becoming mortal very quickly. I fear we are seeing a repeat of Jeff Weaver or Odalis Perez in him. In my less fearful moments I think he's just regressing to the mean after some seasons when his results were a little above his abilities. And he's had that arm stiffness. That worries me more than anything about Penny. It's both a fear and a rational concern. Pitchers are so fragile. All it takes is one body part out of alignment for a pitcher to start turning in bum performances. And all that is needed for a bum performance is just one inning when the pitches just aren't quite right.

It was so last night in the third inning. All of Penny's great work in the other 6 innings of one-hit ball was rendered moot by his 10 ball, 2 walk extravaganza with two outs in the third. That was made even more frustrating by the generous strike zone the umpire appeared to have. From where I sat he appeared to be calling a lot of outside balls strikes, but Penny couldn't take advantage of even that in the third inning. You could say he got unlucky with some of the hits in the third inning, but it's his own damn fault for putting himself into a position for bad luck to sting with those two walks. After those walks he needed a strikeout to end the inning and he didn't get it. The clutch strikeout is what separates the true ace from the false ace.

When the rumors of Kershaw coming up started Thursday, one of the early theories was that he would pitch on Saturday because of Penny's arm stiffness. I eagerly seized upon this theory as potential truth, because then I would get to see Kershaw's debut in person. I already had the tickets! It seemed like fate.

Now why should I be so excited at the possibility of seeing Kershaw's debut? The truth is given his inning limit and youth he's not likely to help the Dodgers that much this year. He might give them an extra win or two over the innings he pitches that would have gone to some other pitcher instead. Or he might give the Dodgers no extra wins. He's only 20! Well, it's about seeing the start of a great career. But he might not have a great career. It's more likely than not that he won't. He could get injured in the next few years. Just look at what happened to Liriano of the Twins. There is something deeply foolish about my desire to witness in person Kershaw pitch in his first major league game.

It is inconvenient that in baseball any observation made of a team over a single game can be dismissed as meaningless since it was just one game. There are so many, after all. I acknowledge that, but I will still draw significant conclusions from the game I saw in person last night. The Dodgers are a barely-above-0.500 team. Maybe an 84 win team. And it's the offense that's the problem. It disappears in way too many games. It goes away for entire series. Look at Kyle Lohse's stats, his ERA and strikeout rate, and ask if this is a pitcher who should be able to shut down the Dodgers with no runs. I don't want to hear about the Dodgers being unlucky against him or something. Unlucky is losing 4-2 to Kyle Lohse. Bad is losing to him 4-0. Yeah, the offense will come back and look great in some future series. But then the starting pitching may disappear. This isn't a great team, and it doesn't seem like a particularly good team either. The Dodgers seem to be a year away. A year to get rid of more of the old deadwood players, a year for the young players to get even better.

So, if I think I'm watching a barely-above-0.500 team, it's even more important to find joys other than those associated with winning lots of games during the baseball season. It can't always be about winning lots and lots of games, not even if you're a Yankees fan. There have to be victory-neutral joys as well. One of those, for me, is watching the young players blossom. My favorite is Matt Kemp, though that didn't work out too well last night, when he struck out about 6 times and just missed a great diving catch in the ill-fated third inning. My wife teases me about my enthusiasm for Kemp, calling him the golden boy. Even the golden boy will have some leaden days, I guess. And then there's Clayton Kershaw. He's the next big thing, they say. I like to say it too. And it's not just words --- we saw the possibilities in Spring Training.

I was disappointed when it came out that Kershaw would be the Sunday starter rather than the Saturday starter. If I had known that I would have bought tickets to the Sunday game instead. Going to a Dodger game at the stadium isn't a trivial thing for me, since it's a two hour drive to get there. Going to a night game means getting home at midnight or later, usually. So if I was already going to the Saturday game, I couldn't go to the Sunday game, right? I said as much to my wife, who replied that I should just go ahead and buy tickets for the Sunday game. And I did. We're going. We get to see Kershaw make his debut, unless my secret fear comes true and he's scratched at the last minute. I had to slightly reschedule a barbecue we were supposed to have with my mother and sister today because of this. When I called my mother to explain why I changing already set plans and driving back Sunday for a game after we had driven down to see the Saturday game, the best way I could explain it was with something that is probably not true but is also honestly how I feel about today. Seeing Kershaw's debut is like seeing Koufax make his first ever major league start.

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