12 August 2008

Overmatched yet unbowed

By the end of the third inning it was clear that the Dodgers would not win. Cole Hamels was overpowering the Dodger lineup while Clayton Kershaw had bent under the pressure of the potent Phillie lineup. It was only good fortune that Werth had not hit a three run home run in the third inning: just a little less elevation on his deep fly out to a sprinting Kemp and the Phillies would have led 6-1 with their ace pitching and could have cruised to an easy win.

I drew up a mental plan of action for the Dodgers at the outset of the fourth inning. I had mostly given up hope that they would win, but not wishing to prematurely bury them I tried to imagine what could realistically happen to give the Dodgers a chance to pull even. It was a hard thing to imagine, given how overmatched both the offense and the pitching looked. To be sure Kershaw had struck out the side in the first inning, so even though his curveballs had yet to make more than a few cameo appearances in the strike zone there was hope here. So I thought, well, maybe he can hold the Phillies down for three scoreless innings, then turn things over to the bullpen. Kershaw is a talented pitcher; he just had to start finding the strike zone more often.

On the offensive side things were more difficult. Hamels just looked unhittable. Only a really terrific at bat by Blake had allowed the Dodgers to score at all: I was stunned and impressed when he muscled that low, tough 1-2 fastball into left center for the RBI. Hamels' one weakness is that he gives up a lot of home runs, about 1.3 per nine innings, but aside from Manny the Dodgers just don't have true home run hitters. It was harder for me to mentally write a reasonable offensive script to get the Dodgers into position for the win, so I just hoped that somehow they could score a run and bounce Hamels from the game by the eighth inning. Somehow being a failure of imagination, or a grim recongnition of how good Hamels was.

Indeed Hamels was terrific through the fifth, but Kershaw also turned his night around with a flurry of strikeouts and the rout was postponed. That is talent, but it is also character, if such a thing exists in a baseball game performance. After tonight I would like to think it does. If I am going to harbor dark thoughts about Dodger players' will to win after assorted defensive and pitcher malfunctions last weekend to drop two heart-breakers to the Giants, then I must at least allow for the opposite qualities, and celebrate them to the fullest. Kershaw gave the offense a fighting chance, a target they could reasonably aim for.

They might have got it all back against Hamels in the sixth. The entire team seemed to rise up offensively in that inning. That was the offense's moment of character. But Kent's ball was caught at the wall, and Martin's ball was snared, and only one run was scored. Nevertheless the damage was done. Hamels was mortally wounded, his arm nearly spent, and he could not remain much longer on the battlefield. He left after seven, up only one and the outcome very much in doubt. My desperately imagined plan had come to pass, and the Dodgers no longer seemed like inevitable losers. The Dodgers would go on to win 4-3, off of runs scored in the eighth and ninth innings, but it is not for those innings that I will remember this game as a great victory in 2008. It was the middle three innings, when the overmatched Dodgers turned the game around and made the comeback possible. When they played like a team full of character and the will to win and every other cliche that may not make rational sense but regardless passes through the minds of most fans. Being a fan is not a rational thing after all. What a victory, what a game to savor.

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