For the Los Angeles Dodgers, the disappointing start to their 2013 season isn't a question of when it all went so wrong so quickly—it's a question of how.
The short answer? There's plenty of blame to go around.
The long answer? Well, buckle up.
Think back to Opening Day for a minute. Ready to deliver the ceremonial first pitch, part-owner Magic Johnson was relieved of his duties at the last moment by manager Don Mattingly, who took the ball from Johnson and called for the lefty, Sandy Koufax.
It was clever. It was Hollywood. And it kicked off what might wind up being the best day of the Dodgers' entire season.
Following Koufax's toss, fellow ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw went out and hurled a four-hit shutout to beat the archrival—and defending champion—San Francisco Giants, and even hit the game-winning homer in the eighth inning to cap it off.
At the time, one could've easily seen that day as a sign of good things to come for a remade franchise under new ownership and featuring a roster flooded with high-priced All-Stars. In hindsight, perhaps there was only really one place to go from there, as Sporting News alluded to at the time:
And now? That dramatic Opening Day seems like it happened in some other season, some other era, maybe even some other world.
Sure, things started off well enough for the Dodgers, who went 6-3 out of the gate, even without starting shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who was recovering from a thumb injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic.
But that sixth win over the San Diego Padres came at quite a price when Zack Greinke—the Dodgers' brand-new $147 million arm—hit Carlos Quentin with a pitch, setting off a brawl in which Quentin charged Greinke on the mound. The pitcher suffered a fractured collarbone that would keep him out for more than a month.
That incident set off a string of injury problems for the club. After returning ahead of schedule in late April, Ramirez lasted all of four games before suffering a severe hamstring strain, while second baseman Mark Ellis also hit the DL with a quad injury.
Injuries also decimated the rotation, as (deep breath here) Chad Billingsley was lost for the year to Tommy John surgery, Chris Capuano missed time with a balky calf, Ted Lilly flip-flopped between active and ailing and, finally, Josh Beckett succumbed to a groin strain.
While all of that was going on, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times tried to lay out the rotation, except the statuses changed so furiously—already nine different pitchers have started a game for the Dodgers—that his tweet, from late April, was practically outdated the moment it was sent:
Before anyone could really take stock of the situation, the Dodgers had two separate losing streaks—a six-gamer in mid-April and an eight-gamer at the outset of May—and the club with World Series aspirations in the preseason had sunk to 13-21 and last place in the NL West by May 10.
On that date, after the Dodgers bottomed out with their eighth straight "L"—against the egregiously bad Miami Marlins, no less—Mattingly seemed to realize how dire the situation already was, per Austin Laymance of MLB.com:
I think negative breeds negative, that's for sure. When things aren't going good, it seems like we talk about momentum in this game and us trying to get it turned around. You got to get that turned somehow. We have to fight.
Speaking of the Marlins, the Dodgers are lucky the Fish are in the NL. Otherwise, they would rank dead last in a number of offensive categories:
Clearly, the struggles go beyond injuries.
While Adrian Gonzalez (.309/.363/.443) and Carl Crawford (.302/.364/.459) have done their part among the star players, the club is still getting very little out of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, who have combined for a .267 average, a 23 percent strikeout rate and all of six homers.
The bullpen? Ick. Brandon League and his 5.19 ERA can't stop giving up hits (10.4 per nine), blowing saves (two) and losing games (two). And it's not like just switching to fireballer Kenley Jansen (3.63 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 12.5 K/9) will suddenly bring relief. The bullpen's 4.41 ERA is seventh-worst in the game, and its eight blown saves are the fourth-highest total.
But back to Ethier for a minute. After benching the veteran outfielder this week, Mattingly appeared to question his effort level (via Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times), saying, "For me...I’m putting out my lineup that I feel is going to be the most competitive and going to compete the hardest."
While he was venting, Mattingly also had this to say about his star-studded roster:
It’s not just all, "Let’s go put an All-Star team out there and play games and the team with the All-Star team wins." It’s trying to find that balance of a team that’s got a little grit and a little fight. ... All grit and no talent is not going to get you there and all talent and no grit is not going to get you there. There’s got to be a mixture of both.
That led to a quote from a rival general manager, per Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, that Mattingly is "trying to get himself fired."
Clearly, the struggles have started to get personal.
So where do the Dodgers stand after all this? Entering Thursday's off day before a daunting upcoming weekend series with the St. Louis Cardinals—who have the best record in baseball—the Dodgers are 19-26, six games back of the NL West lead.
That's not insurmountable by any stretch—except the defending champion Giants, gritty-good Diamondbacks and surprising Rockies are all tied in the catbird seat at the moment, which means the Dodgers have to get past at least two of them to reach the postseason.
Oh, and they're behind the Padres too.
The worst part? It's their own fault: The Dodgers are 5-16 against the NL West, which not only explains how three different teams sit atop the division (by beating up L.A.), but also makes for the worst intra-division record in baseball.
How about the Wild Card? They could have a shot at that, right? Well, it turns out L.A. is even further back in that race, nine games behind the Reds.
So blame Mattingly, who may not have his job for much longer. But don't forget to blame the injuries that ravaged the rotation, the slumping star hitters and the unraveling bullpen, too.
If the Dodgers somehow manage to turn this thing around—and hey, they could—then it will be one of the more impressive comebacks in recent memory.
If not? Well, there's always the memory of Opening Day.