See if this sounds familiar: It's mid-June, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are floundering.
Injuries and a lack of production have reduced baseball's biggest-spending team to an afterthought. There's grumbling in the clubhouse, and speculation about manager Don Mattingly's job security (or lack thereof) is swirling.
If it feels like deja vu, well, that's because it is: This time last year, the Dodgers were in a similar predicament. In fact, things were worse.
On June 16, 2013, Los Angeles was 29-39, 7.5 games out in the National League West. And they'd already dealt with a rash of major injuries; a month into the season, the Dodgers had used nine different starting pitchers.
The 2014 Dodgers are in better shape. Entering play Monday Los Angeles is 37-34, 6.5 games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants, a gap that would be much wider if it weren't for the Giants' recent 1-6 homestand.
Yet the Dodgers, fresh off a trip to the NLCS, expected better. Their $239 million payroll is tops in baseball, outpacing the New York Yankees and lapping every other team. (For perspective: The Dodgers spent almost twice as much on their starting rotation this year as the Houston Astros spent on their entire roster.)
So what gives? Why have the reigning NL West champs limped through the first two-and-a-half months like middling also-rans?
There have been injuries. Clayton Kershaw was out six weeks with a strained back muscle, Hyun-Jin Ryu missed time with a cranky shoulder and others (A.J. Ellis, Juan Uribe, Carl Crawford) have spent time on the disabled list. But every team deals with injuries.
Key Dodgers have slumped. After a hot start, Adrian Gonzalez has seen his numbers tail off, particularly against lefties, against whom he's hit a paltry .160.
Hanley Ramirez has only three extra-base hits in June and is hitting .259 overall. Matt Kemp has shown flashes of his old self, but he and Andre Ethier have just nine home runs between them.
Others, though, are picking up the slack. Yasiel Puig is proving last season was no fluke with a .318/.414/.552 slash line. (He's also still doing stuff like inadvertently flipping his bat at the umpire after a walk, but that's Puig being Puig.)
Dee Gordon has emerged as the game's preeminent base stealer, swiping 36 bags in 41 attempts. Kershaw has been the ace since his return, the bullpen has picked it up and Josh Beckett tossed a no-hitter. Look around and there are reasons for optimism.
The Dodgers seem to be missing something else, though. That old intangible: chemistry. Mattingly spelled it out earlier this month to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon:
It may be a day here or a day there, but it hasn't felt like a true team at this point where we're all on that Tommy Lasorda end of the rope and worried about the Dodgers and, 'This is where we're going and I don't care what happens today, we're going to get there.' We talk about this all the time within the staff and with different guys. It's really not that hard to see that it's not happening.
Not hard to see, maybe. But hard to fix.
“I don’t know the secret,” Beckett told the Orange County Register's Bill Plunkett after a dispiriting June 4 loss to the Chicago White Sox. “If anybody had some secret remedy, it’d be brought up on every team every year.”
Recent incidents include separate dugout spats between Mattingly and Ethier and Kemp and Puig, and an on-field argument between Ramirez and closer Kenley Jansen, per the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin.
There was also confusion, and controversy, regarding playing time in the outfield, reports Shaikin. With Puig entrenched, Crawford, Kemp and Ethier, all used to playing every day, felt squeezed. "They tell us one thing, and something else happens," said Crawford of management. "We can't go by what they say."
Chemistry is difficult to quantify and impossible to project. Last year, the Dodgers looked like a collection of surly mercenaries when they were losing and a cohesive band of brothers once the winning started. Something clicked in 2013, and the Dodgers went on a historic tear.
It could certainly happen again.
But when your manager is publicly questioning the team's commitment to winning—invoking the name of the almighty Lasorda in the process—something is seriously out of whack.
Mattingly's job doesn't appear to be in immediate jeopardy. He signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason, a clear vote of confidence from the Dodgers brass.
Ultimately, though, if Los Angeles doesn't click again soon, the guy who diagnosed the problem may also be the one to take the fall.
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