For now, Dodgers are managing some vulnerabilities

Andre Ethier was back in center field Friday night, Carl Crawford might be on deck to relieve him at some point, Miguel Rojas was at shortstop and reliever Paul Maholm was the starting pitcher.

Just like the Dodgers drew it up in spring training, right?

Well, not exactly.

But hey, with the All-Star break beckoning and first place a matter of percentage points, whatever the Dodgers are doing manning some key positions seems to be working.

The question is can they keep mixing and matching their way to a division crown or Wild Card berth and a prolonged postseason run?

‘Yeah. I mean, were there right now,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pointed out. “We’re not really where we want to be because we haven’t got to the end of the year. But as we sit here today we’re right in the race and we’ve been doing it all year, so I don’t know why we can’t keep doing it.”

That all remains to be seen of course. As summer gives way to fall and every pitch and out and executed play takes on more meaning we’ll see if the Dodgers are adequately situated defensively, most notably at shortstop and center field.

Plenty depends on a clean bill of health for Hanley Ramirez, although his play at shortstop has been waning for some time.

And that was before the flurry of injuries he’s dealt with.

As for center field, Matt Kemp quickly showed he wasn’t capable of providing sufficient defense and Ethier and back-up Scott Van Slyke are nobody’s fleet-footed defenders.

That’s one of the reason Crawford’s begun taking fly balls in center field after Kemp’s switch to left field put Crawford on the bench.

Speed and agility wise, Crawford should be able to handle the position if need be.

But then, Crawford’s left arm is a veteran of Tommy John surgery so the thought of him making throws from deep center field probably has opposing base runners smiling broadly as they sharpen their spikes.

Point is, with runs and outs at a premium – especially later in the year – can the Dodgers afford such vulnerability?

Mattingly simply points to the calendar and his club’s place in the standings and proof they can work around whatever weaknesses they may have.

“It means we have to be smart. We have to position. We have to move counts and things like that,” Mattingly said. “But I think we’re capable of doing that.”

Carl Crawford in center field for Dodgers? Looks like it could happen

Depending on how you look at it, Carl Crawford taking fly balls in center field is either a noble gesture by a player wanting to do anything he can for the team or a harsh reminder just how thin the Dodgers are in one of the most defensive challenging positions on the field.

The answer is it’s a little bit of both.

With no one taking charge of the position – be it because of injury or ineffectiveness – the Dodgers have restored to manning center field by committee.

That typically means Andre Ethier and on occasion Scott Van Slyke, neither of whom will be mistaken for your quintessential center fielder. As for Matt Kemp, who began the year in center field, he’s now in left field – a move necessitated by Kemp’s noticeable loss of speed and agility after suffering through two injury riddled seasons.

Now you can add Crawford to the mix. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly dropped that little nugget on everyone Saturday when he revealed Crawford has begun getting work in in center.

“ He played it in the minor leagues and in Tampa and they kind of moved him. But I think with our situation there’s nothing wrong with him going out there and taking some fly balls,” Mattingly said. You never know what can happen. So, you know, we encouraged him to do a little work out there.”

While Crawford brings the much-needed element of speed to center, his arm strength is severely diminished after undergoing Tommy John surgery two years ago.

Mattingly didn’t sound concerned Crawford’s throwing issues would be an issue, insisting Crawford could utilize his other assets to compensate.

“How many guys you see getting thrown out? Really, on the bases?,” Mattingly said, “It’s more about range and getting to balls. Carl really runs well. I think, like metrically, he’s been really good in left field. He’s a guy that will run a ball down for you.”

Mattingly was confident Crawford could keep runners going from first to third on outfield singles.

If not with his arm, then his legs.

“Absolutely. Because you use your speed in different ways,” Mattingly said. “That means, in case you don’t throw as well, you get to the ball quicker. You use your speed to cut down that time. You get rid of it quicker and you practice to be accurate. It’s not always about arm strength. It’s how you use the tools you have.”

DODGERS JUSTIN TURNER CLOSES IN ON RETURN

Brian Wilson looked quizzically at Justin Turner as Turner approached him at his locker in the Dodgers clubhouse Saturday.

“Oh hey, welcome back,” Wilson finally said, shaking Turner’s hand.

“For a minute there I thought you forgot who I was,” Turner told Wilson, laughing.

“Not at all,” Wilson said. “If anything it was almost like you never left.”

In time and distance, Turner wasn’t gone very long and he didn’t stray very far.

But he was away nonetheless. Although it looks like his return is imminent.

Since landing on the disabled list on June 29 with a strained left hamstring Turner’s been in Arizona rehabbing the injury.

But his arrival back in Los Angeles over the weekend marked a significant milestone in his recovery. Things are going so well he’s been cleared to play Sunday in Single A Rancho Cucamonga – as a D.H.- and if everything goes well the back-up infielder could be back with the Dodgers by next Friday in St. Louis.

“We’ll see how it goes,” a hopeful Turner said after spending Saturday afternoon doing agility work in the outfield and running the bases.

“Everything went well,” he said. “You can’t simulate game speed, obviously, but I felt like I was as close to 100 percent as I can be.”

So now it’s off to the minor leagues to test the hamstring, and hopefully pave a path back to the Dodgers after the All-Star break.

For Turner, it will be full go as he gauges the strength in the leg.

And at the urging of the Dodgers training staff, no holds barred.

“They told me when I’m playing these games, no matter where the ball’s at try to make it as game like as possible,” Turner said. “Whatever it takes to have that confidence for what ever happens.”

 

Clayton Kershaw expresses concern after poor outing

PHOENIX, AZ – Spring training being more about preparation than results, it would have been easy for Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to just sweep Monday’s rough outing against the Oakland A’s under a rug of clichés.

Something along the lines of being more focused on working on a specific pitch rather than getting hitters out or being satisfied getting his work in and building up arm strength and refining his command.

Yada, yada, yada.

But Clayton Kershaw doesn’t operate that way, so when a collapse of control sabotaged him in the third inning and the A’s pounded him for five runs on two hits and three walks he wasn’t just upset about it – he was borderline fuming.

“I know it’s spring training and it doesn’t matter,” Kershaw said afterward “But it matters to me.”

And he took nothing positive from an outing in which he sailed through the first two innings before falling apart in the third with the three walks and two hits.

Kershaw never did make it out of the third, getting pulled before recording an out. His Cactus League ERA soared to 18.00 and his blood pressure rose right along with it.

At the risk of overeating, he’s perplexed.

“You pitch bad, there’s concern,” Kershaw said.

And he wasn’t about to hide behind spring training being a time to get ready for the season.

“That’s what the offseason’s for,” Kershaw said. “I don’t believe you come in to get ready. You’re supposed to be ready to go.”

Two starts into spring – and really all spring counting his side throwing sessions – Kershaw clearly isn’t ready.

He said he hasn’t been satisfied with any of it.

Worse, he has no idea what the problem is.

“I’m searching for answers right now,” he said.

It isn’t a physical problem, Kershaw insists. His arm and body feel fine.

“Physically I feel great,” he said, “No excuses.”

Just questions.

Spring or no spring.

Paul Maholm hopes his performance creates a difficult decision for the Dodgers

SCOTTSDALE – The entry point was different than he is accustomed, but for Paul Maholm a clean finish trumped the abnormal starting line in his first Cactus League appearance with the Dodgers.

The 31-year-old left-hander entered Sunday’s game against the San Diego Padres in the third inning – only the second time in his career he wasn’t on the mound to start the game. Not that it affected him considering the two scoreless innings he tossed while surrendering just one hit against seven batters.

“Obviously it’s only two innings but it felt good,” said Maholm, whom the Dodgers signed in early February. “And it felt good putting pitch sequences together and facing the top four hitters, the guys you’ll face in the regular season.”

Maholm is in the running for the first starter’s job, although a strong performance by Josh Beckett against the Padres – not to mention his clean bill of health – likely improved Beckett’s odds of breaking camp as the fifth starter.

And that would suggest Maholm’s future with the Dodgers would be in the bullpen, a role he is not familiar.

But it’s early in spring, and as last year proved when the Dodgers started camp with nine legitimate starters only to scramble throughout the season filling the fourth and fifth starter jobs, projecting definitive pitching roles on March 2nd is an exorcise in folly.

So Maholm will spend the spring preparing for a starting role and hope the esults leave no question where he fits in the Dodgers puzzle.

“My whole thing, since I turned pro, you pitch well and make them make tough decisions,” Maholm said. “I don’t have control over it, all I can do is put my work in stay healthy, pitch well and it will work out.”

Maholm pitched last year for the Atlanta Braves and went 10-11 with a 4.41 ERA over 26 starts and 153 innings. But wrist and elbow injuries forced him to the disabled list, and what looked initially like a very good season when he tossed opened with 26 consecutive scoreless innings and three straight wins slumped to just an average one.

After beginning the year 3-0 Maholm lost four of his next five starts and never established a consistent groove.

“You start off 3-0 with (all) zeros)…there’s only one way to go,” Maholm said. “You’re going to have rough outings and have your rough patch. Unfortunately instead of getting to pitch out of it I was on the D.L for six weeks.”

With the Braves in a playoff race, Maholm hurried back from the D.L in late August- to mixed results.

“Trying to rush out of it to attempt to make the playoff rotation, things didn’t work out,” Maholm said.

He was left off the Braves playoff roster in the Divisional Series against the Dodgers, and ultimately left Atlanta for Los Angeles as a free agent.

Now he’s trying to lock down a job with the Dodgers, although the role is murky at this point. In the meantime, he’ll keep plugging away.

“Like I said, you pitch well and stay healthy things have a way of working out,” Maholm said. “We’ll deal with the other things down the road.”

Dodgers Josh Beckett relieved to get through first outing

GLENDALE, AZ – Josh Beckett has insisted all spring he feels good.

On Sunday the Dodgers right-hander backed it up.

Pitching for the first time in a competitive game since undergoing season-ending surgery last July, Beckett surrendered one hit and struck out three over two sharp innings against the San Diego Padres.

“I’m glad it went well,” a relieved Beckett said.

It was another step in the right direction for Beckett, whose season was cut short last year after undergoing surgery to remove a rib in order to relieve nerve pressure causing numbness in his right hand and fingers.

The nerve irritation – called thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) – now behind him, Beckett and the Dodgers hope he can lock down the fifth starter’s role.

Based on Sunday’s positive performance, that looks promising.

And the way Beckett feels so far this spring, he plans to be ready by Opening Day.

“Absolutely,” he said.

None of which prevented Beckett from enduring a sleepless, nervous night in anticipation of his first appearance against live opponents and an equally anxious morning and early afternoon leading up to the game.

“Just a lot of different stuff going on.” Beckett conceded of his nerves. “It’s like, OK, I’ve been pitching bullpens and now it’s actual competition, trying to get these guys out. Am I going to do something different to (get them out.)”

But after settling down, he easily handled the Padres and cleared a major mental hurdle in the process.

He felt good. He was effective. And he did it against opposing batters with an agenda to beat him.

I just think the more times I get to face hitters trying to get hits off me and trying to put themselves in good situations, it’s going to benefit me mentally getting over whatever mental things I have going on,” Beckett said.

Namely, the fear of a recurrence of TOS.

There’s a part of me that cant get that out of my head of ‘when is this going to happen again?’” Beckett conceded.

A few more outings like Sunday might do the trick.

 

New Dodgers pitcher Dan Haren talks Ryan Braun, boos and batteries

GLENDALE AZ – New Dodgers pitcher Dan Haren was too focused on his job to realize all the hullabaloo when Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun came to bat in the first inning on Saturday.

But then it struck Haren how much Braun was getting booed as he made his way to home plate after being announced by the public address announcer at the Brewers Spring Training home in Maryvale.

“It was pretty loud,” Haren said.

To back track a bit, Braun was making his first home appearance of the spring – or taking his first at bat in front of Brewers fans since being suspended 65 games last year for finally coming clean on using performance enhancing drugs.

And the reaction was stark considering how big a fan favorite the former Granada Hills High standout is in Milwaukee after emerging as one of the best players in baseball and winning a Most Valuable Player Award.

Now he was getting booed, passionately.

There were some cheers to be sure.

But there were a lot of boos too.

Haren, standing on the mound taking it in, pointed out afterward a significant amount of Dodgers fans made the trek to Maryvale on Saturday, and that probably escalated the boo factor.

I think it was probably all the Dodgers fans,” Haren said.

Haren knows first hand just how passionate Dodgers fans can be, having played at Chavez Ravine so many times as an opposing player over his career.

I’ve been booed many times,” he said.

It didn’t matter he grew up in Southern California or pitched collegiality at Pepperdine.

As a professional, he was simply an opposing player donning the uniforms of the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland A’s, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals and Angels.

That meant he was the bad guy.

And he was treated as such.

Like the time he was minding his own business in the Cardinals bullpen during the 2004 National League Divisional playoffs against the Dodgers and realized someone threw batteries at him.

Seriously.

I think they were probably Double AA’s,” Haren said. “They weren’t D’s.”

And thankfully they missed.

But it definitely opened Haren’s eyes how ardent Dodgers fans can be.

You want to be on the Dodgers’ fans good side,” he said. “It’s a lot better that way.”

New Dodgers IF Justin Turner excited to be back home in SoCal

GLENDALE, AZ – Justin Turner still isn’t quite sure why the New York Mets cut ties with him last winter, but now that he’s landed with his hometown Dodgers the disappointment has dissipated.

“I’m in a pretty good place now,” said Turner, a utility infielder who went to Mayfair High in Lakewood and played collegiality at Cal State Fullerton.

For a variety of reasons.

The Dodgers seem poised for a significant run, and the prospect of competing for championships is inspiration to anyone.

But he’s also back home for the first time in his career and with the Dodgers losing key bench players like Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. from last year’s club – not to mention starting second baseman Mark Ellis – a slew of roles need filling.

“It’s just a great opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it,” Turner said.

The shock of being non-tendered by the Mets still lingers a bit – he played well in Queens for three seasons and still counts many of his ex-teammates as life-long friends – but the rush he felt upon stepping foot in the Dodgers clubhouse for the first time confirmed how a positive can sometimes derive from a negative.

“Coming in here and seeing Don Mattingly, Mark McGwire, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw…It’s not really starstruck, but when you walk in you get a little different feeling,” Turner said.

And the opportunity to make an impact is legit.

The Dodgers leaned heavily on a versatile bench last season, and while manager Don Mattingly hopes a reduction of injuries results in less reliance on his bench, he also understands the importance of keeping his starters fresh and maintaining a well-oiled reserve unit.

Turner seems to fit right into that equation, his ability to man all the infield positions while carrying a decent bat making him an ideal candidate to help fill the void left behind by Punto and Schumaker.

If not push for the starting job at second base.

On top of all that, he gets a chance to play in front of his family and friends.

“It’s exciting for my friends, being so close they can come whenever they want,” Turner said. “I don’t know what’s going on with the TV thing, but some of them have Time Warner so they can watch every day. So it’s exciting.”

He’s also coming aboard at the opportune time. The Dodgers have undergone a complete transformation since the Guggenheim Partners took over for former owner Frank McCourt – a revolution Turner detected as an opposing player – and they are among the National League favorites to reach the World Series.

As soon as they made that big trade (with the Boston Red Sox) you sat back and were like, ‘OK these guys are trying to make a push,’ ” Turner said. “And then they keep adding on pieces and adding on pieces and the ownership group, obviously, is fantastic and the fans are loving it.”

For the inner Dodgers fan in Turner, it’s a welcome change from when he visited Dodger Stadium as a Met and sensed the disconnect between the fans and McCourt.

Coming in here as an opposing player, being from here, the fans weren’t showing up and that was really disappointing,” Turner said. “But now it’s an exciting time. From the front office to Donnie Baseball running the ship and then you walk in here and see all this talent, it’s just an extremely exciting time.”

Dodgers Chad Billingsley clears an important hurdle – mentally and physically

GLENDALE AZ – Chad Billingsley has pitched long enough to know a level of soreness is perpetually associated with the job.

After undergoing reconstructive surgery on his right elbow last April, the trick now is differentiating between the the good kind of sore and bad.

Billingsley was confronted with that challenge Saturday after a 30-pitch session off the mound that included some curve balls. It’s the first time he’s thrown breaking balls off the mound since since surgery, and he understandably felt some soreness afterward.

His mind, though, began playing some tricks on him.

“Obviously I was a little worried how it was going to react,” Billingsley said. “I thought I was going to wake up really stiff.”

Instead he awoke Sunday morning feeling fine.

It was a poignant reminder not to overreact, that soreness is simply part of the pitching equation.

Especially after throwing 30 consecutive pitches – including hard breaking balls – for the first time since major surgery.

“You almost forget what it’s like to throw,” Billingsley said.

And that even reconstructive surgery doesn’t protect him from the normal aches and pains of pitching.

That is a process Billingsley is still coping with.

“You expect yourself to feel perfect, it’s a new ligament or tendon and you kind of expect it to be fine all the time and not have a problem,” Billingsley said. “So anytime you feel soreness you’re like ‘something;s wrong’ You have that on the back of your mind after having surgery.”

To help clear that mental hurdle Billingsley communicates with the Dodgers medical staff, their feedback helping him sort the inevitable discomfort from the alarming.

“What soreness is normal and what’s not normal,” he said.

What he felt Saturday after his bullpen session was to be expected, and the fact he woke up feeling fine a day later simply affirmation.

“You just have to get used to throwing again,” he said.

Billingsley is scheduled to do some light throwing on Sunday and expects another 30-pitch bullpen session on Tuesday.

 

Dodgers Dan Haren stays on schedule; wants to be ready for Australia just in case

MARYVALE, ARIZONA – At the end of the day it all worked out for Dan Haren, who was able to get his work in on Saturday as the Dodgers and Brewers narrowly avoided a rain out.

For most of the morning and early afternoon that was in major doubt, with rain hammering most of the Phoenix area and Spring Training games getting canceled throughout the region.

But Mother Nature cooperated for Haren, who made his first start of the spring and pitched two innings against the Brewers while giving up a run on three hits.

“We got lucky,” Haren said. “It was pouring on the way over here.”

Most importantly he was able to preserve his normal schedule, which is more critical this year than ever considering the Dodgers play two regular-season games in Australia on March 20th and 22nd – nearly two weeks earlier than usual – and with Zack Greinke’s status in doubt Haren might have to pitch the second game.

“Staying on track is important because there’s only three weeks before we have to be ready,” Haren said.

Haren, a creature of habit, wasn’t exactly thrilled with the back-up plans had his start been altered by a postponement. Among the considerations were some sort of intersquad game or throwing on Sunday and coming back next week on short rest.

Thankfully the weather cleared in sufficient time to get a game in.

“I’m definitely happy I got it in because Plan B and C weren’t too appealing to me,” Haren said. “I’m definitely happy we got these done.”

Haren, incidentally, consulted with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt soon after signing with the Dodgers to work out a plan to be ready for the early start of the season.

“I asked him do I need to be prepared to throw on March 22nd or do I need to be prepared to throw on April 1st and 2nd and he told me to be prepared to throw on March 22nd because you never know,” Haren said.

As a result, Haren began his throwing program earlier than normal this winter. And with Greinke’s right calf injury potentially sidelining him for the two-game set in Australia, that turned out to be a prudent decision.

“I’m a little ahead of where I usually am,” Haren said.