By Don Wanlass
After a hiccup on opening day against the Colorado Rockies, the Dodgers have rolled off five straight wins and lead the San Diego Padres by a game less than a week into the 2021 baseball season.
And with star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. out of the lineup with a shoulder injury, it may be time to declare the Dodgers have won their ninth straight National League West title. That’s how good the Dodgers look.
They aren’t going to go 161-1, but they might go 100-56 over the remainder of the season, meaning the Padres are playing for a wild-card berth already.
After getting knocked around the Colorado Rockies opening day, Clayton Kershaw bounced back strongly against the Oakland A’s April 6, giving up a first-inning run and four hits while striking out 8 A’s as the Dodgers won 5-1.
The Dodgers hit three solo home runs, with Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Edwin Rios all going deep.
Through the first six games of the season, the Dodgers are hitting .327 as a team with seven home runs and 39 runs batted in. They have outscored their opponents, 41-25.
And they may have a better team that last year’s World Series champion.
The Dodgers lost two position players from last year’s championship team, Kike Hernandez and Joc Pederson who left in free agency over the winter.
Their replacements are Gavin Lux and Zach McKinstry. Lux was expected to take the starting second base job last year, but he wasn’t ready for it. This year he is.
He’s hitting .368 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .988. Plus, he’s more than a capable replacement at shortstop when manager Dave Roberts wants to give Corey Seager a day off.
McKinstry showed signs of his potential a year ago in spring training and has now blossomed into the kind of utility player Hernandez was during his six years with the Dodgers, only he has a better bat.
He is making Roberts find ways to fit him into the lineup after hitting .400 with a home run and four RBI in his first five appearances this year. A brief sample size, no doubt, but McKinstry and Lux can both play in the big leagues.
The starting rotation, other than Kershaw’s performance opening day, has been brilliant.
Trevor Bauer pitched six no-hit innings in his first start before tiring and giving up two homes runs in the seventh inning.
Walker Buehler gave up two runs and four hits over his first start, Julio Urias gave up one run and three hits over seven innings in his start and Dustin May gave up no runs and two hits in six innings in his first start.
In 37 innings, Dodgers starters have given up 14 runs and 26 hits while striking out 38 batters while walking only six. And that’s after playing four games in Coors Field.
The bullpen, as expected, has been the team’s weak link so far, but don’t blame that on Kenley Jansen. In two appearances, Jansen has pitched 2 2/3 innings and given up two walks. He earned a five-out save against the Rockies in a 6-5 win April 3.
He may not be the dominant pitcher he was from 2014 to 2018 when he averaged 41 saves a year, but Jansen is still one of the top 10 closers in baseball and you can count on Roberts using him as the closer until Jansen can no longer get people out.
The rest of the bullpen has given up 11 runs in 12 1/3 innings, but that will drop as the season progresses.
David Price, the former Cy Young Award winner ho couldn’t crack the starting rotation this spring, has given up five runs in two appearances so far as he adjusts to his new role.
If he is this roster’s weakest link, the Dodgers are pretty solid.
The Dodgers receive their World Series rings in their home opener April 9, which will also be the first time Dodgers fans have been allowed inside Dodgers Stadium since October 2019.
It will give the players a chance to again celebrate their World Series victory, this time in front of cheering fans.
Next fall, the hope to celebrate with a parade.
WHAT A GAME: As they celebrate their NCAA Men’s Basketball championship, the Baylor Bears should thank the UCLA Bruins for wearing out the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the same final game, April 3.
The 93-90 overtime win by Gonzaga over UCLA was one of the great college basketball games you could ever hope to see and another example why March Madness is such an annual treat.
The Bruins played a remarkable NCCA Tournament, winning five games before losing to the team that had been ranked first in the country most of the year. And it took a 40-foot Hail Mary shot as the clock expired at the end of the first overtime to knock the Bruins out of the tournament.
The loss to the Bruins obviously took something put of the Bulldogs, who fell behind Baylor early 9-0 and then 29-10, and never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
I though the Bulldogs might have one last run in them after they whittled a 19-point lead down to 10 by halftime, but Baylor hit two quick three-pointers to start the second half and Gonzaga had nothing left in the tank.
Two years into his tenure as UCLA coach, it looks like Mick Cronin wasn’t a bad choice to lead the Bruins. He took a team missing two of its best players from the start of the season to the brink of a title and he had them playing unselfishly in the tournament.
Chris Smith injured his knee in December and Jalen Hill left the team for personal reasons in January.
The Bruins could have quit then. Instead, they rallied around their coach and Johnny Juzang and Jamie Jaquez Jr. emerged as stars in their own right to lead the Bruins in the tournament.
Juzang, a transfer from Kentucky, may decide to take his game to the next level and join the NBA. If he chooses to return, the Bruins could be well stocked for another tournament run next year.
And considering this year’s tournament exposure, the Bruins could be back in the hunt for key recruits at the national level in the foreseeable future. The future is looking bright again for Westwood basketball fans.
ROSTER MOVES: The Lakers and Clippers continue to tweak their rosters as the NBA heads into the last month of the regular season. The Lakers have added center Andre Drummond and guard Ben McLemore off the waiver wire in the last week to strengthen the bench.
Drummond immediately hurt his toe and has only played once for the Lakers but he lit a fire under starting center Marc Gasol, who suddenly is showing why the Lakers signed him to a free agent contract in the offseason.
Gasol had one of his best games of the season April 6 with 13 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists as the Lakers defeated Toronto in Tampa Bay, 110-101. Toronto is playing its home games in Tampa, Florida, this season because of Canada’s coronavirus restrictions on travel.
The Lakers had a balanced offense against Toronto, with seven players scoring in double figures, led by second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker who scored 17 points and is making himself an important part of coach Frank Vogel’s rotation with LeBron James and Anthony Davis still sidelined.
The Lakers are in fifth place in the Western Conference, a half-game behind Denver and a game-and-a-half behind the Clippers, but the most important thing for the Lakers to do is get James and Davis healthy again.
Where they end up in the standings won’t matter if James and Davis are ready for the playoffs.
The Clippers have added point guard Rajon Rondo and center DeMarcus Cousins. Both players have been on championship-winning teams, something that always come in handy in the playoffs.
While both Rondo and Cousins figure to come off the bench and length coach Ty Lue’s rotation, Rondo could eventually work his way into the starting lineup because the Clippers’ biggest need is a ball distributor.
Cousins gives the Clippers front-court depth, especially with center Serge Ibaka out with back problems.
The Clippers are in third place in the Western Conference, which is right where they want to be.
They defeated the Lakers for the second time this season April 4, so they know they can do that.
They have had their own injury woes — what team doesn’t by this point of the schedule — but the Clippers remain one of the top eight teams in the league at this point of the season and adding Rondo and Cousins to the roster has improved the team overall, even with the loss of Lou Williams in the Rondo trade.