SPORTS DIGEST: Despite lineup changes, Dodgers can still hit

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The Dodgers may not appear to be the juggernaut that they were last season when they won a franchise record 111 games during the regular season only to lose to the San Diego Padres in the divisional playoff series.

But through 56 games this season, the Dodgers are only two games behind last year’s record 56 games (slightly more than a third of the way) into the schedule. Last year the Dodgers were 36-20 at this point. This year they are 34-22.

The Dodgers are missing four starters from their lineup last season — second baseman Gavin Lux, shortstop Trea Turner, centerfielder Cody Bellinger and designated hitter Justin Turner. Together, they accounted for 59 home runs and 305 runs batted in.

They have been replaced by Miguel Vargas at second base, Miguel Rojas at shortstop, James Outman in centerfield and J.D. Martinez at designated hitter. Outman and Vargas are rookies, Rojas and Martinez are veterans. 

Martinez, who has been on a power-hitting tear lately, is the only one of the four really producing. The others are hitting .234 or worse. Still, the Dodgers keep mashing the ball. 

Though hitting only .241 overall as a team, 13th in the 15-team National League, the Dodgers lead the league in runs scored with 313 and home runs, 93. 

They are averaging almost 5.6 runs a game, which has helped the team overcome some shaky pitching brought about by injuries to several starting pitchers, that has caused the bullpen to be overworked.

In Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers have a quiet superstar who lets his bat do most of his talking for him. Freeman is currently on a 19-game hitting streak in which he is hitting .455 with 5 home runs, 12 doubles and 21 RBI.

Martinez has been almost as good, hitting. 310 with 8 homers and 24 RBI in 17 games since returning from the injured list with a bad back.

Catcher Will Smith is the only other Dodger in the batting order hitting above .249, but the Dodgers still manage to score runs. They do it by drawing walks (238, most in the National League) and taking advantage of other team’s mistakes. 

Make an error and allow the Dodgers an extra out in an inning and you pay the price. Take the game May 30 against the Washington Nationals when Freeman dropped a bloop single in front of right fielder Joey Meneses. Meneses should have caught the ball. The Dodgers turned it into a three-run rally on the way to a   

9-3 win.

The night before, an error by shortstop C.J. Abrams opened the floodgates in the fifth inning and the Dodgers scored six runs on the way to a 6-1 win. The Dodgers had two hits off starting pitcher Trevor Williams through four innings before the error got them started. Martinez capped the rally with a three-run home run.

The Dodgers need to hit because their pitching isn’t as strong as it was expected to be.

Starting pitchers Julio Urias and Dustin May are on the injured list and off-season acquisition Noah Syndergard is 1-4 with a 6.27 earned run average. 

Eight different players have started for the Dodgers so far this season, including rookies Michael Grove, Gavin Stone and Bobby Miller.

Miller has been brilliant in two starts, allowing two runs in 11 innings. By contrast, Stone has given up 17 runs in 10 innings of three starts and Grove gave up 15 runs in 16 innings of four starts before going on the injured list himself.

Clayton Kershaw and Tony Gonsolin have managed to stabilize the rotation, but the bullpen is getting overworked and it is starting to show. Last season, Phil Bickford was 2-1 with a 4.72 ERA in 60 games. Alex Vesia was 5-0 with a 2.15 ERA in 63 games and Yency Almonte had a 1.02 ERA in 33 games without receiving a decision.

This season, Bickford is 1-2 with a 6.48 ERA in 21 games, Vesia is 0-2 with an ERA of 9.00 in 14 games and Almonte is 3-0, but his ERA is 7.04.

Those were three keys arms in the bullpen last season. Fortunately, Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol and Caleb Ferguson are picking up the slack.

Phillips is 1-0 with a 1.66 ERA and 7 saves. Graterol is 2-1 with a 1.99 ERA and 3 saves and Ferguson is 3-0 with a 1.42 ERA.

Manager Dave Roberts continues to use his leverage system of relief pitching, letting the other team’s batting order determine who he will bring out of the bullpen. Phillips often pitches the seventh inning instead of the ninth if the opponent’s 3, 4 and 5 hitters are coming up that inning.

It isn’t the traditional way of managing a bullpen but it’s working for the Dodgers this year. Or maybe it’s just the fact that Craig Kimbrel isn’t lurking in the bullpen to blow another save in the ninth inning.

There’s still two-thirds of the season to go and anything can happen in the last four months. But the Dodgers aren’t too far away from the team they were last season. With four new bats in the lineup and a starting rotation hit by injuries, I’d say they are off to a pretty decent start.

FINALS MATCHUP: The NBA Finals finally start June 1, nine days after the Denver Nuggets eliminated the Lakers from the Western Conference finals.

The Nuggets have been relaxing for those nine days. The Miami Heat was playing a seven-game series against the Boston Celtics that they ended convincingly with a 103-84 defeat in game 7 May 29.

Miami, the eighth seed in the NBA Eastern Conference, is playing the first seed in the West, but the Heat have been fighting — and winning — an uphill battle since they lost the play-in tournament opener to the Atlanta Hawks, 116-105 April 11.

Since then, the Heat defeated the Chicago Bulls to win the eighth seed in the tournament, defeated the Milwaukee Bucks (a team that had the best record in the NBA this season) in five games, the fifth-seeded New York Knicks in six games and the second-seeded Celtics.

The Heat could have been resting with Denver, but let a 3-0 series lead slip away against the Celtics. They had two days to prepare for the Nuggets and get accustomed to the mile-high atmosphere in Denver.

But they have been overcoming adversity for the last six weeks.

The Heat should have sharp-shooting guard Tyler Herro back in the lineup, releasing some of the load from Jimmy Butler. If the Heat is going to pull off another series upset, Butler will have to lead the way. He’s averaging 28.5 points, 7 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game in the playoffs. 

Much has been made of the Heat having three players in their eight-man rotation who came into the league undrafted, but that won’t matter in the finals. Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent and Max Strus are all averaging more than 10 points a game in the playoffs and proved they belong in the NBA a long time ago.

The difference in the series will be that the Nuggets’ best player center, Nikola Jokic, has a better supporting cast than Butler has. Jokic is showing that he should have won the NBA’s most valuable player award for the third year in a row. He may have to settle for the finals MVP.

He is averaging a triple double in the playoffs, 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists.

Point guard Jamal Murray averages 27.7 points a game in the playoffs and personally shot the Lakers out of the playoffs. It will be interesting to see who the Heat will use to defend Murray. 

Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all average in double figures for the Nuggets. Caldwell-Pope also brings NBA Finals experience. He averaged 12.8 points a game in the 2020 finals in the bubble when the Lakers beat Miami in a six-game series.

Kevin Love has finals experience with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Heat, but his minutes have been dwindling and he may not start with Herro back in the lineup.

The Heat are full of fight and play hard-core defense most of the time. Coach Eric Spoelstra is considered one of the game’s best coaches.

But the Nuggets have Jokic and Murray, and Miami doesn’t. I pick the Nuggets is six games.

A NEEDED BREAKUP: The LA Galaxy “parted ways” with team President Chris Klein this week opening the season with two wins, three draws and nine losses in their first 14 games this season.

Last year the Galaxy was fourth in the Major League Soccer Western Conference with 14 wins, eight draws and 12 losses.

Klein had drawn the wrath of most of the team’s die-hard supporters for the team’s poor roster and lackluster performance so far this season. Many fans have been boycotting the team for most of the season, unhappy that Klein, who has been the team president since 2013, was still in charge.

In April, Klein sent a letter to fans vowing to step down from his post if the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs, a desperate attempt to end the boycott and bring fans back to Dignity Health Sports Park.

The gambit had little impact at first, but the Angel City Brigade support group announced in early May that it would again attend games — though it called on its members not to purchase any merchandise, food or alcoholic beverages at the stadium. The group also said its members would stand in silence for the first 10 minutes of every half of each match.

Galaxy Head Coach and Sporting Director Greg Vanney will lead all soccer operations and report directly to team President Dan Beckerman now that Klein has departed.

The Galaxy is one of the 10 original clubs in the MLS and one of the most accomplished in the league’s 27-year history. They have won five MLS titles and played in the championship game four other times.

But their last title was in 2014 and the Los Angeles Football Club, last year MLS champion, has overtaken the Galaxy here in Los Angeles.

“As a club we have not achieved our goals or met the standard that we have established for the LA Galaxy,” Beckerman said in a statement. “We believe it is in the best interest of the club to make a change and begin a comprehensive process to seek new leadership that will return the club to the level that our fans and partners expect.”

City News Service contributed to this story.

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