SPORTS DIGEST: New season begins on heels of World Baseball Classic

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The 2023 Major League Baseball season hits the ground under a full head of steam March 30 with all 30 teams in action.

It’s been a good spring for the game that was once considered the national pastime, but now falls in behind the NFL and NBA in the eyes of most fans and people that follow sports for a living.

But baseball is off to a good start this year after a highly successful World Baseball Classic and a series of rule changes designed to speed up the game and add offense.

The World Baseball Classic ended with Japan defeating the United States 3-2 in the championship game with Shohei Ohtani striking out his Angels teammate Mike Trout to end the game in a matchup Commissioner Rob Manfred would kill for in October.

Japan advanced to the title game by rallying for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat Mexico, 6-5. Ohtani started the winning rally with a lead-off double.

The U.S. advanced to the championship game by pummeling once-powerful Cuba 14-2.

The World Baseball Classic, which was started to give the sport a broader international scope, finally captured the imagination of fans and players alike this year, with some players already looking forward to the next classic in 2026.

The new rules are still the topic of much debate. The new pitch clock, which forces a pitcher to start his delivery within 15 seconds with no runners on base and 20 seconds with runners on base, has definitely speeded up the game.

The Dodgers and Angels played an exhibition game March 26 that lasted two hours and eight minutes.

We no longer have to wonder if pitchers like Pedro Baez or Kenley Jansen are ever going to throw the ball and, under the new rules, hitters also are restricted from stepping in and out of the batter’s box.

Baseball also increased the size of the bases, a move designed to increase safety on close plays, but one that might also return the stolen base to a place of prominence in the game since the bases are four inches closer to each other than they used to be.

Left-handed pull hitters also are rejoicing about the banning of the infield shift. Teams may no longer put three infielders between first and second base with one of them positioned in short right field.

While baseball purists (myself included) don’t understand why major league hitters couldn’t learn to hit the ball to the opposite field or drop a bunt up the third base line, the move will add some offense to a game that is being dominated more and more by hard-throwing youngsters who can reach 100 miles an hour on the radar gun.

Another thing new this year is that the Dodgers are no longer odds-on favorites to win the National League Western Division. Most experts are picking the San Diego Padres to win the West this year, although they also expect the Dodgers to be among the top teams in the National League.

The Dodgers won a franchise-record 111 games last year — and then lost to the Padres in the divisional round of the playoffs.

This year’s team looks considerably different from last year’s. Gone from the lineup are third baseman Justin Turner, shortstop Trea Turner and centerfielder Cody Bellinger.

Gavin Lux, who was expected to take over at shortstop, hurt his knee in an exhibition game and is out for the season.

There will be young players expected to step in and perform right away. Miguel Vargas will be the starting second baseman as a rookie. James Outman will be given a long look at center field at the start of the season in hopes that he will become the next Bellinger.

The Dodgers still have a potent offense led by right fielder Mookie Betts, first baseman Freddie Freeman, catcher Will Smith and Max Muncy, who will be used primarily at third base this year.

J.D. Martinez, a free agent acquisition from the Boston Red Sox who has twice hit more than 40 home runs in a season, will be the primary designated hitter and manager Dave Roberts will mix and match left fielders hoping to find one or two who can hit consistently.

The Dodgers also have some question marks on the pitching staff. Walker Buehler is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. Tyler Anderson, who made the all-star team last year, left as a free agent. And Tony Gonsolin, who was 16-1 last season, will start the year on the injured list after spraining an ankle in spring training.

Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw lead the starting rotation with Urias picked to start the season opener against Arizona.

The Dodgers added Noah Syndergard in the off-season looking to revive his once-promising career. Dustin May is back from Tommy John surgery and the Dodgers have a wealth of young, but still unproven starters who will probably be up and down from Oklahoma City all year filling spots in the rotation as needed. The Dodgers always seem to have plenty of starting pitching.

The one glaring weakness on the roster as the season begins is the lack of a closer.

Evan Phillips was 7-3 with a 1.14 earned run average in 64 games last year, but the Dodgers like to use Phillips in clutch situations in the seventh or eighth innings.

They wanted Daniel Hudson to be the closer, but his recovery from knee surgery last year hasn’t been as fast as expected and he will start the season on the injured list. 

Roberts will probably use a combination of Phillips, Brusdar Graterol and Yency Almonte as a closer until Hudson gets healthy or one of the three establishes themselves as a clear-cut closer.

The Dodgers coasted through last season, winning the West by 22 games and not playing a meaningful series in the last two months of the season. Once the playoffs started, they were unable to flip the switch and were eliminated from the playoffs in four games.

That won’t happen this season. September could be a great battle between the Padres and the Dodgers, much like the 2021 season was a wire-to-wire battle with the Giants.

It all starts March 30.

POST MORTEM: My suggestion to UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin is try to avoid Gonzaga next year in the NCAA Tournament. 

For the second time in three years, Gonzaga knocked the Bruins out of the tournament with a last-minute shot. Two years ago, Jalen Suggs banked in a 40-footer at the buzzer to beat the Bruins in the Final Four.

On March 23, Julian Strawther hit a three-pointer with six seconds left to give Gonzaga a 79-76 win over the Bruins in the Sweet 16 round to eliminate the Bruins, who rallied from 10 points down in the last five minutes to go ahead on Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s basket with 12 seconds left.

It was an up-and-down game for the Bruins. Playing without two starters, Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona, the Bruins led the Bulldogs by 13 at halftime only to go stone cold in the second half.

Gonzaga rode center Drew Timme in the second half to outscore the Bruins by 23 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half before the Bruins used their speed and defense to get back into the game.

Timme ended uo with 36 points and Strawther added 16 to lead the Bulldogs.

Jaquez led the Bruins with 29 points and 11 rebounds and freshman Amari Bailey added 19, but the Bruins came up short in their quest for their first NCAA title since 1995.

It has been a topsy-turvy tournament this year with Connecticut, a fourth seed, the highest remaining seeded team in the Final Four.

San Diego State, a fifth seed, will face ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic in the opening game of the Final Four at 3 p.m. April 1, followed by fifth-seeded Miami against U Conn in the second game.

U Conn is the only team in the Final Four that has ever been this far in the tournament, but all four teams have had surprising wins to get this far.

There are likely to be more surprises before CBS plays “One Shining Moment” April 3.

A SUB .500 TEAM: The Lakers are what they are. After 75 games, the Lakers are one game under .500 on the season. That’s what they are. 

They have been hovering around the .500 mark for the last month, finally reaching that plateau March 24 with a 116-111 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then, with LeBron James back in the lineup and playing another sub-.500 team— the Chicago Bulls — at home, the Lakers failed to get over the .500 mark with a 118-108 loss to the Bulls.

The Lakers now face a five-game round trip (in eight nights) against the Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz and the Clippers.

Four weeks ago, I wrote that the Lakers needed to go 16-4 or 15-5 over the last 20 games to make the playoffs. They have already lost five games, yet they are still in the playoff picture, currently sitting alone in ninth place, two games out of sixth place but only one game out of 12th place, too.

James came off the bench March 26 in his return to the lineup after missing 12 games and scored 19 points to lead the Lakers in scoring. The Lakers had a nice balance with four other players scoring 15 or more points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome 32 points from former UCLA standout Zach LaVine.

The Lakers are still in the playoff hunt, but we know who they are this far into the season. Any championship aspirations have pretty much vanished.

       
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