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Dodger Preview : With Guerrero Sidelined, Lasorda Likely Faces His Biggest Challenge

April 07, 1986|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

Steve Garvey, in his autobiography, wrote that the Dodgers don't like it when the team's identity becomes too closely linked to one individual. For that reason, he wrote, the Dodgers didn't try harder to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

That may be true. Or that may be Garvey's ego talking.

But there's no denying that the Dodgers' ability to transcend the loss of one man has never been more evident than in the '80s.

Garvey, Mr. Dodger himself, wheels down to San Diego, and the Dodgers win.

Steve Howe, the National League's premier left-handed reliever, checks into a drug clinic and out of baseball, and the Dodgers win.

Alejandro Pena, the pitcher with the league's best earned-run average in '84, blows out his shoulder and pitches 4 innings in '85, and the Dodgers win.

That kind of resilience, however, will be put to its greatest test this season, when the Dodgers discover life without Pedro Guerrero.

"The lineup's not going to look the same," Guerrero said in tremendous understatement.

The Dodgers already know what it's like when Guerrero is out of position and miserable. In 1984, they finished four games under .500 and in fourth place. And they were still fourth through two months of '85 before Manager Tom Lasorda liberated Guerrero from third base.

Now Guerrero is crippled for at least three months. There is evidence that suggests it could be much longer. Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the surgery to reattach the ruptured tendon in Guerrero's left leg, said he would not be surprised if Guerrero needed six months to return. That would wipe out the '86 season.

A year out of the career of a man just entering his prime is a dear price to pay. For Kansas City pitcher Dennis Leonard, who suffered a similar injury below his left kneecap, it would have been a bargain.

Leonard, a three-time, 20-game winner for the Royals, suffered his injury on May 28, 1983, and underwent surgery the next day.

On Sept. 29, 1983, Leonard underwent a second operation.

On June 19, 1984, he underwent a third operation.

On July 31, 1984, he underwent a fourth operation.

On July 1, 1985, Dennis Leonard pitched off a mound for the first time since the injury. On Sept. 6, he pitched one inning for the Royals, his first big league appearance in more than 2 1/2 seasons.

No wonder a somber Lasorda views Guerrero's loss as an Old Testament-like test of faith.

"We felt we could do it with Pete, now we have to feel for three months like we can do it without him," Lasorda said.

"Because God delays, does not mean He denies. He just put up a stop sign, that's all."

Divine intervention, however, does not win pennants.

Pitching, however, does. Subtract a cleanup hitter who generated 33 home runs, batted .320, led the league in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and most teams wouldn't have a chance.

Most teams don't have Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, a left-right combination that rekindles memories of Koufax and Drysdale. Most teams don't have a No. 3 starter like Bob Welch--the Dodgers were 19-4 in games Welch pitched.

Heck, most teams don't have a No. 5 starter like Jerry Reuss, who is eight wins away from 200. Reuss, a 14-game winner with the Dodgers last season, would be the ace on some staffs. With the Dodgers, he's being pushed by 22-year-old rookie Dennis Powell, 14 years Reuss' junior, for his job.

Can pitching alone win pennants? Consider the following:

--The San Diego Padres, league champions in '84, last season lowered their team ERA from 3.48 to 3.40, added 16-game winner LaMarr Hoyt and got an 11-game winning streak from Andy Hawkins. The Padres finished tied for third, as they couldn't offset the loss of leadoff man Alan Wiggins.

--The Dodgers, division winners in '83, saw a slight increase in staff ERA in 1984, from 3.10 to 3.17, which was still second in the league. But they gave up fewer runs, fewer home runs and held opponents to a lower batting average. The Dodgers finished under .500 for only the second time in 16 seasons, as they scored the fewest runs of any team in the league.

--In the first two months of '85, Hershiser was 5-0 with two shutouts. Valenzuela had five wins and a 41-inning stretch in which he did not allow an earned run. In the bullpen, Ken Howell had two wins and five saves. But the Dodgers ended May a game below .500, as the team was hitting .228 and fielding even worse, with 72 errors in the first 46 games.

On June 1, Guerrero is switched to the outfield and puts on one of the great one-man slugging shows for one month in big-league history (15 home runs, 26 RBIs, 27 runs scored, .344 average), and the Dodgers were on their way.

Obviously, the supporting cast makes a difference. And the Dodgers begin this season with a unreliable defense, suspect bullpen and Guerrero in a brace.

How do you compensate? Franklin Stubbs alone is not the answer, his three home runs in the Freeway Series notwithstanding.

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