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It's time for Dodgers to set it right

September 12, 2007|Bill Shaikin

The calendar reads September. The lineup is fit for June.

This would be a good time for the Dodgers to determine their best position players and, well, play them.

They have had 144 games to evaluate. They have 18 games left to pass two teams, make up 3 1/2 games and seize the wild card. The time for rest days is over. This is the time to end the daily game of musical chairs -- three corner outfielders, two spots -- with Matt Kemp, Luis Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.

Gonzalez and Ethier started Tuesday, after an off day. Ethier and Kemp started Sunday. Kemp and Gonzalez started Saturday.

Hitting is about timing. The more you play, the better your timing.

"Usually," Gonzalez said.

Usually, Gonzalez is happy to talk at length, whatever the subject. This was a subject he did not care to discuss.

If Kemp had come up from the minor leagues and flamed out, as he did last summer, this would not be an issue. But Kemp is batting .338, with the best home-run-to-at-bat ratio on a power-starved team.

In September, Kemp has either batted third -- the spot generally reserved for the best hitter on a team -- or not started at all. Ethier has batted third. He also has batted eighth.

Kemp has started eight games this month. So has Ethier. Gonzalez has started six.

"Most of it," Manager Grady Little said, "is based on our matchup sheets."

For Gonzalez, a 17-year veteran, that makes sense. For Ethier and Kemp, each in his second season, the track record is so short as to be virtually useless. In the case of Kemp against Cy Young Award candidate Jake Peavy, who beat the Dodgers as usual Tuesday, the track record is literally useless.

"Kemp has none against Peavy," Little said. "It's my guess he'll have none after this game too."

Peavy won't face the Dodgers again this season. Little did not agree that a set lineup for the final 18 games would give the Dodgers the best chance to win.

"I look at each game individually, and how we're going to try to win that game," he said. "You put a lot of stock in numbers. You don't put total stock in them."

And that means . . .

"It's just like that lady in the bikini at the beach," he said. "They show you a lot. They just don't show you everything."

The numbers you would check first don't help at all. You wonder about a platoon, but Kemp, Gonzalez and Ethier all are hitting left-handers better than right-handers this season.

So Little considers high-strike pitchers and low-strike pitchers. He tries to keep all three batters fresh. He protects Kemp from the power right-handers, Peavy and Carlos Zambrano.

He could get a little help from monthly splits: In September, Kemp is batting .406, Gonzalez .278, Ethier .226. In August and September, Kemp is batting .340, Ethier .257, Gonzalez .250.

The players do not bother trying to detect a pattern. They each said Little has not offered an explanation.

"I just check the card every day," Kemp said.

No matter how well you did the previous day?

"It doesn't matter," Kemp said. "You can do well one game and not be in there the next game. I'd love to play every day, but I'm always ready to go."

The outfield overload reflects the Dodgers' approach under General Manager Ned Colletti: We won't trade our best prospects, but we won't necessarily play them. We'll import veterans and let the kids play when an opportunity arises. We won't hand a kid a job at any time, for any length of time.

This makes for an intriguing clubhouse dynamic. Gonzalez signed here in the belief he would play every day. Kemp and Ethier have played well enough to play every day. None of the three plays every day.

"We're not on a team or in a market or an environment where you're just given a job," Ethier said. "It's pretty obvious they like getting proven veterans."

For the kids, anyway, better this than playing every day and putting up numbers on a team 25 games out of first place.

"What good does that do you?" Ethier said. "I guess that's good for your arbitration and free-agent numbers.

"If it takes being a guy who plays whenever he gets a chance for a couple years -- and getting a chance to play in an environment like this -- it's worth it."

A playoff environment would be better. Play Kemp every day in right field. Pick a left fielder, and play him.

The Dodgers will announce today details of a celebration next season, in honor of 50 years in Los Angeles. They ought to do everything they can to make sure they're not also commemorating 20 years without winning a playoff series.


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