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KURT STREETER

Not a good feeling about the Dodgers

They're still in first place with a fine record, but at the moment they're a team with no identity.

September 07, 2009|KURT STREETER

I wish I could tell you the division is theirs, that the Dodgers are heading to the playoffs with smoky Santa Ana winds at their backs, that all is right in Chavez Ravine.

I can't. After Sunday's ugly 4-3 loss to the lowly Padres, nobody can.

Too much has become uncertain. There's too much unease. The players appear flat, the clubhouse feels stale. Trust me, it's not a divisive, negative place, as when bitter old Jeff Kent was around. It's just flat and stale because this has dragged on far longer, grown far tighter, than anyone had thought.

Colorado, 3 1/2 back. San Francisco still hanging. A slow, easy slumber has become a fight to keep a death rattle at bay.

Before Sunday's game, in his meet-and-greet with the press, the normally expansive, often lighthearted Joe Torre seemed more measured and clipped and dour than I'd seen. A question came: Did you know that Hiroki Kuroda, who started a major league game Sunday for the first time since being drilled in the head by a batted ball last month, was this tough? Answer: Blink. Pause. "Uh-huh." Next question.

Something seemed to be bothering Torre, something seemed heavy on his mind: like trying to keep his team from panicking.

Yes, they still have a fine record, 81-57 now. They're still hanging in for home-field advantage in the playoffs. (I'm assuming they'll make the playoffs, an assumption that could soon be reconsidered.) But look, since Aug. 1, they're 17-18. That's not the Dodgers we knew at season's start. That's the Seattle Mariners.

The bats have simply wilted in the summer heat. Sunday provided plenty of evidence.

They get a man in scoring position and then go meekly. They follow up a late-game comeback inning with strikeouts and flailing and long, sad walks back to the bench.

They win key, vein-popping games against the contenders in San Francisco and Colorado. Then they play the slovenly Padres at home and become the personal playthings for two starting pitchers who arguably should be in the minor leagues. Sunday, the Dodgers made previously 3-6 Tim Stauffer look like another Tim: Lincecum. Ouch!

You can talk all day about the overall numbers this team has put up, even the fact they remain in first place. I say we shouldn't dither with May and June and July. Let's talk about what's staring us in the face. Let's talk about the here and now.

Right now, this team has no identity. Are they bashers? Not when the post-purgatory, post-prescription Manny Ramirez is looking every bit his 37 years.

Are they line-drive-hitting machines? Not with a leadoff man playing as if he should be chained to the dugout rails. Not with James Loney and two-time All-Star Russell Martin playing as if they've forgotten who they are and what they're supposed to be.

Are the Dodgers dishing chaos on the basepaths? With the exception of Matt Kemp and, when he can get in a game, Juan Pierre . . . nope.

They do have the best ERA in the majors since Aug. 10. This hasn't brought a winning streak, but it's good news on its own. Still, do Dodgers fans really feel secure knowing that if their team had to trot out a pitcher to win an all-or-nothing game, right now it would be Randy Wolf? Hey, I love the guy, seriously, but him against Chris Carpenter or Lincecum or CC Sabathia in the playoffs? I'm not feeling it.

Besides, let's just say Wolf runs easily through another stellar eight innings. How secure can anyone feel when the relievers take over for the ninth?

Question marks, question marks. A lot of them.

Before Sunday's game, I paid Manager Bud Black a visit in the Padres' clubhouse. He spoke glowingly of the Dodgers' balance and how they've got no real holes. True. He also spoke of their recent roster moves and how the Dodgers have shored up their bench and added to their depth. Also true.

Abundance. Depth. Balance. Fine and wonderful attributes that all good teams need.

Great teams need more. Great teams have more. They've got spark, they've got identity. They've got that thing the Yankees and Angels have right now. A sense of knowing who they are and what they are, and that at any moment they could reel off heavy streaks: two consecutive shutouts, three consecutive homers, four consecutive men knocked in. Eight consecutive wins.

Maybe Hiroki Kuroda changes things. Seems hard to believe it was about three weeks ago when he was struck in the head by a batted ball. He could have died, right there on the mound. And yet there he was Sunday night, all guts and resilience. He went five innings and gave up four runs. He threw 89 pitches, 52 for strikes. It wasn't a great performance, but given what he went through it was probably the most beautiful sight of the entire season.

Maybe Kuroda's comeback reminds the Dodgers of the guts and resilience that brought them this far. Maybe guts and resilience become the identity for a team that doesn't have one.

It's a nice thought, but I can't sit here and tell you this will be enough to do the job once we're sitting in October. Nobody can tell you that. Not after Sunday night.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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