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Dodgers baffled by second-half offensive meltdown

The debt-crippled team will have to rebound with the same core group that collapsed this year. Three players in particular will have to be more productive: Ethier, Kemp and Broxton.

October 03, 2010|By Dylan Hernandez

On June 9, the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals to remain in first place and improve to 12 games over .500.

The next day, The Times ran a story detailing how Dodgers owner Frank McCourt used to pay a baseball-illiterate Russian mystic to beam positive energy to the team from Boston.

The Dodgers were never 12 games over .500 again. They finished the season Sunday with a 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium, which left them in fourth place with an 80-82 record in Joe Torre's final season as their manager.

"He probably stuck a pin in my bat," Andre Ethier jokingly said of Vladimir Shpunt, the physicist-turned-healer hired by the Dodgers.

Bench coach Bob Schaefer smiled.

"We should have kept him on," Schaefer said.

The Dodgers severed ties with Shpunt after the 2008 season.

Silly? Perhaps, but it is as substantive a reason for the failures of this season to come out of the Dodgers' clubhouse, where players and coaches alike were baffled at the team's second-half offensive meltdown.

Then again, if the debt-crippled Dodgers intend to be playoff contenders next year, they almost have to believe that something fluky was in play this year. They were not big spenders on the free-agent market last winter, when the most expensive signing was Vicente Padilla at $5.025 million, and nothing indicates they will be in the pursuit of top-line free agents this winter. McCourt, who was booed by the crowd at Dodger Stadium when his name was mentioned in Torre's farewell speech, declined to speak Sunday.

That means if the Dodgers are to return to the postseason, they will have to do so with same group of players who composed the nucleus of the 2010 team — which includes Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton.

That was the group that made up Manny Ramirez's supporting cast in the Dodgers' 2008 run to the National League Championship Series and played a larger role in their return trip last year. But that is also the group that collectively failed to remain on an upward trajectory this year.

"This year was a leveling off," General Manager Ned Colletti said. "It doesn't mean that it's not going to go back on a climb again."

Colletti said he expects the group to remain intact.

But three players in particular will have to be more productive: Ethier, Kemp and Broxton.

This season, with Ramirez no longer the same force that he was before his drug suspension last year, a greater load of the offensive burden fell on Ethier and Kemp. The results were mixed.

Ethier was the National League leader in the three triple-crown categories May 15, when he broke a pinkie finger. He was not the same hitter the rest of the season.

Kemp had a blistering start and a blistering finish, hitting seven home runs in his first 14 games and five in his last five. But he was a subject of controversy in between — he was criticized by management, argued with Schaefer and benched for three games in late June – and his performance dipped.

Ethier, who hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in in 139 games, said he believes he and Kemp can provide the type of offense that can lead a team.

"You learn a lot more from adverse times like this," he said.

Broxton saved the All-Star game for the NL in July, but was no longer the Dodgers' closer by the middle of the next month. He had an earned-run average of 7.58 in 31 appearances from July 27 on, but manager-to-be Don Mattingly has said he is counting on him to be the ninth-inning man next year.

If there was anything positive about the Dodgers' season, it was that the futures of Kershaw and Billingsley looked as promising as Broxton's looked ominous.

The 22-year-old Kershaw was 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and hit the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career. Billingsley looked like a lost case at the start of the season, but finished the year 12-11 with a 3.57 ERA.

Like Ethier and Kemp this year, Kershaw and Billingsley could find themselves shoulder increased responsibilities next year, as veteran starters Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla will be free agents this winter.

The season finale

Torre thanked the fans in an emotional farewell speech as part of a postgame ceremony commemorating the end of his three-year tenure with the Dodgers. "You've made us feel so welcome," he said, speaking on behalf of his family, "and I can't tell you how appreciative I am of that." … Catcher Brad Ausmus ended his 18-year career with a single to center in the ninth inning. The three-time All-Star received a standing ovation when was replaced by pinch runner Chin-lung Hu.… Hong-Chih Kuo pitched a scoreless ninth to finish the season with a 1.200 ERA, the lowest in team history among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings. The record was previously held by Eric Gagne, who posted a 1.202 ERA in 2003.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

twitter.com/dylanohernandez

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