The Los Angeles Dodgers won 15 consecutive road games and went 32-8 in a span of 40 games to rebound from a poor start and take a dominant position in the National League West. Financed by baseball’s largest payroll, they’ve got the starting pitching to win the World Series. What’s to stop them? Manager Don Mattingly, on the verge of being fired in late May, addressed a team chemistry issue this week, by benching the rookie sensation, outfielder Yasiel Puig. Sensing the Cuban defector’s head was becoming outsized, he pulled Puig in the fifth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs. Reports indicated veterans in the clubhouse approved the measure. Puig failed to slide into second base to attempt to break up a double play, made a couple of nonchalant catches, and in an earlier game, reportedly threw a dugout tantrum after being called out on strikes. The Dodgers want Puig to concentrate on fundamentals.
Pirates’ wild ride
The Pittsburgh Pirates last finished with a winning record in 1992. With a 77-56 record as of Friday afternoon, the Pirates stood five victories short of sealing a plus-.500 record. In a three-way fight for the NL Central title with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates have a 97-per-cent chance of earning at least a wild-card playoff berth, according to baseballprospectus.com. The club put playoff tickets on sale recently, but fans are nervous. The Pirates collapsed down the stretch in the last two seasons, the offence isn’t producing lately. Last Monday, they fell out of first place for the first time since July 29, and here come the Washington Nationals with 14 wins in 19 games. Catcher Russell Martin of Montreal, a top free-agent signing last winter, was imported to provide ballast for a young club when the pressure amplified. Former Toronto Blue Jays catcher John Buck arrived this week to back-up Martin, along with outfielder Marlon Byrd from the New York Mets for an injection of offence. Hold on tight.
American League East
With Alex Rodriguez drawing boos everywhere, it’s really hard to appreciate the fourth-place New York Yankees as an underdog – even with classy 39-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter back from the disabled list, and equally classy closer Mariano Rivera working the last month of his regular-season career. But with a 4.0-per-cent chance of making the playoffs, and the roster including eight players 36 or older, it would be intriguing to watch them go on a run. The Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Yankees are separated by seven games. The Red Sox survived their most difficult road stretch of the season, making a statement last week in taking two of three from the Dodgers. Said pitcher Jake Peavy, acquired from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline: “I knew the day I walked into this clubhouse what we have here. Every guy, man for man, knows we’re capable of playing with anyone on any given day.” The Rays rely on their rotation, and mainstay Jeremy Hellickson has been demoted after going 0-5 in his last six starts. The Orioles rank 25th out of 30 teams in earned-run average but first in homers; trying to bash their way into the playoffs, they added Michael Morse in a trade with the Seattle Mariners on Friday.
The veteran Dodgers catcher and, since 2000, the soft-spoken manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, won a World Series in 2002, has guided the team into the playoffs six times, and took five AL West division titles. Is his reign about to end? Despite the big spending ways of owner Arte Moreno, the team’s finished better than third place in the AL West just once in the past four seasons – and this season went off the rails from the outset. He manages generally by feel, while Jerry Dipoto belongs to the new wave of general managers inclined toward statistical measures of performance. Unsurprisingly, there are reports of philosophical differences. “You’re not going to agree on everything,” Scioscia said last weekend. “You have to have conversation. You’ve got to throw it on the table and just see if it has merit. Peel the paint off of it. I feel that’s happening.”
Triple Crown repeat?
No one had taken the Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs since 1967, until Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera accomplished the feat last season. He’s positioned to do it again, with a .359 batting average, 43 homers and 130 RBIs as of Friday morning. Impeding his path is Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis (47 homers, tops in the AL). Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh leads the NL with 32 home runs. Cabrera is also dogged by nagging injuries. He left last Thursday’s game with abdominal pain.