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It’s been that kind of season thus far for the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)
It’s been that kind of season thus far for the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press)

Dodgers sink under sky-high payroll Add to ...

In Orange County, you’re either a Los Angeles Dodgers fan or a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fan. Dual citizenship is far less tolerated than smog, and that makes for an electric atmosphere in interleague play.

A crowd of 42,231 outfitted in red, white and blue attended the fourth and final matchup at Angel Stadium on Thursday. During the seventh-inning stretch, as the recording of Take Me Out to the Ball Game reached the line, “root, root, root for the …” the fans in red clothing screamed “Angels!” while the outnumbered in blue shouted them down with a boisterous “Dodgers!”

When Mark Ellis hit a long fly ball in the third inning, the Dodgers fans rose as one in anticipation of a home run, only to plop back down in their seats as left fielder J.B. Schuck made a leaping catch at the wall, inducing roars and a standing ovation from the Angels fans.

All those people were having lot more fun on a blessedly temperate evening than the embattled Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly.

The team’s new ownership, Guggenheim Baseball Partners, raised payroll this season to $214.8-million (U.S.) from $94.7-million in 2012, and the return on investment to date, at least on the playing field, reeks of disappointment. The Dodgers entered a weekend series in Colorado with a won-loss record of 22-30 after starting 13-13, run producers Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp, who is coming off off-season shoulder surgery, on the disabled list, and starting pitcher Josh Beckett speculating whether suspected nerve damage is bringing is career to an end, at 33.

And of course, in L.A., another distraction: the attention of many sports fans is turning to the Kings, who are in the Stanley Cup Western Conference final in an attempt to defend their NHL crown.

Thursday’s game ended fittingly: when the Dodgers are trailing after seven innings, their record is 0-21. Down 3-2 in the ninth inning and a runner on first base with nobody out, Ethier struck out on a fastball at the belt, catcher Tim Fedoworicz hit a first-pitch popup, and Ramon Hernandez whiffed.

The impotent offence ranks 29th of 30 major-league teams in runs scored and slugging percentage, and, while Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke and company have the high-priced pitching rotation ranked ninth for earned-run average, the bullpen and closer Brandon League is 24th with nine blown saves.

Earvin (Magic) Johnson and his Guggenheim partners have committed nearly $600-million to nine players including Kemp (eight years, $160-million) and Andre Ethier (six years, $95.9-million), meaning Mattingly, whose contractual option for 2014 remains unexercised by the club, is on the veritable hot seat.

Asked whether the Dodgers should recall a top prospect from Double-A to play centre field in Kemp’s absence (hamstring), thus perhaps stalling development, Mattingly said: “I don’t mind it. I might not be here tomorrow.”

The alternative would be a light-hitting proven defensive player from Triple-A, probably Tony Gwynn Jr. Said Mattingly: “At the end of the day, let’s say, [we’ll do] what’s best for the organization and it will be fine with me.”

Reportedly urged by the organization recently to be more aggressive, Mattingly, the great New York Yankees first baseman, last week questioned Ethier’s effort and, appraising the team’s overall chemistry, pointed out: “It’s not just putting an all-star team out there and the all-star wins.”

As his players pledged allegiance to the cause, Mattingly added, according to mlb.com: “There’s a touch of a difference between saying you’re giving your best effort and [being] willing to fight for something. Some guys goes to another level for that price, will do whatever it takes to win a game.”

After Thursday’s game, Mattingly suggested the media had made more out of such assertions than he was meaning to suggest. He complimented the team for the level of play in Thursday’s game.

Former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ted Lilly called for a turnaround right quick: “It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing. There have been different ways of us getting beat.”

Last season, the Dodgers relieved the Boston Red Sox of outfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Beckett in a deal that tipped the payroll scales so dramatically it required commissioner Bud Selig’s approval. Today, the Red Sox are in first place in the AL East, while the Dodgers are anchored in last place in the NL West.

Crawford tripled and scored the first run in Thursday’s game, and made a spectacular diving catch of an Alberto Callaspo liner, kicking up chalk as he crashed headlong into the left-field fence. He’s done his part in the lead-off spot with a .352 on-base percentage and 17 extra-base hits in 49 games.

Gonzalez leads the team with a quiet 38 RBIs, producing only eight go-ahead hits and enduring streaks of 15 and 11 games without a home run.

Beckett, 0-3 with a 5.19 ERA in eight starts, said he’s “concerned” about the loss of feeling in his pitching hand and will consult a specialist on Monday.

Otherwise, the offence isn’t getting much of anything from anybody. Mattingly was reduced on Thursday to using Scott Van Slyke as his cleanup hitter; called up from Triple-A Albuquerque on May 10, he’s earning the major-league-minimum salary. In the lineup against the Angels, only Crawford (five) and Gonzalez (seven) had more home runs than Van Slyke (four).

Kemp, a Triple Crown threat in 2011, is drawing a $20-million salary this season and hitting .251 with two home runs and 17 RBIs. Last week, the St. Louis Cardinals walked Gonzalez intentionally to get to Kemp and rookie Seth Maness struck him out. Later, Mattingly pulled him from the game in the middle of an inning with a double-switch, causing Kemp to yell in frustration upon reaching the dugout. He went 0-for-3 win the game with two strikeouts and the crowd booed him after the second.

Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker quoted Mattingly afterward as saying: “That’s a little unusual for here. I’ve seen great players struggle here – and they still get golf claps.”

Kemp missed 51 games with a hamstring strain last season, and he’s still coming back from shoulder surgery. Asked by a reporter if his placement on the disabled list represented another “one thing after another” in a season gone wrong, Kemp avoided the question during an interview with the media pack that was notable for seeming absence of passion.

“You can’t prevent strains and things like that. Baseball is a grind, and it’s a long season. It is what it is, and we’ve just got to deal with it.”

With Kemp out, Mattingly moved Ethier into centre field temporarily. Ethier is hitting .253 with four home runs and 15 RBIs.

The good news? Ramirez, who’s played only four games due to injuries, was to begin a rehab assignment on Friday, and to return next week.

On Thursday and Friday, Southern California fans were able witness the unholy trinity of teams falling well short of preseason expectations, as measured by preseason expectations.

The Dodgers, Angels (25-29) and Blue Jays (23-31), each widely predicted by pundits to finish at or near the top of their respective divisions, brought a combined record of 70 wins and 89 losses into Friday’s schedule of games.

Their stories are remarkably similar as early season injuries, uneven pitching and weak starts by star hitters have combined to submarine the first two months.

The Angels, with manager Mike Scioscia having received a five-year extension, have turned it around with nine wins in 11 games despite free agent signee Josh Hamilton batting .219 and a hobbled Albert Pujols at .251; together they’ve hit 16 home runs. Mike Trout, the rookie of the year, has had a torrid May after being restored to centre field, and Scioscia is being grilled daily about whether he’ll be moved back to left.

The Blue Jays, playing the Padres starting Friday in a three-game set, are showing signs of becoming a .500 team.

The Dodgers look and sound more desperate.

“I thought we were going to turn it around,” Crawford said on Thursday, speaking about a singular game, with a quote that could have been extended to include the entire month of May.

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