Monday, October 11, 2004

Requiem For a Season.

After a pretty miraculous run, the 2004 season has finally ended for my beloved Dodgers. It's not too surprising, really, since they had the poor luck to get paired with the St. Louis Cardinals -- easily the best team in baseball this year -- in the first round of the playoffs. But the important thing is that they provided a lot of exciting performances along the way and re-energized their fan base here in L.A. Finally, after years of being laughingstocks among the baseball faithful, Dodger fans are staying to the end of the game, showing up wearing blue and making some serious noise. Heck, even the celebrities have started coming out to games again. Even the wildly unpopular Lo Duca/Mota trade wasn't enough to stop the Dodgers from replacing the Lakers as the No. 1 pro sports team in town.

And although it's disappointing to see them get eliminated so early from the postseason (and in such commanding fashion) there are still reasons to be proud of what they accomplished this season. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, won their division for the first time in nine years and won their first postseason game in 16 years -- all of which provide a solid foundation for an even more successful 2005.

First, here are my personal favorite moments from the season:

• Steve Finley's magnificent -- even historic -- walk-off grand slam to clinch the division championship. It was a blast for the ages, to be remembered alongside Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit homer in the 1988 World Series, and the fact that it came at the expense of the Giants made all the sweeter.

• Jose Lima's inspired pitching performance against the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. After getting blown out in both of the first two games, it was just the kind of pick-me-up both the team and the fans needed to redeem the season before their inevitable elimination. It also was enough to cement Lima as the fans' new working-class star (replacing the sadly departed Paul Lo Duca). The man's comeback has been unbelievable.

• Jayson Werth's bone-rattling catch against the left field wall in Colorado. His emergence as an everyday player has been a wonderful surprise and the fact that he was able to stay in the lineup and continue to produce while nursing two broken ribs from that catch just confirms his drive and work ethic.

• The ascendancy of Adrian Beltre. After such a banner year, it's hard to single out any one performance of his. But after six years of unfulfilled potential and promises that his piss-poor hitting was merely a prelude to greatness, it was something of a shock to finally see him deliver -- and while playing the whole year with bone spurs in his ankle, no less! He definitely deserves the MVP.

• The thunderous ovation the fans gave Eric Gagne after his consecutive-saves streak came to an end against the Diamondbacks. Never was a blown save so warmly -- and deservingly -- recognized.

• Robin Ventura's scoreless inning of relief pitching against the Angels (which provided welcome fun in a blowout loss) and his grand slams against the Mets and Diamondbacks (which moved him into a tie with Willie McCovey for third on the all-time list). Just today he announced his retirement after 16 solid years in the majors. Goodbye, Robin -- you're one of the classiest guys around and we'll miss you.

• Alex Cora's colossal 18-pitch at-bat against Matt Clement of the Cubs. After working the count to 1-2, the light-hitting Cora fouled off 14 straight pitches before sending the last one into the right field bullpen for a home run.

• Speaking of Cora, his spectacular defensive play along with Cesar Izturis has been a joy to watch all year. They both deserve Gold Gloves, and I'm looking forward to more acrobatics next year.

• And, lastly, the team's reaction after being eliminated by Cardinals last night. Not only did they come out as shake hands with and congratulate the entire St. Louis team (something that unheard-of outside of Little League), but they also gave the fans a group ovation from the dugout steps and then lobbed hats, gloves, sweatbands and whatever else was handy into the crowd for souvenirs. Gagne even tossed his signature goggles. It was the classiest possible way to say goodbye for the winter.

But even with all those great memories, it is now time to look ahead. If I was running the Dodgers, here's what I'd do over the winter to prepare them for an even bigger 2005:

• Open the wallet wide to re-sign Beltre (who will be a free agent) and offer Gagne a juicy multiyear deal (to avoid repeating this spring's nasty arbitration experience). Also re-sign two other valuable free agents, Finley and Lima.

• Rebuild the starting rotation. It was a little shaky, at best, to begin the year and downright pathetic by the end, ultimately handing the NLDS to the Cards. GM Paul DePosdesta tried to revamp midseason by trading for Brad Penny, but Penny's injury derailed that plan. (In fact, after seeing the starters' performance in the NLDS, it's obvious that Penny's second start, when he ran off the mound in pain, was the real turning point of the season for the team.) The new rotation should consist of Penny, Lima, Jeff Weaver and two newly acquired arms. Edwin Jackson should return to Las Vegas so he can get some regular work without pressure (unless, of course, a fifth starter can't be found, in which case the job should be his -- just so long as he can get regular work). The costly deadweight -- Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Darren Dreifort, and Paul Shuey -- should be jettisoned immediately. Provided, of course, anyone can be found to take them off the Dodgers' hands.

• Find a real catcher. The platoon of David Ross and Brent Mayne haven't added up to half the player Lo Duca was. Ross' subpar offensive season was especially disappointing, but he has enough potential that the Dodgers should hang on to him in a back up role until he matures. For the starting role, there are some solid catchers on the free agent market this winter, most notably Jason Varitek. (Or, dare we hope, even Lo Duca himself?)

• Get a more reliable situational left-handed reliever. Tom Martin was shaky in that role before he was traded, and Mike Venafro and Scott Stewart didn't do much to improve the situation later on.

Sorry to ramble on so long, but it's going to be a long, hard winter for me with no baseball. But at least there's a bright spring waiting ahead in Vero Beach...

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