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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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One More Look at the 2004 Dodgers
2005-03-16
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

If you've been in Vero Beach this month, perhaps you noticed the review of the 2004 Dodger season that I wrote for the Dodger Spring Training program. (Perhaps a few of you even found this site via the program - if so, thanks for coming, and don't be shy about saying hi.)

Since most of you aren't anywhere near Florida, I thought I'd go ahead and reprint the article here. Join me as we take a trip in the Not-So-Wayback Machine. ...

Sometimes, if you foul enough pitches off, magic happens. Ask the 2004 Los Angeles Dodgers if you don't believe it.
In a single at-bat against the Chicago Cubs on May 12 last season, Dodger second baseman Alex Cora fouled off 14 pitches in a row, withstanding 15 strikes in all. Poetically, that was one strike for each for the 15 seasons since the Dodgers' last victory in a postseason game.

But after parrying pitch after pitch, Cora launched a high, arcing drive through the air and over the outfield fence for a home run that drove the home crowd to delirium.

And so it went for the Dodgers. With their 1988 World Series title as distant a memory as the first pitch to Cora, the 2004 Dodgers hung around the plate long enough to finally hit one out, winning the National League West and, although they were eliminated in the NL Division Series by the St. Louis Cardinals, capturing that elusive playoff game victory.

Though the Dodgers hope to build upon last year's success and go even further in 2005, the celebrations of the past season are worth savoring at least one more time.

For all the nail-biting moments the Dodgers provided their fans in 2004, they cruised through the opening weeks of the season with one of their best starts ever in Los Angeles. They won 22 of their first 32 games, including five of six over their nemeses, the San Francisco Giants. Cora's dramatic home run capped that leadoff sprint, not only pushing the division lead to three games over the San Diego Padres and eight over the Giants, but also hinting that 2004 was to be a season of magic.

The next day, the Dodgers promptly began an eight-game losing streak.

The strong start was another foul ball. By May 27, the Dodgers had fallen out of first place. In the month of June, the Padres, Giants and Dodgers all spent time atop the NL West. On June 25, following a 13-0 pasting by the Anaheim (yes, Anaheim) Angels, the Dodgers tumbled to third.

Even among the late-spring struggles, however, there were many encouraging signs. Above all others was the flowering of Adrian Beltre. The third baseman hit exactly 100 home runs before his 25th birthday, but it was not until 2004 that the enormous expectations for Beltre were fulfilled - and then surpassed.

Overcoming two maladies in his lower extremities – painful bone spurs in his left ankle and his former Achilles' heel of pulling every pitch he'd see - Beltre knocked 19 home runs in the season's first three months and soon established himself as the team's most valuable player. Hitting the ball with authority to all fields, Beltre went on to finish the season with an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.017, fifth in the major leagues, and 48 home runs, the best the majors and a tie for the all-time record for homers by a third baseman.

Beltre also played remarkable defense, a characteristic of the entire team that kept the Dodgers in position to make a second surge. The double play combination of Cora and Cesar Izturis proved to be the most dynamic in baseball, earning praise from coast to coast. Shawn Green adapted to his move from right field to first base better than anyone anticipated. Outfielders Milton Bradley, Dave Roberts and Juan Encarnacion gave the Dodgers one of baseball's best defensive outfields as well, with Jayson Werth more than holding his own once he gained more playing time.

The emergence of Werth, like Bradley a late-Spring Training acquisition of new general manager Paul DePodesta, signified another strength of the 2004 Dodgers – their bench. Jose Hernandez, playing five positions, had an OPS of .910, with 12 doubles and 13 home runs in 211 at-bats. Robin Ventura and Olmedo Saenz, backing up at first and third base, combined for another 13 home runs and became the first teammates in major league history to hit pinch-hit grand slams on consecutive days, Sept. 7-8. And though he failed to sustain his performance the entire season, Jason Grabowski helped key the Dodgers initial run to first place with an .891 OPS and four home runs in May.

On the mound, Eric Gagne remained merveilleux, extending his record for consecutive saves to 84 and drawing gasps from fans and announcers alike – such as this game-ending call from Vin Scully against the Yankees on June 18:

"Oh, yes!" gushed Scully. "Oh my gosh, what a pitch! That’s amazing! That’s not fair. After a 97-mile-per-hour fastball, you can’t tell, but that pitch was in the 60s … a rainbow curve."

Gagne was backed by an able setup crew, complimenting a starting rotation that was solid at times despite, in part because of the ailing Hideo Nomo, being off the pace of the extraordinarily effective 2003 group.

It was the vulnerability in the starting pitching that prompted the most shocking development of the 2004 season. On July 30, despite a surge that had pushed the Dodgers to a 2 ½-game lead in the NL West, DePodesta determined that that Dodgers would need another starting hurler for the long haul and traded popular catcher Paul Lo Duca and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Florida Marlins for pitcher Brad Penny and first baseman Hee Seop Choi.

The move was the most controversial made by the Dodger front office since 1998, when another catcher, Mike Piazza, was traded. Detractors assailed the Dodgers for tearing up the team's chemistry and weakening it behind the plate and in the bullpen, while defenders pointed to the team's net gain in value.

The truth turned out to be a little bit of both. The Dodger chemistry did not flag, but the team suffered behind the plate. The bullpen went through a rough ride, though that was mitigated by the sharp debut of minor league callup Yhency Brazoban (2.48 ERA).

DePodesta was correct, however, that the Dodger rotation was headed for trouble, and that the team needed someone with the talent of Penny. Unfortunately, after pitching eight innings of shutout ball in his Dodger debut, Penny himself was injured, setting the stage for a struggle to the end – and a finish for the ages.

The Dodgers began September with a 5 ½-game lead over San Francisco, but with the Penny-less starting pitching posting a 5.89 ERA for the month, the Giants closed within a half-game of the lead on Sept. 22.

And then, in the final week … the Dodgers scored two in the eighth and one in the ninth to beat Colorado Sept. 27 … and then rallied from a 4-0 deficit with five in the bottom of the ninth Sept. 28 … and then scored once in the seventh, once in the 10th and twice in the 11th to win Sept. 30…

And then …

For eight innings on October 1, with two games left in the season and a two-game lead in the standings, the Dodgers played their worst offensive game of the season. They could barely muster a line drive, much less a run. They entered the bottom of the ninth inning trailing the rival Giants, 4-0.

Thirty-one minutes later, the Dodgers' other key July 30 acquisition, Steve Finley swung at an 0-1 pitch with the bases loaded and sent it high, and deep, and gone. The grand slam completed a seven-run inning, which the Dodgers parlayed into the pandemonium of their first NL West title since 1995.

The season did not end with a World Series championship, but it did end with one more joyous moment – the moment everyone had been waiting for since 1988. Pitching against St. Louis, the NL's most dangerous offense, Jose Lima, who had been a force of fun and vitality since making the team at the end of Spring Training, threw the game of his life – a five-hit shutout before 55,992 fans.

After 15 fair-to-foul seasons, it was a playoff victory. Finally.

Now, in 2005, the Dodgers begin again – with many new players in uniform, and still higher goals. But the 2004 season, in which they finally put one in play, won't soon be forgotten.

Next batter.

Comments
2005-03-16 12:14:38
1.   Vishal
that recap pretty much hit all the bases, jon. and it was a gripping read, to boot :)

the pace gets a little breathless towards the end.

2005-03-16 12:39:40
2.   everett
facinating... i had to delay eating lunch to finish reading every last word :)

--ev

2005-03-16 14:56:25
3.   Ben P
I really enjoyed the piece, Jon, so I don't mean for this to sound like a criticism, but I don't really understand the fixation so many fans have with the idea that we broke our postseason winless streak by pulling out one win against St. Louis.

I mean, I never really enjoyed reading that we hadn't won a postseason game since 1988, so I guess it's nice I won't have to suffer through that factoid anymore. But beyond that, who really cares that we won a playoff game last year? We still got killed in that St. Louis series, and 3-1 didn't really feel a whole lot better for me than 3-0 would have. I think taking pride in winning one lousy game makes us sound kind of sad, like we're the Clippers or something. The real "streak" will be over when we win at least a round, not just one game.

2005-03-16 15:02:03
4.   Jon Weisman
It's just a different streak, Ben. You can feel worse about one versus the other. Certainly, I think everyone wants the team to actually win an entire series as opposed to just a game.

But personally, I certainly think there's something worse about losing in a shutout - in a game or a series - than losing without being shut out. Better to feel like you competed at least a little than not at all.

2005-03-16 18:23:01
5.   popup
Thanks Jon. The Dodgers should hire you to write feature articles for their scorebooks throughout the year.
2005-03-18 13:53:59
6.   everett
jon,

how did they tap you to do that article anyway? did they give you any compensation other than being able to advertise your website?

--ev

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