Dodger Preview : With Guerrero Sidelined, Lasorda Likely Faces His Biggest Challenge

Times Staff Writer

Steve Garvey, in his autobiography, wrote that the Dodgers don't like it when the team's identity becomes too closely linked to one individual. For that reason, he wrote, the Dodgers didn't try harder to keep him from leaving as a free agent.

That may be true. Or that may be Garvey's ego talking.

But there's no denying that the Dodgers' ability to transcend the loss of one man has never been more evident than in the '80s.

Garvey, Mr. Dodger himself, wheels down to San Diego, and the Dodgers win.

Steve Howe, the National League's premier left-handed reliever, checks into a drug clinic and out of baseball, and the Dodgers win.

Alejandro Pena, the pitcher with the league's best earned-run average in '84, blows out his shoulder and pitches 4 innings in '85, and the Dodgers win.

That kind of resilience, however, will be put to its greatest test this season, when the Dodgers discover life without Pedro Guerrero.

"The lineup's not going to look the same," Guerrero said in tremendous understatement.

The Dodgers already know what it's like when Guerrero is out of position and miserable. In 1984, they finished four games under .500 and in fourth place. And they were still fourth through two months of '85 before Manager Tom Lasorda liberated Guerrero from third base.

Now Guerrero is crippled for at least three months. There is evidence that suggests it could be much longer. Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the surgery to reattach the ruptured tendon in Guerrero's left leg, said he would not be surprised if Guerrero needed six months to return. That would wipe out the '86 season.

A year out of the career of a man just entering his prime is a dear price to pay. For Kansas City pitcher Dennis Leonard, who suffered a similar injury below his left kneecap, it would have been a bargain.

Leonard, a three-time, 20-game winner for the Royals, suffered his injury on May 28, 1983, and underwent surgery the next day.

On Sept. 29, 1983, Leonard underwent a second operation.

On June 19, 1984, he underwent a third operation.

On July 31, 1984, he underwent a fourth operation.

On July 1, 1985, Dennis Leonard pitched off a mound for the first time since the injury. On Sept. 6, he pitched one inning for the Royals, his first big league appearance in more than 2 1/2 seasons.

No wonder a somber Lasorda views Guerrero's loss as an Old Testament-like test of faith.

"We felt we could do it with Pete, now we have to feel for three months like we can do it without him," Lasorda said.

"Because God delays, does not mean He denies. He just put up a stop sign, that's all."

Divine intervention, however, does not win pennants.

Pitching, however, does. Subtract a cleanup hitter who generated 33 home runs, batted .320, led the league in slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and most teams wouldn't have a chance.

Most teams don't have Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, a left-right combination that rekindles memories of Koufax and Drysdale. Most teams don't have a No. 3 starter like Bob Welch--the Dodgers were 19-4 in games Welch pitched.

Heck, most teams don't have a No. 5 starter like Jerry Reuss, who is eight wins away from 200. Reuss, a 14-game winner with the Dodgers last season, would be the ace on some staffs. With the Dodgers, he's being pushed by 22-year-old rookie Dennis Powell, 14 years Reuss' junior, for his job.

Can pitching alone win pennants? Consider the following:

--The San Diego Padres, league champions in '84, last season lowered their team ERA from 3.48 to 3.40, added 16-game winner LaMarr Hoyt and got an 11-game winning streak from Andy Hawkins. The Padres finished tied for third, as they couldn't offset the loss of leadoff man Alan Wiggins.

--The Dodgers, division winners in '83, saw a slight increase in staff ERA in 1984, from 3.10 to 3.17, which was still second in the league. But they gave up fewer runs, fewer home runs and held opponents to a lower batting average. The Dodgers finished under .500 for only the second time in 16 seasons, as they scored the fewest runs of any team in the league.

--In the first two months of '85, Hershiser was 5-0 with two shutouts. Valenzuela had five wins and a 41-inning stretch in which he did not allow an earned run. In the bullpen, Ken Howell had two wins and five saves. But the Dodgers ended May a game below .500, as the team was hitting .228 and fielding even worse, with 72 errors in the first 46 games.

On June 1, Guerrero is switched to the outfield and puts on one of the great one-man slugging shows for one month in big-league history (15 home runs, 26 RBIs, 27 runs scored, .344 average), and the Dodgers were on their way.

Obviously, the supporting cast makes a difference. And the Dodgers begin this season with a unreliable defense, suspect bullpen and Guerrero in a brace.

How do you compensate? Franklin Stubbs alone is not the answer, his three home runs in the Freeway Series notwithstanding.

"We have to spread it around," Bill Madlock said. "The main thing is that one player doesn't try to do too much and ends up doing nothing.

"I went through that in Pittsburgh. After we lost (Dave) Parker and (Mike) Easler, I got out of my way of swinging."

If any Dodger is susceptible to assuming too much of the load, it is Mike Marshall, whose superb September last season (11 home runs, 37 RBIs, .340 average) promised to be a springboard to Marshall's finest season.

But Marshall, who led the Dodgers in RBIs last season with 95, still is prone to fighting himself during slumps. And even when he's hitting, Marshall frequently strikes out--he fanned more than 20 times this spring, and last season, he averaged one strikeout per 4.1 plate appearances, the worst rate among NL regulars.

Madlock's presence for a full season should help, but Madlock isn't a long-ball hitter. Greg Brock is, and the Dodgers are anxious to see which Brock emerges this season: the Brock who carried the Dodgers when Guerrero went out with back spasms last July, hitting .323 with 5 home runs and 24 RBIs, or the Brock who batted .198 in August and .178 against left-handers all season.

Brock, the only Dodger to lose in arbitration this winter, appears more self-assured than ever, but whether that will translate into consistency at bat remains to be seen.

Madlock, for one, believes it will.

"He's going to pick us up, if the way he's swinging now is any indication," Madlock said. "He's more relaxed, more confident at the plate."

The Dodgers' starting lineup for today's opener:

Mariano Duncan, ss

Ken Landreaux, cf

Bill Madlock, 3b

Greg Brock, 1b

Mike Marshall, rf

Franklin Stubbs, lf

Mike Scioscia, c

Steve Sax, 2b

Fernando Valenzuela, p

A look at the team, by position:

Starting pitching--Valenzuela, who skipped winter ball for the first time, had a terrific spring, posting a 0.58 ERA, and Lasorda said he looked like he did in '81. At the end of last season, Lasorda believes Valenzuela's shoulder was bothering him, the main reason he had just one win in the last six weeks. "I think at times he's hurting and won't tell anybody," Lasorda said. "But he feels real good physically now. He's in great shape."

When Hershiser pitches here Tuesday against the Padres, he'll be trying to extend the best home record in L.A. Dodger history: 11-0 with a 1.08 ERA. No NL starter was more unhitable at home than Hershiser, who held opposing batters to a .160 average in Dodger Stadium.

Welch, who pitched just five innings in the first two months of 1985, reported no elbow trouble this spring. Rick Honeycutt was similarly optimistic about his shoulder.

If the Dodgers decide they need to make a deal, Reuss would appear to be the most expendable, with Powell awaiting his chance.

Relief pitching--Tom Niedenfuer shows no psychological scars from Jack Clark's monster mash. But at the moment, Ken Howell is a mess, much like he was at the end of last season, when he gave up 13 earned runs in his last 12 innings of work. The Dodgers hope it's just a matter of straightening out Howell's mechanics.

Ed Vande Berg, the left-hander obtained from Seattle, has been up and down this spring. Carlos Diaz, the other left-hander, will be long man.

Infield--Bill Russell on shortstop Mariano Duncan: "You can just see the confidence. He has that cockiness, that attitude of his you need to play this game. That's why he had such a good spring. You can tell he's coming into his own."

Duncan, much more comfortable switch-hitting than he was as a rookie, could steal a minimum of 50 bases as the Dodger leadoff man. And Lasorda shudders at what his infield would be like without the Wizard of Oz, the Sequel.

Steve Sax hit well enough this spring that Lasorda is toying with the idea of putting him in the No. 2 spot, behind Duncan, although the free-swinging Sax wouldn't give Duncan much of a chance to run. He hit .232 batting leadoff, .316 in the No. 8 spot.

Madlock, who has hit .337 in the last 10 years at Dodger Stadium, should be a lock for another .300 season, assuming the phlebitis in his left leg doesn't flare up too much.

Outfield--Stubbs, almost certain to be exiled to Albuquerque again until Guerrero was injured, was overmatched on his first big league go-around, when he struck out once every 3 1/2 times in '84. This time, however, the pressure of Brock hovering over his shoulder is gone.

Ken Landreaux, as always, remains an enigma. Lasorda would like Landreaux to hit well enough to play every day. If he doesn't, he'll be platooned with rookie Reggie Williams.

Catching--Mike Scioscia, coming off the year of his life, shouldn't have to catch 141 games this season. Alex Trevino, the backup acquired from San Francisco, is solid defensively, runs pretty well, and is hitting .247 lifetime.

Bench--Terry Whitfield's 14 pinch-hits last season were one shy of Manny Mota's club record. Enos Cabell, the right-handed pinch-hitter, also can spell Madlock at third and Brock at first. Russell, in the last year of his contract, can play both the infield and outfield. Dave Anderson is the best defensive infielder on the bench, but his back was giving him trouble again at the end of the spring. Len Matuszek, when he recovers from shoulder surgery, may get a spot as a left-handed pinch-hitter.

Manager--Tom Lasorda is concluding his first decade as Dodger manager. Second in the division in seniority: Pete Rose, beginning his second season. So experience gives Lasorda the edge, right. "I won pennants in my first two seasons," Lasorda responded.

Lasorda has had other difficult assignments as manager of the Dodgers, namely making the transition from the Garvey-Cey-Baker-Lopes teams to the current edition. Managing without Guerrero may be his biggest challenge yet.

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