Dodger executive Fred Claire has been criticized and his manager, Tom Lasorda, has been said to be past his prime. But as the Dodgers head into the All-Star break, they are sitting atop the National League West, a position they have held for 56 days.
After a season of abysmal play and another of boredom, Claire and Lasorda's players have brought excitement and respect back to Dodger Stadium for the first time in two seasons. Fans no longer need the wave or beach balls to maintain their interest and a seldom-changed lineup has made the player's names as common as the Union 76 ball.
But Sunday's 5-1 loss to the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium pointed out a glaring inconsistency. If this team is better than last season's, how come its record is worse?
"Going by records doesn't indicate anything," Lasorda said. "I don't care about the record, I care about the club."
After 88 games, the Dodgers have a 46-42 record compared with 47-41 last season. In any other division except the American League West, they would be in third place, but the Dodgers lead the National League West by five games.
"I think we are better because we are not looking around for what we need, we know our potential is in the locker room," pitcher Orel Hershiser said. "We have confidence, we know we have the ability. Last year, we were looking around to see what changes were going to be made."
This Dodger team has had 20 comeback victories, has hit 91 home runs, fifth best in the league, and has reserves who lead the league with a .311 batting average. All but one of its starting pitchers have winning records and they rank third in the league with a 3.90 earned-run average. The Dodgers' defense has been above average, improved with the addition of shortstop Rafael Bournigal and right fielder Raul Mondesi.
But even though the bullpen has improved considerably of late, with Todd Worrell leading the way, it has blown 17 of 32 save opportunities, and has the fewest saves in the league, 15. The Dodgers have played a league-leading 41 one-run games, in which they have a 23-18 record.
"You know why we don't have a better record, because of the fact of the games that we lost when we were ahead, but by the same token, there are games we have won when we have been behind," Lasorda said.
"But I say overall, we have a better team than last year."
The Dodger youth, as well as the veterans, have responded to a period of rebuilding that Claire says he is committed to, without compromising winning.
It is a situation Lasorda excels at. There are skeptics of Lasorda, but it would be difficult to find a manager who works more with players. He toils endlessly, throwing curveballs and instructing any player who shows up for early batting practice. This season, most of them have.
Lasorda and Claire point to the addition of Mondesi, who has a batting average of .320, 15 home runs and 13 outfield assists. They talk about Tim Wallach's 18 home runs and 56 RBIs--last season he drove in 62.
They have a superstar in Mike Piazza, whose .325 average, 21 home runs and 76 RBIs could make a season. And Worrell has five saves and a 2.23 ERA since coming off the disabled list May 23. Hitting instructor Reggie Smith has made a huge impact as has the quiet leadership of Bill Russell.
But the general attitude is that while the Dodgers are happy to be in first place, they are not satisfied. The players believe they have yet to reach their potential.
Claire, who sent Jose Offerman to triple-A in mid-season and brought up Bournigal, says he will still look to the farm system first for any changes, but it is clear the club is still not satisfied with the bullpen.
"We have to play better, we have won a few games over .500, but it's not what our lead is, it's how we relate to .500," Claire said. "We were .500 last year, but we should be better for the reasons I cited."
It was one of the team's young pitchers, Ismael Valdes, who contributed to Sunday's loss with his first bad outing. He gave up three runs, including two homers in the eighth inning. Pedro Astacio (6-6) had given up two runs in the second inning, and held the Mets to a total of two hits until he left the game after seven innings.
The Dodgers couldn't do much of anything against Bret Saberhagan (10-5), who in eight innings gave up six hits and an unearned run after Brett Butler tripled and scored on a wild throw in the third inning.