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Dodgers fans have a right to feel a bit uncertain about team

Dodgers fans have a right to feel a bit uncertain about team
Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) celebrates his two-run home run with teammate Andre Ethier during a 5-0 victory over the Nationals on Tuesday. The win broke a four-game losing streak, but did it restore the fans' faithin the club? (Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

The most joyless first-place team in baseball took the field Tuesday down the road from a giant Sandy Koufax bobblehead-night billboard.

Complete with black graffiti sprayed on his face.

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It has been that sort of summer from the Dodgers, nothing sacred, nothing celebrated, not even a National League West lead and the league's fourth-best record in the second week of August.

"We lose three in Pittsburgh and then the sky is falling," Manager Don Mattingly said with a sigh.

It's not the sky that's falling, it's the level of trust from fans who have never been so outraged at a baseball team sitting 13 games over .500, filling newspaper website comments sections and social media sites and talk-radio shows with cries for change. The depth of despair over a 27-year World Series drought runs deeper than even the Dodgers' new top dog could imagine.

"I've never seen this amount of passion … so many people caring about what happens on a nightly basis," said Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, shaking his head while leaning against a dugout railing Tuesday afternoon. "The passion level is amplified by how many people that encompasses. It's what makes this place so special.''

Special, and searing, the Dodgers fans bringing a heat that is licking down the necks of Mattingly and Friedman. Fans are furious with how Mattingly has handled the lineup, particularly the bullpen. Fans are steaming with how Friedman was unwilling to help the pitching staff at the trade deadline, holding his best prospects tight while watching stars such as David Price and Johnny Cueto dealt to other teams that were instantly energized.

And, oh yeah, half these fans still can't watch the games on television, which puts their anger in beast mode and has turned Dodger Stadium into the most woeful winning ballpark in the major leagues, huge crowds that are quick to boo and that cheer with a weary relief that contrasts with the consistent unbridled joy heard at other first-place parks in places like Houston and Kansas City and Queens, N.Y.

Can you blame the discontent? The most expensive payroll in baseball is 41-40 in its last 81 games. The Dodgers are 16-25 against teams that began play Tuesday with a winning record with a run differential of minus-24. And their bullpen began Tuesday with a baseball-worst 6.68 earned-run average since the All-Star break.

"I know that's the way it works, and I'm OK with that," Mattingly said of the criticism. "But as a ball team, we can't react to that … we cannot panic … we have to ride it out.''

Um, no, with all due respect to the very essence of Donnie Baseball, this calmness is exactly what Dodgers fans do not need to hear. This is the same movie that they've watched for two summers and it has always ended in a disastrous fall.

Maybe these first-place Dodgers don't need to panic, but they need to start pressing, and hard. They need to begin playing with a sense of urgency seen nightly in places like Pittsburgh and St. Louis. They cannot ride it out, they have to punch it out, in the same manner they flattened the Washington Nationals in Tuesday's 5-0 victory, with Alberto Callaspo saving runs with a diving catch, Andre Ethier creating runs by legging out a triple, Yasiel Puig knocking in runs with huge swings, and the bullpen throwing three scoreless innings following potential Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.

As the players must play with some desperation, so Mattingly needs to manage with more urgency, eschewing the big picture for the big victory. In other words, the next time Jim Johnson is starting to struggle and J.P. Howell is warm in the bullpen, could you please change pitchers before the other guys score a gazillion runs?

In scouring the waiver wires during his final weeks of potential dealing, Friedman also needs to embrace the idea that competing for a World Series title is not something that can be planned for future years, but something that must happen now.

"In the big-picture perspective, we feel very good about what is going on, what has transpired, and what will transpire,'' Friedman said. "When all is said and done, at the end of 162 games, we feel like we'll be in a really good position."

Friedman deserves the benefit of the doubt so far — he's new, he's creative, and I've already embarrassed myself once in ripping the Matt Kemp trade. The guy clearly knows what he is doing, although it seems he is still learning how to do it in Los Angeles, where Dodgers fans are tired of building, they want the dang project finished, now, and nobody wants to listen to any talk of anything beyond that.

So could he have stocked up an offer to acquire a top-line starting pitcher at the trade deadline? It seems Friedman felt like a rotation featuring Clayton Kershaw and Greinke is good enough that they didn't need to give up top prospects for another ace.

"We went in with the mindset to be aggressive and figure out what we could line up, at the same time, not totally ignore the 2016-2017 rosters either,'' Friedman said. "It was about that balancing act, not getting too emotional about the now because so much uncertainty comes with that. We're really happy with how we ended up.''

The idea that such a philosophy can be executed to the satisfaction of Dodgers fans, with vital roles played by Mat Latos and Alex Wood, is now on the clock.

As for the bullpen, Friedman simply thinks it's a matter of veteran guys living up to their projections, guys like Johnson, Luis Avilan and a soon-returning Chris Hatcher.

"We're betting on them, we believe we're going to look up after some period of time and they will have pitched really really well for us,'' he said. "They have the track record to suggest they will and the stuff to back it up."

At the end of Tuesday night, the Dodgers' record was 63-50, the identical record of last season's team after 113 games. You know how that ended. Cheer, but carefully.

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