Despite problems, Dodgers still in race

Despite problems, Dodgers still in race

LOS ANGELES -- Joe Torre is amused by MLB's obsession with speeding up the game. He's always telling his players to slow it down.

Specifically, when it comes to young hitters, Torre preaches situational hitting. He wants hitters to have a plan, be selective, think it through. Work the count until the right pitch comes in the right situation. Running up pitch counts has the added strategic benefit of getting into the opponents' bullpens.

Halfway through his first season at the helm of the young Dodgers, Torre believes he's starting to see the message sinking in after a first half of inconsistency.

"In the second half, I hope we see more situational hitting, a better quality of at-bats," he said. "I'm just assuming we pitch well enough to stay in the race. When you change the staff, it takes a little time to figure out what frequency you're using."

Torre's staff suffered an immediate blow when Don Mattingly, originally named as Torre's hitting coach, stepped back into a reduced role to attend to family matters. Triple-A hitting coach Mike Easler was promoted to replace Mattingly, becoming the ninth Dodgers batting coach in the last 10 years, but Mattingly will reclaim the role full-time when play resumes after the All-Star break.

Maybe it's the hitters and not the hitting coach. Of course, this year the Dodgers' offense has been decimated by injuries to veterans. Leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal was headed to the All-Star Game when he was crippled by a back injury that needed surgery and he's likely lost for the year. Andruw Jones was a bust for two months before admitting he needed knee surgery. Nomar Garciaparra missed two months with a calf injury.

That left 40-year-old Jeff Kent as the lone veteran hitter and he slumped. Not that Torre would use injuries as an excuse for an offense that lost 26 games while scoring one or no runs.

4/1, LA 3, SF 2 -- Furcal's rapid run
Rafael Furcal comes around from second on Delwyn Young's walk-off infield hit.
Highlights: Watch
5/3, LA 12, COL 7 -- Loney swings big stick
James Loney drives in six as the Dodgers cap their eight-game winning streak.
Highlights: Watch
5/6, LA 5, NYM 4 -- DeWitt's inside-the-parker
Blake DeWitt legs out a go-ahead inside-the-park home run.
Highlights: Watch
6/28, LA 1, LAA 0 -- No hits, but a win
The Dodgers squeak by the Angels without the benefit of a hit.
Highlights: Watch
7/1, LA 7, HOU 6 -- Headline
Jeff Kent crushes the game-winning homer in the 11th inning.
Highlights: Watch

"That's for other people to decide," he said. "I can't say if we were healthy that we would have won this many games. You don't know the way a team behaves. There's not any guarantee. Of course you'd like to take your chances of having a Furcal all the time, but you just don't know. You're lucky for that not to be the problem."

Shortstop remains the focal point for an upgrade leading to the trading deadline. Garciaparra, now that he's finally back on the field, will be given a chance to show he still has the skills and the durability to handle his original position. He has doubters on both counts, but he also has an NL Comeback Player of the Year award as proof that he can rise to the occasion.

If not, the club likely will shop for an upgrade, but the organization seems split about whether that kind of move is worth dealing away one of the young players the club has previously made off-limits.

"I don't think it will be any blockbuster," said Torre. "All we'd be trying to do is make ourselves better. It's all about measuring what you get and what it costs you. You want to make a short-term move to make yourself better but make sure you don't hurt yourself in the long term. I don't think any front-line guys will be available to you at this juncture."

On the other hand, Torre said, the Dodgers should consider themselves lucky that nobody -- particularly Arizona -- ran away with the division in the first half.

"The way they started, they manhandled us in the first series," Torre said. "They were a very solid team. They pitched, they hit, they had speed and power, everything seemed to be firing. Considering how they started and how we struggled and look where we are. I'm happy to see we were able to stay in the race. We have to make sure our win streaks are longer than our losing streaks. You can't help but watch the scoreboard, but I don't really pay attention to them. We don't need any help. If we don't do it, it's our own fault."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.