It’s a wondrous warm summer late afternoon at Dodger Stadium, shadows creeping in across left field, a breeze picking up from the Elysian Hills, a blue-clad baseball team warming up on the bright green field.
Yet all around them, ghosts.
Four people are seated in the 56,000-person stands, endless empty rows of yellow and blue, a masterpiece become a mausoleum.
Seven people are in the press box, the wide and bustling room reduced to the sound of a few souls breathing heavily through masks and clacking sticky keyboards.
As the Dodgers worked out Thursday in preparation for the July 23 opening day of a pandemic-shortened, fan-free 60-game season, nearly everything felt strange, from the audible swish of the players’ slides to the audible cries of them calling for fly balls.
It was a far different scene from the last time they played an official game here, precisely nine months earlier, a 7-3, 10th-inning loss to the Washington Nationals in the deciding Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
Well, actually, one thing was exactly the same.
The Dodgers still don’t have a closer.
OK, it’s weird to abruptly switch the tone of this column from the coronavirus to baseball, but the two national stories will weirdly be roommates throughout the rest of this weird season, so get used to it.
If the Dodgers are going to be serious about winning this oddball championship, then the rest of us might as well be serious about evaluating their chances. And right now, they’re missing the one thing that has haunted them through years of October disappointment.
Who is going to finish their biggest games? Who is going to save their season when that season is on the line? Who is going to make sure the ending is different from the last time they ended a game?
Surely you remember the Nationals and those last three innings. Leading by two runs, the Dodgers tried to save the game with relief appearances by two starting pitchers and a setup man.
Kenley Jansen was supposed to be the closer, but he wasn’t summoned until the game was already closed. Pedro Báez was supposed to be one of his wingmen, but he never left the bullpen. That pretty much described the organization’s confidence in two of its strongest arms.
Nine months later, both players are still out of the picture. Neither has yet to show up at summer camp for officially undisclosed — likely medical — reasons. If the season began today, the closer likely would be offseason acquisition Blake Treinen, a right-hander who was one of baseball’s best closers in 2018 but lost the job in Oakland last year with a 4.91 ERA. He did well in the shadows, struggled a season later in the hot lights, so who knows?
After that, well, there is really no established “after that,” unless the Dodgers want to put Joe Kelly in that tenuous position again, Howie Kendrick nightmares be darned. Or they could hold their breath and give the ball to hard-throwing new kid Brusdar Graterol or reclamation project AJ Ramos.
Anyway, in a year of the new normal, the Dodgers’ closer situation is the same old, same old.
Asked if he had confidence in his bullpen, manager Dave Roberts even gave the same old answer.
“Very much so,” said Roberts. “As far as quality of arms, [I’m] really excited about these guys.”
His excitement still focuses on Jansen, even though last season was the worst of his career, eight blown saves in 41 chances with a 4.44 ERA in the second half. Jansen was so concerned about his decline that he ramped up his spring training work and was pitching in February for one of the few times in his career. So even if he comes in by this weekend, how can he be ready in time?
“It’s different in the sense of position player versus pitcher,” Roberts said, adding, “I talked to Kenley [today], he is in really good spirits, feeling good, expect to see him soon, he’s been moving around, so I think he’ll be ready.”
But, seriously, how ready?
“Obviously every day off the calendar we don’t see them certainly makes it a little bit more difficult, but I’m still confident we have enough time,” Roberts said.
And if and when Jansen comes back, Roberts confirmed he will be the closer, even though he wasn’t summoned for that duty in their biggest game last season.
“Kenley is our guy, I expect him to be back,” Roberts said. “If it doesn’t happen for some unforeseen reason, then we can certainly adjust.”
It appears they are leaning toward adjusting with the veteran Treinen, although he has scuffled a bit during workouts, giving up a long home run to Edwin Rios during an intrasquad game.
“I think he’s been working on some things in the ’pen with the coaches, but he’s close,” said Roberts of the new guy. “[He’s] somebody who’s been around long enough. There’s certainly plenty of time for him to get locked in.”
You want to really lock it in? Make Julio Urias your closer. Yeah, do that. Do it now. The 23-year-old left-hander is plenty valuable as a fourth starter, especially with David Price opting out, but right now he’s needed in the bullpen. He not only has better career numbers as a reliever, but last season out of the bullpen he had a 2.01 ERA with 48 strikeouts and 19 walks in 49 1/3 innings.
“I think there’s a chance for anything, but right now we see Julio as being a starter for us,” said Roberts, to which one replies, C’mon!
Urias, with his hair dyed blond, said he is willing to make other drastic changes.
“When I was in spring training they originally told me I would have a spot in the rotation, but I know things change, whatever is best for the team, I’ll respect it, I know it’s a short season so I’ll do whatever they need,” he said through an interpreter.
He could be exactly what they need.
In the meantime, during his video conference with reporters, Roberts was asked by ESPN’s Marly Rivera to close his eyes and imagine one moment he was most anticipating. Roberts actually closed his eyes and played along.
“I’m looking forward to winning that 11th game in the postseason and popping champagne,” he said.
Unless the Dodgers figure out their closer, he can keep dreaming.