LOS ANGELES -- Eddie Murray, in one of the rare conversations he deigned to have with me during his season and a half as the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach a few years ago, once told me that his job was akin to that of a Maytag repairman. I don't remember exactly how the analogy went, but it was basically that a hitting coach isn't there to be proactive or to interfere when a player is performing well, but instead to repair whatever problems come up over the course of a season.
At the moment, with the Dodgers having passed the season's quarter pole on Sunday with a fairly lifeless, 4-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks before 40,654 at Dodger Stadium, the guy who has Murray's old job is knee-deep in overhauls.
"Obviously, we're struggling some," Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "I have been doing this a long time. Certainly, you're never going to get everybody hitting at the same time, but you want to avoid a scenario where all of them are kind of struggling."
Pentland's to-do list presently includes a middle of the order in which the once-sizzling likes of Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp have suddenly cooled, Juan Uribe has struggled since getting hit on the hand by a pitch 11 days ago, and James Loney gradually getting untracked but still can't hit for power. He also needs to look at a bottom third that has been a revolving door, with highly touted rookie Jerry Sands apparently in need of more seasoning and veteran catcher Rod Barajas becoming a feast-or-famine guy. There's also a top that is still missing its soul, shortstop Rafael Furcal, whom the Dodgers are hoping to get back in about a week.
Fixing all of that is a daunting task, and with 41 games already gone, time isn't going to stop to give Pentland a chance to get it done. In baseball, there is always another game the next day, and a Maytag repairman's work is always done on the fly.
That isn't much of a problem for Pentland, who has never been the sort to panic. But for his pupils, there does seem to be a hint of panic at times, especially in key situations. It is a big reason why the Dodgers are hitting a benign .225 for the season with men in scoring position and a putrid .100 (3 for 30) with the bases loaded.
"These guys have a great deal of respect for one another," said Pentland, offering a tactful lead-in to a forthright assessment. "Sometimes, I think situations come more from a team concept than anything else. Hitting is basically an individual skill until you get men on base, and then it becomes a matter of not wanting to let your teammates down and wanting to get the job done."
Take Loney's first-inning at-bat. Please.
The Dodgers had Ian Kennedy, the ace of the Diamondbacks staff, on the ropes. The bases were loaded, thanks to back-to-back hits by Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles to start the game, a double steal as Ethier was striking out and a crafty walk by Matt Kemp after he quickly fell behind 0-2. So Loney, at a point when Kennedy had missed with his final three pitches to Kemp, went after the first pitch, popping it up to shallow center, far too shallow for Carroll to even think about trying to tag up and score.
Long story short, the Dodgers didn't score, the Diamondbacks did -- four times -- in their half of the second, and given the present state of the Dodgers' offense, it was basically game over.
"I don't mind him swinging at the first pitch," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, the guy who was the primary hitting coach for this team for the past 2 1/2 seasons. "I just get frustrated if a guy gets fooled on the first pitch. He popped up a changeup. We're in the driver's seat there, and they are in trouble. That guy has to throw a strike. If you're sitting on a changeup and you just miss it, that's one thing. But if you're looking heater and you pop up a changeup, you hate to see that in that count.
"[At times], you are going to look foolish as a hitter, but we always want our guys to feel like the pitcher is in trouble in that situation. 'He has to throw me a strike,' is the way you have to approach an at-bat like that."
Pentland basically agreed with Mattingly's critique of Loney's approach, adding that Loney wasn't being overly aggressive but in fact might not have been aggressive enough.
"These guys have been told all their lives that if you get an offspeed pitch up, you're supposed to be on the attack," Pentland said. "It looked like he was just trying to put the ball in play and score the run. That is part of what we're talking about. I think his approach was just trying to get the run in instead of squaring the ball up. If you're more aggressive, you might still miss it, but it's a 300-foot miss [and, presumably, a sacrifice fly] instead of what he did there."
My intent here isn't to pick on Loney. Although that at-bat was a critical juncture in the game, it wasn't why the Dodgers (19-22) lost. But it did provide a perfect example of why this team struggles so much to score runs and why there is an overwhelming feeling whenever they fall behind by even a run that they face a monumental task to come back.
This game was a case in point: After the Diamondbacks lit up an otherwise-effective Ted Lilly (3-4) for four runs in the second, the Dodgers scratched out a run in the third against Kennedy, but the Diamondbacks right-hander then set down the final 12 batters he faced before taking a seat. He struck out eight in six innings and combined with three relievers to strike out 13 for the game.
A result like that doesn't exactly suggest a sound collective approach to hitting.
"We have lost that from time to time, certainly," Pentland said. "We spend a lot of time getting to know pitchers and watching video, but I think we can try to push the envelope a little too much at times. Hitting is such a focused skill that even if you don't have other things on your mind except for baseball, it's difficult enough.
"But then, when you start putting additional pressure on yourself to deliver, you get some of those at-bats that you're not used to seeing from people."
Except that now, we actually are getting used to seeing those at-bats. And that is the perception Pentland, in his role as the Dodgers' present Maytag repairman, is trying to change.