LOS ANGELES -- Two spring trainings ago, Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda had a premonition that 2013 could be the year of the long-anticipated postseason Freeway Series, pitting his beloved former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, managed down the road by one of his former players, Mike Scioscia.
“It could happen very easily,” Lasorda said.
It turned out to be far from easy.
The 2013 Angels allowed a bushel of pitching talent to walk out the door then went and spent the money saved on slugger Josh Hamilton. They had a shaky rotation and a worse bullpen. With injuries, especially to Albert Pujols, and Hamilton’s underperformance, it turned into a rough season in Orange County. The Angels lost 84 games and finished in third place. There were calls, wisely ignored, to fire Scioscia and general manager Jerry Dipoto.
The Dodgers, too, had their share of struggles despite early World Series predictions. By June, pundits were calling for manager Don Mattingly to go. He didn’t, and the Dodgers went on a historic 42-8 run en route to the National League Championship Series, where they were knocked out in six games by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ah, but 2014. Maybe this is the year the I-5 freeway becomes the traffic-clogged conduit for the Fall Classic? The signs are as promising as ever.
The Dodgers have the best record in the National League. The Angels have the second-best record in Major League Baseball and have been hounding the steps of the first-place Oakland Athletics for weeks. When the Dodgers and Angels meet this week for two games at Dodger Stadium and two games at Angel Stadium, it will be a crucial set for both teams. It will also be a display of many of baseball’s most exciting talents -- including Pujols, Mike Trout, the Dodgers’ Cy Young-winning pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and mercurial outfielder Yasiel Puig.
Dipoto has been busy since the winter meetings, fixing the Angels pitching. Hamilton has been productive when healthy. Pujols is steadily providing power. The best player in baseball, Trout, might actually be improving, scary as that must sound to the rest of the teams.
Mattingly loves to watch young hitters over time, and he has seen enough of Trout to know where that career is headed.
“You see a guy who comes up and you hear all the hype. You don’t really listen at that point, but then you kind of see him make quick adjustments,” Mattingly said. “Early on, you could get him with the slider, you could get him to chase, you could do a lot of things, but he closed those holes real quickly. Then next time you see him, you can’t go there any more or he’s laying off. He’s just jumped quickly, right? That’s tells you right away that he’s going to be really good.”
Greinke, whom Dipoto acquired at the steep cost of shortstop Jean Segura and prospects three trade deadlines ago, has kept tabs on the Angels since he left to sign with the Dodgers. He will face them tonight knowing full well how challenging their deep lineup is to pitch against.
“This year, I’m pretty sure Hamilton’s been as good as everyone expected him to be and getting Garrett Richards to take that big step are kind of the two main things it seems like from the outside,” Greinke said. “Kole Calhoun is pretty darn good too, but I don’t know how many people saw that coming. They really haven’t had anything bad happen to them this year, where last year they had several bad things happen.”
Greinke signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers in December 2012. Given the way he talks about those two months with the Angels, you wonder if he might consider signing there should he opt out of his contract after the 2015 season, which he may do depending on market conditions.
A native of Florida, Greinke said he enjoyed living in Orange County briefly.
“It’s got to be the best part of L.A., that area,” he said. “It’s really nice over there, at least for my personality type, I guess. The city over there is as great as it gets, the team was good, the stadium and fans were great too. That part of town is the No. 1 thing they have going for them. It’s easier to get to the beach.”
Scioscia always seems to enjoy making a return to Dodger Stadium, where he was part of two World Series teams before winning one as a manager in Anaheim in 2002. For one thing, it cuts his grueling 73-mile commute nearly in half. He lives in the western reaches of Los Angeles County.
Of course, both teams would probably prefer that their regional rival were a little less competitive. The Angels are pushing hard, one game behind the A’s. The Dodgers are trying to fix some issues at the back of their rotation and just lost two of three to the last-place Chicago Cubs. They are 2½ games up on the San Francisco Giants. A four-game sweep would be a major, though far-from-fatal, blow to either team’s World Series hopes.
With Trout, 22, leading them in all the major offensive categories, the Angels are second in the majors in runs and fourth in slugging. It will be a far tougher task than Dodgers pitchers have been facing, but then again there’s nothing wrong with starting a series with Greinke and Kershaw, as the Dodgers will do Monday and Tuesday night at home. Since his June 18 no-hitter, Kershaw is 7-0 with a 0.68 ERA.
“I always look at it like pitching stops hitting, and no matter how good teams are, it depends who’s pitching,” Mattingly said. “It changes things.”
Mattingly is aware of the challenges the Angels bring, but even when they were struggling, he never took these series lightly for one major reason: Scioscia.
“Mike’s teams are always prepared, and you know they’re going to play smart,” Mattingly said. “They usually play fast. I know he’s gotten away from that a little bit, but they usually play fast and they put pressure on you, so they let you know where you’re at.”
That’s a pretty good way of summarizing these next two miniseries. By the end of them, each team should know where it’s at.