10/20/09 5:33 PM EST
Task ahead hard for young LA core
Dodgers counting on up-and-coming stars to erase deficit
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
If ever a shared history mattered, if ever a bright future needed to manifest itself, now is the time. Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney head up a group of young veterans who must lead Los Angeles to three straight wins or face another October disappointment. More than ever before, it's clear they are the right men for the job.
A year ago, with his team wracked by injuries to veterans, manager Joe Torre took his youngsters aside and told them it was their time. They responded and helped to carry the Dodgers to the postseason and an NLCS loss to Philadelphia. A year later, they've developed on and off the field, making the transition from young players to young veterans.
"Last year when Jeff Kent went down with an injury and [Nomar] Garciaparra went down with an injury, we had a conversation with I think everybody but [Chad] Billingsley because he was pitching that day in Arizona," Torre said. "And [I] basically told them to take over -- this is your team, and just go out there and show it, because I think they were a little hesitant before that to sort of be as proactive as they needed to be.
"And they did it. We went on to win a lot of ballgames, get into the postseason. I think that helped. ... I think it certainly gave them the initiative and the feeling that they could do that. We sort of allowed them to do it, and I didn't realize that that was necessary, but they certainly grabbed a hold of it."
It says something about the core -- a group which also includes catcher Russell Martin, starter Billingsley and closer Jonathan Broxton -- that they had to be told to take over. They're confident, but not cocky. They respect their elders, and they're skillfully walking the fine line that less-experienced star players must walk.
In baseball's clubhouse culture, experience is just about everything. If you have service time, you get the choice of lockers, the choice of uniform numbers. If you don't, you are expected to defer in many circumstances. Players like Ethier and Kemp understand that and manage it.
"It takes experience to know, and respecting this game to be able to have this team turned over to you," Ethier said. "So I think us young guys are still earning that. Joe can say it, and that adds some validation to it. But all the players coming in, even outside guys who are veteran players, we still have to show it. It's a two-way road."
As far as performance, though, there's little doubt that the Dodgers will sink or swim with their homegrown talent -- all but Ethier were drafted by the Dodgers, and Ethier was acquired from Oakland before he'd played a Major League game. Kemp and Ethier in particular are critical parts of the Los Angeles offense, and their prominence was magnified when Manny Ramirez was suspended early in the season.
Now they have to lead the way again.
"The thing about our team is, it's not on one person," said Kemp. "It's a team. Guys here, we've always been backing up each other and we've always been there for one another. This team is very special. We've got to keep on backing up each other. If somebody makes a mistake, then the next person needs to pick that person up and keep it going."
Kemp is the player most commonly referred to as a leader from among the young core. He's the most emotional, the most vocal. He might also be the best player, which is a convenient combination.
"You ought to hear them on the bench," said second baseman Orlando Hudson. "They're into it, man. Especially Kemp, he's more emotional, a big raging bull. Andre's kind of laid-back a little bit, goes about his business. But they both take matters into their own hands. If they see we're down a little bit, I'm not saying they're going to try to hit an eight-run home run with nobody on base, but they're going to have that quality at-bat to get on base to get something going."
On top of it all -- skill and demeanor and all the rest -- is a special bond. Billingsley, Broxton, Loney and Martin all played together in Double-A in 2005. Those four, plus Ethier and Kemp, played for Triple-A Las Vegas in 2006. All but Broxton debuted in Los Angeles in 2006. That kind of connection is always valuable, but doubly so when backs are against the wall -- as is assuredly the case for the Dodgers now.
"You've been through the battles together, so you know that there's trust and unity from the fact that you've been through the same stuff," Ethier said. "You want to do it for each other. You have each other's backs. There's a camaraderie that isn't manufactured. It's by trust and going through the hard times."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.