The Dodgers may be getting glimpse of real Luis Cruz

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Manager Don Mattingly figured 78 games was a big enough sample size to give Luis Cruz the third base job headed into the 2013 season, without looking at the bigger picture.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are struggling through the early stages of the 2013 season, as they currently sit at .500 (7-7) and in fourth place in the competitive National League West division.

All-Star Matt Kemp has been at the forefront of the teams’ early struggles, hitting just .185 with four RBIs, no home runs, and 17 strikeouts in 54 at-bats. It’s hard to imagine that Kemp stays in this slump for an extended period of time based off of his track record in the big leagues.

The real issue for the Dodgers could be with their everyday third baseman, Luis Cruz. Dodger fans fell in love with Cruz during the 2012 season, when he finally got the opportunity to play in Los Angeles, after numerous injuries occurred on the big league club. Cruz took full advantage of that rare opportunity and never looked back. He started 48 games at third base, 23 games at shortstop, two games at second base and played in 78 games overall.

In those 78 games, Cruz got 283 at bats and finished the season hitting .297 with six home runs, 34 RBIs and a .431 slugging percentage.

The bigger picture is that Cruz might not be an everyday player at the big league level, especially if you look back at his track record. The 29-year-old only had 56 major league games under his belt before last season, which should be a red flag right there. Most everyday players in the big leagues don’t usually play 10-plus years of minor league ball before earning that label.

Before last season, Cruz had just 154 major league at bats in his career and never got more than 70 at bats in a season.

Now, 36 at-bats into Cruz’s 2013 campaign, he is hitting just .103. This should be a concern for the Dodgers going forward because they’ve been playing musical chairs on the right side of the infield with Hanley Ramirez on the DL and Juan Uribe, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. getting opportunities off of the bench.

Cruz’s track record doesn’t show the consistency of your ideal everyday player, so if he doesn’t come out of this slump than this might actually be who he really is. He has shown his pop to the left and right center gaps, while flashing the leather at multiple infield positions, so Cruz might not be consistent enough as an everyday player in the major leagues, but he could still be a valuable asset off of the Dodgers bench.

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Andre Ethier Finding His Way against Lefties

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The reoccurring issue with Andre Ethier over the past few seasons has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching. It’s an issue that has put the Dodgers in frustrating situations when opposing teams happily bring in a left-hander out of the bullpen to put away Ethier in key moments late in a game.

Over the past three seasons, Ethier is hitting just .225 against lefties, with a .276 on base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage.

Those aren’t the type of numbers that the Dodgers have in my mind for their starting right fielder, who is due $13 million dollars this season.

The Dodgers are just four games into the 2013 season, but Ethier’s early success against lefties has been a bright spot so far.

It started on Tuesday night, when San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner was shutting down the Dodgers offense at a rapid pace for eight shutout innings.

The Dodgers came out of the 3-0 loss with just two hits off of Bumgarner. However, Ethier had one of those two hits, when he doubled in the bottom of the second off of the 23-year-old. He ended up striking out in his last two at bats against the lefty, but that double down the right field line was a good sign.

On the very next night, Ethier continued to show signs of improvement.

The Giants decided to bring their lefty specialist Javier Lopez into the game to face Adrian Gonzalez in bottom of the sixth, and a strikeout was the end result. Lopez’s night would usually be over after that, but manager Bruce Bochy kept his guy in the game, daring Ethier to get a hit against the lefty specialist.

Once again, Ethier roped a double down the right field line, forcing Bochy to use another arm out of his bullpen.

Last night, Ethier was at it again.

Jonathan Sanchez of the Pirates was on the mound, and it didn’t take Ethier long to keep this early success against lefties going.

In the bottom of the second, Ethier sent a high fastball by Sanchez into the right field pavilion for a solo home run and his first long ball of the 2013 season.

The Dodgers need Ethier in the lineup every day and if he can hit left-handed pitching consistently that’s where he’ll be.

All of the talk of minor league super-prospect Yasiel Puig getting his shot this season with the Dodgers relies on Ethier’s ability to hit left-handers, and right now he’s getting the job done. It’s a pretty small sample size to get excited about, but this early success could be a sign of good things to come.

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NL West Rundown: Who will push the Dodgers this year?

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Opening day is here. Considered by many as just another day on the calendar, it’s far from it around the baseball world.

All 30 MLB teams, 750 players and thousands of fans of their respective teams are never more optimistic than today, with the same goal of playing deep into October and winning the World Series.

The National League West division of course has more than a few storylines entering this season.

It’s a division headlined by the defending world champion San Francisco Giants and one of wealthiest teams in sports history, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Giants and Dodgers should be the two ball clubs battling it out at the top of the division for most of the 2013 season, while the other three teams try to stay competitive and in striking distance during the dog days of summer.

San Francisco Giants
The defending World Series champs are basically going to battle with the same team as last season. After an offseason that included resigning Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and giving 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey a nine-year/$167 million contract extension.

The Giants success over the last few seasons has been because of their starting rotation, and that won’t be any different going into this season either.

Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong will hold down the front end of the rotation once again, with former Cy Young Award winners Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum at the back end.

For whatever reason this team will probably be overlooked entering the 2013 season, but after winning two World Series Championships in the last three years overlooking this team again would be a travesty.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): They won the 2012 World Series and nearly everyone from that team is returning in 2013. Do I really need to say anymore?

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): It’s tough to say if the Giants are improved going into the 2013 season, while the Dodgers offseason moves make them a lot better than last year on paper.

2012 Biggest contributor: Buster Posey, .336 BA, 24 HRs, 103 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Tim Lincecum, 10-15, 5.18 ERA, 186.0 innings pitched.

2012 Biggest surprise: Marco Scutaro, .362 BA, 61 games, 44 RBIs.

Arizona Diamondbacks
The 2013 Diamondbacks look a lot different from last year’s team that finished exactly at .500 (81-81). They decided to trade away 2011 Silver Slugger Award winner Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves for Martin Prado and a couple of prospects. The trade was reportedly made to change the clubhouse mentality of the Diamondbacks, where manager Kirk Gibson wants to win with hard-nosed ball players that he can relate to.

They also traded away last years starting center fielder Chris Young to the Oakland A’s for new starting shortstop Cliff Pennington.

Arizona still made a few moves this offseason that could keep them in the division race this season. They signed veteran third baseman Eric Chavez, veteran right-hander Brandon McCarthy, outfielder Cody Ross and traded for veteran reliever Heath Bell.

Despite an injury that will keep him out for the first couple of weeks to start the season, Arizona fans should be excited about their new center fielder, Adam Eaton. Even after losing a player of Upton’s caliber, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the 2013 version of the Diamondbacks sneaks up on teams and makes some noise in the NL West.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): The new-look Diamondbacks could be a lot better than people think, especially with this new group of hard-nosed ball players.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): The Dodgers can match up with this team from position-to-position on paper, but first need to put it all together on the diamond.

2012 Biggest contributor: Miguel Montero, .286 BA, 15 HRs, 88 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Justin Upton, .280, 17 HRs, 67 RBIs.

2012 Biggest surprise: Wade Miley, 16-11, 3.33 ERA, 194-2/3 innings pitched.

Colorado Rockies
The Rockies were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last season due to numerous injuries and one of the worst pitching rotations in baseball history. They ended last season with a four-man starting rotation and a league-worst 5.22 team ERA.

In 2012, Rockies starters went a combined 29-68 with an atrocious 5.81 ERA. That was only one of the problems, though. It didn’t help that one of the game’s top players, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, was injured for most of the season.

Colorado looks to completely turn the page on last season’s disaster, hiring first-year manager Walt Weiss to run the show.

It definitely doesn’t lack star power, with Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and a veteran Todd Helton featured in the middle of its lineup.

If the Rockies can fix up that pitching staff from last season, meaning fix up by leaps and bounds, then this Rockies team could be a threat in the NL West.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): A healthy Rockies lineup could give any team a headache.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): If the pitching staff is anything close to what it was last season then the 2013 Dodgers lineup will be feasting every time they take on Colorado, especially at Coors Field.

2012 Biggest contributor: Carlos Gonzalez, .303 BA, 22 HRs, 85 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Todd Helton, .238 BA, seven HRs, 37 RBIs.
(It would have been an understatement to put the entire pitching staff right here.)

2012 Biggest surprise: Tyler Colvin, .290 BA, 18 HRs, 72 RBIs.

San Diego Padres
The Padres have new ownership entering this season. However, that’s probably not going to help them on the field right away. They finished in fourth place in the NL West with a 76-86 record last season, despite playing much better after the all-star break.

The one bright spot was Gold Glove winning third baseman Chase Headley, who hit .286 with 31 home runs and led the National League with 115 runs batted in.

Unfortunately, Headley will start the 2013 season on the disabled list after fracturing his thumb in a spring training game. The Padres will also be without starting catcher Yasmani Grandal to start the season because of a suspension for the first 50 games for testing positive for testosterone.

From the looks of it, it’s going to be an uphill climb for the Padres in the NL West in 2013.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): Injuries can happen to any team at any time, so the Dodgers just need to worry about staying healthy.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): Once again, the Dodgers could match up with almost every position with this team on paper, but you don’t win games on paper.

2012 Biggest contributor: Chase Headley, .286 BA, 31 HRs, 115 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Cameron Maybin, .243 BA, eight HRs, 45 RBIs.

2012 Biggest surprise: Huston Street, 2-1, 1.85 ERA, 23 saves, 39.0 innings pitched.

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2013 WBC: Dominican Passion Outweighs United States

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Baseball’s been deemed America’s pastime since…well, forever. Today, Major League Baseball actually takes a back seat to the National Football League for America’s most popular sport.

The World Baseball Classic is the perfect platform to prove baseball’s importance to the United States, except this tournament takes precedence over everything else for most of the other countries in this event.

Last night, team USA played Dominican Republic in a game that advanced the winner into the championship round of the tournament. It was matchup featuring many MLB All-Stars and two powerhouse teams in this tournament. Dominican Republic won the game 3-1 with a highly emotional ninth inning rally. The ninth inning was all you needed to see to know how important this event is to the Dominican Republic.

After every pitch, hit, and run scored Dominican players couldn’t hold back their emotions any longer. They were feeding off the crowd of 34,366 at Marlins Park, which had much more of a home game feel for the Dominicans. The strong passion from the large Dominican crowd was spilling over on to the diamond. Eric Aybar’s pinch-hit go-ahead RBI single in the top of ninth started the whirlwind of emotions in the Dominican dugout.

Players leaped out of the dugout fist-pumping, chest-pounding, and flaunting the Dominicana across the front of their jersey. Some would say that the Dominicans acted out of line, but I’d say they acted perfectly. It was a full display of how much passion and pride the Dominicans have for this game.

At the end of the game, the Dominicans continued to celebrate as if nothing else mattered. I couldn’t help but notice their 55-year-old manager Tony Pena, who was jumping up and down with his players like he was a kid again. No one can tell me that there was something wrong with this celebration.

The Dominican Republic doesn’t have the NFL or NBA, just baseball, baseball, and more baseball. Honestly, if Dominican Republic wins the 2013 World Baseball Classic their country will have a parade. If team USA wins the 2013 World Baseball Classic our country will put it on the back page of the New York Times, most likely behind a front page of “BLANK ATHLETE GETS CAUGHT USING PEDs.” (Unfortunately, BLANK ATHLETE could literally be anyone these days.)

The Dominicans are seriously playing for the name on the front of their jersey. Last night’s celebration proved that this team clearly wants this for their country and no one else. Winning the World Baseball Classic is a priority for the Dominican Republic, while it’s far that in the United States.

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2013 WBC: Second Round Bound

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The second round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic for the winners of Pool C and Pool D begins today in Miami, Florida. It’s double elimination format that advances two of the four teams into the final round in San Francisco, California.

Pool A and Pool B finished their side of the bracket and second round play last night in Tokyo, Japan with Japan and Netherlands patiently waiting in the final round for the final two teams to advance.

The four teams competing for the final two spots in San Francisco will be Italy, United States, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

Dominican Republic is the clear favorite to come out of this round on top, with numerous MLB stars filling out their lineup. This 2013 Dominican Republic team is obviously determined to avenge their 2009 WBC first round exit, after beating Venezuela (9-3), Spain (6-3), and Puerto Rico (4-2) to finish as the number one seed out of Pool C play. They will take on Italy in the first game of the second round this morning, which on paper gives the Dominican Republic every advantage possible. That shouldn’t matter, though. This Italy team has been an underdog since they took the field for the first time last Thursday, against Mexico.

The Italians won that game 6-5 with a surprising ninth inning comeback. The next day Italy put the mercy rule into effect in the eighth inning when they beat Canada 14-4. They lost their final game against the United States 6-2 and finished as the number two seed in Pool D play.

It would be a huge mistake by the Dominican Republic if they overlook this Italy team in any way.

The United States will face off against Puerto Rico later today, which should be an exciting game, with more than a few MLB stars scattered all over the field. The United States and Puerto Rico both respectably finished with 2-1 records in Pool play.

 Gio Gonzalez of the Washington Nationals will be on the hill for Team USA in this one. He finished the 2012 season with 21-8 record, 2.89 ERA, and 207 strikeouts. Puerto Rico will start right-hander Mario Santiago, who has a career record of 36-51 in seven minor league seasons.

In double elimination format winning your first game is so crucial because a loss basically puts your team in an uphill climb from the start. So today could actually be the most important for all four of these teams going forward.

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2013 WBC: Pizza, Spaghetti, and Baseball?

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Pizza, Spaghetti, and Rome are usually the three things you hear about when talking about Italy. However, baseball is quickly making its way into that conversation after the first two days of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Italy has won their first two games of this international tournament, defeating Mexico and Canada both in surprising fashion.

The Italians trailed Mexico 5-4 in the top half of the ninth inning yesterday, when they scored two runs off San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo to take the lead. Mexico left fielder Edgar Gonzalez (older brother of Los Angeles Dodgers Adrian Gonzalez) dropped a crucial fly ball hit by Anthony Rizzo of Chicago Cubs in the ninth inning, which allowed those two runs to cross the plate. Jason Grilli of the Pittsburg Pirates entered the game in the bottom of ninth to close out the 6-5 win for Italy.

That late momentum from Italy yesterday was clearly carried over into today’s matchup with Canada.  Italy took an early 1-0 lead in the first inning and added to it whenever an opportunity presented itself. They scored four more runs in the bottom of the third inning, after first baseman Chris Colabello hit a three-run homer to take a 5-1 lead. Colabello ended the game going 4-5 with four runs batted in. The Italy lead extended to 6-1 after five innings, but Canada scored one run in the sixth inning and two runs in the seventh inning to cut that lead to 6-4.

Unfortunately, 6-4 was as close as this game was going to get. Italy scored three runs in the bottom half of the seventh inning and literally ended the game in the bottom of the eighth inning when they added five more runs to make it a 14-4 lead. The 14-4 lead invoked the “mercy rule”, which ends the game if one team leads by 10 or more runs after seven innings.

One ninth inning comeback over Mexico, 17 hits and 14 runs later against Canada, and Italy is now at the top of Pool D with a 2-0 record.

This 2013 Italy team has completely improved upon their last two WBC appearances in 2006 and 2009. The 2006 team won just one game over Australia, scoring a total of 13 runs in three games. The 2009 team again won just a single game over Canada, scoring a total of seven runs in three games.

So, Italy has definitely outdone themselves through these first two games of the 2013 WBC, but from the looks of it this team will be a tough out for anyone going forward.

(Complete Coverage of the WBC will on the MLB Network.)

Saturday, March 9th, 9:00 p.m. ET.

Italy @ United States

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2013 WBC: R.A. Dickey Obvious Choice For Team USA

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The United States of America will start their 2013 World Baseball Classic journey later tonight, against Mexico, who is coming off of a devastating 6-5 loss to Italy in the Pool D opener yesterday. Joe Torre, USA manager, announced Monday that R.A. Dickey would be on the mound for their opener against Mexico.

Dickey, 2012 NL CY Young Award winner and 20 game winner for the New York Mets. This 38-year-old right hander is actually familiar with playing for the red, white, and blue after competing in the 1996 Olympics for team USA in Atlanta, where he won two games and ended up with a bronze medal.

Dickey was the obvious choice for team USA because of his ability to throw the one pitch that you can’t prepare for and that’s the knuckleball. The famous pitch has become his trademark, which explains his 20-6 record, 2.73 ERA, and five complete games last season. He dominated throughout the entire 2012 MLB season and it’s safe to say that no one ever actually figured him out.

So, how is Mexico going to figure him out tonight?

The knuckleball could work against Dickey because on some nights you either have it working or you absolutely don’t. That’s just the reality of the pitch, but Dickey has made it work more often than not. If this pitch happens to be working for him tonight than Mexico could be facing elimination a lot earlier than expected.

Team Mexico vs. R.A. Dickey

Jorge Cantu: 3-8, 2B, BB, SO.

Luis Cruz: 0-1

Ramiro Pena: 0-3

Gil Velazquez: 2-5, SO.

(Complete Coverage of the WBC will be on the MLB Network.)

Friday, March 8th, 9:00 p.m. ET.

Mexico @ United States

Saturday, March 9th, 9:00 p.m. ET.

United States @ Italy

Sunday, March 10th, 4:00 ET.

United States @ Canada

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