Last Friday in Cincinnati the Dodgers absorbed a 9-4 defeat in which they had only five hits. With that loss they maintained the worst on-base and slugging percentages in the National League. They also have struck out more often than any team in the league, and they have scored fewer runs than any club except the Philadelphia Phillies. L.A.'s season might have been downright horrific without Piazza, who at week's end led the league in hitting at .341. The Dodgers have leaned so heavily on him that through Sunday they were 31-13 when he drove in a run and 30-43 when he didn't.
Piazza's feeble supporting Gist includes second baseman Delino DeShields, who came to Los Angeles in 1994 as a lifetime .277 hitter but has batted .247 since. At week's end he was down to .236 for this season, and since July 4 he had not had an extra-base hit in 112 at bats. Other Dodgers underachievers were outfielder Billy Ashley and third baseman Mike Busch, who had combined for a .188 average while whiffing 68 times in 170 at bats. On Sunday the Dodgers sent Busch to Triple A Albuquerque.
What has most stifled the Los Angeles offense, however, has been the absence of a suitable replacement for Butler in the leadoff spot. Until last Friday, Lasorda and Russell had tried six players at the top of the lineup, including Chad Curtis, who had been a .176 bust since arriving in a trade from the Detroit Tigers on July 31. Those six players had hit .234 in the top spot, so in Cincinnati Russell tried a seventh leadoff hitter, rookie Todd Hollandsworth, who had climbed through the Los Angeles farm system as a middle-of-the-lineup run producer.
In his first 10 at bats in the leadoff spot Hollandsworth ripped five hits, including two home runs and two doubles. With that surge he elevated his batting average to .295 and, befitting a Los Angeles tradition longer than the Dodger Dog, made himself a candidate for Rookie of the Year. Hollandsworth could become the unprecedented fifth straight player from the same club to win that award, following Nomo, Raul Mondesi, Piazza and Eric Karros.
Hollandsworth's two-run, sixth-inning dinger last Saturday was the decisive blow in L.A.'s 7-5 victory, though at first it seemed only to pad a 5-0 lead. Nomo, who tied a career high with seven walks, surrendered four runs in the bottom of the inning. The Tornado no longer dominates consistently, as he did early last year when he blew onto the scene and started 9-2 with a 1.89 ERA. Since last Aug. 10, Nomo has gone 15-13 with a 3.67 ERA. "His delivery was so different to hitters," Wallace says of Nomo last season. "But they've adjusted."
Nothing comes easily for these Dodgers. Now that scientists have discovered possible signs of life on Mars, they can start hunting for clues of it in the Los Angeles clubhouse. The Dodgers have players from five countries (the Dominican Republic, Japan, Korea, Mexico and the U.S.), and such diversity might contribute to the team's shaky chemistry. "Once the game starts we're all pulling in the same direction," DeShields says. "But once it's over"—he points in five directions—"we're gone."
On June 19 in Chicago, pitcher Chan Ho Park, from Korea, won a game for himself when he walked with the bases loaded. He was chatting gleefully with reporters in the clubhouse afterward when one of the scribes peeked into his locker and asked, "What happened to your suit?" Park's teammates had chopped off the sleeves and pant legs in one of those typical locker room jokes. Park did not see the humor. He threw a chair and a fit, ticking off his teammates. He wore his uniform out of Wrigley Field and onto the team plane.
Last week Mondesi pulled off the rare boneheaded move of showing up 15 minutes late for a night game in Pittsburgh. Mondesi is a terrific talent whose behavior is sometimes confounding. Russell benched him. "It would be one thing if it was a one-time thing," says Russell, who that night was managing his eighth game since Lasorda's retirement. "He's been late before, maybe by a few minutes. This one could not be ignored." Inserted back in the lineup for the next game, in Cincinnati, Mondesi responded by going 0 for 9 against the Reds on Friday and Saturday, which dropped his 1996 average to .277, 18 points less than his lifetime mark.
Russell, a former L.A. shortstop who has spent 30 of his 47 years working for the Dodgers, has quickly put his imprint on the club, if not on the manager's office. He's more likely to start base runners than Lasorda and less likely to name-drop. "I might get a picture of Louis L'Amour," he says.
"It's more laid-back now," DeShields says of life under new management. "With Tommy there was always some sideshow going on: People in the clubhouse, doing commercials, whatever. Don't get me wrong. I love Tommy, and he's a legend. It's just quieter now."