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    The Audible: Among Dodgers, Bruins and Trojans, who’s best defensively?
    • October 11, 2023

    Jim Alexander: Welcome to the day-early Audible, which we’re posting Wednesday instead of Thursday while we know for sure the Dodgers still have any season left. All we know definitely is that they’ll be asking Lance Lynn to prevent a sweep by Arizona tonight, and the major-league leader in home runs allowed will be pitching in a park that’s said to be more amenable to the longball than usual if, as expected, the Diamondbacks decide to leave the Chase Field roof open.

    As ugly as it’s been in Games 1 and 2, with Clayton Kershaw uncharacteristically shelled, Bobby Miller succumbing to rookie stage fright and Arizona’s aggressive hitters taking advantage, do you really want to watch the bottom of the first in Game 3 if you’re a Dodger fan? Maybe, instead, check the score at 6:25 or so and see if it’s safe to watch the rest of the game.

    Mirjam Swanson: Sounds like a good strategy, if you’re a Dodger fan: Give it a minute or 20.

    One thing’s for sure, Lynn won’t have rookie stage fright. One of the things that was appealing about him when he came to L.A. was his postseason experience, including three games he pitched against the Dodgers – remember his two scoreless innings to complete the Cardinals’ 13-inning victory over the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS or, four days later, his Game 4 performance: 5⅓ innings to earn the victory in another Cardinals win.

    And as ugly as it’s been for the Dodgers the past couple games, I just can’t imagine this group getting swept in this first round. Right?


    As determined as the Dodgers are to staying even keel, there’s gotta be some sense of pride or panic that’ll get their bats revved up, no?

    And if they do, man, will that be disappointing. And you know what the conversation will immediately turn to…

    Jim: The pressure’s already on Dave Roberts. During yesterday’s off-day availability, the Dodger manager did his presser via Zoom, and one questioner pressed him (no pun intended, but whatever) about why he wasn’t at the ballpark and why the team wasn’t doing a full-scale workout?

    His answer to the latter made sense: “For some people they need to be there, they want to be there, and some guys I think it’s great they stay away. That’s why it’s optional. I think as much time as we spend together, some guys need to be away. And for me, I welcome that. There’s no cookie-cutter, one way to do things.”

    Those who don’t have a close-up view of the day-to-day process probably are convinced that if you’re losing, you’re not grinding enough and need to do more, when in some cases it’s the exact opposite. And these guys all have their routines that have worked all season. Even with the situation as dire as it is, I’m not sure a radical change helps.

    Which leads me to the other, scarier part of the question. When asked where he was on the day off, Roberts said he was in a meeting with the front office. That’s not uh-oh in the sense of his job’s on the line, necessarily (though some fans wouldn’t have an issue with that). It’s more uh-oh along the lines of, what exotic and risky strategies are Andrew Friedman and his quants going to suggest to the manager?

    Maybe to use Michael Grove or (God forbid) Caleb Ferguson as an opener in front of Lynn tonight? Remember, before Game 5 of the Division Series in San Francisco two years ago, one of the front-office functionaries suggested using Corey Knebel as an opener in front of 20-game winner Julio Urias, for no other reason than to disrupt Gabe Kapler’s platooning. That was the same night the Dodgers used Kenley Jansen in the eighth and Max Scherzer in the ninth to close out the game and the series. Short-term gain, long-term pain; Urias had nothing in his first LCS start against the Braves, and Scherzer had a dead arm and couldn’t pitch the fateful Game 6, forcing Walker Buehler to go on short rest.

    In other words, the more influence the front office has on strategy, the more there is that can go wrong. That’s the overthinking I discussed in Tuesday’s column. So unless the front-office functionaries have some sort of magical way of getting Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman going at the top of the lineup, I wouldn’t listen to them. Unfortunately, the manager is obligated to.

    Mirjam: It could also be a more sensible lineup change – maybe Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernández starting? ’Cause they’ve got to do something to kickstart the offense. What’s the tally over their past five postseason games (all losses, as everyone knows)? Like, 4 for 38 with runners in scoring position? They’re not going to get perfect pitching, or even close to it, so they gotta start scoring.

    They’re facing Brandon Pfaadt today, and while it won’t be his postseason debut, he’s not exactly a weathered, confident vet, having allowed seven hits and three runs in 2.2 innings during the Wild Card Series.

    Seems doable.

    Jim: Merrill Kelly and Zac Gallen are momentum stoppers, for sure. Pfaadt’s splits are fairly neutral in his limited sample size (19 games, 18 starts) on the big-league level this season: An .858 OPS by right-handed batters against him, .862 by lefties. And Roberts did talk about getting Kiké in the lineup today: “I do love the at-bats Kiké’s been taking and kind of trying to figure out if changing the lineup a little bit as far as structure makes sense.” So we’ll see.

    That said, Mookie’s been struggling for a while now, after we got spoiled by his unbelievable August (1.355 OPS, 11 homers, 30 RBI). But one at-bat might be all it takes for him to get it going again.

    OK, on to other matters. USC gets the lion’s share of college football headlines in SoCal, deservedly so, but are we spending too little time on what UCLA’s Chip Kelly is (finally) building in Westwood? You saw the Bruins beat Washington State last Saturday. This week they’re at Oregon State – and not to make light of a brutal situation for the Cougars and Beavers, but if UCLA sweeps those two do they win the Pac-2 championship?

    Anyway, what’s your take on what you saw from the Bruins?

    Mirjam: My take? No one has to climb atop a soap box to defend UCLA’s defense. Because the Bruins’ defense is LEGIT. And it has to be, because they have provided some cover for Dante Moore’s inevitable growing pains at QB.

    Defense can seem boring, right? We like scoring! We like shootouts! That’s the exciting stuff.

    But the type of defense UCLA is playing IS exciting. You could just feel how frustrated QB Cam Ward and Washington State were getting, as they continually got stuffed and stymied – and if not that, intercepted or stripped.

    Ward hadn’t thrown a pick all season, 161 attempts altogether. The Bruins intercepted him twice – and forced two fumbles. They held a Cougars offense that came in having scored more than 30 points every game to just one offensive touchdown in Saturday’s game, a 25-17 UCLA win at the Rose Bowl.

    Nationally, the Bruins are allowing just 3.74 yards per play, fewer than anyone in the nation. And they’ve given up only five offensive touchdowns in five games – second-fewest in the the nation.

    Their success on that side of the ball is all the more stark considering all the problems we’re seeing on defense across town – though those issues are mostly just manufactured by the media, of course.

    Jim: D’Anton Lynn for Coordinator of the Year. The Bruins’ defensive coordinator and son of former Chargers’ head coach Anthony Lynn has radically transformed that unit, so it is possible. And it is another testament to the benefits of adding fresh eyes and fresh ideas to your coaching staff.

    See where I’m going with this?

    Across town, Alex Grinch is embattled, again, as the Trojans’ defense alternates between great plays and missed assignments/blown coverages/whiffed tackles. And the impassioned (if implied) defense of his buddy by head coach Lincoln Riley is sounding increasingly hollow. Here’s Riley after Monday’s practice, complaining that, yes, it’s a media narrative that the Trojans’ defense is below par:

    Asked Lincoln Riley about perception of the defense and he delivered a very impassioned answer in which he said, basically, the media “had their mind made up” that at any sign of adversity, a change would need to be made.

    Pretty interesting watch for #USC fans:

    — Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) October 11, 2023

    It sounds so disingenuous, Riley’s take that, essentially, all these great things are going on that those of us on the outside don’t see or don’t recognize or can’t possibly understand. (That old “you never played the game” shibboleth isn’t overt, but it’s lurking just below the surface.)

    But you don’t have to have played the game to recognize that, for example, blowing a 48-21 lead in the fourth quarter and being within an onside kick of having to go to overtime at Colorado is a failure. And you don’t have to have played the game to understand that what we’re seeing from the Trojans’ defense right now isn’t going to work against Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. or Oregon’s Bo Nix, just to name two.

    Having to outscore people every time out isn’t sustainable. (Come to think of it, that’s the same lesson the Dodgers have been learning the last few days.)

    Mirjam: Disingenuous is one way to put it.

    This is Emperor’s Got No Clothes territory: You know how UCLA is giving up a few blades of grass every play? The Trojans are allowing 5.72 yards per play. You know how the Bruins have allowed just five offensive TDs all season? USC’s allowed 21.

    And the Trojans have faced second- or third-string QBs among their first six opponents, who are collectively 10-24. Their next six opponents are, at this point, 26-7.

    But don’t believe your eyes, believe Riley – whose own defense needs work, too.

    Not his defense on the field, but his defensive posturing. Letting some well-founded criticism so clearly get under his skin – and, in turn, his players’ skin – seems misguided.

    He’s implied Grinch was calling the right plays but that his players weren’t tackling as well as they do in practice (which, only the Trojans know – because their practices are closed).

    But why not issue a healthy challenge to his players instead of throwing them, underhandedly, under the bus?

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    Why not call them out, say it aloud: You can do better, I know you can! If I was a player, I’d rather that than be subtweeted in a news conference while my boss attempts to keep pressure off him and his coaching staff?

    Riley’s comment about the media’s response “the first second there was any adversity this year”? I’m looking at HIS response.

    But! They do have Caleb Williams, and as long as they have him, they might actually be able to outscore everyone all season.

    The Dodgers, though, they’ll need to score more than two runs tonight.

    ​ Orange County Register