Star-laden, costly Dodgers are finding that a big payroll is no guarantee of success

Doug Fister joined the Washington Nationals this winter after a trade with the Detroit Tigers. A left-handed batter and right-handed thrower, Fister will be an asset to this season’s starting pitcher lineup. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

In the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park, there are four locker stalls larger than all the others, reserved for the players with the most standing on each visiting team. Yet Monday afternoon, Clayton Kershaw, twice a Cy Young winner, walked through the room toward his standard-sized stall, along the back wall. Andre Ethier, a Los Angeles Dodger for his entire nine-year career, fiddled with a bat at the first locker in the room, also small. Juan Uribe, in his 14th major league season and an owner of two World Series rings, joked at a chair just two spots down. Carl Crawford? Nope.

“Guys making 25 million bucks a year and they get a little locker,” right-hander Dan Haren joked.

Don’t exaggerate, Dan. Crawford’s only making $20.25 million in 2014.

This is the Dodgers’ world, the Showtime Lakers on grass. Throw in the former stars who flitted about — Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra, on hand both to kibitz and broadcast; Don Mattingly the manager; Mark McGwire the hitting coach — and the Dodgers feel every bit like the West Coast Yankees. No player is too expensive for them to sign, no trade proposal too outlandish to consider. Their payroll: $235 million. For one season. For the first time since 1998, someone is spending more than the Yankees in an effort to win a World Series.

And then all those stars went out and lost a 4-0, rain-delayed decision to the Washington Nationals in which they managed three base runners over the final five innings against five Washington relievers. Throw in Tuesday’s 8-3 demolition of the Nats, and for now, such back-and-forth results are typical.

“Can’t sit here and say you’re just totally disappointed with the way we’re playing, but you can’t really sit here and say we’re really happy with the way things are going,” Mattingly said before the game. “I think we know — we feel like — we’re better than this.”

There is, of course, a distinction between feeling like you’re better and being better. Ask the 2013 Nationals. “We won [86] games and played pretty bad for two months,” said Haren, terrible (10-14, 4.67 ERA) for those Nats, off to an excellent start (4-0, 2.39 ERA) for these Dodgers.

After a month and a few days, the Dodgers have endured a bizarre season-opening trip to Australia to play games that counted. They have endured an injury to Kershaw, who returned as his dominant self Tuesday against the National after sitting out with a strained back muscle that cost him as many as six starts. Setup man Brian Wilson was hurt and has been ineffective (11.42 ERA through Monday). Catcher A.J. Ellis had knee surgery and is on the road back. Josh Beckett, Matt Kemp, Hyun-Jin Ryu — all have been dinged up at one point or another, missing time.

And Sunday, young star Yasiel Puig ran into the right field wall in Miami so hard — think Bryce Harper hard — that the Dodgers had to administer concussion tests. He apparently passed those, but was sore enough that he sat out the first two games against the Nationals.

So there’s the laundry list of reasons for an 18-15 start that, entering play Tuesday, was better than all but seven teams in baseball, but had the Dodgers shrugging their shoulders, a collective, “Meh.”

“It’s not been great,” Mattingly said. “But it’s one of those things that — I think in this kind of baseball season, I feel like we’re off and in the pack. We’re okay. You’d like a 21-6 [start] or something. That doesn’t happen very often. But we’re not 6-21 either. We’re playing okay. I think we’re better than this, and we just need to get more consistent with our play.”

Sound like anyone else? This series between the Nationals and the Dodgers is compelling for all sorts of reasons, Kershaw’s return not least among them. In spring training, they were two trendy and legitimate picks to play for the National League pennant. Both are over .500 — the Nationals moved past the reeling Braves into first place in the NL East Monday night, while the Dodgers sit behind the ever-present Giants and the surprising Rockies in the West — and aren’t convinced they’re playing very well.

All those stars and their fill-ins for Los Angeles combined to make 32 errors in the first 33 games, the most in baseball. The Nationals allowed 26 unearned runs, more than any other team. The Dodgers, with 18, weren’t far back. Neither has won more than four games in a row.

Meh. This is all cast against expectations in both cities, in both clubhouses. The Dodgers have the backdrop of last year’s 30-42 start that was followed by a ridiculous, historic and impossible-to-repeat 42-8 stretch that led to the division title. Such a staggering turnaround isn’t needed now. Just some screw-tightening.

“I think the people in this room, they’ve kind of done it before,” Haren said.

The people in this room. Oh, right, those double-wide lockers. On this trip, they were reserved for Beckett, a three-time all-star and former MVP of both a league championship series and a World Series making $15.75 million to be the fifth starter; Kemp, twice an all-star and a lifelong Dodger earning another $21 million this year; Hanley Ramirez, a former rookie of the year and batting champ who’s a three-time all-star, a bargain at $16 million; and Adrian Gonzalez, who’s in the middle of a seven-year deal that pays him only $154 million.

Phew. There is no way of escaping such a gross-domestic-product-style backdrop. And the Dodgers don’t necessarily want to. But those numbers mean that the other numbers — 19-15, scuffling along — aren’t acceptable, neither by the guys in the small lockers nor the guys in the double-wides, big money stars in a galaxy of them.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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