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The man they call O-Dog


The man they call O-Dog
jblair@globeandmail.com

Orlando Hudson has gone from the unemployment line to a feature role in a Hollywood hit - although thanks to Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension for violating Baseball's drug-testing policy, it's still unknown whether it will turn into a tearjerker.

"It was a difficult off-season for a lot of people," Hudson said earlier this week, his trademark rapid-fire patter resonating in the Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse as it used to in Toronto when he was with the Blue Jays .

"But the economy's going to be better. Things are going to be better. Only thing is, I don't think I could personally ever be in a better place than I am right now."

The Blue Jays and Dodgers are within shouting distance of each other for the best record in the majors, even after the Dodgers' modern-record, 13-game home-win streak ended in a sloppy 11-9 loss to the Washington Nationals last Thursday and the Blue Jays were beaten 6-1 down the road by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Blue Jays have come out of nowhere, overcoming a raft of injuries that have exacerbated a starting staff decimated by surgeries and the loss of free agent A.J. Burnett.

The Dodgers (21-9 going into last night) also took a free-agent hit when workhorse pitchers Derek Lowe and Brad Penny left and, like the Blue Jays , they've taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to pitching, with journeyman Eric Stults, 29, and Venezuelan winter- league veteran Ronald Belisario playing significant roles.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre has 13 pitchers on his roster and could be talking about the Blue Jays when he says there's a benefit to preseason pitching competition because "guys come out of spring training making the club, and right there their mood is better. They can feed off it."

But it's the way the Dodgers have gone about surpassing the modern major-league record of 12 games won by the Detroit Tigers at the start of the 1911 season. On the 50th anniversary of the franchise's first World Series title after its move from Brooklyn, the Dodgers are bludgeoning opponents, outscoring them 21-4 in the first inning at home and 34-13 overall.

"But if I'm not mistaken, Arizona was 20-8 last year," Torre said earlier in the week. "I'd rather be on this side of .500, but things can certainly happen very quickly."

Two days after that statement, Ramirez was suspended until July 3.

Late last Thursday, the Dodgers grabbed a 6-0 lead against the woeful Nationals. Starting pitcher Randy Wolf suggested the first-inning outburst, which included Matt Kemp's grand slam home run, showed the team had not been staggered by Ramirez's absence. Torre didn't go that far, but he did say of his team: "I think we're in a good place."

Andre Ethier, who was third in the majors as a cleanup hitter with 27 runs batted in at the time of Ramirez's suspension, will move into the No. 3 spot. Unchanged will be the top of the order, with lead-off hitter Rafael Furcal and fellow switch-hitter Hudson in the No. 2 spot.

Toronto fans no longer pine for the player they knew as O-Dog, who was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the 2005 winter meetings. Nor should they, given the emergence of Aaron Hill. (True, some blue-sky bloggers spent the winter drooling over the possibility of Hill at shortstop and Hudson at second base.)

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston says Hill is on par defensively with Roberto Alomar at second and both Hill and Hudson have been forces for their respective teams out of the No. 2 hole. Hudson rode a 14-game hitting streak at home going into last night, in which he's gone 24-for-54 (.444). Hudson's average was .339 - 55 points higher than his career average. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) was .953 - 167 points higher than his career average.

Hudson, 31, did not sign with the Dodgers until late February.

It was a tough year for the game's middle-tier free agents, given the failing economy and a new sensitivity about older players in this time of steroid suspicion. Tougher still for Hudson, who had wrist surgery last August and ended up settling for a one-year deal worth $3.38-million (U.S.) - almost $3-million less than he made with the Diamondbacks last year. Hudson can also earn $8-million in incentives.

The Dodgers worked out Hudson on three occasions, including a gruelling session at Pepperdine University on back-to-back days to see how his wrist held up.

The Dodgers will now save $7.7-million of Rodriguez's salary, but with attendance already down an average of 4,000 per game and California's brutal economy, life without Manny will not be good for the bottom line.

On the field, the Dodgers are talking brave about being able to win without Ramirez - even with his .344 average removed the club is still hitting .276, which would leave it second in the National League just percentage points behind the New York Mets - and Torre sees no reason for his team to change its approach.

"It's to your benefit to think 'small,' " he said. "If you think small, overall, you'll have more success instead of swinging from your rear end. We tell our guys: 'Think small, big things happen.' That won't change."

Torre draws similarities to the 1996 New York Yankees team he managed to a World Series despite pitcher David Cone's absence due to an aneurysm. But Torre knows Ramirez is an everyday player, not a once-every-five-days pitcher.

Hudson's infectious personality - long-time Dodgers announcer Vin Scully calls him O-Dog on the air - could help mitigate the impact of Ramirez's absence from the dugout. And maybe this drama will help add some of the gravitas Torre believes his youthful core lacks, as it learns how to win.

Torre doesn't expect .330 all year long from Hudson, but he says the former 43rd-round draft pick of the Blue Jays is a more advanced hitter than the raw athlete he saw when Hudson was in someone else's dugout.

"At that time he was with the Blue Jays , he was swinging at a lot of bad balls," Torre said. "The thing that impressed me last year with Arizona was they hit him third at times, which gave me an indication of how far they thought he had come.

"He's always been a switch-hitter who wasn't afraid to swing at the ball from both sides of the plate. That's good. You can use that."

Hudson said he believes he has been "blessed by God" to be in a Dodgers uniform, and jokes about channelling Jackie Robinson, about feeling his presence on some of his acrobatic plays.

"We can keep this going," Hudson said matter-of-factly. "How often at the end of the year do you go: 'If we'd won this series in April, we'd be in first place. Or half a game out.' This team here won't be saying that."


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 9, 2009

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