Rookies playing key role in Dodgers' bid for NL West title

What is happening to the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers these days is a kind of Alice in Wonderland story, only the Mad Hatter, manager Tommy Lasorda, is the one doing all the shouting. The rookies on the team, several of whom started this season in the minors, have taken over Dodger Stadium. There are often no fewer than four in the starting lineup, which is half a team if you don't count the pitcher.

The transformation began when the Dodgers did not pursue free-agent first baseman Steve Garvey who signed with the Padres, and it continued when they traded veteran third baseman Ron Cey to the Chicago Cubs. With Garvey and Cey both gone, the Dodgers now had spots open for rookies Mike Marshall and Greg Brock, whose power totals in Triple-A ball at Albuquerque had been awesome.

Although both had been signed as first basemen, Marshall, the more mobile of the two, was sent to right field so that Pedro Guerrero could take over for Cey at third.But while Marshall merely had to learn a new position, Brock had to deal with the pressure of replacing Garvey, the most popular of modern-day Dodgers.

Neither rookie hit that well at first, although Brock did have a brief stretch early when home runs were suddenly flying off his back. Marshall was not only striking out far more often than he should but also had to overcome a beaning that made him plate-shy.

Lasorda, who is in almost constant touch with General Mangaer Al Campanis, handled the Brock-Marshall situation well - first by never criticizing his two rookies, and second by resting them occasionally. Meanwhile, hitting coach Manny Mota continued to work hard with both of them, the first harvest from that labor occurring right after the July All-Star Game break. By now the two rookies are both key factors in the drive for the National League West title, with Brock already totaling 20 home runs and Marshall 16, including several game-winners.

''The difference between hitting in the minors and hitting in the majors for a couple of kids is very challenging,'' explained Mota in his halting English. ''People would be more patient with rookies if they knew just how tough an assignment this is. What we've got here are two talented kids who have always been aggressive with the bat. We didn't want them to lose that aggressiveness, so we told them not to change anything, and that if we can live with the strikeouts, so can they.''

''Brock and Marshall still aren't where they are going to be as hitters,'' Manny continued, ''but now you can see them adjust to things at the plate that before they only wondered about. You'll see, as they learn, their strikeouts are going to come down and their batting averages are going to go up. You can't expect to get everything you want from a kid his first year, but not many rookies have hit for power the way Brock and Marshall have.''

The Dodgers have also been playing a rookie at shortstop occasionally this season whenever Bill Russell has been injured or needed a rest. And while Dave Anderson hasn't shown that he can hit big league pitching yet, there isn't anything he can't handle in the field.

Lasorda's starting rotation has also been enhanced by the presence of 24 -year-old Alejandro Penaneeds tilde over the ''n'' I'll bet, who asked Mota, his winter manager in the Dominican Republic, if he could have a shot as starter. In two previous tryouts with L.A., Pena had been only so-so as a relief pitcher.

When Campanis said yes to Pena's request, Alejandro came through with two consecutive shutouts for Mota. Used by the Dodgers as a fill-in starter early in the season when others on Lasorda's staff were injured, Pena pitched so well that he currently has an 11-6 record with the Dodgers.

When Los Angeles lost both catcher Mike Scioscia and Steve Yeager this year with injuries, Lasorda went first to l9-year-old Gilberto Reyes, who couldn't quite make the big jump from Double-A ball, and subsequently to rookie Jack Fimple. Not known for his speed of foot or his bat, Fimple nevertheless has this peculiar habit of hitting only with men on base - or so it seems. In fact, even with Yeager back, Jack has been catching the bulk of Dodger games.

When Los Angeles expanded its major league roster on Aug. 3l, among the minor leaguers it recalled were outfielders Cecil Espy from Albuquerque and R. J. Reynolds from San Antonio. Reynolds, who had only taken up switch-hitting seriously in l982, thought he might possibly get a chance to pinch-hit with the club but that was all.

Instead, R. J. wound up starting quite a few games in centerfield while veteran Ken Landreaux was out with an injury. Reynolds has not only looked like a solid line-drive hitter but handled the bat well enough against Atlanta recently to beat the Braves with a perfect suicide-squeeze bunt.

R. J. plays centerfield as though he had been assigned to guard second base. Yet so far when fly balls have been hit over his head he has simply turned on the after-burners and made the catch anyway.

Meanwhile when the game is late and Lasorda needs more defensive speed in left field than Dusty Baker can give him, Tommy shifts R. J. into Baker's spot and brings in Espy, who is even faster than Reynolds to play centerfield.

As someone in the press box said: ''If I were Landreaux, I'd crawl out to centerfield before I'd let those two kids steal my job!''

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