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Youngsters Offer Hope for Dodgers’ Future:

Andre Ethier batted second in the Dodgers’ lineup on Sunday, April 27. Matt Kemp batted third, Russell Martin fourth, and James Loney fifth.

After the Dodgers scored a run in the 10th inning to defeat the Colorado Rockies, 3-2, it was evident the four youngsters who represent the team’s nucleus for the future are important players. Kemp had a perfect sacrifice bunt and Loney the winning single.

The Dodgers have flaws, such as age creeping up on third baseman Nomar Garciaparra, who’s on the disabled list again. And no fifth starting pitcher emerging, which necessitated calling up another reliever, Cory Wade, during the last week of April.

But it was fitting that the Dodgers’ youngest key players were on display on an afternoon when youth was the team’s theme. It was a day when 6,000 members of youth baseball in Southern California, including the Santa Monica Little League, participated in a pre-game ceremony and were among the 50,000 fans who saw the Dodgers win the weekend series from the Rockies, a World Series participant last season.

During the week, the Dodgers saw what they’re up against in 2008. In their division are the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the division last season. They were here earlier in the week. And then the Rockies, who were the hottest team in baseball down the stretch last season until they lost to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

It remains to be seen if the Dodgers have enough to challenge these teams over the 162-game distance, especially with free agent signee Andruw Jones off to a terrible start. The centerfielder is hitting less than .200 and is being booed.

It will help a lot if Jason Schmidt, another high-priced free agent, becomes ready to pitch soon after being disabled last season and this one, so far. The Dodgers say he’s getting closer.

But if the parts aren’t all in place this season, the foundation is being established for upcoming years with the young players.

I’ve been hearing Vin Scully on recent Dodger telecasts marvel at watching Kemp run from first base to third. When someone who’s watched Dodger games for nearly 60 years finds something so special, it’s likely he’s onto something.

So I asked Scully in the press box if Kemp is as fast running the bases as Willie Davis, the former Dodger I think about in that category.

Scully didn’t say who was faster but did explain why Kemp merits much attention.

“It’s because of his size,” said Scully. “Willie Davis was lean. You’d think of him as a greyhound, built for speed. But Matt Kemp is 220 pounds, a freight train running the bases so swiftly. That’s what makes him so unusual.”

Grady Little, the Dodgers’ manager last season, considered Kemp far and away the best of the Dodgers’ prospects.

However, Loney has developed so fast he’s become the Dodgers’ regular first baseman, a job Garciaparra held a year ago. And Martin is an all-star catcher.

Ethier plays left or right field as Manager Joe Torre stays with Jones in center and works Juan Pierre into some lineups.

This season shortstop Rafael Furcal has been the Dodgers’ best player and one of the National League’s best. And Jeff Kent, who’s past 40, still plays well at second base.

But the future belongs to Ethier, Kemp, Martin, and Loney.

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