A juggernaut. A runaway train that would steamroll their way through the National League West and be among the favorites to win the World Series. The best team money could buy.
Those were some of the sentiments surrounding the Los Angeles Dodgers and what was to be expected in the 2013 season. After a long strange trip that lead to last place in the division and nearly to the firing of their manager, the Dodgers have made their way back into the thick of the race and look poised to fulfill the promise of the off-season.
Only the second franchise ever to spend $200 million on a single-season player payroll, the Dodgers figured to spend their way to the playoffs. Just weeks after the sale of the team was finalized last summer, Los Angeles took on several hefty contracts in a mega-trade with the Boston Red Sox. That deal, which came on the heels of adding high-priced shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins, brought in the likes of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford; big names to be sure, but the foursome brought with them roughly $380 million in contracts. When the 2012 version of the squad didn’t gel fast enough to reach the playoffs last year, LA went out and spent some more, giving free agent right hander Zack Greinke a six-year, $147 million deal.
Despite being in the same division as the reigning World Champion San Francisco Giants, few had the courage to pick anyone but the Dodgers as favorites in the NL West. Most assumed the race wouldn’t be particularly close.
But you know the saying about the best-laid plans.
The Dodgers limped out to a slow start and by mid-May, rumors were rampant that manager Don Mattingly would soon be relieved on his duties. Though Mattingly didn’t get the axe, things got worse for his club before they would get better.
As the sun rose on June 22, the Dodgers were 30-42, a season-worst 12 games under .500. They sat in the basement on the NL West, where they had resided for the bulk of the season, 9.5 games behind the Diamondbacks.
On Tuesday, the Dodgers waltzed into Coors Field and hung an 8-0 shutout on the host Colorado Rockies. It was their third win in a row and ninth in the past ten games. In the 11 days since they sat 9.5 games behind, the Dodgers have made up seven full games in the standings and they’ve surged out of the cellar and sit now just 2.5 games out of first. They’ve been hot, yes, but you don’t make up seven games in a month, usually, and it’s far more difficult when you are chasing four teams in front of you.
Fortunately for the Dodgers, the rest of the division has been awfully compliant in their climb through the standings. NL West teams that don’t play their home games in Los Angeles have amazingly gone just 7-28 during that same span.
The headlines from Tuesday’s win will be all about Clayton Kershaw‘s dominant performance and Yasiel Puig‘s home run. It’s certainly true that Kershaw, despite going more than a month between victories at one point this year, has remained one of baseball’s best hurlers. His four-hit shutout in Denver was his third complete game of the season and his second without allowing a run.
Puig, for his part, has been better than even the most optimist Dodger fan could have dreamt of. By now, you’ve no-doubt heard how Puig, hitting .443/.473/.745 through 106 big league at bats, had more hits in his first 100 at bats than anyone except Hall of Famer Earle Combs. You may have even heard that only Joe DiMaggio, with 50, had more hits through his first 27 career games than Puig (47) has amassed.
So suddenly, the Dodgers find themselves back in the thick of the race and back to being the prohibitive favorites to win the West. It’s fitting, as International Free Agents begin to sign deals this week, that the Dodgers are reaping such benefits from having signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million deal last June and left hander Hyun-Jin Ryu (6-3, 2.83 ERA in 16 starts) to a $36 million deal this past off-season.
But as great as Puig has been of late, he’s been with the club for all of one month and the Dodgers went just 7-10 through his first 17 games in the Show. The recent run of success has been largely thanks to the guys who began the season as superstars, but now look like Puig’s supporting cast. Matt Kemp has recently returned from the disabled list as has Hanley Ramirez and Ramirez is smoking hot at the plate of late. HanRam has gone 14-for-35 (.400) during this ten game run for LA, while clubbing four home runs and knocking in 10. Gonzalez, who had earlier in the season admitted he may not have the same power in his bat that he used to, has swatted three long balls as the Dodgers have gone on their run.
Sooner or later, Puig will come back to Earth a bit, but if guys like Gonzalez, Kemp, and Ramirez can stay healthy and on the field, the Dodgers shouldn’t be hurting for offense.
Their starting rotation, even after season-ending injuries to Beckett and Chad Billingsley, looks to be in great shape with Stephen Fife stepping into the rotation, Ted Lilly on the mend, and rumors already swirling that another starter could be coming via trade and the bullpen has been remade from the back to the front with Kenley Jansen taking over closing duties and southpaws Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell assuming significant innings late in games. While there is plenty of opportunity for blowup innings from guys like Brandon League and the newly-acquired Carlos Marmol, the club should be fine if Mattingly keeps them out of high-leverage situations.
A little over a month ago, Mattingly was about to lose his job. Now he may be up for Manager of the Year. Just 11 days ago, the Dodgers were left for dead in the crowded NL West. Now they sit just 2.5 games back. No longer a collection of individuals, the Dodgers have come together as a team, galvanized by the inspiring play of their prized rookie and the well-timed return of a pair of middle-of-the-order bats.
The rest of the NL West had every opportunity to put distance between themselves and the Dodgers, to bury them so far down in the standings that they couldn’t recover. But they didn’t do it and now Los Angeles is well positioned to grab the division by the throat. The last best chance for teams like the D-backs and the Giants may already have come and gone.