LOS ANGELES -- Just a few days ago, Dan Szymborski wrote a post for ESPN Insiders explaining why the San Francisco Giants are “all but guaranteed” to win the National League West. It was perfectly well-reasoned, dispassionate and supported by baseball history.
And though it was the extreme stance, it hardly was a departure from what most national baseball writers have had to say about the Los Angeles Dodgers, as they’ve visited the subject at various times over the past two and a half months. They all seemed to wonder what’s wrong with the colossus.
How could a team with a $239 million payroll be chasing its own tail for a month and a half and be behind the Giants by 9½ games, as they were a few days before Szymborski wrote his story? After Monday’s games, they are still behind by six games.
It’s all fair game and perhaps that will be the overarching theme of 2014; but it’s not what the Dodgers have been feeling, at least not for the past 10 days. They have felt new energy in the dugout, sensed the confidence that comes from a team’s best hitters finally starting to hit and enjoyed the calm that consistent starting pitching can lend a team.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but they feel like they just might be on the move.
It was June 22 last year that saw them rocket from 9½ back to 10½ up in the standings in a span of 56 games.
Who knows, maybe the perspective of the coming October will isolate June 6 as the turning point for this Dodgers team. It was about then that manager Don Mattingly said he started sensing a better energy in the dugout during games.
It’s entirely unlikely the Dodgers will stage anything as dramatic as the run they went on last year -- you had to reach back to the 1940s to find teams who equaled it -- but they might not have to.
Are the Giants really as good as they looked for the past six weeks? Even if you think they are, there are those two wild-card spots up for grabs.
Tempting as it may have been, to call the Dodgers flops in June -- even as they continued to keep their heads above .500 -- seemed like a stretch. Now, having won six of their last nine games and cut San Francisco’s lead to six games, to call them “disappointments,” might even be unfair.
“You expect us to be in first and, obviously, we expect it, too. But things can turn on a dime,” Dodgers left fielder Scott Van Slyke said. “We can start rolling and the other guys come back down to earth a little bit, and it’s back to normal. It’s mid-June. We’re not where we want to be, but I think we’re getting closer.”
Van Slyke and Dee Gordon both said the team started picking up some energy when Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez started hitting over the past couple of weeks. Kemp, finally settling in to left field, is batting .417 with five extra-base hits and nine RBIs in his past 11 games. Ramirez is batting .275 with five extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in his past 15 games.
It also has helped that the Dodgers aren’t making two errors a game, as it seemed they were in April and half of May.
Presuming this team can stay solid in those two areas, it shouldn’t have to worry about being labeled a flop if its pitching stays healthy. Clayton Kershaw is back, Zack Greinke rarely has a bad start, the back end of the rotation has two revitalized veterans and Hyun-Jin Ryu is getting better and better.
Mattingly used to study guys like Ryu to make a living, and he sees a pitcher who is harder and harder for opposing hitters to handle, making the adjustments necessary to avoid a sophomore slump. On Monday night, Ryu held a very hot Colorado Rockies lineup to three hits over six innings. He’s 8-3 with a 3.18 ERA on the season.
“He locates, he’s coming up with a cutter now, he’s got a little slider,” Mattingly said. “Last year, he was pretty much a two-pitch pitcher and he’s starting to add pitches to that repertoire. The guy can really pitch.”
So, write them off if you will. But it seems like the rare season to write off a team when, virtually every day, the manager could say, “The guy can really pitch.”