Stopping (just) short of calling race for L.A.

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
2:39
PM PT
Roberto HernandezScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesRoberto Hernandez had another solid outing in his second start with the Dodgers.


ATLANTA -- Back in early June, two national baseball stories -- one in the pages of USA Today and one at ESPN.com -- essentially called the NL West race in favor of the San Francisco Giants.

Those columns, which were perfectly well-reasoned, have become an endless source of amusement for fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have made up 15 games in the standings to San Francisco, going from 9 games back to 5 games up.

They also, you might not be surprised to hear, made their way into the Dodgers’ clubhouse.

“That was funny,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “All I’ll say about that is, I think Drew Butera still has a link to it on his phone. We got a kick out of it.”

Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and other veterans took note.

“I think the big guys paid attention to it,” Dee Gordon said.

After Thursday’s 6-4 Dodgers win over the Atlanta Braves, it’s tempting to call this thing in the Dodgers’ favor. In fact, it’s so tempting, I was on the verge of doing so before thinking better of it. Why? Because baseball happens, basically, and it will continue happening almost every day for another six weeks or so.

The Dodgers have managed to build this little cushion while navigating their trickiest stretch of schedule, and now things are about to ease considerably. Of the Dodgers’ 13 remaining series, eight are at home and only four are against teams with a winning record. They have 39 games left, six against the Colorado Rockies, the worst team in baseball, and 11 against the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres, who aren’t much better. The Dodgers are 17-7 against those two teams so far this season.

Oh, and there’s that four-game series against the Chicago Cubs in late September, making Wrigley Field a decent guess for the question, “Where will the Dodgers pour Champagne?” The Dodgers may not need their now-famous bubble machine for that one, since Champagne bubbles make for a much more lively foam party.

And yet, here on Aug. 14, nobody in a Dodgers uniform is willing and ready to say this race is over. For one, practically nobody in baseball ever says anything that brash that anymore. And, two, it’s not.

“Not with so many head-to-heads left,” Ellis said.

Given the Dodgers’ soft remaining schedule once they finish with the Milwaukee Brewers this weekend, the six remaining games against San Francisco will be the Giants’ main, if not only, hope.

Plus, for manager Don Mattingly, it’s about mindset. One of the reasons the Dodgers have managed to go 16-10 since the All-Star break while playing seven of eight series against teams with legit playoff hopes is that they went into them ready for battle. Mattingly gave a glimpse into the Dodgers’ mindset as they went into that tough stretch.

“I look at it like, ‘They’re the ones that have to deal with us,'” Mattingly said. “You have to deal with Kershaw and you have to deal with [Zack] Greinke and [Hyun-jin] Ryu and all our guys offensively can bust out any day.”

The last thing he wants is for his team to take a deep breath after this stretch ends on Monday. Tuesday the Padres drop into town to start a string of 11 straight games against sub-.500 teams.

“You can’t go, ‘Oh, everything’s great now,' then you lose five out of six,” Mattingly said. “We’ve got to keep going.”

Probably the best argument for the Dodgers’ near-lock on this division is the way they are playing and the way the Giants are playing (21-36 since their high-water mark on June 8).

The Dodgers seem to have enough offensive depth to avoid a prolonged hitting slump. They may not have a good league MVP candidate aside from Kershaw (and a pitcher hasn't won an MVP in the NL in 46 years), but you could build a vibrant debate about the team MVP, which is usually a good thing.

Thursday was a good example. Gordon and Yasiel Puig created havoc at the top of the lineup, getting on base eight times, and Gonzalez is back to steadily driving them in. Gordon stole two more bases, giving him 54, and scored three runs, giving him 66. Gonzalez had a pair of RBI singles and an RBI double. He has 83 RBIs.

And the front office has scrambled to add pitching depth without gutting the farm system. General manager Ned Colletti passed on the premium pitchers being shopped before the deadline, then scooped up Roberto Hernandez and Kevin Correia after they cleared waivers.

Hernandez (7-8) basically cruised through six innings against the free-swinging Braves, allowing just three hits and pitching around his four walks. A sinkerball specialist, he got a double play among his five groundouts.

They also have a fairly orderly bullpen at last. Kenley Jansen lost the battle of Curacao when Andrelton Simmons ripped an RBI single into left field, but he battled back from a 3-and-0 count to strike out Evan Gattis with a fastball right down the middle to end the eighth. After drama in the ninth, Jansen picked up his 34th save and he has 31 strikeouts and just two walks in his last 20 games.

So, yeah, it certainly looks like it’s over. But it probably looked that way two months ago, too. Vantage points change quickly, it would appear in this race.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239