For a long time, it looked like the NL West would be a winner-take-all affair, but, lately, not so much.
The Dodgers pounded the Pittsburgh Pirates 11-0 Tuesday at PNC Park, giving them eight straight wins over the Bucs. By winning four of the first five games on this road trip, the Dodgers have not only gotten back to the top of their division, but moved into the thick of the wild-card race.
The Dodgers are now just a half-game out in the jostling for one of two wild-card spots.
Bad (in a good way) Chad. Is Chad Billingsley becoming the guy this team has so thirsted for, a second shutdown starter to team with Clayton Kershaw and give the Dodgers a scarier look? Well, he was absolutely dominant Tuesday night, cruising through eight innings, allowing five hits and striking out five. Billingsley is 5-0 since coming off the disabled list and has whittled his ERA from 4.30 to 3.62, so that seems like it was a good idea. As his confidence grows, so does the Dodgers'.
Cruz control. Who is this guy? In 169 major league plate appearances before this season, Luis Cruz had driven in six runs. In 124 plate appearances for the Dodgers, he has 22. There's a reason he's been playing almost every game lately. He's producing like crazy. Good story, too, a 28-year-old longtime minor leaguer, who plays winter ball in his native Mexico every year, finally breaking through.
Luck. Assuming the teams' talent levels are fairly similar, pure chance can play a surprisingly big role in the outcome of baseball games. The Dodgers loaded the bases without hitting the ball out of the infield in the fourth inning. Matt Kemp hit one off the third baseman's glove, Andre Ethier reached safely after the second baseman dropped the ball trying to tag Kemp and Hanley Ramirez swung and tapped one that hugged the third-base line for an infield hit.
Juan chance. These days a lot of factors have to converge to give Juan Uribe a start. The Dodgers have to be facing a pitcher Uribe has hit well and that another infielder has hit poorly (check). It has to be a good time to give a regular infielder a day off (check). But even those few chances might be slipping away, especially after Uribe put up another 0-for-4. The Dodgers kept his roster spot and sent Jerry Sands back to Triple-A Albuquerque last week, but what's the point in keeping him around if he's not going to produce?
Superstar slump. One of the fun story lines when two playoff-caliber teams meet is to compare the teams' best players side by side. It's easy in this case because both of them are center fielders. But while Kemp has been productive this month, the Dodgers are catching Pittsburgh at a good time, with Andrew McCutchen struggling. McCutchen is in a mild batting slump (3-for-20) but a protracted power slump (one home run since July 17). McCutchen is the NL's version of Mike Trout (shockingly fast and powerful), only more experienced. Lately he hasn't been his usual catalyst self.
Slippery slope? One of the things you wonder about now that Hanley Ramirez is playing everyday shortstop again is whether the Dodgers are sacrificing defense for offense. Ramirez has never been a Gold Glove-caliber fielder and, in the past four seasons, the defensive metrics suggest he is below average. He made his 10th error, not a particularly high number -- and most of those came at a new position, third base -- but you wonder if his defensive presence could be a liability in the long run.