The music blasting from the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse Sunday night was reminiscent of the team that began the season with championship aspirations in April that quickly faded by May and early June.
Hanley Ramirez and Ronald Belisario were taking pictures of themselves after putting on summer attire more appropriate for a pool party than a baseball clubhouse. Yasiel Puig, who hasn’t been in the big leagues for a month, was giving advice to fellow 22-year-old Jose Dominguez, who hasn’t been in the majors for a week.
For the first time since the beginning of the season, the Dodgers looked and sounded like contenders.
Given the way the team has played the past week, it’s not surprising. The Dodgers have won eight of their past nine games to pull within four games of first place in the National League West, the closest they have been since May 3, when they were 3 1/2 games back. The Dodgers also closed out their recent homestand going 6-1, by far their best of the season.
While the focus has been squarely on Puig for the past month, the most consistent Dodger over the past two weeks has been Ramirez.
Ramirez has a 12-game hitting streak, his longest in three years. He is batting .477 (21-for-44) with five homers and 15 RBI during the streak, which began June 19. Since then, he leads the National League in batting average, hits, homers, RBI and on-base percentage.
Puig hasn’t been too shabby himself, finishing the greatest first month any major leaguer has had since Joe DiMaggio in 1936. He established a career high with four hits, going 4-for-5 Sunday with two steals, a double and his first triple.
Since being called up on June 3, Puig leads the majors with 44 hits and leads the National League with a .436 batting average and a .467 on-base percentage. He’s also ranked in the top three in home runs (seven), runs (19), slugging percentage (.713) and total bases (72).
Puig and DiMaggio are the only players in major league history with at least 40 hits and four home runs in their first calendar month in the majors. Puig's 44 hits in June are second only to DiMaggio's 48 in 1936, and are the most hits ever in one month by a Dodgers rookie. DiMaggio, however, had 126 at-bats in his first month and had an average of .381 while Puig had 101 at-bats and has a .436 batting average.
The one area the Dodgers never thought would be a concern entering the season was their pitching. Well, that was before injuries ruined what had been a deep rotation.
One of the biggest reasons the Dodgers have turned their season around, however, is their pitching staff, which is finally healthy and pitching like many thought they would. Dodgers starters have a 2.86 ERA over the past 24 games, and the Dodgers are 13-11 over that time.
Not only is the front of the rotation solid with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, but Stephen Fife has established himself as a quality starter as well. Fife went seven innings Sunday for the first time in his career, giving up only four hits and striking out five. It was also Fife's first scoreless outing in the majors and since returning on June 3, his ERA is now 2.21.
Things haven’t been perfect. With Chris Capuano on the mound, the Dodgers gave up a 16-1 stinker to the Phillies on Friday. A trio of errors by the Dodgers outfield in the ninth inning on Sunday nearly cost them a win. But things are beginning to look up for the Dodgers, who have been able to overcome their mistakes more times than not over the past week.
Things are finally looking up for Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, whose job has become infinitely easier now that his players are healthier. Funny how that works, right?
Mattingly is now in a position where a he can field a lineup he is comfortable with and have confidence that it will produce. After Sunday’s game, Mattingly compared his lineup to playing Monopoly.
“I just think we're a little more dangerous,” Mattingly said. “Every time you roll through there, you've got [Yasiel] Puig. Then you've got to get through Adrian [Gonzalez] and Hanley [Ramirez] and so on. It's like trying to get through Boardwalk and Park Place when you have all those hotels up there.”
The Dodgers have also gotten younger and more athletic during the past week, calling up relievers Chris Withrow and Dominguez, proving their commitment to make a run now. Scouts have raved about Dominguez since spring training, and he didn't disappoint in his first outing Sunday. Dominguez threw 10 fastballs, with all but one hitting at least 99 mph on the radar gun, including a 101-mph fastball that struck out Delmon Young.
One night after the Phillies beat the Dodgers 16-1 on Friday, the Dodgers took the field again and quickly fell behind 1-0 after a Chase Utley solo shot in the top of the first inning. The Dodgers responded when Ramirez hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning.
When the Phillies tied the game in the ninth inning, the Dodgers responded again. This time, Ramirez scored the winning run on A.J Ellis’ single to right field as the Dodgers claimed their second walk-off win of the season and recovered from one of their most demoralizing losses with one of their more dramatic victories.
It has taken longer than most thought, but the Dodgers are starting to play with the kind of grit Mattingly was preaching about in April.
STATE OF CONTENTION
After a 6-1 homestand winning eight of their past nine games, the Dodgers are now within four games of first place in the National League West. Just eight days ago, the Dodgers were 9 1/2 games out of first place and 12 games under .500. Now the Dodgers are looking at possibly being .500 and in first place in the division by the All-Star break.