Excitement returns, task remains the same

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers planned a 10:30 a.m. team meeting before Sunday's game against the Colorado Rockies, their last game before the All-Star break.

Manager Don Mattingly wanted to congratulate his guys for enduring tough times, remind them of the importance of a fast start after the break and offer this warning.

"We really haven't done anything yet other than get back in it," Mattingly said.

The Dodgers went into the break having won 17 of their past 22 games, their momentum blunted somewhat by a slumbering offense during this four-game series with the Colorado Rockies, capped off by Sunday's 3-1 loss.

If you had asked them in spring training if they'd take their current position at the All-Star break, they would have walked away. If you had asked them three weeks ago, they would have hugged you.

Three weeks ago, they were drifting toward irrelevance. Five weeks ago, their fans were showing up in diminishing numbers and, many nights, sitting through uncompetitive games with players nobody paid to see.

Then, Yasiel Puig arrived, they started getting healthy and the excitement came roaring back to Dodger Stadium. Three of the four games in this series were sold out, many of the fans no doubt coming for a glimpse of the Cuban phenom, who, in fact, barely played because of a sore hip.

It's all well and good to whip your fans back into a frenzy. If you really want to do something for them, get back into first place, a position they haven't had a share of since the second game of the season.

They're still a .500 team, still 2½ games out of first place and still remember when they couldn't get clutch hits or keep their players on the field. The dark old days aren't really that old.

On the other hand, they have some things to look forward to. Who knows, perhaps this stretch is simply who the Dodgers are when they're all on the field at the same time. If that's the case, they'll breeze into the playoffs.

Matt Kemp is expected to come off the disabled list next Sunday in Washington, giving Mattingly the delightful problem of what to do with four good outfielders. Puig and Carl Crawford, dealing with minor ailments, should be fresh and ready to go by their next game, Friday.

"It's in our hands," Mattingly said, "and, if we play well, we've got a good shot."

If you want to know what hopeless feels like, visit Marlins Park in Miami. The Marlins are 23 games under .500 and it took a hot streak to get them there. That's the ambience pitcher Ricky Nolasco worked in until the Dodgers acquired him in a trade last week.

Sunday, he got to come home -- he grew up 40 miles east of Dodger Stadium -- and that, plus being on a team with a shot, makes it a little easier to get some adrenaline going before a start.

"It's so loose," Nolasco said. "There's so much energy here, so much positivity with guys feeding off each other."