LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers reached the All-Star break straddling mediocrity -- 47 wins, 47 losses -- but they didn’t arrive here by just muddling along. Far from it.
For 72 games, they were -- considering the expectations -- awful. They seemed to pick up a key injury every week, most of their big hitters were failing in the clutch and their manager, Don Mattingly -- according to many -- wasn’t pulling the right strings. And, Mattingly now admits he was worried some elements of the team were in danger of mentally abandoning ship.
But they kept it together long enough for help to arrive.
“We survived,” Mattingly said.
On June 2, the Dodgers lost 7-2 in Colorado fielding a lineup that included Nick Punto, Juan Uribe, Scott Van Slyke, Tim Federowicz, Luis Cruz, Skip Schumaker and Matt Magill. The next day, Yasiel Puig arrived from Double-A Chattanooga. The day after that, Hanley Ramirez returned from the 15-day disabled list, where he had spent all but four games.
June 22 was the day the Dodgers’ season swerved dramatically upward, when they started coming back from 12 games under .500, lopping off seven games in the standings. But those early June moves fueled it. By winning 17 of their last 22 games, just when the other NL West teams began to sputter, the Dodgers resurrected their playoff hopes and re-energized their fan base.
Now, they hope to live up to their World Series expectations.
Who was the Dodgers’ first-half MVP?
Clayton Kershaw was their best performer, but because of atrocious run support and shaky relief, he only won eight games, the same number as Zack Greinke -- who was on the disabled list for five weeks -- and just one more than Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Adrian Gonzalez was easily the steadiest hitter, the rock around which everybody in the lineup rotated. His 59 RBIs were more than double the next-closest Dodgers hitters, Andre Ethier and Juan Uribe. His 14 home runs were six more than the next-closest Dodgers hitters, Puig and Ramirez.
But while Kershaw and Gonzalez were steadily producing through April, May and early June, the Dodgers were losing. Things didn’t change until the arrival of Puig and Ramirez, who ignited the Dodgers’ offense like twin rocket launchers.
Puig captivated Dodgers fans and alternately irritated and fascinated fans around baseball. Everything he did was exciting, from his breakneck, sometimes boneheaded, baserunning to his majestic home runs. But Ramirez was better.
In 19 fewer plate appearances, he had four more extra-base hits. His 1.137 OPS eclipsed Puig’s 1.038. In Mattingly’s mind, everything changed on the day -- in New York -- when he and the coaches decided Ramirez was healthy enough to play every day and finally used pen, rather than pencil, to write his name in the lineup.
If only Puig and Ramirez had been there from the start. The Dodgers rank just 12th in the National League in runs scored, though a respectable seventh in OPS. The gross numbers aren’t particularly impressive, but the trend (and Matt Kemp should be back next weekend) certainly is promising.
Chad Billingsley succumbed after just two games, his rehabilitated elbow ligament finally torn. Josh Beckett pitched through a puzzling nerve injury (and not very well) for eight starts before he, too, had to bow out to season-ending surgery. Greinke stood in the path of a 250-pound outfielder, Carlos Quentin, and wound up breaking his collarbone and missing more than a month. Ted Lilly has been bothered by various ailments for all but five starts.
Though the injuries to hitters may have been more costly, the Dodgers’ rotation endured the most turmoil.
Brandon League entered the season as the closer, but has pitched to a 6.25 ERA and now gets booed even when he pitches in mop-up work. Ronald Belisario has had a wild first 3 ½ months, alternately dominating and melting down depending on the state of his sinker.
Despite all that, the Dodgers have the sixth-best ERA in the National League, thanks largely to Kershaw, Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kenley Jansen. Lefties Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell have added some stability in the bullpen, and Stephen Fife did some nice things for the rotation when he was healthy.
It’s all the more impressive when you consider how poorly Dodgers fielders have supported the pitching. The Dodgers’ 67 errors are the most in the league. Only the New York Mets and Colorado Rockies have converted a lower percentage of balls in play into outs.
The Dodgers have some steady fielders in the infield, but they have little range. They have athletic outfielders, but no defensive standouts.
The two key moves of the first half were the promotion of Puig and the demotion of League.
It’s easy now to say that Puig should have been with the team on Opening Day and he probably should have, but consider a few facts. Before this April, Puig had had all of 95 minor league plate appearances. After he got sent down, he showed the Dodgers that many of their concerns were valid. He was benched at one point for violating team rules. He was arrested and charged with speeding, reckless driving and driving without proof of insurance.
He missed some time with a thumb injury and, when he did play, he wasn’t exactly tearing up the Southern League, batting .313 with a .383 OBP.
Granted, Puig had made a pretty convincing argument, batting .517 this spring, but the Dodgers had their reasons for sending him out for a little seasoning. Some of those reasons probably haven’t become public, at least not yet.
The League decision was a bit more puzzling when you consider that he had only been a closer for a season-and-a-half in an eight-year career and that Jansen had handled it well last year. Plus, there's the little fact that practically all of Jansen's career numbers are more impressive than League's. He is, in fact, one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to hit.
Still, that decision was made when the Dodgers agreed to pay League $22.5 million for three years. Most teams would have made the guy they were paying to be their closer their closer.
People thought Mattingly was an idiot when the team was losing. Now, he looks like a genius. You can't deny that at this point, his overall leadership and decision-making seem perfectly capable.
General manager Ned Colletti has atoned for what looks like a bad contract in League by trading some unheralded prospects to get Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins. He’ll win over more Dodgers fans once he extends Kershaw’s contract.
It looked like it might have been Mattingly’s last stand when, on May 22, he made what appeared to be explosive comments to reporters before a Sunday afternoon game in Milwaukee. He benched Ethier and said he wanted to field the lineup that would fight hardest.
Already there had been rampant speculation about Mattingly’s job, and it built to a crescendo the next day, an open date. The Dodgers went into crisis-control mode on Tuesday and, guess what, Mattingly is still employed.
His team also has appeared to play with more fire since then, but that’s probably more attributable to the addition of Puig, who plays with as much energy as any player in the game.
If Mattingly wanted more fight, he got it -- probably more than he bargained for. The Dodgers have already had wild brawls with two teams in their division, Arizona and San Diego, and have admitted to bad blood with the San Francisco Giants, which is probably as it should be.
State of contention
The Dodgers' biggest ally has been a division filled with mediocre teams. While they were piling up wins, three of the teams in their division were sinking like stones and the division leader, the Arizona Diamondbacks, was going 9-12. The Dodgers essentially turned the standings upside down.
It doesn’t take much analysis to see the Dodgers are trending toward first place. But, as Mattingly pointed out, they really haven’t accomplished anything yet.