- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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One good month and everyone seems to be back on the blue bandwagon.
Practically forgotten less than a month ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers went on a tear right before the All-Star break, going 17-5, and, suddenly, everybody seems to believe in them again. In fact, they might be more popular now – with a .500 record and 2 ½ games out of first place -- than they were when they left spring training.
One Las Vegas oddsmaking service, Bovada, rates them 9-to-1 shots to win the World Series. The only teams with shorter odds are all in first place: The St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers and Atlanta Braves. The same service puts the Arizona Diamondbacks at 20-to-1 and the defending champs, the San Francisco Giants, at 33-to-1.
And it’s not just outsiders. One scout polled picked the Dodgers in the NL West in a walkover. Why?
“Top-end starters, emotion, streaky players who could put together a couple big months,” the scout said.
The Dodgers certainly seem like a smart-money pick based on trends. Not only do they plan to get 2011 MVP runner-up Matt Kemp back on Sunday, but history suggests many of their players might just be getting comfortable.
Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Mark Ellis and Juan Uribe all have higher career batting averages after the All-Star break. In Ellis’ case, the splits are extreme, .251 to .278. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke have lower ERAs after the break. Closer Kenley Jansen’s ERA goes from 2.79 to 1.43.
Just as key, in one steady surge, the Dodgers wiped out the perception they can’t beat teams in their own division. Of those 17 wins, all but three came against NL West teams, the Dodgers’ hot play perfectly timed. They had gone 58-64 against their division since the start of 2012 before getting hot against the San Diego Padres on June 22.
So, they went into the break feeling pretty good about themselves. It probably won’t hurt that Yasiel Puig, Crawford and Ellis all got four days of rest this week as they nurse minor injuries.
“We can see the front of the pack. It’s in our own hands, because we know we play these guys,” manager Don Mattingly said. “If we play well, we’ve got a good shot.”
Said utility man Skip Schumaker, “As long as we can keep our lineup on the field from top to bottom, we’re going to be fine.”
Not that any of this really tells us much. Carrying their momentum forward becomes a lot harder after the break, as the Dodgers hit their toughest stretch of schedule all season. Seventeen of their next 23 games are against teams with winning records.
One of the teams in that stretch that doesn’t have a winning record, the Toronto Blue Jays, was the Dodgers' shining exemplar last month. Another team with high expectations, Toronto won 11 in a row from June 11 to 23 before -- cautionary tale -- going 7-13 before the break to sink back to last place.
Another scout said the NL West race could hinge on whether the Diamondbacks can land a reliable closer before the trade deadline. It’s a big "if," but if the Diamondbacks land one, the scout said, they’re his pick. He figures the Dodgers are sure to cool off as advance scouts get a better idea how to pitch to Puig, who is batting .391 in his first five weeks in the major leagues.
Of course, the Dodgers aren’t necessarily done dealing either, even after adding No. 4 starter Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins. They are still looking for a reliever and they might even add another starter to further solidify the back of the rotation.
There are a lot of contingencies left in this race, as always, but if you don’t think the Dodgers have an excellent chance, you probably haven’t been watching them lately. Besides, they didn’t build all those buildings in Las Vegas by making up silly odds.
2dBrian Heyman, Special to ESPN.com