Powerful lineup could get even better

LOS ANGELES – “It has to be destiny,” Skip Schumaker said. “There’s no other way to explain it.”

You would think the Los Angeles Dodgers’ utility man would have blurted that out after one of the Dodgers’ startling comebacks this past week. The improbable became routine for the Dodgers this past week, prompting Vin Scully to rename the team’s stadium “The Magic Castle.”

In fact, Schumaker made that comment to ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark a few minutes after his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, won the 2011 World Series.

The three Dodgers who were a part of that Cardinals run -- Schumaker, Nick Punto and hitting coach Mark McGwire -- talk about it these days. They’re getting an eerily similar feeling with their current team.

Two teams with high expectations were battered by injuries and in the process of running themselves into the ground when suddenly they lurched back to life and became unstoppable forces.

As we know, the Dodgers looked out of the race in June, 9½ games out of first place and 12 games under .500. Two years ago, the Cardinals became the first team to win a World Series after being 10½ games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25 or later.

“We were in disarray for most of the year, we had major injuries for most of the year, we made a trade and, all of a sudden, things blended in, that clubhouse came together,” McGwire said. “Everybody’s roles were defined and it just sort of took off.

“It’s more than a feeling. You see it happening.”

On the Dodgers, McGwire thinks, it took three months for players to feel comfortable in their roles, to be at home with each other in the clubhouse. He includes himself. His popularity among Dodgers fans was low and sinking when the Dodgers were one of the most anemic teams in baseball three months ago.

“I had anxiety,” McGwire said. “You want everyone to get off to a great start, but it was like we were playing with the deck that wasn’t dealt to us, with a bunch of injuries and then guys coming back from injuries who were trying to find it.”

Like manager Don Mattingly, McGwire has looked a lot smarter since June 22, with the Dodgers playing .833 baseball since that time.

The most tangible explanation for the instant change of direction was generated around the batter’s box and on the bases. Their offensive improvement has followed a steady path.

In April, they scored the second-fewest runs in the National League. In May, they moved up to ninth. By June, they slipped into eighth. July, they were third. This month, they’re second.

While going 23-3 since the All-Star break, the Dodgers have had the most potent offense in the NL, having scored 130 runs in 26 games. That’s without Hanley Ramirez for nine games and without Matt Kemp for all but one game.

“When we get those two back, we definitely feel like the sky’s the limit for us,” Carl Crawford said. “Those are impact players.”

When you lose a guy like Ramirez -- who returned to the lineup Wednesday -- and a guy nicknamed “The Little Pony” (Punto) fills in seamlessly, you know you’re going good. With Ramirez out, Punto batted .450 with six RBIs.

When you lose a guy like Kemp and can replace him with a player like Yasiel Puig, you might just be better than people thought.

The Dodgers are so confident these days, they feel these historic accomplishments they’ve been rattling off lately -- becoming the first team in 71 years to win 40 of 48 games -- could be only the warm-up act.

“We haven’t even played with the team we were supposed to be and that’s what’s really the exciting thing,” McGwire said. “Matt’s going to be fresh, Andre [Ethier] is getting rest, Hanley’s been getting rest. We’ve been winning because the guys know their roles. It’s a comfort factor.”

The word “roles” may not adequately capture what many of the Dodgers were searching for back in April, May and June. Identity might be more like it. Puig must have wondered what the organization thought about him after it sent him to Double-A Chattanooga after he’d hit .517 in spring training. Punto probably had some self-doubts after a dreadful season in Boston. Crawford was coming off a serious injury and also had a lot to prove after a miserable stay with the Red Sox.

Kemp and Ethier seemed to feel the pressure of living up to big contracts and being the holdover hitting stars from the previous regime.

Once Puig and Ramirez got the offense moving in the right direction, everyone else seemed to relax into their places. McGwire said that’s exactly what happened in St. Louis after the Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus for pitchers Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

The Dodgers settled in two months earlier than the Cardinals, which either leaves more time to gain steam or opens them up to peaking too soon.

“At first, everybody’s trying to feel each other out,” McGwire said. “That clubhouse now is united.”

And a united and powerful front is difficult to beat.