Nursing their way to the playoffs

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
11:03
PM PT
PHOENIX -- Don Mattingly used the word "careful" four times in less than two minutes discussing his team's strangely tenuous position right now, poised for a playoff berth but petrified that one of its leading hitters will go down yet again.

Mattingly is like a playground monitor these days, keeping an alert eye for peril.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMatt Kemp had four hits in his return to the lineup, but the Dodgers just hope to keep everyone healthy heading into the playoffs.
He said he gets nervous every time Hanley Ramirez or Matt Kemp runs, as do thousands of people watching from the stands and at home. Soon, he can add the joy of fretting every time Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford take off, too. Mattingly pulled Ramirez and Kemp late in Tuesday's 9-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks to avoid some further catastrophe.

All it takes is one bad step, one slight stumble and this team's World Series hopes could be left dangling by a thread.

That's where things stand as the Dodgers try to close this thing out. Should they win one of the next two games, they are the champions of the National League West. And at that point, they might as well give Kemp, Ramirez, Crawford and Ethier -- heck, maybe even Adrian Gonzalez, too -- an extra week of vacation.

The Dodgers just went a laborious 3-9 trying to finish things when those guys were largely out of the lineup, so it looks as though they need them to get there. They certainly looked a bit more spry Tuesday night when they got two key hitters back.

The Dodgers already knew what Ramirez could do. He has been doing it all year, so when he singled the first time he had a competitive at-bat in almost a week, nobody was too surprised. When he got on base three more times, it was fairly par for the course.

But seeing Kemp make his first start in nearly two months and go 4-for-4 with a couple of hard-hit doubles was something of a revelation for many of the Dodgers. If he's back to doing what he once did and Ramirez and Yasiel Puig keep doing what they've been doing, what could this team become?

"I've never seen [Kemp] swing the bat like he is right now," pitcher Zack Greinke said. "I haven't played with him last year, haven't played with him before, only faced him a couple times. People talk about how good a hitter he is, but I haven't had the opportunity with him being injured. That was pretty exciting."

It's pretty obvious that neither Kemp nor Ramirez is running as well as they normally might, but Ramirez picked it up when Michael Young was running up his back while tripling in the eighth inning. And Kemp said he can still turn it on if he has to.

"Yeah, definitely," he said.

Wednesday brings a whole new round of excitement. It starts the minute Mattingly spends his 15 minutes with the team's trainer and then ambles out to post his lineup card.

It could end in a fog of champagne. That tends to be good for aches and pains.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Clayton Kershaw
WINS ERA SO IP
21 1.77 239 198
OTHER LEADERS
BAY. Puig .296
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239