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Are the new Dodgers settling in for the pennant race?

8/15/2015

LOS ANGELES -- The way the three teams in the National League Central have been playing lately, the pennant race between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants could have an old-time, edgy feel to it this season. Even with two wild cards, the West teams might not have a safety net beneath them.

Not that the Dodgers wanted to hear any of that talk Friday night after their restorative 5-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds. You can bet the Dodgers were watching the lower-left portion of the right-field scoreboard, however, as it showed a back-and-forth game between the Giants and Washington Nationals.

The Giants, who nearly blew a four-run lead, held on and won 8-5. With less than one-third of the season remaining, this might be the unofficial launch to the pennant race, and it could be a good one, with the Dodgers leading by just 2½ games. But the Dodgers are still in accumulation mode, not win-or-freak-out mode. That's even with the teams in the Central running away with the wild cards.

"It's way too early for anything like that," manager Don Mattingly said. "We're just trying to win games. The pennant race, for me, is 'every night be ready to play.' It's like that all season long. It just gets heightened as the season goes along."

The Dodgers thought they had fortified themselves to hold off the Giants by adding four pitchers before the trade deadline. Two weeks later, those trades had energized the Giants' chances more than the Dodgers'. Mat Latos, who is one of the least-popular opposing pitchers in San Francisco because of comments he made when he was in San Diego, was awful in two of his three starts. Alex Wood was just OK. Both relievers had gruesome ERAs.

That's one of the reasons Mattingly was in such a good mood after Friday night's game. The narrative began to change. Wood pitched pretty well, allowing three runs on five hits, and, just as important, he pitched deep, getting the first out in the seventh inning. Jim Johnson came in and got a couple of outs to put the bullpen in order, with only Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen required from there on out.

Normally, the bullpen can handle that kind of load. It's when it is asked to pitch four innings plus that things normally get dicey.

"Alex did a great job for us. The bullpen shut them down, which is great to see," said Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who slugged a three-run home run off Cincinnati rookie John Lamb making his major league debut.

It's hard to say the four pitchers struggled after they arrived in L.A., but it's fair to say the Dodgers' new front office isn't keen on selecting players based on things such as postseason track record, as the previous regime was.

Each of the pitchers has postseason experience, but it is scant. Latos and Johnson, the veterans in the group, have each played for exactly one team that qualified for the playoffs, and neither performed particularly well once they got there. Wood and Luis Avilan also played for one playoff team, the Atlanta Braves club that got knocked out by the Dodgers in 2013.

So, each of the four pitchers went from surroundings in which there was nothing to play for -- and less to lose -- to the beginnings of what could be a heated pennant race on another coast. Perhaps that drastic change had something to do with it? That has crossed Mattingly's mind.

"I think it's always hard for the guys who come over, jumping in with guys they don't know," Mattingly said. "They haven't had spring training together. Some guys jump in and do unbelievable. Some guys, it takes a little bit. Hopefully, they get comfortable."

Wood picked up his first win as a Dodger, and he pointed to the Dodgers' fifth inning as a pretty good sign that he's not in Atlanta anymore. He popped up a bunt attempt and it landed in the mitt of catcher Brayan Pena, who saw Joc Pederson halfway to second base and fired to first base for a double play. Kind of a deflating sequence, but the Dodgers regrouped to score four runs in the inning. Jimmy Rollins, Enrique Hernandez and Justin Turner all singled before Gonzalez's blast.

"To me, that's the sign of a really, really good ball club," Wood said. "They picked me up and we played really, really well tonight."

That sounds like a pitcher getting comfortable in his new surroundings.