- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Los Angeles Dodgers are playing some of their best baseball and it couldn't come at a better time, with three games against the rival San Francisco Giants starting Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
Thanks to Sunday's 5-0 win over the Atlanta Braves to cap a 7-3 East Coast road trip, the Dodgers will enter this series in first place, a half-game ahead of San Francisco. With the additions of Shane Victorino and Hanley Ramirez and a rejuvenated pitching staff, other teams are starting to be impressed with their play lately.
"The Dodgers are playing well -- kudos to their GM for making the moves that they did at the trade deadline," the Braves' Chipper Jones told reporters in Atlanta. "They're a lot better club than we faced earlier in the season."
Chad reborn. Since Chad Billingsley went on the disabled list around the All-Star break with some right-elbow soreness, he has looked like a new pitcher. In his six starts since returning, Billingsley is 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA. He fought the DL move, but he might not have if he knew then what he knows know. Billingsley is pounding the strike zone and working efficiently, things that have been problems for him in the past. If his turnaround continues, there's no telling how good this pitching staff can be.
Who is this guy? Luis Cruz had a monster road trip, with 13 hits and seven RBIs in the 10 games. Before this season, Cruz, a defensive specialist, had hit three home runs in 56 major-league at-bats. He has hit two for the Dodgers in the past two games. Whatever formula he found to revolutionize his game, he shouldn't tamper with it. The Dodgers like it just fine like this.
Situational hitting. Mark Ellis doesn't put up gaudy numbers or make acrobatic fielding plays, but he doesn't make mistakes and is a tough out in key at-bats. The Dodgers were barely clinging to a lead, just 2-0, in the eighth inning when Ellis blooped a single to right to get a key extra run and then blew the game open with a three-run double in the ninth. Sandwiched in the No. 2 hole seems to be the perfect spot for Ellis to do some damage.
Poor execution. The Dodgers loaded the bases with nobody out and then had two deflating at-bats from guys who make a living having good at-bats. Victorino swung at a high, outside pitch and hit a lazy, shallow fly ball to right. With strong-armed Jayson Heyward in right, nobody could advance. Then, Ellis battled, fouling pitch after pitch off, to get to a 3-and-2 count. But he swung at an outside breaking ball and hit it sharply to the second baseman for an inning-ending double play. Those guys need to be better than that.
Upside down. The Dodgers' top five hitters combined to go 3-for-22 with one run and Ellis' were the only RBIs. Perhaps the big bats of Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier can be forgiven for a bad day. When these guys weren't hitting in the past, the Dodgers were virtually guaranteed to be shut out. Now that the Dodgers have found depth with guys such as Cruz, they can live with an awful day from their big-money hitters.
Empty spot. You wonder whether the Dodgers couldn't find someone else for the right-handed half of their first-base platoon. Should Cruz gets some looks there as long as he keeps swinging the bat well? What about calling up Jerry Sands? Whatever they do, it's hard to argue that Juan Rivera is justifying his at-bats. Rivera hasn't gotten a hit since the first game in Pittsburgh and he's 1 for his past 13.