Trip is early litmus test for Dodgers

It seems a little early in the season to say that the Los Angeles Dodgers are about to embark on a critical stretch. But given that the nine-game trip that begins Thursday represents about 5 percent of their entire regular-season schedule, and given that none of the three teams they will be facing appears to be their equal, it would be a disappointment if the Dodgers came home next week having fallen on their collective faces.

First, there are three with the Cincinnati Reds, and while those who follow the Reds on a regular basis insist that they have improved themselves this season, Aroldis Chapman is still in the minor leagues, and the Reds haven't had a winning season in a decade.

Then come three with the Washington Nationals, arguably baseball's worst franchise since moving from Montreal in 2005.

Finally, it concludes with three against the New York Mets, who despite their inflated payroll typically challenge the Nats for last in the NL East.

The Dodgers missed an opportunity when they dropped four of six on their season-opening trip to Pittsburgh and Florida. Although the Marlins have a history of overachieving and appear to have a solid club this season, the Dodgers clearly should have come out of Pittsburgh with more than one win.

And so, given all that, the next 10 days will be a litmus test of sorts, one that should tell us at least a little bit about what these Dodgers are made of. There is a widespread perception that because of the Dodgers' inactivity over the winter, much of the rest of the NL West has either caught up with them or perhaps even surpassed them.

There also is a widespread perception that the Philadelphia Phillies, after vanquishing the Dodgers in the past two NL Championship Series, ran off and left them behind during the offseason.

Those questions will be answered soon enough -- although for now, you can take whatever you want from the Dodgers' taking two of three from each of the two division rivals, Arizona and San Francisco, that they have faced so far. They don't see another NL West team until May 7, and they don't see the Phillies at all until August.

The key for the Dodgers now, not just on this trip but all season, will be to beat the teams they should beat. They aren't going to win every game against those teams -- although they have come pretty close against the Reds, winning 22 of 26 against them since the start of 2006 -- and they probably aren't going to win every series against them, either. But it isn't unreasonable to expect them to play at a .600 clip against them.

One lesson to be taken from this weekend's series with the San Francisco Giants is that for all the Dodgers' offensive prowess -- they are still averaging almost six runs a game -- they will probably struggle against top-flight starting pitchers. Tim Lincecum dominated them Saturday, and Barry Zito kept them in check Sunday until they got him out of the game in the eighth inning. And there is a good chance the Dodgers will run into Johan Santana or Mike Pelfrey, or maybe both of them, when they get to New York.

Other than that, though, there isn't really a starter in the rotations of either the Reds or the Nationals that should give anyone pause. The closest thing the Reds have to an ace is Bronson Arroyo, and the Dodgers won't see him. Livan Hernandez is off to a sizzling start for the Nationals, having pitched 16 shutout innings in his first two starts, but there is a feeling, and has been for a long time, that his best days are behind him.

On paper, at least, the Dodgers' lineup should feast on whatever starting pitching it figures to face over the next week, especially if Manny Ramirez returns to the lineup Tuesday as expected. The only concern is that the Dodgers' hitters might take a while to get back on track after seeing Lincecum and Zito on back-to-back days.

So, yes, this is a critical stretch for the Dodgers. A make-or-break stretch? Of course not, not in the third week of April. But given who the opponents are and what the Dodgers are likely to encounter, anything less than a 5-4 trip will probably be considered a failure, and 6-3 certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility.

The Dodgers will encounter much rougher waters as the season goes on. So when they face a seemingly manageable assignment like the one that is directly in front of them, it is vital that they take advantage.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter or ask him a question for his next Dodgers mailbag.