LOS ANGELES -- If the Los Angeles Dodgers' goal was to get back into a division race, they are going to find themselves smack in the middle of one over the next eight days. Only problem is, it's not their division.
The Dodgers, fresh from an 8-3 beating of the Washington Nationals in the rubber match of a three-game series before 43,639 on Sunday at Dodger Stadium, will begin a three-game series at Philadelphia on Tuesday night, then a four-game set at Atlanta starting on Friday. The Phillies and Braves are embroiled in a tight, riveting race in the National League East, so at the very least, the Dodgers will leave some kind of stamp on that battle.
But there is mounting evidence that the Dodgers might have some business of their own to take care of, as well. While it's hard to get too excited over back-to-back wins against the Nationals, those wins still count in the standings. And with 50 regular-season games left, the Dodgers aren't quite dead yet.
Not when their starting rotation is at full capacity for the first time all season, newly acquired lefty Ted Lilly having turned in another quality outing in holding the Nationals to three runs on five hits over six innings. Not when their slumbering offense, which scored more than three runs for just the seventh time in 24 games since the All-Star break, is starting to show faint signs of life by scratching out those runs that don't seem to come any other way.
The Dodgers (58-54) scratched out four of them in the first inning against Jason Marquis, the veteran right-hander who was making his first start since April 18 because of surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That rally included two walks, three stolen bases, a sacrifice bunt that wasn't all that sacrificial because Marquis dropped the ball, another error by catcher Wil Nieves on a steal attempt and a well-placed blooper of a two-out single by Jamey Carroll that drove in the final two runs.
"As the top of our order gets engaged more, we can make things happen and manufacture, and that is what happened," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That was a big first inning. The stolen bases, a base hit here and there, and all of a sudden you have four runs."
A big reason the Dodgers were able to do that, especially on a day when bat-handler extraordinaire Rafael Furcal remained out of the lineup with back issues, was the addition of fleet-footed trading-deadline acquisitions Scott Podsednik and Ryan Theriot at the top of the lineup. They stole two of those bases and scored two of those runs.
The other reason the Dodgers are still in this thing -- although they remain fourth in the NL West, they trail the division-leading San Diego Padres by seven games, and although they remain fifth in the wild-card standings, they trail the pack-leading San Francisco Giants by five -- is that the addition of Lilly has solidified a starting rotation that previously consisted of four established starters and a fifth spot that was constantly in flux.
The Dodgers now have five established starters, meaning Torre and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt no longer have to send an unpredictable rookie named John Ely or Carlos Monasterios to the mound every fifth day while holding their breath, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, which usually meant five innings without the roof caving in.
"I can't say the other guys didn't do a good job, but this gives us continuity," Honeycutt said. "What happens is, on so many of those days, you're looking at five innings, and if you're lucky, six innings. That means you're going to be in the bullpen for at least three or four innings. It's not that you can't get by that way, but it's a little more taxing on your bullpen."
Beginning on July 31 -- the day Lilly was acquired and the day after Monasterios made his last start before returning to the 'pen -- Dodgers relievers have pitched a total of 21 1/3 innings in nine games, an average of just about 2 1/3. That means the starters are averaging almost seven innings per outing.
"This is a very formidable rotation," Torre said. "At some point, if we get [Ronald] Belisario back, I think that will give us a pretty darn good bullpen, too, especially now that it looks like [George] Sherrill is back to doing what he is capable of doing. And I believe the fact we have two left-handers [Lilly and Clayton Kershaw] in our rotation is important."
Lilly (5-8), by the way, is now 2-0 since joining the Dodgers, allowing a total of four runs on seven hits over 13 innings with 11 strikeouts. The next walk he issues in a Dodgers uniform will be the first.
For the Dodgers, the road to the playoffs is still going to be a rough one, and the odds probably are stacked against them. The week ahead is especially daunting. Even after taking two of three from the Nationals, the Dodgers are only 10-13 against NL East teams anyway, although they did manage to hold their own in a four-game split with the Braves at Dodger Stadium back in early June.
The Dodgers will be seeing the Phillies, their October nemeses the past two years, for the first time this season. But while they will be facing Roy Oswalt in the middle game, they won't be facing Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels, at least not until the Phillies come out West at the end of this month.
When the Dodgers return home next Tuesday night, depending on what happens this week, their prognosis could be radically changed. Or, it could be drearily unchanged. But while it isn't time to start printing playoff tickets yet, there is still a compelling reason to pay attention to these Dodgers.
For a few more days, at least. Maybe even longer.
Jamey Carroll, who might have been starting his final game for a while with Furcal expected to return to the lineup on Tuesday night at Philadelphia, made it count. He reached base four times, drove in two runs and scored twice, and all four of his plate appearances were critical to Dodgers rallies.
Carroll blooped a two-out, two-run single to shallow center in the first inning, capping a four-run outburst against Jason Marquis. Carroll doubled down the left-field line off Marquis with one out in the third and came home when A.J. Ellis followed with a double up the gap in left-center, giving the Dodgers a 5-2 lead.
In the sixth, with one out and Ronnie Belliard on first, Carroll and Belliard executed a beautiful hit-and-run against Miguel Batista, Belliard breaking off first and Carroll pulling a ball right through the spot vacated by shortstop Ian Desmond as Desmond went to cover the bag. Belliard went all the way to third and later came home on Jay Gibbons' two-out, pinch-hit single, giving the Dodgers a 6-3 lead.
Finally, after Belliard doubled to lead off the ninth, Carroll worked Drew Storen for a 10-pitch walk, fouling off three two-strike pitches. After Ellis bunted the runners over, Reed Johnson lined a single to center. Third-base coach Larry Bowa waved Carroll around third, and when center fielder Jason Maxwell's throw came in slightly off-line, Carroll was able to just avoid the tag and slide in with the Dodgers' final run, making it 8-3.
Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers reliever who was a non-prospect as a catcher before he agreed last summer to convert to pitching, has begun his major league career with six consecutive scoreless innings spanning six appearances, during which he has given up a total of three hits and two walks. He also has struck out nine of the 22 batters he has faced. Jansen relieved Lilly to start the seventh inning on Sunday and, after giving up a leadoff single to Maxwell, got Nieves to pop up. Jansen then struck out Roger Bernadina and Alberto Gonzalez.
By the numbers
1,091 -- days between major league at-bats for Gibbons, the seven-year veteran whose contract the Dodgers purchased from Triple-A Albuquerque on Sunday and who delivered a pinch-hit, RBI single in the bottom of the sixth inning. Gibbons had struck out in his previous at-bat, for the Baltimore Orioles against the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 12, 2007. Gibbons missed the rest of that season with a shoulder injury, was released by the Orioles the following spring, split the 2008 season between the independent Atlantic League and two Milwaukee Brewers minor league affiliates, went to spring training in 2009 with the Florida Marlins but didn't make the club, went back to the Atlantic League, retired, changed his mind, signed with the Dodgers, went to minor league spring training in 2010, then spent the first four months and one week of the season at Albuquerque.
By the numbers II
300 -- career stolen bases for Dodgers left fielder Scott Podsednik, who became the 12th active player to reach that milestone (Source: ESPN Stats & Information) when he swiped second base after drawing a leadoff walk from Marquis in the first inning. It was Podsednik's fourth steal in four attempts over 11 games since being traded to the Dodgers from the Kansas City Royals on July 28.
Belisario, who has been on the restricted list for the past month for reasons that have never been made public, started and pitched one inning for high Single-A Inland Empire at Rancho Cucamonga for the second day in a row. Belisario gave up no runs, no hits, walking Mike Trout to begin the game and retiring the next three batters without a ball leaving the infield, with Trout stealing second. Belisario is expected to be activated in time for Tuesday night's game at Philadelphia.
Reliever Ramon Troncoso, who started the ninth inning of the Dodgers' big league game with a five-run lead and failed to finish off the Nationals, is the most likely candidate to return to the minors to make room for Belisario. The only other option would be Jansen, who has done nothing to deserve a demotion.
The Dodgers will spend their first off-day in two weeks flying to Philadelphia, where they will make their first appearance since last year's National League Championship Series. Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla (5-3, 3.09) will pitch Tuesday night's opener, his first start since turning in a dominating, two-hit shutout of the San Diego Padres on Wednesday night. Padilla has the lowest ERA (1.04) of any starting pitcher in the NL since the All-Star break. He will be opposed by Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick (7-4, 4.37), who is 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA in his past three starts, giving up a total of four runs, after giving up seven runs in five innings in his previous start on July 19 at St. Louis.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.