Early in season, Dodgers just lifting off

The Dodgers had a mixed bag of results to begin the season, but there are encouraging signs. Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire

SAN DIEGO -- As Los Angeles Dodgers players trickled back into their clubhouse following Sunday's 7-2 loss to the San Diego Padres before 33,949 at Petco Park, they learned the chartered jet scheduled to take them to San Francisco for the final three games of this three-city trip wouldn't arrive to pick them up for a couple of hours because of a mechanical problem in another city.

Forgive the all-too-easy metaphor if you will, but the delay seemed perfectly appropriate for a team whose season has yet to really get off the ground.

"We haven't really stumbled out of the gate," rookie manager Don Mattingly said. "And we haven't really flown out of the gate."

Is there reason for optimism? You make the call.

There are certainly some signs pointing in that direction. The Dodgers, despite the fact they have yet to hit their stride, have a winning record (5-4), and they remain within easy shouting distance (1 1/2 games) of first place in the National League West. And while their team ERA is 4.28, the starting rotation has posted a solid 3.86 the first two times through -- not counting John Ely's rather unsightly one-time spot start on Sunday.

Speaking of that, the rotation is about to be at full strength for the first time this season. Mattingly remains non-committal on the immediate future of veteran fifth starter Jon Garland, who has been sidelined since early March with a strained oblique. But it was widely assumed that if Garland's rehabilitation start for advanced Class A Rancho Cucamonga on Sunday was a success, he will be activated from the disabled list this week and start on Friday night against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Garland's rehab does appear to have been successful, at least by the measure team officials were using. He threw 80-plus pitches against the Los Angeles Angels' Inland Empire affiliate and allowed three runs on six hits over 4 2/3 innings. But most importantly, by all accounts, he felt good on the mound.

"I think he threw 81 pitches and then another 10 in the bullpen," Mattingly said. "He came out of it OK as far as his health, and he didn't walk anybody. ... We're still talking about [what to do next]. It's nothing we have to make a decision on today. We will talk about it and see where we go."

Meanwhile, the much-maligned Matt Kemp is becoming less maligned by the day -- he is hitting .438 and, perhaps most surprisingly, has just three strikeouts in 37 plate appearances. Andre Ethier, the other half of the Dodgers' critical one-two punch in the middle of the lineup, is hitting .353 and takes a seven-game hitting streak into Monday night's opener of a three-game series with the San Francisco Giants. Casey Blake is 6-for-11 since coming back from the disabled list on Wednesday. And Tony Gwynn Jr., whom the Padres non-tendered last winter largely because they felt he wasn't a good-enough hitter to go to arbitration with, is batting .350 and appears to be on the verge of setting up shop in the everyday starting lineup.

And the Dodgers, due largely to the influence of new first-base coach Davey Lopes, have begun to run the bases in a way they haven't in years, perhaps even since Lopes was patrolling second base for them back in the 1970s. Kemp, who made good on just 55.9 percent of his steal attempts last, is a perfect 6-for-6 this year -- even if one of those came on a missed tag.

The Dodgers already have stolen 11 bases (in 13 attempts) through nine games, five of those coming in one game on Saturday night. And their overall baserunning has taken on an aggressive tone designed to put pressure on opponents and create more opportunities to push runs across.

The Dodgers have won two of their first three series, taking three of four from the Giants to begin the season -- and beating Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez in the process -- and two of three from the Padres here this weekend.

But on the other hand ...

Offensively, the Dodgers have appeared at times to be completely overmatched. Their leadoff man and table-setter, Rafael Furcal, is hitting .208 and wasn't even in the lineup the past two games because of a wrist problem. The team is batting a collective .245. High-priced free-agent acquisition Juan Uribe is hitting .111.

As for first baseman James Loney, well, that is a story in itself.

For years, club officials have been decrying the fact Loney doesn't hit for the sort of power they feel a corner infielder needs to, which apparently means the 101 doubles he hit and the 268 runs he drove in over the past three seasons weren't good enough. So rather than being allowed to continue to simply be who he is, Loney was asked to work extensively last winter and in spring training to try to increase his home-run production. The result of all that work appears to be a hitter who is completely out of balance, which could explain why Loney is batting .143 (5-for-35) with no-extra base hits whatsoever, home run or otherwise.

While dropping both ends of a two-game series last week to the division-leading Colorado Rockies -- the clear class of the N.L. West at this early juncture -- the Dodgers' lineup seemed utterly incapable of coming back once the team fell behind by a run or two. That will have to rectified, and hitting coach Jeff Pentland insists it's just a matter of the team finding its collective identity offensively.

There is one other issue, and it isn't a new one. It is true that closer Jonathan Broxton, who was given his job back on a trial basis after losing it last summer, has saved all five of the Dodgers' wins and is a perfect 5-for-5 in save chances. But only one of those saves has been clean, and the other four have been far too adventurous to draw the conclusion that whatever was plaguing Broxton last year has been cured.

The next test comes this week, when the Dodgers will be met at AT&T Park by the starting-pitching trio of Madison Bumgarner, Lincecum and Sanchez and three consecutive nights game on days when the daytime highs aren't supposed to reach 60 degrees. The atmosphere there, which is always hostile toward the Dodgers anyway, figures to be even moreso given the unprovoked assault on three Giants fans by two Dodgers fans back on opening day at Dodger Stadium.

At first glance, the situation that awaits wouldn't seem to be all that conducive for the Dodgers' offense to begin to click. Given that fact, we could have a much better read on this team when it leaves the Bay Area late Wednesday night. If the Dodgers get wiped out by the World Series champs, it won't say much about their ability to rise to occasions. But if the Dodgers can pull off another series win at a time when they are still very much a work in progress, perhaps there will be a reason to believe in them after all.

Stay tuned.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.