- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- We are watching this play out, right before our eyes. There is no need for verification or confirmation. It isn't subjective, it doesn't depend on what angle it is viewed from and it isn't in the eye of any beholder. It is right there in front of us, whether on television, on the radio or in person, and it is right there in the standings, where these Los Angeles Dodgers lay claim to baseball's best record.
So why, then, shouldn't we trust it?
Why, after watching the Dodgers complete their three-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates with a 3-2 victory before 28,328 on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, are we still so skeptical about this team, which is off to its best start since 1981, having won six of its first seven games?
And, more important, is that skepticism shared by the very people who have actually gone out and done it?
Well, if it is, they aren't about to admit that to us.
"We don't care what other people think about us," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. "We're all just going to go out and play the game the way we know we can play it. We had a great second half last year. We were hard to beat. And we know we're going to be hard to beat all year this year. We're going to play as hard as we can every night, go out there with confidence and try to get as many wins as we can."
We can reasonably expect this to continue a little longer. We know this because the schedule tells us so. The San Diego Padres, from whom the Dodgers took three of four last weekend, are coming to town now for three more. All indications are that they aren't very good. The Pirates, who haven't had a winning season since 1992, just left. Based on the three games here, they don't appear to be much of a threat, either.
The road gets a little tougher after that, a three-game series in Milwaukee, and the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals coming to town in a couple of weeks. But looking down the road, the landscape doesn't really seem threatening until the second week of May or so.
And it isn't as if the Dodgers are pounding the allegedly overmatched Padres and Pirates into submission. The fact that the Dodgers have six wins and closer Javy Guerra has five saves tells you these are close games, as does the fact that exactly half the Dodgers' victories this season have been by one run.
So is that a reason we shouldn't fall for this charade?
"Early in the year, it's tough to win games," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It doesn't matter what people think you're supposed to be. The Diamondbacks [finished] in last place [in 2010], and they won the division last year. The Padres [in 2010], nobody expected them to compete, and they were in it until the last day. Last year, the Pirates were in first place until a little bit after the break, and then they had a rough finish to their season. They have some talent over there.
"You can put things on paper all you want, but you have to go out and play. I am just happy to go out there and get these wins, and it doesn't matter who they're coming against."
On paper, no, it doesn't matter whom they're coming against. Every win counts the same, and these six wins will mean just as much to the Dodgers in the final weeks of September as they mean now. But perhaps what we really should be looking at, moreso than wins and losses, is what the Dodgers are showing us.
There is no particular facet to this team that is wowing anyone right now. The starting rotation is decent, a 3-1 record and a collective 2.56 ERA, which is solid. The bullpen is almost as good, 3-0 with a 2.88 ERA, with just four of 13 inherited runners having scored. The lineup is OK, but the Dodgers have scored 30 runs through seven games, and they haven't scored more than four since Saturday. They're a middle-of-the-pack team in batting average and on-base percentage.
The one area in which they have truly shined, perhaps surprisingly, is team defense. They entered Thursday's game leading the National League with a .992 fielding percentage, and they have committed just two errors through these seven games. There have been instances when that defense has saved runs, such as that point in the sixth inning when a diving play by second baseman Mark Ellis kept the tying run from scoring and a heads-up force at second after Ellis scrambled to his feet and kept the go-ahead run from getting into scoring position.
That tying run never did score for the Pirates, and the Dodgers wound up with another one-run win. And that, ultimately, is what is defining this team right now, the ability to score just enough runs while keeping the opposing team just enough in check to win. This isn't a great team. Great teams aren't made up of a couple of power hitters, a bunch of versatile utility guys, and a savvy-beyond-his-years manager with a deft touch for mixing and matching. But that can be the recipe for a good team, and this is a good team.
Is it the best team in baseball? Friday morning's standings will say yes, but our gut says no, not even close.
However, is it a good team with the potential to achieve great things? That is what our eyes are telling us right now. Whether it is real or just some mirage, well, we aren't going to know that for a while. So why don't we all just stop worrying about it and enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.
After all, that's what the Dodgers are doing already.