- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Even for a team that isn't big on excuses, either the legitimate or the manufactured, the reality that set in on May 14 was harsh. Matt Kemp's strained left hamstring wasn't expected to sideline him for more than the minimum 15 days a player must spend on the disabled list once he was placed there, but 15 days can be an eternity in a pennant race, especially for a team that allegedly had been playing over its head all season and for which the bottom was sure to fall out any day now, according to some observers.
It wasn't just that Kemp was the Los Angeles Dodgers' best player, or that he was the best player in the National League, or that he might even be the best player in the majors. It was that he would be joining six other Dodgers players on the DL, with a seventh to follow a few days later, adding fuel to that Chicken Little anxiety that seemed to exist everywhere except inside the team's clubhouse.
Was there concern inside that clubhouse?
"A little bit," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "The way Matt and Andre [Ethier] were going, we were going to lose part of that. We weren't exactly scoring a lot of runs before that. Matt was going off, but a lot of guys were kind of scuffling. Dee [Gordon] was struggling at the time. At that point, we had lost Matt, we had lost Jerry [Hairston], we had already lost Juan Rivera.
"Whenever you lose that many guys, you kind of know you're going to have to bide your time and fight through things for a period of time until you get those guys healthy."
So far, with Kemp expected back in time for the second of a four-game series with the Milwaukee Brewers that kicks off on Monday night and with Rivera presumably coming right behind him, this is what "biding time" has meant for the Dodgers since Kemp was shelved:
Nine wins in 13 games, including Sunday's 5-1 thrashing of the Houston Astros at Dodger Stadium. Another 1 1/2 games of padding for their lead in the National League West, which now stands at 7 1/2. And a collective, team-first approach to hitting that not only has resulted in the Dodgers actually increasing their runs per game from 4.3 with Kemp to 5.1 without him, but also has given everyone, both the believers and the non-believers, a reason to think this is a pretty good club with a decent amount of depth -- enough of it, in fact, to withstand the short-term loss of Kemp and a dizzying array of other key players.
The result is a confident club that should only get better when Kemp, Rivera, et al begin trickling off the DL. All of which begs the question of just why the Dodgers haven't imploded without Kemp, why that inevitable collapse never happened.
Well, there are a lot of reasons. But one of the biggest is a guy the Dodgers picked up about a week and a half before Kemp went down. Bobby Abreu, who had been a free agent since being released by the Los Angeles Angels, is hitting .327 for the Dodgers, with a .448 on-base percentage. But it isn't so much his numbers that have had an impact. It is the way he goes about things, a cerebral approach to hitting that involves patience, a willingness to take walks and no reticence about going deep into counts, even if it means hitting with two strikes.
"I think Bobby has had a positive influence," Mattingly said. "Guys see his at-bats, see that there is no panic, see that there is nothing wrong with getting deep in the count."
It isn't like Abreu is the only guy on the team who does that. A.J. Ellis, the team's primary catcher, is great at it. Elian Herrera, the rookie infielder who spent a decade in the minors before getting his first call-up two weeks ago and who already has a nine-game hitting streak just 11 games into his big league career, does it too. Abreu, Ellis and Herrera combined to see 23 pitches in one inning during a Dodgers rally on Saturday night.
But with Abreu, a 17-year veteran and two-time All-Star, it seems to carry more weight.
"Bobby has rubbed off on guys," Mattingly said.
Case in point was Saturday, when the Dodgers were facing the Astros' best starter, Bud Norris. But rather than play into Norris' hands, the Dodgers simply blew up his pitch count, effectively forcing him out of the game with two outs in the fifth inning because he already had thrown a staggering 116 pitches.
"I have always done that, since I was a kid," Abreu said of his patient approach. "I don't think it's something you learn [quickly]. You have to work on it. It all depends on how a guy feels. I'm not afraid to have two strikes. It doesn't matter to me. But some guys, they don't want to be in a hole with two strikes, so they feel more comfortable being aggressive."
The other factor has been pitching, in Kemp's absence and, really, all season. Since Kemp went onto the DL, Dodgers starters are 5-4 with a 3.30 ERA, while the bullpen has a collective 2.25 ERA and the staff as a whole is at 2.97.
A lot of good pitching, of course, is good luck. And a lot of good luck is good defense.
"I don't think you can say enough about the way our guys have swung the bats," Dodgers pitcher Chris Capuano said. "It has really been a bonus. When you have injuries like we have, you feel like every win is a bonus until you get those guys back. But they have done a good job, and they have played good defense, too."
If the Dodgers (32-15) can continue to do what they have done to make up for Kemp's absence even after Kemp returns, there is little reason to believe they won't continue to win. If nothing else, it should be an interesting week at Chavez Ravine. The Brewers come to town with the "official" reigning National League Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun, in tow, and Kemp, arguably the "real" N.L. MVP, due to return to the lineup on Tuesday.
Help is on the way. Even if the Dodgers aren't exactly desperate for it.
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