"About darn time."
That's what I'm thinking right now if I'm a Los Angeles Dodgers fan—though the word "darn" can be substituted for other less fit-for-print words. It took a while, but the 2013 Dodgers are finally playing some good baseball.
If you're just now awakening from an extended hibernation on the planet Frunobulax, the Dodgers were really bad for a while there. They were actually 11 games under .500 as recently as last Thursday, which is not what the bosses were hoping to get out of their $200 million payroll.
The Dodgers, however, have snapped out of it. They've won six in a row and seven out of nine, creeping to within 2.5 games of second place in the NL West. Amazingly, they're only six games out of first.
The transformation from laughingstock to contender hasn't happened by accident. Behold the following breakdown of what's gone right for the Dodgers during their hot spell.
Supercharge Me: The Dodgers are Playing with Some Energy
My usual protocol with pieces like these is to immediately start by throwing numbers at readers and shouting, "Do you see?!"
Don't worry. If you're into that kind of thing, I'll be doing it shortly. But first I must tip my cap to something the Dodgers have had going for them that can't be quantified: energy.
The Dodgers have been playing with a lot of it during their hot stretch, and it's hard to ignore it given how lifeless the team was earlier in the season. They were just as San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt more or less warned they would be.
“All I can say is, you can’t buy chemistry," said Belt before the season, via CSNBayArea.com.
In the first two-plus months of the season, the Dodgers looked determined to prove him right. But in recent games, the Dodgers' attitude has been something more along the lines of, "How do you like us now, Brandon Belt!"
Granted, it's pretty easy to play with energy when you're winning ballgames. Winning is only boring when the San Antonio Spurs are doing it.
But the energy the Dodgers are playing with has earlier roots, as it can be traced back to the arrival of Yasiel Puig. Vin Scully told The New York Times all about the energy Puig has injected into the Dodgers, and he's not the only one who has vouched for Puig as an energy source.
"I think the way Yasiel plays is really contagious for guys," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told ESPNLosAngeles.com.
“We’re pretty much feeding off the kid, the kid,” center fielder Matt Kemp told the Los Angeles Times. He also told ESPNLosAngeles.com that he feels like he's running on "Puig legs" these days.
Here's some visual evidence of that.
Now, energy is a good thing. It can bring a team together, and it always seems to grant teams the power to conjure victories at will.
But in and of itself, energy is only worth so much. The Dodgers have benefited from it during their hot streak, but they've also benefited from good health and good production.
Especially on the offensive side of things.
Wait Till You See These Bats: The Offense Is Getting Healthy and Heating Up
I might as well put this bluntly: Earlier in the season, the Dodgers offense sucked.
You might have noticed as much, and the numbers are downright ugly. The Dodgers scored 3.38 runs per game in April, 3.67 runs per game in May and were only managing 3.56 runs per game in June through the first game of their double-header against the New York Yankees on the 19th.
But since then, the Dodgers have averaged 4.33 runs per game. During their six-game win streak, they've averaged 4.67 runs per game.
Yeah, yeah. Small sample size and stuff. But this is a case where the numbers add up, as the Dodgers are scoring runs at a time when they're getting key pieces back in place and things are starting to click.
Nobody's given them a bigger boost than Hanley Ramirez. Thumb and hamstring injuries allowed him to play in only four games in April and May, but he's been able to stay in the lineup since returning in early June and is now smoldering. Ever since the first game of that doubleheader against the Yankees, Ramirez is hitting .485/.541/.909 with four homers.
Kemp is also back after a lengthy stint on the disabled list. He's only made two starts, but the Dodgers have to like that he's collected three hits in eight at-bats. It's not much, but that almost passes for "hot" given how lost Kemp looked at the plate before ending up on the DL.
But things are different now from when Kemp got hurt. Things were bad largely because the offense revolved around him and he wasn't producing. He returned to an offense that now revolves around someone else who certainly has been producing.
Puig has been in the majors for almost a full month, yet his batting average is still over .400 and he's still slugging over .700. He's cooled down in his last nine games, but only to the tune of a .361/.410/.639 line, and he's still showing a knack for coming up with big hits.
Like this one, for example, which came on a slider that Puig had absolutely no business making contact with.
Elsewhere, Andre Ethier has quietly been heating up. Going back to June 11, he's a .358/.414/.509 hitter in his last 15 games. The home run power is still iffy, but he's been keeping the doubles coming.
Mark Ellis has also gotten it going at the plate, collecting eight hits in 23 at-bats in his last six games. Juan Uribe has collected eight hits in his last 23 at-bats as well.
So all of a sudden, the Dodgers offense is looking pretty set in terms of depth. It's only going to look deeper if Kemp heats up, Adrian Gonzalez continues to be a solid contributor and if Carl Crawford comes back and starts hitting like he was at the outset of the season.
The Dodgers always had plenty of offensive talent on paper. They were struggling to score runs earlier in the season because the talent wasn't showing through on the field due to injuries and subpar performances. These issues are beginning to fade now, so it's no surprise that the bats have come alive.
Meanwhile, the arms are as alive and well as they've been all season.
Steady as She Goes: The Pitchers Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You
We all know the story of the Dodgers' starting pitching staff. It started as a rather large thing with eight starters for five spots but was then chipped away at by injuries and other so-not-cool things.
Despite that, the Dodgers' starting pitching has been a strength anyway. Per FanGraphs, their starters have a 3.52 ERA that ranks fifth in baseball, and they've produced a 3.39 ERA over the last month. They've also done their part during the club's hot streak.
Chris Capuano hasn't allowed a run in his last two starts, logging 11 innings and allowing only seven hits and no walks in the process.
Stephen Fife has allowed only four earned runs in his last two starts, allowing only four hits in each and logging a total of 12.2 innings.
Clayton Kershaw lost to the San Diego Padres for something like the millionth time back on June 21, but he only allowed four earned in six in that game and followed it up with an eight-inning gem against the Giants on Wednesday.
Zack Greinke got roughed up a little bit by the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday night, but he still pitched seven innings. In his previous start, Greinke allowed one run in eight innings against the Padres, in which he was able to avoid the temptation to obliterate Carlos Quentin with a wayward fastball.
Hyun-Jin Ryu has only started once during the Dodgers' hot stretch in their last nine games, but it was a good one. He held the Giants to a single run in six-and-two-thirds on Monday, giving him an eighth straight start in which he's allowed three earned runs or fewer.
So it's basically been par for the course for the Dodgers starters. The real change has been that their efforts have actually been counting for something.
They have the bullpen to thank for that. According to FanGraphs, Dodgers relievers have logged 18 appearances in the last week and allowed only three earned runs in 14.2 innings. Most impressive of all is the fact that they've struck out 19 to zero walks.
Nobody's played a bigger part than Kenley Jansen. He should have been the Dodgers closer all along, but he's doing an outstanding job of making up for lost time with saves in each of his last four outings. In those, he struck out seven, walked none and gave up only three hits in four innings.
Point being: It's all well and good that the Dodgers offense has come around, but don't overlook the contributions of their arms. The club's pitching has been solid all season long and has become even more solid recently.
Put energy, good hitting and good pitching together, and you have a good recipe for a winning streak.
But nothing helps quite like that one final ingredient: lackluster competition.
Now for the Reality Check: The Dodgers Are Surrounded by and Have Run into Mediocrity
I just gave the Dodgers a whole bunch of credit for the hot streak they're on, and it was well-deserved.
But now it's time to acknowledge a less-awesome reality, and that's that the hot streak the Dodgers are on owes a lot to mediocrity.
In fact, it's only relevant because they play in one of the league's most mediocre divisions. The NL West is a division that nobody seems to want to win. The Arizona Diamondbacks are in first place, but they have the worst record of any division leader. Everyone else in the NL West is under .500.
The Dodgers are also the only team in the division that's actually playing well at the moment. They have a 7-3 record in their last 10 games. None of the other four NL West teams has even done better than 5-5, making it much easier for the Dodgers to climb the ladder.
To be sure, the Dodgers have done their part to upend the competition by splitting a four-game series against the Padres and then sweeping the Giants. The Padres, however, have lost six of their last nine overall and the Giants are 9-15 in June. They also lost five of their last eight games in May, making them 12-20 in their last 32. They are not the team they were last year.
Now the Dodgers are playing the Phillies, a club that is four games under .500 for the season and is 7-12 in its last 19 games. Their star began to fade last year, and it's fading even faster this year.
Will the Dodgers make it to .500 by the All-Star break?
So as good as the Dodgers have been, nobody should be too quick to use this hot stretch as an excuse to ignore all that happened before it. The Dodgers are in contention and headed in the right direction, but it could all come to a screeching halt once they run into some quality competition.
And now for the good news: Quality competition is not imminent. Once the Dodgers are done with the Phillies, it's all NL West teams until the All-Star break. They may not find themselves in first place at the break, but .500 isn't too much to ask.
We'll find out what kind of team the Dodgers really are after the break. Until then, Dodgers fans are advised to enjoy the ride.
Because, seriously, it's about darn time.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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