Key Contributors to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Rise in the NL West
What's blue and white and red all over?
The Los Angeles Dodgers on fire.
That fire traces back to June 21—the nadir of what was already a disappointing season.
On that Friday evening in San Diego, everything hit absolute rock bottom.
The Dodgers faced a Padres team whose starter, Clayton Richard, had to exit after throwing exactly two pitches because of shoulder pain. From there, they couldn't get the better of Tim Stauffer, an entirely unremarkable long reliever who not only replaced Richard, but also toed the rubber against left-hander Clayton Kershaw.
And so, in a game in which the Dodgers sent the best pitcher on planet Earth up against a pair of pitchers you would be excused for never having heard of, they lost. Of course.
That embarrassment of a defeat dropped L.A. into a bucket of "season-worsts." At 30-42, it was a season-worst 12 games under .500 and 9.5 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West. Things couldn't have gotten any worse.
Since that date—Friday, June 21—the Dodgers have gone 27-6, the kind of record that even makes the Tampa Bay Rays jealous. L.A. has gone from the lowest point of its season to first place in the NL West at 57-48 and 3.5 games up on Arizona.
Even the All-Star break, the almighty momentum killer that has seemingly sapped the power from Chris Davis' bat and the health from Miguel Cabrera's hip, couldn't slow down the Dodgers.
L.A. won six straight to start the second half, and after Tuesday night's dramatic walk-off win over the New York Yankees in the bottom of the ninth, its post-break record is now 10-1.
So how have the Dodgers done it?
Well, from June 22 on, among NL clubs, only the Atlanta Braves have scored more runs per game than L.A.'s 4.9 per, and no Senior Circuit squad owns a better on-base percentage (.340) or slugging percentage (.441). No other team in the majors tops Los Angeles' .285 batting average.
And that's just the offense. On the mound over this time frame, the Dodgers have MLB's third-best ERA (2.84) and fourth-best opponent's batting average (.231).
The key factors behind those stats? Health and Hanley Ramirez.
As much attention as rookie phenom Yasiel Puig received—and rightfully so—for his incredible first month in the majors upon being called up on June 3, the Dodgers' dream-like turnaround can be traced to the health of right-hander Zack Greinke, second baseman Mark Ellis and shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
Over this stretch, Greinke has gone 5-1 with a 2.73 ERA since winning that June 22 game to get all of this rolling. Ellis has hit .297 with 16 RBI, including the game-winner Tuesday, and Ramirez has smacked 21 extra-base hits, including nine homers, and driven in 27—all while hitting a ho-hum .385.
Aside from that trio, the Dodgers have also been helped by first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who is no longer the superstar he was a few years ago but remains as steady as they come, and left fielder Carl Crawford, who has battled injury and illness to hold down the all-important leadoff spot.
Then there's the acquisition of righty Ricky Nolasco, who gives the rotation extra depth behind perennial Cy Young candidate Kershaw, Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, who can make a claim for the NL Rookie of the Year so far.
And perhaps the most overlooked facet in all this is L.A.'s bullpen, which has been solidified at the back end by Kenley Jansen, the flame-throwing right-hander who took over closer duties from the struggling Brandon League on June 11—just 10 days before that fateful date.
Jansen, who's converted 12 of 14 opportunities since getting the ninth, will soon get some late-inning help from former All-Star Brian Wilson. The closer for the 2010 World Series-winning San Francisco Giants signed on to join the Dodgers, as Ken Gurnick of MLB.com reports.
You've probably noticed one name that hasn't yet been mentioned: Matt Kemp. Oddly enough, the centerpiece of this rebuilt franchise has been in a season-long funk, perhaps slow to recover from offseason shoulder surgery and certainly bothered by injuries to his hamstring and ankle.
The left ankle sprain, suffered July 21, currently has the 28-year-old center fielder on the disabled list for the third time in 2013.
Kemp, though, is the lone missing element at this point. And what's scary for the rest of the NL West—heck, maybe the rest of baseball—is that the 2011 NL MVP runner-up has more or less become an X-factor from here on out: If he gets everything right, the Dodgers will be that much more dangerous; if he doesn't, well, they've shown they can still be pretty darn good.
Without Kemp both healthy and productive, this Dodgers club is still extremely talented and good enough to be the best team in a sad-sack NL West from here on out, get back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and maybe have a chance.
With Matt Kemp—the italicized-to-indicate-superstar version of him, that is—this Dodgers team just might be good enough to be the best squad in the entire NL from here on out and get back to the World Series for the first time since 1988.
The Dodgers are on fire. They just need Kemp to fan the flames.
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