Despite losing two of three to the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the toast of Major League Baseball. With a 76-54 record, the NL West leaders are in position to challenge for the best record in the National League and home-field advantage through the NL postseason in October.
It's hard to believe now, but this Dodgers team was considered, along with the Blue Jays, Nationals and crosstown Angels, among the biggest disappointments of the year as late as June. In the aftermath of a 5-2 loss at the hands of the San Diego Padres on June 21, Los Angeles was sitting at 30-42, a full 12 games under .500, nine games back of division-leading Arizona and 11 behind in the wild-card chase.
Since that moment, the team has reeled off wins in 46 of 58 games, turning a 9.5-game deficit into a 9.5-game lead. Essentially, the Dodgers have made up 19 games in the standings in just over two months. The NL West isn't a race thanks to the dominant Dodgers.
So, what happened? How did a team on the verge of firing its manager change course and become a juggernaut? Three simple yet unpredictable steps:
1. Yasiel Puig's arrival
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Yasiel Puig, owner of a .342/.402/.547 slash line, energized and electrified Los Angeles from the moment of his call-up on June 3. From the frozen ropes out of right field, to the immense power, to the speed, to the aggressive—if not reckless—baserunning, the 22-year-old rookie has been worth 3.7 bWAR, per Baseball-Reference WAR, in just 73 games.
In other words, the Dodgers called up an MVP-caliber performer from Double-A in early June.
As the baseball media swoons over the few, if any, flaws Puig has in his game and personality, the Cuban defector remains the single biggest reason why the Dodgers are where they sit in the standings right now.
2. Keeping Don Mattingly on the bench
According to CBS Sports' Danny Knobler, Dodgers team president Stan Kasten nearly fired Don Mattingly from his position as skipper in late May.
Armed with a gigantic payroll and expectations, the Dodgers looked lost and beaten down in the first two months of the season. Of course, injuries to Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Josh Beckett and ugly performances out of the bullpen contributed to losses much more than the manager.
When the team decided to keep Mattingly around through late May and into early June, the Dodgers saved their season and future. While Donnie Baseball is still growing and learning during his first managerial tenure, he's shown rare tact when dealing with issues inside and outside of his clubhouse.
From managing the playing time of four healthy outfielders with current or past All-Star performance levels (Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Puig), to handling injuries and below-average play from past superstars (Kemp), to the odd media obsession with keeping a 22-year-old within boundaries, the manager kept his team afloat through the worst times and thrived through the best.
In October, he'll be tested by the rigors of managing to win every night with little margin for error.
For now, allowing Mattingly to keep his job was one of the best decisions the Dodgers could have made in 2013.
3. Superstar performance from superstar names
While Puig has stolen the show in Hollywood, two rare talents have showcased their ability in 2013, helping to lead the team to amazing heights.
Hanley Ramirez, once considered among the best players in the game, has battled injuries and down years since 2011. When on the field in 2013, he's clicked, dominated opponents and complemented Puig's bat in the order.
With an OPS over 1.000, Ramirez is hitting as well as anyone in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis. A year after coming over to Los Angeles in a trade with the Miami Marlins, Ramirez is profiling as the player that won a batting title and placed as a runner-up in the National League MVP voting in 2009.
If Ramirez has been great, starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw has been outrageous.
Please ignore the good, not great, record of 13-7. Instead, focus on the 1.72 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 5.8 hits per nine innings and 4.37 SO/BB ratio. His 7.1 bWAR, per Baseball-Reference isn't just good; it's put the 25-year-old left-hander in the NL MVP discussion.
If he continues on his path to a nine-plus WAR season, the Dodgers could have the Rookie of the Year in Puig, Comeback Player of the Year in Ramirez, Manager of the Year in Mattingly and Cy Young/MVP in Kershaw.
Why are the Dodgers dominating the NL?
Dominant personnel are doing exactly what they were paid, retained and expected to do when the season began. Sprinkle in the emergence of Yasiel Puig, and the best story in baseball is getting better by the day.
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