What if I told you before the season that the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation, which was already projected to be very good, would perform even better than had been anticipated through the first 60 games of the season?
And what if I then asked you, with that knowledge in hand, to predict the Dodgers' record and place in the standings after 60 games?
It's highly doubtful that you'd pick anything but first place, unless you really thought the San Francisco Giants would be this good—they have the best record in baseball at 37-21 and hold a seven-game lead over the Dodgers in the NL West. And I'm 99.9% certain that you'd predict a record much better than the Dodger's current mark of 31-29.
But that is exactly where we're at after Tuesday night's 4-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
Their starting rotation, despite losing ace Clayton Kershaw for a month with a back injury and Hyun-jin Ryu for close to three weeks with shoulder inflammation, has posted a 3.27 ERA, good for fourth-best mark in the majors.
And that stellar ERA has been accomplished even with fill-ins Paul Maholm, Stephen Fife and Red Patterson posting a combined 5.21 ERA over nine starts.
In 29 of 51 starts made by Kershaw (3.32 ERA, 1.5 BB/9, 11.4 K/9), Ryu (3.09 ERA, 1.9 BB/9, 7.9 K/9), Zack Greinke (2.50 ERA, 2.0 BB/9, 10.4 K/9), Josh Beckett (2.52 ERA, 3.1 BB/9, 8.5 K/9) or Dan Haren (3.50 ERA, 1.4 BB/9, 6.3 K/9), opposing teams have scored two earned runs or less before the ball was handed over to the bullpen.
Each of the guys in that starting five has given up more than four earned runs only three times, and their combined record is 26-12. They are certainly not the problem.
To identify what the problem is, look no further than a bullpen that has an ERA near 4.00 and a record of 4-13. You could also look at an offense that has solid overall numbers but has scored three runs or less in 28 games. The defense has also been mediocre.
However, all hope is not lost.
After 60 games in 2013, they were 27-33 and 7.5 games out in the NL West. And we all remember how quickly that deficit was wiped away and how the Dodgers completely manhandled the competition en route to a division title after a 60-28 finish.
Can lightning strike twice?
The answer is yes, but only because the rotation is good enough to keep them hanging around long enough for all the pieces to come together once again. And because the rotation is so good, a Dodgers team clicking on all cylinders can win games in bunches.
Per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, the day after Beckett's no-hitter last month, manager Don Mattingly said, "It’s a good feeling to know we can kind of do this every day. Not necessarily from the standpoint of throwing no-hitters and taking perfect games into the [eighth] inning, but knowing we can go out and pitch like this every time out. It tells me we can get on a roll.”
During their amazing run of 2013, the Dodgers put together winning streaks of six, five, six, five, 10 and six, respectively. They only have a handful of three-game win streaks in 2014, but their rotation is talented enough with two-time Cy Young winner Kershaw, Greinke pitching better than ever, Ryu still being highly effective in his sophomore season, a rejuvenated Beckett and the second half of 2013 version of Haren.
Furthermore, the possible return of Chad Billingsley next month could start extending those winning streaks to five or six games and beyond, which would help the team to make up ground in a hurry.
The Giants probably shouldn't feel comfortable until they're at least 13 or 14 games ahead in the division, which might not ever happen. You know why it won't happen? Because the Dodgers' rotation is too good to let that happen.