- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- If you take a moment to look past all the front-and-center storylines surrounding these 2010 Los Angeles Dodgers, storylines that focus on a contentious and historically expensive divorce, a perceived lack of financial resources, a failure to achieve significant offseason roster upgrades and conspiracy theories about draft picks, you might come upon what seems to be the most well-kept secret in town.
This appears to be a pretty good ballclub. And it is beginning to feel as if this might be a memorable summer at Chavez Ravine.
The Dodgers already have accomplished one thing they hadn't since the magical 1988 season, sweeping a three-game series at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. They completed the rare feat with a 4-3 victory before 43,299 on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. And if they can pull that off, well, who knows what they are capable of?
"I could have told you [this was a good team] at the beginning of the season," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "I don't care what people thought. I knew what we had. It's pretty much the same core as last year and the year before that. This team plays hard, and with the ability we have, we can compete every day. We don't take anybody for granted, but if we get beat, it's not going to be an easy time for the team that beats us. They're going to have to work their tails off to beat us, no matter who it is."
The Cardinals evidently didn't work hard enough, the Dodgers beating them via the blowout (12-4 on Monday night) and the nailbiter (one-run wins in each of the final two games).
With that, the weary Dodgers completed a stretch of 16 consecutive games without an off day -- a stretch in which they went 11-5 and moved for the first time this season into first place in the National League West, where they now lead second-place San Diego by one game. The Dodgers (36-24) have won 28 of their past 38 games, all while their supposedly weak starting rotation has suddenly jelled in a way no one could have imagined and their bullpen has been every bit as airtight as it was supposed to be.
"We need to continue to pitch," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "We knew in spring training that if we were going to be successful, that would be the reason. We felt confident we were going to score runs. The thing that impresses me is that we have been able to grind it out against good pitchers. That has made a big difference as far as I'm concerned. We are getting quality at-bats against good pitchers. That is a sign of growth for our ballclub."
To some extent, the jury is still out on the Dodgers -- but a verdict is coming soon. The team is seven games into a stretch of 25 consecutive games against teams that are now either in first place, tied for first place or within reasonable striking distance of first place in their respective divisions.
The Dodgers play six of their next 12 against the Los Angeles Angels, who have had their number in recent years, and in between they face a six-game trip to Cincinnati and Boston.
By the time the Dodgers finally catch what would appear to be a break in the schedule with a three-game series July 2 through 4 at last-place Arizona, we should have a pretty good idea of how good they really are. But after splitting a four-game set with the sizzling Atlanta Braves last weekend and then sweeping the Cardinals in a series in which they had to face both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the Dodgers already have made a pretty good case for themselves.
For opposing clubs, it's almost a matter of picking their poison. The Dodgers got three consecutive quality starts against the Cardinals from rookie Carlos Monasterios, Hiroki Kuroda and Clayton Kershaw, who gave up a three-run homer to Ryan Ludwick after walking Matt Holliday in the fourth inning of the finale but otherwise was fairly untouchable. Their bullpen gave up only one run over seven innings in the series, that coming on another homer by Ludwick off Justin Miller on Monday night at a point when the Dodgers led by nine runs.
At the back end, setup man Hong-Chih Kuo hasn't given up a run in almost seven weeks and hasn't given up a hit to a left-handed batter all season. And closer Jonathan Broxton -- who on Wednesday night pitched around a leadoff single by Albert Pujols and a two-out double by Yadier Molina that took a fortuitous bounce over the wall to keep the tying run from scoring -- has converted 15 consecutive save chances.
For the most part, there seems to be a gaping disconnect between what happens on the field and what happens upstairs. Torre spoke to the team way back in spring training about simply taking care of business and not allowing all those other factors to become distractions. Initially, it seemed to fall on deaf ears, as the Dodgers lost 14 of their first 22 games and got exactly the kind of starting pitching a whole legion of naysayers predicted they would get.
But that all seemed to change on the afternoon of May 9, the day Kershaw turned in eight shutout innings against the Colorado Rockies and the Dodgers stuck early NL Cy Young Award front-runner Ubaldo Jimenez with what is still his only defeat of the season. That game catapulted the Dodgers to where they are now. And if it turns out owner Frank McCourt's ongoing divorce means there still won't be any money for significant reinforcements at the trading deadline, well, that sort of stuff doesn't seem to matter to this club anymore.
This is the team the Dodgers have. And for the moment, it appears to be a pretty good one.
With two outs and Pujols on first in the ninth inning, Molina drove a pitch from Broxton toward the wall in right-center. Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier converged, and Kemp attempted to make a diving catch that would have ended the game. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Kemp didn't catch it. But fortunately for the Dodgers, he didn't knock it down, either. It hit the warning track, bounced high and landed on the other side of the wall, making it a ground-rule double and forcing Pujols to stay at third when he otherwise would have easily scored the tying run. Randy Winn then grounded to third on the first pitch he saw from Broxton, ending the game and stranding Pujols on third.
By the numbers
127 -- At-bats by Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez before he hit his fifth home run of the season, a two-run shot off Wainwright in the first inning. Last year, it took Ramirez only 77 at-bats to get to five home runs, all of which came before his 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy. Three of Ramirez's five homers this season have come in his past 13 games after he hit two in his first 29 games.
By the numbers II
1 -- Hit in 11 at-bats in the three-game series for Pujols, who struck out three times and hit only two balls out of the infield. Pujols entered the series hitting .327 (68-for-208) in his career against the Dodgers, with 14 home runs and 49 RBIs.
After playing 16 games in 16 days, the Dodgers will take their first day off since May 24 on Thursday, after which they will have to wait only four days for their next off day. In the interim, they will play a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels, starting Friday night at Dodger Stadium. Right-hander Chad Billingsley (6-3, 3.80) will start the series opener for the Dodgers against Angels right-hander Joel Pineiro (4-6, 5.23).
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Amid all the turmoil, it turns out the Dodgers are a pretty good team.