Are the Dodgers turning a corner?
After a dominant win over the Marlins, there may be signs of life in Dodgertown
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Dodgers officially reached the one-third mark of their season on Sunday, so they went out and celebrated. And no, as much of a nightmare as this season has been at times, I don't mean they celebrated the fact they are now one-third of the way to the end.
I mean they really celebrated. They got their first complete-game shutout of the season by the same guy who had pitched their most recent one in September: left-hander Clayton Kershaw. They also got a whole bunch of hits, scored a whole bunch of runs and beat up on a really good team, pounding the Florida Marlins 8-0 before 30,621 at Dodger Stadium.
Kershaw's gem came against a Marlins club that began the day with the third-best record in the majors. The Dodgers' long-awaited offensive breakout came against a pitcher, right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who came in undefeated and with a sterling 3.04 ERA.
That breakout included three hits, one of them a two-run homer, by the colossally slumping Rafael Furcal, matching his hit total in his previous six games since he came off the disabled list. It included three hits by the formerly slumping Andre Ethier, capping a 6-for-10 series in which Ethier had a home run, two doubles, two runs scored and an RBI. It included five hits, in 15 at-bats, with runners in scoring position, a category in which the Dodgers came in hitting a ghastly .211 for the season.
And it all ended with the Dodgers having taken two of three from the Marlins, their first series won in more than two weeks.
If the Dodgers can keep this up, well, who knows? Maybe the next 54 games, and then the final 54 after that, won't be so depressing after all.
"Given the circumstances, things could be a lot worse," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "Obviously right now, we're not even looking at the standings. We have to just kind of put our heads down and go. We're just trying to put a streak together right now."
That is another thing the Dodgers haven't done in a while. The last time they had even a two-game winning streak was more than two weeks ago. But before you can win two in a row, you have to win one in a row, and thanks to Kershaw's dominating two-hitter -- he personally matched the Marlins' hit total by going 2-for-4 at the plate -- the Dodgers have done that.
"Hopefully, we can build off of this offensively," manager Don Mattingly said.
The fourth-place Dodgers (24-30), who now sit 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West, have teased us before with these apparent offensive breakthroughs, only to be slammed face-first into hard reality the following day. This time, the Dodgers get to play a team that arguably has played just as badly as they have of late in the Colorado Rockies, who come to town for a three-game series beginning on Monday night. They are 8-19 so far in May, which is worse even than the Dodgers' 10-16 mark.
While it is certainly true that Kershaw (6-3) can't pitch every day, and that even when he does pitch he usually doesn't pitch like this, there is at least some evidence to support the argument that he has turned some sort of corner. If you can remember his previous start on Monday night in Houston -- the game Kenley Jansen blew in the ninth, if that rings a bell -- Kershaw gave up only one run on four hits, but he was lifted after six innings because his spot in the lineup came up in a situation where the Dodgers were desperate for runs.
But in the start before that, against the San Francisco Giants on May 18, Kershaw struggled, giving up four runs on seven hits over five innings.
"After that game, we talked about the need for that third pitch," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "With the fastball and slider, those are both hard, and it gave them a chance to keep fouling pitches off, even as good as his fastball and slider are. But when you start mixing in that third pitch, that changes. His changeup was already good enough, but he is throwing it a lot more now.
"He threw some great ones today. When you're throwing it up there at 83 [mph], and then all of a sudden you throw something 94-95, that's tough for the hitter."
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Kershaw pointed out, though, that it makes a world of difference when you have a four-run lead after three and an eight-run lead after five.
"I got to throw strikes throughout the game," he said. "With an 8-0 lead, you don't worry about walking guys or pitching around anybody. You just throw strikes, and if they hit them, so be it. It was a fun game all around."
Lately, most of the Dodgers games haven't been much fun for their starting pitchers, because the offense has been so lifeless. Is there a reason to believe that is about to turn around? The fact Furcal appears to be getting warmed up -- he has five hits in his past eight at-bats after initially going 1-for-23 when he came back from a six-week disabled-list stint on May 22 -- is definitely an encouraging sign, given his role as the table-setter.
"Spring training is over," he declared after the game. "For me, if we lose a game by one or two runs, it's a very tough day for me. I can't sleep, because I think we lost because I didn't get on base."
To a certain extent, there is truth in that. Although Ethier and Matt Kemp are the Dodgers' big bats in the middle, they rely on Furcal perhaps more than any other player. If all three of them get hot at the same time -- and Blake, the guy who hits between Furcal and Ethier, also finally had a couple of hard-hit singles on Sunday after returning on Friday from a monthlong stay on the DL -- the Dodgers might be capable of scoring at least a reasonable number of runs on a nightly basis.
This first one-third of the season has been a testament mostly to injuries, the pathetic offense being merely a byproduct of that. The Dodgers' lineup at full strength is never going to be confused with any kind of murderer's row. But for all those moments through these first 54 games in which everything seemed so hopeless, for all those times when this looked suspiciously like a lost season, the Dodgers might have a run left in them yet.
Every day won't be like Sunday, though. So the key will be for them to find a way to win on those days when everything doesn't fall so neatly into place.
Fifty-four down. One-hundred-eight to go.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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