Commentary

Dodgers end first half on high note

A four-game winning streak makes L.A.'s dismal record feel a little better

Updated: July 10, 2011, 10:55 PM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Back in college, I developed kind of a bad habit.

I would begin every semester with a gung ho attitude, vowing to attend every class, hand in every assignment on time and work ahead rather than waiting until the last minute. By the final few weeks, though, I would have long since given up on that. There would no longer be any semblance of a routine and I would be doing just what I had to do to pass, hungry for the long break ahead. Then at the start of the next semester, I would start all over with that gung ho attitude again and this time, surely, maintain it all the way to the end.

I never did maintain it all the way to the end. But this year's version of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which finished the first half of the season on Sunday with a 4-1 victory over the San Diego Padres before 35,249 at Dodger Stadium, apparently has more will power than I ever had back in those days.

[+] EnlargeKemp/Ethier
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesThe Dodgers finished the first half 10 games below .500, but it's easier to stomach after a four-game winning streak.

Before the game, when even he could have been forgiven if all he was thinking about was hopping a plane and heading home to Indiana for a few days, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly commended his troops for pushing hard all the way to the All-Star break at a time when there didn't appear to be a lot of reason to do so.

"One thing going into the break that I feared, with the way we were going, was that we would kind of stumble into the break," Mattingly said. "That kind of scared me, that everybody was going to be making plans for the break and lose sight of the fact we still had some games to play.

"It really could have been a disaster if we had just stumbled into the break and said, 'OK, we'll start afterward."'

Instead, the Dodgers did the opposite.

They closed out the first half with their first four-game winning streak of the season and their first series sweep of the season, allowing them to leapfrog the Padres in the standings and avoid spending the break in last place in the National League West. The Dodgers' pitching staff gave up one run in the final 36 innings and tossed three consecutive shutouts for the first time in two decades. Two of the wins were of the stirring variety, the Dodgers scoring in their final at-bat on both Friday and Saturday to take 1-0 wins over the Padres.

Are the Dodgers 10 games below .500? Well, yes, they are. But 10 games below .500 feels a lot different when you were 14 games under just a few days ago.

"The four-game winning streak was a lot of fun," said Andre Ethier, the All-Star right fielder who hit two home runs in the finale to snap a 10-game homerless streak by the Dodgers. "But we still know the position we're in and the position we're trying to get back to. We still have a long way to go."

And a short time to get there. But for right now, while Ethier and teammates Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw head to Phoenix for the All-Star Game, there is nothing for the rest of the Dodgers to do except enjoy the rest, try to recharge and hope they can carry this first real bit of momentum they have had all season into the second half, which begins on Friday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

As hot streaks go, this one is more tepid. It began with the Dodgers salvaging the final game of a four-game series with the middling New York Mets, and if you can't win once in a four-game series with a middling opponent, you have real problems. It ended with a three-game sweep of one of the only teams in baseball that is worse offensively than the Dodgers, and it was a series that could well have gone the other way if the Padres could have scored more than one run in it.

Padres pitcher Mat Latos blanked the Dodgers for seven innings on Friday night before they finally scratched out the game's only run in the eighth, and Aaron Harang, in his first start in a month, combined with four relievers to no-hit the Dodgers for 8⅔ on Saturday before they came up with back-to-back hits to win in a walk-off.

Only in the finale did the Dodgers win comparatively decisively, and even then they wasted some big scoring chances in the early innings.

The second half begins with a six-game trip against the Diamondbacks, who have played over their heads all season, and the San Francisco Giants, who happen to be the defending world champions and continue to lead the NL West.

But in a season that has been a whole lot of nothing for the Dodgers, this was at least something, a reason to feel good about themselves, a reason to forget about the ownership debacle for just a few days, a reason to hope.

"There is a lot of baseball to be played," Mattingly said before the game. "We have a ton of games in our own division [42 of 70]. I'm not cashing any chips, that's for sure."

The odds are definitely against the Dodgers (41-51) even getting back to .500, something that would require a 40-30 record the rest of the way, much less challenging for a playoff spot. Again, they still aren't a very good offensive team beyond Ethier and Kemp. Chances are, there is a harsh reality awaiting them at some point in the second half, maybe even right at the start of it.

But if nothing else, what took place at Chavez Ravine over the past four days allows the Dodgers to enjoy the break and to believe there was some substance to it, even if the Padres were all-too-willing foils. Even Ted Lilly (6-9) found a way to get a win in the finale, his first in five starts and 29 days, by holding the Padres to a solo home run by Rob Johnson and little else of consequence.

If this was the college-age version of me, I probably would say the Dodgers should go through the motions for the next 2½ months, coast to the finish and look forward to a fresh start in 2012, when they can be all gung ho again. But again, that was a bad habit. And while this team might have a bad record, a bad offense and a bad success rate hitting with runners in scoring position, it doesn't appear to have too many bad habits.

We learned that much over the past four days.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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