The Los Angeles Dodgers are finally playing like the $220 million team they are on paper.
For the first three months of the season, the Dodgers were a hapless bunch of injured underachievers holding down last place in their division. By June 15, they were nine games under .500, seven-and-a-half games out of first place, and facing questions about whom they would sell off at the trade deadline to save face and regroup for next year.
Since then, they've gone 27-10 — including nine wins in their last ten games — to leapfrog everyone in the division. Now eight games over the break-even mark with a two-and-a-half-game lead in the National League West, the Dodgers are unexpectedly in line for a playoff berth.
The key to the team's turnaround: Everything. Better pitching, better hitting, and the return from the disabled list of crucial players have all played a role in digging the Dodgers out of their early-season hole.
Despite the loss of starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley to season-ending injuries, the Dodgers' pitching staff is still one of the best in the game. As a group, Dodgers pitchers have the second-best ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching) in baseball over the past month. NL Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw (1.62 ERA) and Zack Greinke (2.65 ERA) have been unhittable in July, while rotation-mate Ricky Nolasco (3.13 ERA) has been just a step behind.
On the other side of the ball, the Dodgers lead the majors this month with a .292 batting average and .349 on-base percentage, and they rank second in slugging at .452. Rookie phenom Yasiel Puig has tapered off from his historic early-season numbers, but is still hitting a healthy .372 with 10 home runs. Hanley Ramirez, finally back in the lineup after missing half of the team's games, is batting .380 with a .431 on-base percentage — second only to Miguel Cabrera in the majors.
Ramirez's return to the lineup has been a prime reason for the team's newfound success. In his absence, Dodgers shortstops were hitting a punchless .173, and were worth a net -0.5 wins. Ramirez, on the season, has been worth 3.5 wins alone.
The return of other key starters — outfielder Carl Crawford and catcher A.J. Ellis chief among them — have also fueled a resurgent offense that had for months been hamstrung by injuries.
The Dodgers also got some help from their competition. With only two teams above .500, the NL West is one of the weakest divisions in baseball. Throw the Dodgers in the AL East and they'd be a fourth place team, barely.
The Dodgers won't continue to win 90 percent of their games for the rest of the year, but they should, barring injuries or a complete late-season collapse, win enough to remain firmly in the playoff hunt out West. Hard to believe that only a month ago, the Dodgers were on pace to post the franchise's worst record since 1936.
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