Writing the Los Angeles Dodgers off in April (as some may have done) was probably a mistake, if for no other reason than it was so early in the schedule. There was so much more baseball to be played.
We also didn't know how the Dodgers' competition in the NL West would play. The Diamondbacks, Rockies and Giants had a chance to bury the Dodgers after they had dug such a deep hole for themselves. But that didn't happen, allowing the Dodgers to stick around and get back into the race with a hot streak.
The Dodgers ended June by winning eight of their last nine games. Including the first seven games of July, the team has won 13 of its past 16. A 43-45 record may not look terribly impressive, but that surge has pushed them to second place in their division, 3.5 games behind the D-Backs.
Beating up on their division rivals has helped the Dodgers' cause. During its recent span of success, the team won two of three versus the Padres and Rockies and five of six from the Giants. On Monday, the Dodgers won the opener of a three-game set against the D-Backs, thanks to Zack Greinke allowing only two hits over seven scoreless innings in a 6-1 victory.
Yet the 2013 season still appears to be a two steps forward, one step back situation for the Dodgers.
This team is playing its best baseball of the season and plowing through its division competition. Yasiel Puig has jolted the lineup and become a national sensation.
Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and rookie Hyun-Jin Ryu have provided the strong top starting three that general manager Ned Colletti envisioned with his offseason signings. And Ricky Nolasco was just added to that starting rotation. Kenley Jansen has taken over his rightful role as closer, ending the delusion that Brandon League could close out games for a playoff contender.
But then Matt Kemp goes back on the disabled list with inflammation in his left shoulder, and you wonder if this team is ever going to stay healthy and put its optimal lineup on the field. Can the Dodgers really compete for a playoff spot without their best hitter?
Of course, Kemp hasn't been the Dodgers' best hitter this year due to persistent shoulder and hamstring injuries. With a .254 average and .666 OPS, he has hardly been an imposing presence in the middle of the batting order. Kemp is slugging only .357. His four home runs are the second-fewest among Dodgers regulars. Even Scott Van Slyke has more homers so far.
Yet Kemp did look as if his game was beginning to click in early July. Four games is a small sample size, but in 16 plate appearances, he batted .267 with a .979 OPS, two home runs and five RBI. That has to make this latest injury even more frustrating for Kemp and the Dodgers. Was this whole thing starting to come together?
However, this is not a case in which Kemp limited by injuries is still better than anyone else the Dodgers could put in the lineup. This is not a better team with a diminished star batting third or fourth in the batting order. The only way Kemp is ultimately going to help this team is if he's fully healthy.
But maybe the Dodgers can get by without Kemp at full strength now. That's not something you might have said back in April. But the emergence of Puig has replaced some of that missing power in the Dodgers lineup. And if he's starting to cool off after a scorching start, other hitters are picking up the slack.
The return of shortstop Hanley Ramirez has also helped to compensate for Kemp's decreased production. He had an outstanding June, batting .375 with a 1.086 OPS, four doubles, five homers and 17 RBI in June. Ramirez isn't cooling off in July either. In seven games so far this month, he's hitting .500 with three doubles, two triples and a 1.365 OPS. This is the player the Dodgers hoped they were getting when Colletti acquired him from the Miami Marlins last July.
Even Andre Ethier is getting caught up in all the excitement with resurgent production. If there's one immediate beneficiary of Kemp's injury, it's the Dodgers' seemingly unwanted outfielder, who is now starting in center field and has a regular place in the lineup. He's not getting benched because of Puig or Carl Crawford's return from the disabled list, and he almost certainly won't be traded while Kemp is sidelined.
Ethier is helping his cause by hitting well, of course.
He's gotten at least one hit in each of his past seven games, batting .429 (12-for-28) with three doubles and three RBI during that span. The lack of power should still be a concern for the Dodgers. Ethier has five homers for the season and is slugging only .388. Perhaps some of those balls that he's hitting will soon end up over the fence.
If Kemp returns after his 15-day DL stint is finished, that still gives the Dodgers eight days before the July 31 trade deadline. If Ethier continues to hit the way he has thus far through July, that could increase his trade value and make a team more willing to deal for him (and take on at least some of the $70 million he's owed for the next four seasons).
However, it might be smarter for the Dodgers to hang on to Ethier, just in case Kemp is still battling injuries. Besides, having four good outfielders gives the team something it lacked early in the season: depth.
For all the money that the Dodgers and their megabucks ownership were spending on superstar talent, that didn't leave them with much on the bench when those featured stars got injured. But depth appears to be developing for the Dodgers now. Maybe some of those reserves, such as Juan Uribe, just needed another chance to win a job. Did anyone expect him to establish himself as the starting third baseman? Yet that's how it's worked out for the Dodgers.
Mattingly might have some trouble figuring out how to get everyone in the lineup and find enough playing time for his hitters. Of course, that's certainly better than wondering who's going to play when there aren't enough healthy players to put on the field. Perhaps the Dodgers have fought through their injury-riddled point of the season.
With the second half of the schedule still to be played, the Dodgers could still become the team so many of us expected to see this year.
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