The Dodgers are best in the West, but are they playoff-worthy?
The Dodgers are on one impressive run, powered by maybe the most dangerous hitter in baseball today. They have, statistically speaking, the best pitching in the National League. They have fans filling Chavez Ravine and a playoff-tested manager in Joe Torre, and yet the Dodgers now face their most difficult challenge of the season.
It's not getting into the postseason. That's kid's stuff now. One more win or one loss by the Diamondbacks will do the trick, earning the Dodgers their second NL West title in five seasons and their second trip to the postseason in the last three. (They were the NL wild card in 2006.) No, the hard part isn't getting there, or even winning a few playoff games next week.
Convincing the rest of baseball that they actually belong? Well, that may take some doing.
"Look at the division they're in," cried Yankees' boss Hank Steinbrenner in a recent column in The Sporting News. "If L.A. were in the [American League] East, it wouldn't be in the playoff discussion."
It's easy to discount the Dodgers, considering the division they represent. The NL West has been, for most of the year, just about what everyone thinks it is. It has some good pitching. The hitting is (mostly) lame. It is decidedly average, on its best days. Only one team in the division -- here's looking at you, Blue -- is better than .500. And the way the Diamondbacks (79-79) are playing, it looks as if that one plus-.500 team is all we're going to get out of the West.
There's an argument building out there, though, that the Dodgers are better than many might think, that the addition of slugger Manny Ramirez has transformed this team into a good-pitch, no-hit bunch to a good-pitch, Mannyball-powered machine. And, without much doubt, the Dodgers have improved since getting Ramirez in a deadline day trade with the Red Sox. L.A. was 54-54 when Manny strolled into town. Almost two months later the Dodgers are eight games over .500 now, at 83-75.
"When I came in, I wasn't thinking about the postseason or anything," Ramirez said after Wednesday's win over the Padres. "I was just trying to fit in, play the game and show people that I play hard."
Lately the Dodgers have really poured it on. After an eight-game losing streak in late August dropped them to five games under .500 -- yeah, Manny was around for that, too -- L.A. has gone a sizzling 18-5, moving from 4½ games behind the Diamondbacks in the West to four games ahead in a little more than three weeks. It's been a dominating, no-doubt-about-it kind of September. For the West, anyway.
And that's what it always comes back to: the weakness of the West. Fifteen of those 18 wins came in the division. The other three were against the Pirates, who are in last place in the NL Central with 93 losses. In short, the Dodgers have been taking candy from babies during their run.
The numbers they've put up lately are truly stunning, though. In that 23-game run they're hitting .291 as a team and averaging more than 5.9 runs a game, with 29 homers and a .390 on-base percentage. Ramirez is hitting .395 in those games, with 10 home runs, 30 RBIs and a 1.359 OPS. And in that timeframe L.A.'s pitching has allowed only 3.1 runs a game with a 2.87 ERA. The starters are 14-2 with a 3.02 ERA.
So what can we make of the Dodgers' chances once the postseason starts? They rank, over the course of the year, far behind every other playoff contender in scoring, at just 4.35 runs a game. (The Cubs are at the top of the NL, at 5.35.) Ramirez, hitting in the No. 3 spot, is a clear threat, and outfielder Andre Ethier, who usually hits just ahead of Manny, has had a very good year (.302, .370 on-base, 20 homers). The rest of the lineup, including catcher Russell Martin, outfielder Matt Kemp and new third baseman Casey Blake, has been just OK.
Still, L.A. leads the league in ERA (3.67) and runs allowed per game (3.99), thanks to a rotation that includes Derek Lowe (who probably will start Game 1 of the Division Series), Hiroki Kuroda and a couple of youngsters, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. The bullpen is good, too, featuring Jonathon Broxton and now-healthy closer Takashi Saito.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal has returned from back surgery, and second baseman Jeff Kent had a pinch-hit single on Wednesday night in his first action since undergoing knee surgery. Neither of those could-be stars seems healthy enough to make a big difference in October, though.
In the end, the Dodgers have shown, over the course of the long beatdown of a season, more than enough to win the West. In the past month or so, they've been good enough to dominate it.
But it is the West. And that means the Dodgers have plenty left to prove.