Butler is going gray and turns 37 next month. Yet he is one of those rare players, like Paul Molitor of the Toronto Blue Jays, who is getting better late in his career. Through 1989, a season during which he turned 32, Butler was a .281 career hitter. But over the five years since then he has batted .305 while committing only eight errors and missing just 14 of his team's 691 games.
With four hits on Sunday, which raised his average to .350, he had reached base 92 times in 44 games this season, including at least once in all but three of those games. That has meant plenty of RBI opportunities for catcher Mike Piazza, who surged from a 3-for-35 start to the league lead in hits, and third baseman Tim Wallach, who has staged a stunning recovery (.287, 11 home runs, 35 RBIs) after three straight years of hitting no better than .225. And Butler is as adept as ever at dropping bunts, drawing walks and stealing bases—the sort of pestering skills that prompted San Francisco Giant manager Dusty Baker to remark, "He's the mosquito in the night. You can hear him, but you can't slap him."
For the first time, though, Butler has embarked on an in-season conditioning program to strengthen his game. He works on a climbing machine three days a week, lifts weights after each of those days and takes off on Sundays. "I know that as soon as my legs go, I'm done playing baseball," he says. "So it's all maintenance work I'm doing now. But I've also noticed I've had more explosiveness in my legs."
Butler, who has more bunt hits in his career (257) than two-base hits (242), has also reshaped his approach to hitting with the help of Dodger batting instructor Reggie Smith. He has learned to be more aggressive in selected fastball counts. Last Saturday, batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a tie game, Butler whacked a full-count fastball from Jeff Brantley for a single that put Los Angeles ahead to stay. The next day he started the Dodgers' rout by driving a first-pitch fastball from Tim Pugh for a triple. In the fifth inning he turned on a full-count fastball from Pugh for his third home run, as many as he hit in any of the previous four seasons.
"One thing I'm doing this year is, I'm trying to enjoy the game more—playing with fans, playing with the umpires, things like that—because I don't have too many more years left," Butler says. "This team makes it even more enjoyable. The last two years were so terrible. Last year there was some divisiveness here, and two years ago we just kicked the ball around. It was hard to enjoy it. This year, from spring training on, this team has been focused."
Mondesi, 23, is bidding to become the third straight Dodger and seventh in 16 years to be voted the league's Rookie of the Year. He might also draw some support in the Gold Glove balloting, given that his 10 assists lead all outfielders and, according to Butler, he is "the best fielder I have ever played with."
In the meantime, Mondesi says, "I'm thinking more about the All-Star Game now." Why not? On Sunday he raised his average to .335 while extending his hitting streak to 14 games. It hardly matters that Mondesi didn't bother to draw a walk in any of those games. He had accepted just three unintentional walks in his 170 plate appearances through Sunday, including none since May 8. He is a fiercely aggressive line-drive hitter who is overcoming a lifelong urge to pull the ball. Dodger coach Manny Mota regularly conducts hitting sessions with the righthanded Mondesi in which Mondesi is not permitted to hit the ball to the left side of second base. Mondesi, however, is not yet about to dispute the Caribbean baseball axiom that you can't get off an island by walking. "If you don't swing, you can't get a hit," Mondesi says. "I'm just a rookie, and I'm trying as hard as I can. After five or six years maybe I'll take some pitches."
Butler, Mondesi and Rodriguez were held to two hits last Friday in a 3-2 Cincinnati win. Just after that game began, Schott issued an apology for her remark that offended gays. "What I was trying to say," she said in a statement, "was that I am quite proud that our players have traditionally been clean-shaven and earring-free while wearing a Cincinnati Red uniform." A ninth-inning single by Jerome Walton made a winner of reliever Johnny Ruffin, after which both players put their earrings back in and went home.
The Dodgers swept the next two games behind the continued stellar pitching of Martinez and Pedro Astacio. "They've been the big difference in the team this month," Lasorda says. From May 1 through Sunday, the two starters were 5-1 with a 2.32 ERA. On Saturday, Martinez allowed one earned run in seven innings. Before permitting a run in the eighth on Sunday, Astacio threw seven shutout innings. That's not unusual for a guy whose first name, last name and nearly every seventh start end in O. In only 51 major league games, Astacio had seven shutouts—more than the Braves' Steve Avery or the Reds' Jose Rijo had in their careers.
Los Angeles's rise from two troubled seasons is related directly to the development of its Dominican Dodgers. Three of its starting eight (Mondesi, Rodriguez and shortstop Jose Offerman) and two fifths of its rotation (Astacio and Martinez) were born 40 months apart in the country of 7.4 million people and signed by L.A. at the precise rate of one per year beginning in 1984 with Martinez. Now they are all between 23 and 26 years old and best friends, sharing a big league life and, on many nights on the road, room-service dinners.