Less than a week ago, it looked like what was once an intriguing race in the NL West was being decided before September even began.
The Los Angeles Dodgers haven’t lost since, and now the pressure appears to be back on the Arizona Diamondbacks as the division rivals begin their final head-to-head series of the season Friday night at Dodger Stadium.
The Dodgers (70-70) seemed to be in free fall last Friday, when they lost 9-3 in the opener of a three-game series at Arizona to drop 4 1/2 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks - their largest deficit since mid-June.
The loss was their season-worst eighth straight, with their offense scoring only 15 runs during that skid.
Things didn’t seem to be getting any easier with Arizona’s Dan Haren and Brandon Webb starting Saturday and Sunday, but the Dodgers scored a combined 13 runs against the Diamondbacks’ top two starters in a pair of victories.
After sweeping San Diego at home this week, Los Angeles has now scored 33 runs during a five-game winning streak, trimming its deficit back to 1 1/2 games. Even light-hitting Angel Berroa hit his first home run since 2006 in a 6-4 win on Wednesday.
“At this point in time, we’re about as ready as we could ever be to play this series this weekend,” Dodgers manager Joe Torre told his team’s official Web site.
The same probably can’t be said of the Diamondbacks, who have lost seven of 10. Despite continuously holding at least a share of first place since early April, Arizona (71-68) hasn’t been able to pull away in baseball’s weakest division, going 15-16 since the beginning of August.
The defending division champions are hoping a ninth-inning comeback has changed their fortune heading into perhaps their biggest series of the season. Conor Jackson and Adam Dunn drove in runs in the ninth inning of a 4-3 walk-off win over St. Louis on Wednesday, ensuring that first place would not be on the line Friday.
“I don’t want to say it’s a cure-all, but going to L.A., it certainly makes you feel a lot better,” manager Bob Melvin told the Diamondbacks’ official Web site.
Haren, however, still needs to improve his own confidence. The right-hander went 3-2 in August, but his 5.63 ERA and .337 opponent batting average in six starts brought back talk of another second-half struggle.
Haren (14-7, 3.24 ERA) went 10-3 with a 2.30 ERA with Oakland before the All-Star break last year, but after the break, he was 5-6 with a 4.15 ERA. His worst month was September, when he went 1-4 with a 4.82 ERA.
“I feel good, my body feels good, so it’s just a matter of ironing out a few things and finishing the year out good,” Haren said.
Haren is 2-2 against the Dodgers this year, but he allowed five runs in six innings in the 6-2 loss on Saturday, and he lasted just 4 2-3 innings in his lone start at Dodger Stadium, allowing six runs in an 8-3 loss on April 23.
Los Angeles will counter with Derek Lowe, who beat Haren that day. Lowe (11-11, 3.69) has been outstanding recently, allowing two or fewer earned runs in each of his last four starts, going 2-1 with a 1.32 ERA.
He beat Arizona and Webb with six shutout innings in an 8-1 win on Sunday, giving up only four hits. He’s 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA in four starts against the Diamondbacks this year.
As close as the division race is entering the weekend, the season series has been just as tight. The Diamondbacks have won eight of the 15 meetings, even though Los Angeles has outscored them 71-68, and the clubs have split six games at Dodger Stadium.
“At this point in the season, we need every game,” Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. “We can’t just be happy with winning the series. We need to win them all.”