Baseball is relevant again in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – The game might just as well have been created for the cloudless skies here, so it could be played year-round set to the rhythm of Vin Scully and still carrying the slight odor of monkey mascot.

Amid millions of people with cash in their pockets held captive by car radios on their freeways, among transplants settling their take-me-out-to-the-ballgame joneses, surrounded by neighborhoods that stock the annual amateur draft, you may have been wondering:

What the hell happened to L.A. baseball?

So's L.A.

In nearly a quarter-century, one championship. That's two franchises in the second-largest baseball market on the continent and one dusty trophy since the Exxon Valdez spill, which was only slightly harder to sponge up than the Frank McCourt era.

Seven owners between them, a few all Bentley and no toll money.

Some cool stuff, some stirring baseball, some near misses, a few name changes, some October mayhem, the 2002 Angels, a little Manny thing and, well, that about sums it up.

A few years back, the Dodgers and Angels reached their respective league championship series. Then the Dodgers went broke and the Angels suffered the sympathy pains, for two years leading to dark Octobers and general crankiness on both ends of the Golden State Freeway.

If it seems inconceivable that mediocre baseball could come from such great potential, the mediocrity from the Dodgers in particular, consider that as of dinnertime Monday there are as many Stanley Cups in town since 1988 as there are World Series trophies.

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Indeed, as of about six weeks ago many folks assumed meaningful baseball games would be played here for about as long as the Los Angeles Kings were alive in the NHL playoffs. Which wasn't supposed to be very long.

The Dodgers were average and playing over their heads and holding their breaths through an ownership transition and about to lose Matt Kemp to a hamstring injury. The Angels were plain terrible in April and being overrun by the Texas Rangers while Albert Pujols rediscovered his motor skills.

Then the Dodgers kept winning. Kemp has taken four at-bats in a month, and they're still winning. The bullpen is too young and the starting rotation is top heavy, and they're still winning. Bobby Abreu, who wasn't good enough for the Angels, is batting cleanup, and they're winning. Andre Ethier has batted about a buck for almost two weeks and, yup, still winning and still building. A few months after Kemp signed the richest deal in franchise history (eight years, $160 million), the club on Monday was nearing a five-year, $85 million extension (with a sixth-year option that could bring the value to $100 million) for Ethier. The Dodgers also ran hard for Cuban outfielder Jorge Soler, who signed instead with the Chicago Cubs. They're becoming players again, like they should always be.

Meanwhile, lugging the largest payroll in team history, the Angels on April 29 were 7-15, had just been shut out (again) by the Cleveland Indians, and Mike Trout had played in two games, his first two of the season, and was hitless in seven at-bats. Pujols was batting .216. Mark Trumbo was batting sixth, Vernon Wells seventh. And then they started hitting, and pitching better late in games, and winning, and hitting some more.

From May 1 until game time Monday night, when the Angels showed up for a Freeway Series game at Dodger Stadium, the two best teams in baseball were the Angels at 24-14 and the Dodgers at 23-15. It doesn't count for much yet, not with so much baseball still out there, but there's life in L.A. again. There were people at the ballpark, lots of them, and there was a standing ovation.

For the Kings. But still.

The Dodgers, of course, have been in first place since April 11. Operating with what was left of McCourt's savings, general manager Ned Colletti lashed together a roster of good guys and reasonable parts, hitched them to Kemp, Ethier and Clayton Kershaw and hoped the Guggenheim cavalry would ride in before July. What came of it was the second-best pitching staff in the National League and a surprisingly capable offense, especially given Kemp's extended absence.

In spring, the Dodgers appeared to be at least a couple good players from contending. Ultimately, maybe they still are. But they've presented themselves in the meantime with well-pitched games and a knack for the big moment.

"To say we were going to have the best record in baseball, it's hard to jump out on that limb," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who's grown into the job. "We have been to this point. 'To this point' doesn't help us anymore."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who helped anchor the last Dodgers championship and managed the only Angels championship, has seen his club push back from a nine-game deficit with some nice cooperation from the Rangers.

[Related: Dodgers near deal with two-time All-Star Andre Ethier]

This is closer to what was expected of them this season. They'd owned the AL West for the better part of a decade before sliding to the brink of irrelevance for two seasons. It moved them to sign Pujols, who nudged a two-out, ninth-inning single into left-center field Monday night. Trout, who had walked and stolen second base, scored the decisive run in the Angels' 3-2 win. Make that 2½ games behind the Rangers, and suddenly a lot is going right.

"I don't know if you put it on one thing," Scioscia said.

It was only four hours over a cool night in early June. Only two months in all. But, from a couple fallow years, or a largely disappointing 24, baseball feels big again here.

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